row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Novice Rowing Part 1 - Finding Walk-ons
June 9, 2020
Erik Dresser, row2k.com

Orange Coast Novice 8+ 2019 ACRA Champs

Following the cancellation of the 2020 spring racing season, row2k solicited the collegiate coaching community to engage in a variety of high-level topics within the profession. We submitted over sixty questions across a dozen topics and thank the coaches and staffs that found time to contribute their thoughts during this stressful time.

This week we focus on the topic of Novice Rowing with the first of two questions:

WHAT TYPE OF PERSON ARE YOU LOOKING FOR WHEN RECRUITING NOVICE WALK-ONS?

CAM BROWN – ORANGE COAST MEN
Although at Orange Coast College we actively seek experienced oarsmen from high schools around the US, walk-ons have always been the backbone of our program over the past 67 years. With a walk-on, we avoid a student-athlete joining us with potentially bad or disruptive rowing technical habits, which may prove very time consuming to break.

Unlike all other collegiate programs, we only get guys for a maximum of two years, so with limited time to teach proper technique, every turnout on land or water becomes critical. We ask for three things from everyone who joins Coast Crew, 1) Be on time, 2) Do the work, and 3) Be a good teammate.

If a squad member can quickly learn the importance of these three simple tenets, they will have great success with Coast Crew, progress in their technique, and become passionate about the sport. So when we look to recruit walk-ons, we will spend time on Campus the first week of classes- and while we actively seek out tall, athletic individuals- we will engage anyone who approaches us, since often times those who are bold, confident and eager enough to walk up to us, usually end up fitting well with our program.


CAROL SCHOENECKER – ROBERT MORRIS
Our current roster is sitting at a near 50/50 split between recruited rowers and athletes who walked onto the team in their first year at Robert Morris. Because of the sheer number of young women who come to campus without ever having the opportunity to try rowing or gain access to the sport growing up, we tend to lean more towards a character-based tryout in place of a skills-based assessment.

Our goal is to identify the athletes who have the mindset, work ethic, and sense of "other" that is essential for boat speed but are traits that tend to be difficult to coach. Once we have that novice roster full of athletes who have bought into our team culture and values, then we can provide them the tools, support, and environment for success to ensure that they continue to improve and develop throughout their four years.

From a team culture aspect, our novice walk-ons have done amazing things in really kickstarting a focus on diversity and inclusion within our program. They bring a wealth of different backgrounds and experiences that have pushed the whole team to engage in more difficult and vulnerable conversations that have inevitably brought the team closer together and fostered new levels of trust.


CHRIS CLARK – WISCONSIN MEN
Guys that aren't afraid to try a new sport but are wary. Almost without exception, the kid who is overly exuberant about it in the beginning, when it's sunny and fun, bail the minute it gets hard. Plus, tall and athletic really helps of course.


KATIE THURSTIN – STETSON
We look for someone that wants to show-up every day, is engaged, has a positive attitude, and is willing to take a risk. Learning a new sport at the age of 18 takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable. At some point in the learning process you are going to look silly in front of your peers. Rowing is awkward in the beginning.


LUKE AGNINI – GEORGETOWN HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
First question I ask myself, is this person a college athlete? I am looking for athletes, plain and simple. I would rather teach a competitive athlete how to row as opposed to teach an experienced rower how to be a competitive athlete.


BRIAN DAWE – TUFTS
Someone with good body movement, determination, and the ability to listen and adapt. We run a week of boot camp with an erg performance on Saturday (16 x 250m). People drop out after a day or two and the ones left at the end determine their futures.


ALICEA STRODEL – MINNESOTA WOMEN
We are looking for women with athleticism, competitiveness and who fiercely believe in themselves.


JOHN FX FLYNN – NAVAL ACADEMY HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
Tall and athletic are the obvious answers here, but the novices that go on to help the team the most are the tough and relentless ones. These are the walk-ons who really get "bitten by the bug" of the sport and become passionate about it—and that really does not have to do solely with their athleticism (or height!), so you have to be open to finding those kids.

Navy Freshmen 8+ in 2015
Navy Freshmen 8+ in 2015

Some of the really good, even accomplished, athletes you might be excited about right at the beginning—the ones who pull a fast erg right off the bat— won't find the sport challenging enough, won't see it as "better" that their previous successes in sports, or just won't like the team approach inherent in the sport. So you have to watch for the guys who might start out in the middle of the group but who will really stick it out and grow. It helps, of course, if you do not have to do early cuts—and I often tell my rowers that I do not make cuts to the team because what we are really looking for are the athletes who will not quit, and you often have to get through the whole fall and part of the winter to see who they will be.

Some of my favorite success stories are the novices who did not even have an athletic background in high school, but are tall and even awkward kids who maybe never clicked with "ball sports" in high school, or grew tall too fast to be interested in sports that required a lot of coordination, or they were in band or some other time-intensive group activity that was their whole focus in those years. Those folks can really thrive by suddenly having a team to work out with and belong to. You have to be really patient, of course, and give them plenty of time to develop that base fitness that a high school athlete might already have, but these are the novices that really will be in it for the long haul—and, of course, it is fun to see them become athletes along the way.


JOHN BOYD – IONA
I am looking for people who want to compete and who like to exercise. Our sport is 90% training and 10% competition, so you better enjoy the lifestyle.


CAMPBELL WOODS – MARIST MEN
We look for height or perceived athleticism at the outset as tall guys obviously have good leverage. We try to find guys that played sports in high school, but some of our best oarsmen never did. Ultimately, the thing you are looking for is a fighting mentality and a will to persevere which you cannot find unless you are willing to take a chance on a larger group of guys and see how they develop over time.


EMILIE GROSS – NORTH CAROLINA WOMEN
I'm looking for an athletic and mentally tough competitor that will fit well into our program in the long haul.


BART THOMPSON – ADRIAN
We want someone who fits with the same profile as the rest of our rowers; they're ready to work as hard as they possibly can every day, and they're ready to be the best teammate that they possibly can be every day. In an ideal world we're also looking for previous athletic background, tall/athletic frame, etc.


TODD KENNETT – CORNELL HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
Would love to start with an amazing athlete who really wants to prove themselves and others they can go fast.


ANONYMOUS HEAD COACH
Workers and people who are good learners. You can tell quickly if they are cut out for the sport. Be honest of what their role is going to be. We have seen short kids with terrible ergs kick butt on the water. Attitude and how they pick up the stroke go a long way over the actual erg score.


JENN LANGZETTELL – DUQUESNE WOMEN
I am looking for an athletic individual with some height and power potential. The woman that comes to freshman move-in ready to work hard (workout clothes and light to no make-up) is always one I am seeking out as well.

Iona racing 2018 HOCR
Iona racing 2018 HOCR

HAVE YOUR NOVICE RECRUITING EFFORTS BEEN BETTER SPENT MAXIMIZING NUMBERS OR LOOKING FOR ATHLETES THAT ARE A BETTER FIT?

JOHN BOYD – IONA
Definitely the latter. In the beginning of the tryout phase it's completely open to anyone looking to explore rowing. I think it's important to fight the urge to cut the obvious people right away so that the kids who have potential can see that they are outperforming others. Make cuts too early and suddenly those kids with potential are now the worst on the team.


ALICEA STRODEL – MINNESOTA
When I was at Syracuse, we had this conversation all the time. We never found the right formula but some of our best athletes there came through the walk-on program. Now at Minnesota with a large campus, history of walk-on recruiting and dedicated novice events, maximizing numbers creates competition and adds value to the experience.


JOHN FX FLYNN – NAVAL ACADEMY HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
Always numbers. When you are working with college freshmen, there is no reliable way to predict who will stick with it, and most will quit for reasons unrelated to the team or their "fit" with the culture. Quitters give it up because of grades, jobs, peer pressure from non-rowing friends (or family!), and every year there are "good fits" who crush the erg right away and would be the ones to keep, but never really get to the point where they enjoy the sport enough to do the really hard work that is coming.

If you can have numbers, though, you are going to find the folks who will really stick it out and develop over time. Not only do the numbers help you find those folks, but then the whole enterprise can help you build a culture of hard work, one in which the athletes know right away that they will succeed if they are grinders, and those are the ones you want.


JENN LANGZETTEL – DUQUESNE
Novice recruiting is mainly for maximizing our numbers, but we still want to have women come to the team that can be impactful in some way.


BRIAN DAWE – TUFTS
At the D3 level we don't have to produce numbers. The NCAA team is two eights, so a third eight helps and a fourth helps a bit more. In any case, having a few rowers pushing to get into the eights is a plus. We try to find racing for everyone who puts in the effort.


Wisconsin Freshmen 8+ in 2015
Wisconsin Freshmen 8+ in 2015

KATIE THURSTIN – STETSON
As a collegiate walk-on, I really cherish what the walk-on experience can do for someone. Especially for those that never had the opportunity to play sports. I believe in more the merrier and the student will decide if rowing is the right fit for them. We are very clear about who we are, our goals, and our expectations of being a member of the team.


CHRIS CLARK – WISCONSIN MEN
On the novice side, a combo of both. You are much more likely to find what you need in a big sample size, but no matter what, the candidates have to have the right mindset.


CAM BROWN – ORANGE COAST MEN
Like most aspects of building a new novice squad each season, recruiting balance plays an integral role. When a walk-on sees a rowing shell for the first time or hears about how hard we work, and the romanticism of races and championships won; it's very easy for most all to see themselves as someone who will do very well with Coast Crew. However, only time will tell whether they will be a good fit, so we start by maximizing numbers, and we actively advertise 6 foot and over and athletic, which helps to qualify things somewhat.

We will always get people under 6 foot and without much "athletic ability," and while their learning curve may be steeper, Coast Crew does not "cut." Participants will generally weed themselves out, and those individuals who do not pick up the technique quick enough or are not able to produce at least average ergometer scores will find themselves on land and out of a boat more and more, which understandably can become discouraging.

We have made the mistake in the past of judging candidates too early in the season, either positively or negatively. Many walk-ons mature at different speeds, so we have to be very careful not to "pigeon-hole" people too soon- and this is where maximizing numbers truly are important.


EMILIE GROSS – NORTH CAROLINA WOMEN
I think each team and year within that team has a different strategy and you need to go out searching for what is the right fit for your current needs. Currently at UNC we are looking for a better fit and an athlete that is going to push our current roster along with excelling in the classroom and providing to the UNC community.


BART THOMPSON – ADRIAN
Given that we are a smaller school we have a smaller "walk-on pool," so we focus on maximizing the number of walk-ons. I've also had walk-ons that have surprised me and become much better than anyone would have imagined when we first met them, so I generally avoid setting limits on what I think a rower is capable of before I've seen them on an erg.


CAMPBELL WOODS – MARIST MEN
Recruiting of high school rowers has meant that we haven't "needed" novice guys as badly, so in most recent years we have had only 2-5 novices on the team in a given year. With that said, our fastest guys in the last 3 years learned to row here; they are an important population. I don't spend time worrying about signing up a specific number. We cast a wide net and try to bring them into the fold as quickly as possible. The guys that love the work will stay and contribute.


LUKE AGNINI – GEORGETOWN HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
I have more been looking to concentrate our on-campus efforts for the right fit, but we will be casting a wider net this year. There are so many good athletes walking around that never had the opportunity to row in high school.


TODD KENNETT – CORNELL HEAVYWEIGHT MEN
I suppose if I had thousands of people to choose from I would do fine with better fit, but over the years, those that fit better due to physical size don't always end up being the answer. This is a tough sport. You need heart and soul. So in that novice setting, finding the work horses, the people who just will not quit is so important. They can make great inspiration which in turn teaches so many others in the crew how to race to win. It is not very often that you find that person with the body of a great athlete.

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