row2k Features
From "Power Lunches" To "Power 10s"
My Journey To Oxford
November 1, 1997
Steve Bohler

It had all happened so quickly.

By July 15th I had begun to realize that I was going to have to make a change in my career if I was going to be content. Having worked on Wall Street for 5 years and then for a Consulting firm for a year, I felt that I had ample evidence that I was on the wrong track. By July 20th I had decided that I would quit my corporate job and look for something that would bring me greater satisfaction in life. By July 23rd I had decided that coaching crew was what I wanted to do, and by August 1st I had turned in my resignation. It was an extremely difficult decision to make. I was losing financial security and gaining the wrath of my incredulous mother (my father, to my surprise, said "Go for it!"). But with one life to live, I decided I was going to live it. I wasn’t sure where I was going to coach, but I believed that some program somewhere would allow me to help out for free. By living frugally, on savings, I could survive for 6-12 months. By August 10th I had received e-mail responses to my offer of help from the Presidents of Oxford University’s heavyweight and lightweight boat clubs. They were definitely interested in help and would love for me to come over. My plan was set--I was going to leave on September 22nd for England. I was going to dive into the world of crew coaching at what I thought to be the pinnacle of rowing royalty, Oxford University.

One big problem: While I’d rowed on several crew teams, I’d only dabbled in coaching, and I don’t think Oxford realized that. I began having nightmares of getting to the first practice and not knowing how to start the launch or work the stroke-meter. They would surely recognize my incompetence and tell me to leave the country. However, I wasn’t going to let my nightmares stop me. Since I began rowing, I was very analytical about it all. I’ve always thought about what styles, exercises, and training my various coaches used and kept in mind the bits from each that I thought worked the best. At this point I had a lot of knowledge about competitive rowing and it was time to put it to work. To help, I got out my old books on rowing technique, physiology, and sports psychology and began my crash course in ‘How To Coach Crew’. I could get by, I theorized, by acting stoic and quiet like coach Harry Parker of Harvard. There was less chance of my saying something totally stupid and inappropriate. Yes, that’s what I’d do. And every now and then I’ll just yell out some drills I used to do and say some mindless coaching lines like "Power in the water!", "Keep your eyes in the boat", or "Ratio!". Maybe I’d perplex them with some new combination of drills, like "Now, remove your feet from your shoes, close your eyes, and take your outside hand off the oar". That might make them believe that I’m on a totally superior level of rowing knowledge, I thought. I was just going to have to do it and see what happened.

I arrived in England with every bit of necessary clothing I could fit into my 3 suitcases. After spending a night in London, 3 nights in a guest house in Oxford, 2 weeks in an Oxford college dormitory, and 3 weeks with a married couple I had just met, I found a place to live. Six other people lived there and shared the one bathroom and kitchen. There was no common sitting room and no TV (yikes!), but it was semi-permanent and that’s what I wanted. I could spend no more time looking for the ideal place to live - - I now needed time to learn the Art of Coaching.

Since the Lightweight team seemed to have the greater need for assistance, it was with them that I began my coaching career. My e-mails with the Oxford University Lightweight Rowing Club (OULRC) president and coxswain explained to me that since they couldn’t afford a coach, they had to rely on the gratis assistance of a medley of coaches. They were so excited that they were finally going to have a somewhat ‘permanent’ coach. However, when I showed up at the boathouse on the first day, I found that there were 4 other coaches helping out! Maybe I won’t have to coach at all, just learn, I thought. Nope. Head coach Chris Jones (who had a ‘real’ job and could only make it on the weekends) asked me to coach the second outing and he would drive the launch—clearly to be an inspection of my competence. There went the nerves! As I had feared, I couldn’t figure out how to start the launch (didn’t realize that gasoline had something to do with the equation.)

After finally getting going, I realized that I was now coaching. I was beginning a great and rewarding metamorphosis. I was too nervous to say much those first few days, and what I did say sounded unconvincing. The head coach made this clear in the car when he told me, "Your comments about their technique were spot-on. One thing you might want to do is to talk very simply to them. When you said that they should draw the handle in to the base of their ‘sternum’, I think most of them thought you were talking about the part of the boat opposite of the bow." That was his gentle way of getting the point across that my inexperience was somewhat noticeable. This was just the first time of many that I had to remind myself that I’m new to this and I’ve got a LOT to learn.

The OULRC was a better place to "get wet" than with the Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC). The OUBC is the heavyweight men’s team that England associates with Oxford-Cambridge rowing. "The Boat Race" is the name for the famous annual race between the ‘Blue Boats’ of the traditional rivals. It is a 4.25 mile race between the ‘Dark Blues’ of Oxford and the ‘Light Blues’ of Cambridge on the Tideway stretch of the Thames river in London. It is televised and bet on all around Great Britain. This rivalry is different from anything seen in US rowing - - virtually the entire British nation is interested in the outcome of ‘The Boat Race’. The newspapers and television raise the anticipation to a feverish pitch in the weeks before the race. The size and experience of each of the rowers and coxswains is analyzed, much like the comparison of quarterbacks before the Super Bowl. This past year, OUBC hired Rene Mijnders from the Dutch National Team as their Head Coach. Mijnders is very well respected in international rowing, especially since his men’s 8+ won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Last year, Oxford attracted 3 Olympic rowers from the 1996 games (one from Great Britain, one from Italy, and one from Croatia). There was one American from Yale in the Blue Boat. Oxford hasn’t won The Boat Race in 5 years, primarily due to the overwhelming excellence of Cambridge’s system. Oxford’s hiring of these Olympic calibre resources was a major attempt at starting their own winning streak.

The OULRC has their "Boat Race" against Cambridge a week earlier and with much less fanfare. As is very often the case in the US, the lightweight team receives less money and attention than the heavyweight team, but they have as much or more commitment, energy, and passion than their more massive counterparts. Their single-minded devotion to winning one race was to become all too evident to me in the upcoming months.

In the first few weeks of coaching, I learned more about rowing then I did in my 4 years of doing it at Rutgers University in the late ‘80s. I learned that I have a talent for looking at a rower and being able to identify a half-dozen faults. What I was finding challenging, however, was finding ways to get my men to correct those faults. Drills help somewhat, and video-taping can be quite beneficial, but it is the verbal communication between the coach and the rower that is critical. As I often sat alongside some of England’s top coaches, I came to envy their ability to capture, in one phrase, what the rower was to try to achieve. What made it more difficult for me was the very different rowing vernacular that the British use. No more could I say "starboard" and "port"—it was now "bowside" and "strokeside". "Let it run" now means "Slow the slide", if I wanted them to "weigh enough" I said "Ease", and the "dock" was now a "landing stage". One afternoon I tried to yell out to a sculler who was coming directly toward my crew. I yelled through the megaphone "Heads up! Heads up!", but the sculler didn’t take notice (until it was almost too late). My guys laughed at this story later because "Heads up" means to keep your head up when you row. The sculler evidently thought I was critiquing his style, made the adjustment of his head, and kept rowing towards our coxswain’s back. Yes, the ability to communicate effectively with one’s rowers is the most difficult aspect of coaching and is what I was going to have to work on during my stay in Oxford.

I was concerned about the relationship I was going to have with these younger rowers. Would they accept an American coach? Would they respect my ability? Would they mock my accent? Well, the answer turned out to be ‘yes’ to each of these questions. At first they were reserved and aloof. I couldn’t tell if this was due to their deference to me, or a complete lack of it to the point that they just didn’t care about what I had to say. Many of them didn’t even know my name in the first couple of weeks. Amongst themselves they called me ‘Brad’, because "all American males are named Brad". In time, however, the distance between us was bridged and I was seen as a coach and friend. Most of my rowers have come from private schools (which they call ‘public’ schools, of course) and many have a surprisingly sharp and merciless wit. I was completely helpless as they imitated my coaching with their best Forest Gump impressions ("Haaaannnggg awwnn it, Forrrest"). I was continually attacked for my ‘American’ pronunciation of their ‘English’ words. Saying simple words, such as ‘garage’, ‘volatile’, ‘migraine’, and ‘castle’ caused them to chuckle.

Life in Oxford was bliss. Oxford is an incredible town; I never imagined a campus that could make Princeton’s look like a factory. There is so much history and amazing architecture around every corner - - I felt like I had truly gone back in time. Oxford University is made of 39 distinct colleges with names like Exeter, Christ Church, Magdalen, Pembroke, Oriel, Balliol and so forth. Each college has its own building (more like a castle), garden, scarf, crest, pub, rowing team and traditions. They use academic terms like ‘Collections’, ‘Proctors’, ‘Fellows’ and ‘Tutors’.

The stretch of the Thames in Oxford is called ‘The Isis’, as is the OUBC second boat. The women’s second boat is called ‘Osiris’ and the lightweight men’s second boat is called ‘Nephthys’. Contrary to what many might think, the rowing at the Oxford colleges is generally mediocre (excluding the likes of Oriel and Pembroke Colleges). Most of the good rowers (with enough time to spare for the intense training) trial for the men’s and women’s university squads (i.e. OUBC, OULRC, OUWBC & OUWLRC) and train on better stretches of the Thames. The Isis is quite short and winding and, thus, a poor area to train on. The college coaches must bike along side their crews on the towpath, which is infinitely less effective than coaching from a launch. The goal of training in the colleges is to do well in ‘The Bumps’. This is an interesting type of race, to say the least. 13 crews start at once with one boat-length in between each. The goal is to catch up and ‘bump’ the crew in front. A ‘bump’ is defined as either overlapping one’s bow with another’s stern or physically hitting the other crew! If you ‘bump’ a boat, you get to drop out of that day’s race and move up one position in the following day’s event. This carries on for 4 days, after which the crew holding the number 1 position is named winner. The winning crew (Oriel College this year) takes an old wooden boat, places the coxswain in his/her seat, and carries the boat on their shoulders from their boathouse to their college. Once there, they kick it to pieces and, often, light it on fire. That’s a nice tradition.

After 2 months in Oxford, I was fairly comfortable with the coaching process. I was the day-to-day coach of the OULRC and the training was going quite well. Each day was an exciting chance at problem-solving. When you are finally able to get rowers (or a crew in general), to fix a fault in their stroke, it is extremely satisfying. I now understand that inner reward that draws teachers to their profession (other than summers off!). I then got an exciting call from Dan Topolski. Topolski is the UK equivalent of Harry Parker (although he’s also well-known outside of the rowing circles) and has coached OUBC for over a decade. He was the Director of Coaching for OUBC, as well as the writer of the book and recent movie about the Oxford Blue Boat mutiny of 1987 called ‘True Blue’. He called me because he had heard good things about me and wanted to know if I was interested in becoming an OUBC assistant coach on days when the guys went out in smaller boats. "Do I want to be the assistant to a gold-medal winning Olympic coach?", I asked myself. Umm, Yep. I told him I was certainly interested and he told me he’d discuss it with Mijnders and get back to me in a day or so. That "day or so" turned into several weeks of no word, which then turned into 2 months of ‘I should know within a week’. In the end, the answer was that Mijnders didn’t feel the need for any assistance. Such a disappointment. I did get the chance to coach the 2nd boat during an outing when Mijnders was at a FISA conference. Although I was a bit nervous, my coaching of the lightweights had given me more confidence this time around. After the outing, I was pleased that Topolski was sincerely interested in my estimation of the rowers. I gave him a brief synopsis and was on my way.

In December, I went with the team to a winter training camp in Banyoles, Spain, where they had held the rowing events for the Barcelona Olympics. It was during this trip, despite the wonderful weather and conditions, that I started to lose my passion for coaching the lightweights. Two other coaches were invited by the head coach and that made four of us sharing the coaching time. For me, the primary enjoyment from coaching comes from putting to work my ideas on how to improve a crew, but when you only coach a crew twice per week, you lose the sense of responsibility. In this case, the crews had been coming along nicely and I was becoming proud of my coaching--so many of my ideas were working just as I had hoped. Now that there were others involved, it became unclear who was really influencing them. I had invested a lot of myself but got the distinct impression that I was getting left behind. After returning to Oxford, I was told that in the next term, the tradition was to have a different ‘invited’ coach every two weeks. I decided that I would be happier if I dedicated myself to the Nephthys crew (the 2nd boat). I would have total control of that crew and would be able to try everything I had wanted.

I took on the Nephthys crew with renewed enthusiasm. I immediately changed the land training routines from heavy weights lifting to strength-training on the ergometer. I had fun with sports psychology talks, anaerobic threshold testing, ergometer golf, anything and everything that I wanted to try out. They were my guinea pigs and I was the mad scientist--and it was working. This crew had good morale and virtually everyone achieved personal bests on their 2K ergometer tests. I felt good about them and myself.

Then everything fell apart. Three-man had to quit due to receiving ‘penal collections’. A spare was found, but several outings were canceled due to the lack of complete crew. This lack of organization caused Seven-man to quit -- oh-no, down to six men now. Then various rowers came down with the flu, bad backs, stomach viruses, "possessed" alarm clocks --everything you can imagine. They fought to maintain a crew, finding spares for the missing rowers from the colleges as often as possible. They missed their first Head race due to the inability to find a last-minute spare for a guy who was ill. They missed their second Head race because they forgot to enter it. They missed their next big race against Cambridge’s best college crew because a log knocked their fin and rudder into the shell. I was at my wits end. I had distanced myself from the Blue Boat so I could concentrate on and refine the second crew and that crew had virtually self-destructed. They pulled themselves together late in the season and were finally able to compete in a couple of Head races. In the end, they faired exceptionally well for a lightweight 2nd eight.

March 23rd -- Day of the Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge Lightweight men. This was it -- the objective of their single-minded devotion -- it was their holy grail and the meaning of their life for the past 6 months. Cambridge looked good, however. I was especially impressed with their synchronized precision—blades squaring together, all at the same height. It was going to be a close race. Both Oxford and Cambridge’s crews looked like elite, racing machines. Definitely a race that would be decided in the last meters. I jumped into the beautifully old umpire’s launch along with Head Coach Chris Jones and the Cambridge coaches. My heart was having a race of its own and I could feel the tension in the rowers, as well -- I had been in their place so many times before. I had spent the previous 10 days preparing them mentally for this day. I had written daily visualization scripts – scenarios that would place them in a "virtual race" and prepare them for anything unexpected (e.g. horrid conditions, broken equipment, clashing blades, catching a crab). I was trying to teach them how to harness their race-day excitement, how to block negative thoughts, how to relax, and how to develop an impenetrable focus on power and technique. I had seen so many crews (especially ones that I was in) underperform on race day due to that anxiety that cripples many a rower at the starting line. Everyone worked too hard and for too long to now allow underperformance to get us. This crew had developed elite level fitness and technique. To ignore the mental aspect would leave a weakness in their armour. This term, I wasn’t involved in teaching them how to row, but I was now trying to teach them how to think. At the starting line, several of them had their eyes closed – a sign to me that they were going through their pre-race relaxation sequence and were "switching on".

The race started with no delays. From the launch, it was difficult to see who was in the lead as we were directly behind them. After the crews settled into the body of the race, one crew had about a ½ length lead on the other. "Is this how the race is going to finish", I asked myself. "Don’t even think about it – crews are always making moves later in the race". Just when you think one crew is going to take their early lead through to the finish line, you realize they’ve spent too much of their energy getting that early lead. "Relax", I told myself, "Anything can happen".

The umpire called twice for Oxford to move to the right. His next reprimand was for Cambridge. Nobody wanted clashing this year. Cambridge was disqualified last year after being blamed for causing excessive blade clashing. The oar of Oxford’s strokeman clipped one of Cambridge’s oars and it spun in his hand for a split second! Fortunately, he got immediate control of it again. The crew stayed focused and didn’t flinch. They had that impenetrable focus we worked on. At the half-way point, the crews relative positions to each other hadn’t changed much, but Cambridge looked even better. "Did it matter?", I asked myself. Four-and-a-half minutes had passed and I held my breath. Only a little over 1 minute to go. As the boats headed towards Temple Island and the finish line, I was closely watching for either of the crews to make an amazing move on its counterpart that often happens in the last 500 meters of a race. The stroke ratings of both crews began to increase -- each rower trying to use every remaining ounce of energy left in their bodies. 50 meters to go and the result was inescapable. The umpire waved the flag as the winning crew crossed the finish. 4 seconds later, Cambridge took their turn crossing the line.

It’s been many years since I felt the emotion I did after that race. Tears welled up in my eyes as I fully realized that Oxford had really won. I was sad for the Cambridge crew, and for any losing Cambridge or Oxford crew…so much work goes into that one, short race. There was much celebration that night. The crew had thanked me profusely, especially for my mental training. They said it had worked better than they had ever imagined. At dinner I was awarded a coveted Boat Race medal—something customarily reserved for rowers only. Yes, in my book, this was a good day.

The season is now over and I have repatriated back to the US. What did this experience actually mean to me? Did I enjoy this coaching experience? Do I apply for a professional coaching position for next season? If not, what else? (I refuse to head back to the ‘suit and commute’ world of large companies). This experience has helped me to finally recognize that my constitution prohibits me from enjoying such a confining lifestyle. However, there are still a lot of life’s questions to answer.

Yes, I enjoy coaching. Bringing about the improvement of others is a hugely rewarding experience. The lifestyle beats being in an office from 9-5 and your co-workers are generally more interesting. Is coaching the "end-all and be-all" of careers? No. Like rowing itself, coaching is based on delayed gratification. You must go through countless, repetitive days where there is no visible improvement in the crews. It takes patience and a tolerance of weather conditions so brutal you wish you had a desk-job. If you’ve done your job well (and have luck on your side), your crews race to their ability, win, and you feel good about yourself.

The decision I had made back in July of 1996 has been the most important of my life to date. I have received every benefit that I expected of it. I loved being in England again, I found out how ‘green’ the grass is on the coaches side of the boathouse, and most importantly, I proved to myself that I need a more independent and flexible career. This experience has helped me to develop a great, inner satisfaction and confidence about my life and where I’m heading. I wish it upon everyone I know.

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