I learned early in my rowing career that if the coach is still shouting advice on your rowing technique as you paddle toward the start line you’re probably not going to win. Race day is not the time to be experimenting with changes in technique.
I was reminded of this a few days ago when I volunteered to bankride for a men’s eight from my own squad who were competing at a regatta a couple of days later. At the end of the outing when they asked me for my comments, I simply told them that they were good to go and ready for the regatta. I genuinely felt that there was almost no useful coaching to be given in terms of improving their rowing, because they were rowing very well indeed. Their starts were consistently good, their timing was good and their balance was better than I’d ever seen it. Were they rowing perfectly? No. Were they guaranteed to win? No. But they were rowing well enough and fast enough to give any competitor in their event some very serious competition. We had reached the point where to make changes in pursuit of improved performance was in my view more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.
This particular eight had been rowing together consistently for a few weeks and the benefit of that time on the river together was arguably the biggest contributor to their improved performance. Like any club crew, they could benefit from even more concentration (it simply isn’t possible to concentrate too hard) and I told them so, but further coaching – seeking to improve their performance by changing how they were rowing, was a bad idea. Just as race day itself is not the time for conducting experiments, the last couple of outings before an event should be about consolidation rather than futher changes. The coach’s role at that point is like that of a theatre director at dress rehearsals. He or she is supervising repeated run-throughs of the same performance with the aim of ensuring that everyone knows exactly what to expect and is clear on what is wanted from them.
At these times a coach needs a clear understanding of the difference between ‘coaching’ and ‘finding fault’. Perfect performance is an elusive goal and certainly at club level there will always be individual or collective faults to be corrected. However, two days before a competition which the crew could win is not the time to be correcting those faults. If the crew is producing competitive boat speed over the event distance then the primary coaching objective has been achieved. From that point, through the heats to the final, preparation (equipment maintenance checks), motivation (mental attitude and behaviour) and repetition (during each warm-up for example) are the priorities. Coaches need to know when enough is enough – when the time has come to deliver the performance rather than striving to improve it further. When I am with my crews at a competition, once they are on the water I make it a rule to say nothing more than ‘good luck’. The unaccustomed silence from the towpath seems to help their concentration.
On race day, a well-prepared crew does not need further instruction. That can wait until after the event, when win or lose, the search for better, faster rowing will resume. And yes – our men’s eight won all their heats and the final.