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Beware of Rules

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Great coaches typically have few team rules and many suggestions. These coaches build a culture, and this—rather than adhering to many rules—drives the athletes’ behavior.  Demanding obedience through rules will get you only so far. Building something positive that athletes want to belong to and will sacrifice for wins races.

Rules too often give young athletes a mistaken belief that they are doing enough. Conforming to rules makes them feel they deserve good outcomes. In truth, following the rules means only not doing anything egregiously wrong. It does not mean doing things correctly or to the best of one’s ability.

One consequence of too many rules is that it makes each rule less significant. Let’s be honest: Most of us can’t even remember the Ten Commandments, so there’s no way athletes are going to remember 10 boathouse rules. Few of us follow all of the Commandments, yet we expect everyone to follow multiple rowing rules? Better to define desired behavior more succinctly: “Does it make the boat faster?” “Do the right thing.” “Would you be happy if your mother knew?” A short, simple, well-defined mantra inspires and unites a team in a way that an exhaustive code of conduct cannot.    

Good behavior cannot be legislated. This applies to athletes as well as coaches confronted by a rule-breaking athlete. Rules too often restrict a coach from doing what’s best. They make everything black and white; break a rule and suffer the consequences. Far better to leave room for coaches to use their judgment.

With what rules do exist, leave the penalty for violating them undefined in advance. This allows for discretion when a rule is broken. Keep the option of maintaining firmness while also retaining flexibility so that each situation can be handled on an individual basis productively. Mitigating circumstances and contributing factors should be considered when confronting rule breakers. One size fits all rarely.  

It’s also valuable to factor in the ramifications of disciplinary action. Does the punishment contribute to improved future behavior or does it drive the athlete away? Too often, the punishment harms the other rowers just as much as the rule breaker.  Maintain alternatives and options. Tailor the response to the individual and the situation. Don’t be so stubborn that you cause additional damage.

Never use the erg as a punishment. If erging is punishment, then it is not training, and athletes will resist erging. Far better to require offenders to apologize to their teammates and/or do some menial work around the club that benefits everyone.

Coaches judge athletes every day. Athletes expect this and accept it when they believe the coach has their best interests at heart. If you have shown concern for your athletes, do not fear disciplining them when necessary. As long as a sense of fairness and concern for the well-being of both the team and each individual are maintained, the athletes will comply, and the team will become stronger.

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