As another undergrad spring season approaches, big national events kick in, and in an Olympic year, the focus on coaches and coaching naturally intensifies. However, as teams transition to doing all practices on the water, the opportunities for intensive one-on-one coaching that might be possible during erg and tanks sessions decrease, and athletes need to adjust to incorporate significant levels of self-coaching into their daily practice.
Just using some simple math, the amount of direct coaching that a coach can do on the water - that is, instruction addressed to an individual athlete specifically - is by nature limited. Let's do the math:
- On the average US college program, there are two or three coaches to support three to six eights of rowers. If we simplify to say that each coach is more or less responsible for two eights, that is an 18:1 ratio of crew members to coaches.
- If a typical practice is around 90 minutes all in, if you divide the total time available by the number of athletes, it comes to around five minutes of coaching for each athlete.
- It is the rare practice, however, that is all direct coaching; in fact, quite a bit of the group's time is taken up by dealing with traffic, turning around, taking water breaks, explaining the next drill or piece, keeping the crews together, and more. The coach also has to deal with ensuring safety, directing traffic, steering their launch around other crews/buoys/launches/obstacles, and more. All told, all that stuff can take up about 1/4 to 1/3 of a practice.
- So let's say we're down to more like 60 minutes actual potential coaching time. Take 10 minutes off of that to allow for more broad "coaching of the boat" - things like stroke rate, run, check on the boat, recommended intensity levels, length, timing - and maybe we're down to around 45 minutes.
- At that point, we're down to about 2.5 minutes per athlete, which in fact I find to be about right.
So it is incumbent on each of us in the boat to take whatever bits and pieces of information are flying around us, and get to work coaching ourselves. All the great athletes over time have exhibited some form of self-coaching; whether it is Michael Jordan's legendary free throw sessions or Ronhaldino's juggling, they took it entirely upon themselves to get better, often away from coaches and formal instruction.
Some tips to help you coach yourself:
- Whatever improvement or correction your coach mentions during that 2.5 minutes or that you are already working on, assume you still need to work on it until you are certain you have conquered it - I always assume an "until further notice" approach. Most athletes have one or two core issues they are working on, and these are sometimes ingrained habits. Habits are hard to break, and require sustained effort and tenacity. A fair and very useful assumption while you are self-coaching is to assume that you have not broken or corrected whatever habit you are working on - and most athletes know when they have fixed their issue, because their rowing feels very different on a moment-to-moment basis.
- Listen to the things other athletes are being told. Someone who knows nothing about, say, football can learn a ton about the sport after watching a couple games on TV. Just because you are not told directly you are making a specific mistake, making sure in that moment that that is the case is worth the effort. Many coaches will tell their crews that "when I am talking to one person, others should take in that feedback as well," i.e., these are mistakes and their fixes that everyone can take in and work on.
- As you make progress toward improvement, "proof" your changes by doing them in all rowing conditions so you know you can do it all the time - right off the dock, while paddling, at low and high ratings alike, at full pressure, and when you are tired.
- Check in with the coach when you think you might be making progress on your corrections and think you can sustain them.
- For coxswains, all of this may be doubly true, as you can assume that nearly everything that is being said and done is worthwhile and important information to you. Importantly, this includes all the "non-instructional" stuff mentioned in the math problem above, where we mentioned dealing with traffic, turning around efficiently, explaining the next drill or piece, keeping the crews together - all of that describes your job directly. Then when it comes to direct coaching, knowing your crew members' strengths and weaknesses is critical information as well; listen and learn all practice long.