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To Innovate or Imitate

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

To some degree, all coaches are both imitators and innovators. The best coaches adapt tried-and-true practices to their own situation and create new methods when needed. Innovations get the majority of attention and respect in society but the best of them are built upon a foundation of wise imitation.

We all imitate. Just think of the rowing stroke. Whether pausing at the release or using quick hands out of bow, or whether driving with the legs or opening with the body, others have done it before, and you’re coaching a pre-existing style. The same holds true with much of physiological training. Today’s fad was frequently yesterday’s approach. We just now have the scientific backing to support what others learned through trial and error.

Successful imitation is done in a thoughtful manner. This means understanding the “why” behind what you’re preaching. Too often, coaches see a fast crew and copy it blindly. Without a sound understanding of what’s happening in the boat or the science behind the training program, it’s easy to fall into the trap of re-creating an appearance rather than a desired effect. (Remember all the high-school crews with excessively long layback in the mid-2000s trying to be like the Canadian men?) This often occurs with certain drills. Crews will perform the drill as instructed but not realize the intended benefit because they don’t know what the purpose is. Know and understand what you’re trying to imitate; otherwise, it’s merely copying and likely missing the point.

The limitation of imitation is that doing what others do means never being faster than the others— unless you do it better. It’s a lot of hard work for limited, marginal gains. 

Innovation offers the allure of a breakthrough and quicker advancement. It’s more of a gamble,  with greater risk and reward. We need to innovate when circumstances necessitate a new approach. We want to innovate when presented with an opportunity to help our athletes. With any innovation, it’s best to experiment in the fall, or non-traditional season, rather than during the competitive season. It’s also essential to try something in practice before doing it during a race. Never do anything in a race that hasn’t been rehearsed in practice.

It takes great experience to innovate successfully. Generally, rookie coaches should be the last to contradict accepted practices. This is true in all aspects of rowing: the stroke, the training, the equipment, and the rigging, especially. You have to learn to obey the rules before you can break them advantageously.

New, good ideas don’t come easily; otherwise, others would have thought of them already. Any attempt at innovation must be checked against the reality of current best practices. Is your idea really better than conventional wisdom? Are you the first to figure out a better way? It’s rare that anyone comes up with a breakthrough. It’s more typical that we adapt the commonly accepted to our circumstances, and it’s seen as a great innovation. The best coaches do this better than their peers.

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