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    The Limits of Criticism

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    Like many others, I’m a Ted Lasso fan. My favorite scene is the dart game where Ted says, “Be curious, not judgmental.”  It’s some of the best coaching advice imaginable.

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    It’s a coach’s duty to critique athletes, but rarely is criticism helpful. Telling rowers all the things they’re doing wrong does not move them closer to doing things right. It’s like a game of Whac-A-Mole; they may stop making that mistake, but not knowing what should be done, they just make a new mistake.

    Better to ask yourself why they’re doing what they’re doing. (In business school, they would tell us, “Start with why?”). A fundamentally curious approach can get to the root of the problem and help your rowers make the necessary corrections. Leaning away from the rigger at the release? Perhaps they’re rigged too low and are accommodating an uncomfortable mechanical position. Not rowing full slide? Maybe they’re unable to get compressed because their shoes are too high. A coach barking “Don’t lean away!” or “Get up the slide!” isn’t going to fix the problem and will only frustrate everyone.

    This is true equally off the water. When behavioral issues interfere, ask, “What’s going on here?” Sometimes it’s young people (or not so young) just being immature and selfish.  Calling them out privately can right this wrong. More often, there’s an underlying issue causing the problem. If one or more of your rowers is consistently late, it may be for reasons beyond their control. When does class get out? Who’s in charge of the carpool? More serious misbehavior may stem from more serious underlying problems. Ask questions. Showing concern and framing the discussion in terms of helping athletes perform their best can elicit a fuller understanding of what needs to change for them to succeed. Better to begin with the assumption that all your rowers want to perform correctly and get things right. If they’re not, then ask yourself and them what’s interfering with their doing so?

    Often, the most difficult people to avoid judging are our peers. When fellow and/or opposing coaches create difficulties, it’s harder to stay curious, but the benefits of doing so are just as great. Giving them the benefit of the doubt—by being inquisitive—also will be reciprocated (as will judging harshly).

    Too often, we assume rowers know more than they do. Having coached for years, we take things for granted. College rowers are relatively new to the sport and possess neither the experience nor knowledge of us veterans in the launch. Consequently, it’s easy for us to get frustrated and for our frustration to boil over. Better to stay curious and appreciate how much we don’t know and how much we can learn from our athletes with an approach that’s open and inquiring.

    Doing so makes coaching much more fun, too.

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