BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
Coaches coach every moment they’re with their athletes. Messages are sent and received, whether purposeful or not, subtle or overt. The greatest coaching impact occurs when emotions run high following racing.
Regardless of the outcome, well-chosen words and actions from a coach help athletes prepare for and perform better in their next competition. Conversely, without thought, a coach’s behavior can dig an emotional hole that’s difficult for athletes to climb out of.
The race debrief following a victory is an often overlooked coaching opportunity. Many passively convey that it’s “business as usual, keep doing what you’re doing” after a win. This is a dangerous message.
In reality, a winning crew probably still needs to improve to reach the higher goals of success in bigger races.
Remind them how motivated the defeated crews will be to reverse the outcome. Keep focused on improvement, making sure to provide specific examples of what can improve and how collectively you’re going to address these shortcomings. There is dual confidence in winning today and knowing that with specific improvement the boat can go even faster.
The debrief following a disappointing loss is fraught with peril. Everyone feels raw, so above all else the coach must possess emotional control when addressing his or her athletes. The more disappointing the outcome, the more important it is to speak softly and calmly and without profanity. If they win, you can shout and swear all you want. Delay the debrief if necessary to gain composure.
Avoid singling an individual out for criticism, especially the coxswain. Publicly reprimanding one person can cause irreparable harm. If someone needs greater attention, give them feedback privately. Conversely, there is great benefit to praising a good effort or performance publicly.
Be honest with the group. A negative appraisal should be delivered using inclusive language. A crew’s failure to perform is the coach’s responsibility as much as it is the athletes’. When they hear the coach accepting responsibility they will feel a greater sense of shared purpose and will more likely buy into what the coach wants done.
The race debrief partially covers what just happened, but is more about moving forward. It’s the first act of the next campaign. As such, always end on an upbeat, optimistic note.
Let them know you have a plan for how to improve even if you don’t have specifics to share yet. It’s fine to feel disappointed for a time, but never let them feel defeated. A loss is not a defeat. Hopelessness and quitting are defeats.
The coach’s words and behavior can steer athletes away from these sentiments. Express confidence in your athletes’ ability to meet the next challenge—whether that’s how they prepare, what they can improve upon, how they race, or the actual outcome.