row2k Features
Life of a Youth Rowing Coach Part 2: The Rewards
December 12, 2022
John FX Flynn

To learn more about this series and the topics we plan to cover, please visit the Youth Coaches Corner's index page. Youth coaches are more than welcome to contact row2k to get involved in future columns.

This week, we asked about the rewards one can find in the Life of a Youth Rowing Coach:

What is your favorite part of coaching high school athletes?


My favorite part is helping rowers find ways to succeed--not just success.

Different approaches work for different rowers. I ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening. For example, one of our rowers found it challenging to go sub-8 on her 2k. After asking her about how she approached workouts and races compared to the 2k, we learned that having a target time for the 2k was a source of anxiety for her. Given this, we changed her approach to be open-ended. She simply started her 2k at her last 2k pace (which she knew she could hold) and then rowed negative splits. She crushed her 2k time.

Understanding a rower's perspective helps me help them find ways to succeed, and they learn something very valuable in the process.


Watching the athletes succeed! Success takes many forms in our sport. It can be overcoming a personal challenge, doing the right thing, or having a great performance on race day. I've found that the athlete's success brings me more joy than I ever had as a rower.


I love connecting with athletes and empowering them to realize their own strength. Watching a rower PR on the erg, win a race, or have something click with their technique on the water is really fun. My favorite compliment I've ever received from an athlete was when one rower told me, "Wow, I didn't realize how strong I was!" There is nothing better than watching their confidence grow in the midst of high school stress and chaos.


Progress. My favorite thing, especially in the early Fall, is finding videos of my incoming sophomores/juniors/seniors and seeing just how far they've come since that day the previous year.

Being a part of someone's journey like that is the most rewarding thing in the world for me. In the moment, we're all just grinding away at the little things and trying to get better. It's unique to be able to have such tangible evidence that can change perspective on how the athletes are doing. In line with that, it's so rewarding seeing people fall for the sport. They go from "people who row" to "rowers" in a few months, and it's so great to be a part of that obsession.


My favorite memories during the past 3 decades of coaching are not necessarily the medals. It's the look on a kid's face when they hit some goal towards which they have been working. It's the 5'0" 115lb girl (who should have been a coxie but wanted to row instead) breaking 8:30 on a 2k for the first time. It's the kid who completely changed their physique over 4 years of rowing and is now more confident in themselves. What I enjoy most is helping the athletes develop something that they can carry with them in life.


Coaching is just such a wonderful blend of so many things I enjoy. Professionally, it's dynamic and it constantly challenges me to think and improve. Personally, it's rewarding to work with kids and see their growth and to be able to give back to the sport/community that helped me grow as a person.


Pretty easy answer, although there are two of them.

1. The first time a Novice 8+ "gets it" and they suddenly stop simply pulling oars through the water and--as I like to tell them--are actually rowing. You know the moment: the set and timing is decent enough, they're accelerating the blade thru the water, rowing long at both ends, and "letting the boat do its job" and run out on the recovery. After they get the "weigh enough" command, you can see the energy in the boat, their excitement as they finally understand the point of all the little details I've been trying to teach them. They're turning to each other and the chatter begins, along with the smiles.

In that moment, all of my previous frustration with their lack of progress fades away. As always, it's like a kid learning to ride a bike...a little progress...a little progress...a little more progress... then BAM! they figure it out! Of course the next piece is terrible, but that's OK. They've gotten the taste, and now want more.

2. My other favorite part--and it might happen once, maybe twice a year (and some years not at all)--would be getting a Thank You letter from one of my kids about how much they enjoyed learning to row that year and look forward to rowing at some club over the summer and/or coming back next year to the varsity.

That is kind of what novice coaching is really all about: getting them to enjoy the sport. In my opinion, with respect to Novices, this is more important than winning races. Winning certainly helps them enjoy it, but I want them to fall in love with the sport, not make their Novice experience a grind. Learn to work hard? Yes. Spend endless hours on the erg for conditioning instead of on the water learning to actually row? No.


There's a poem I love called "They Ask Me Why I Teach" by Glennice L. Harmon that gets the sentiment across better than I can; to summarize it's our athletes and the feeling of being a part of a team.

When I first started coaching I knew I wanted to help make the team better and get them to compete at a higher level. I wanted to be a part of a team after college because that is what grounded me in my life regardless of the sport I was playing. I had done a little learn to row coaching in college, so I knew I enjoyed that process and I was fairly decent at it.

What I wasn't expecting was how much I'd love my athletes, whether they're middle school boys or women in their 80s. Practice is the best part of my day. The girls never fail to make our time on the team together energetic and fun. Obviously they can drive you nuts sometimes, but what team have you been on that doesn't? It's all a part of the process of becoming a tight knit family of rowers.

If you don't enjoy being with and genuinely love the people you coach, I don't know why anyone would want to do this job. Watching them grow both as rowers and more importantly as humans is rewarding in a way that you cannot do justice to in words. They come to you for advice on everything in their lives. You watch them struggle with school and personal issues. You become a part of their lives the same way your own coaches were to you, and that is a powerful thing. Seeing a girl work her butt off and finally break that new PR or seeing that boat come across the line first (or maybe a really hard fought last place that they're proud of) is way more fun to experience than any personal record or win I achieved in my own rowing career. "They ask me why I teach, and I reply, 'Where could I find more splendid company?'"

If you enjoy and rely on row2k, we need your help to be able to keep doing all this. Though row2k sometimes looks like a big, outside-funded operation, it mainly runs on enthusiasm and grit. Help us keep it coming, thank you! Learn more.


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