BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
When we see a problem, our instinct as coaches is to jump right in with a proposed solution. But what if the problem is not really the problem? We can bark commands from the launch all we want, but if the athlete isn’t ready to learn we’re only making matters worse.
Before attempting to change one’s behavior, first ask what is holding the athlete back from making the desired adaptation. An athlete cannot accept coaching and attempt to change—an inherently risky activity—until they first feel secure enough to go for it.
Athletes are frequently preoccupied and bring their distractions to practice. The burden of school responsibilities, disruptions at home, relationship troubles, and other aspects of the rower’s life (think job search for your college athletes and college search for your juniors) can paralyze well-intentioned rowers. When at athlete doesn’t have a clear head, they usually do not have enough bandwidth to implement a change. A good coach knows that bigger issues must be addressed or significantly compartmentalized—even if only temporarily—before athletic learning and progress can occur.
Insecurity inhibits athletes, too. The fear of making a mistake and looking bad in front of one’s teammates or, worst of all, letting them down, will prevent a rower from making the changes they need to improve. One condescending comment from a coach or teammate can shut down an athlete for a long time. It’s up to the coach to first create the environment—better yet, a community—that negates this fear and encourages athletes to welcome failure as a step on the path to learning and greater success. Only then you’re your coaching be accepted.
The boat’s rig may also be working against you as a coach. If the pitch on the blade is off, then telling them to “stop digging” isn’t going to change the oar’s path through the water. Check the rig to ensure the boat is set up appropriately to encourage the correct rowing behavior rather than have it counteract the good work you’re putting in from the launch.
Sometimes athletes are simply so physically uncomfortable that nothing else matters. Bad blisters may force them to hold the handle incorrectly, which inhibits the effectiveness of their stroke. Athletes will commonly contort their bodies, knowingly or unknowingly, to protect an injury or to accommodate a poorly fitted seat. Something as seemingly small as poorly fitting shoes can also get in the way. Be sure to ask your athlete if they are comfortable with their foot stretcher. Weather and water conditions may overwhelm an athlete. Don’t expect anyone to make technical changes in a small boat if their chief concern is flipping.
Before your next technical session, survey the scene and make sure your athletes are ready, willing, and able to accept your coaching. Only then will they progress with your instruction.