Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Transitioning from Coach to Athlete: What I have learned, lost and loved.

As the 2009 school year was winding down, I started waking up at 4:28 a.m. three days a week only to be reminded of what makes rowing an incredible sport. Time and again, the physical demands, the eccentric and strong egos in the boat and bad days on the water were trumped by flat water, brackish smells, the rising sun, synchronicity and more synchronicity.

I have been a good coach and I have been a bad coach. I believe some were born to be great coaches; as much as I love rowing, I was never meant to be one of those great coaches. However, the reflection I have written is from the other perspective. Port side, 6-seat.

In the seven years I have coached high school girls’ cross country, running competitively during and beyond the season has remained a personal priority. I joined various running clubs to learn insights, ideas, and tips from other runners and coaches while training. Even working out in a class at my gym has proven to be personally and professionally worthwhile. For example, when I told one instructor I use his term “aggressive breathing” with my team, we had an interesting conversation about how important but challenging it can be to know what terms resonate with those you coach. Yes, I could gain much of what I have learned through reading or talking to other coaches, but I believe “learning by doing” has made me a better coach. Yet, it wasn’t until I returned to rowing after a 13 year hiatus, that I fully came to understand there are valuable and lessons to be learned when a coach transitions to an athlete.

I was a varsity rower at the University of Notre Dame before Title IX took women’s crew to the next level. Our team was still competitive and to keep a seat in the boat, I rowed with the Lake Merritt Rowing Club in Oakland, CA every summer. It is wishful thinking to say that returning to Lake Merritt after not rowing for so long, was “like riding a bicycle.” Although I had not forgotten the fundamentals of the sport, to row at the level I once had required practice, patience, and coaching. This transitional experience has been humbling, challenging and insightful. It has afforded me a new found and deepened appreciation for what it means to be in the one in need of coaching. Because of this, I would like to share what I have learned, lost and loved in this process.

What I Have Learned

Do not underestimate the importance of communication
Key to any good relationship is clear and continuous communication. Coaches know we should articulate, explain, reinforce, and even model what we expect of our athletes however, several instances come to mind where the temptation to not communicate presses. For example, my cross country team begins practice by gathering in the bleachers to learn the plan for the week in addition to the day’s workout. It often appears as though 10 out of 70 girls are listening. I compete with a bevy of distractions—the football team, what my athletes ate for lunch (or didn’t!), and the demands of the school day. I wonder: is this really worth my time? Yet as a rower, I appreciate knowing what is expected each day of the week: Mondays are for technique, Wednesdays are aerobic, Fridays combine drills with hard pieces, and Saturdays vary because we have more time to row. This schema thoroughly helps my mental preparation—I need to eat something hearty because workouts on Wednesday are physically demanding. Trust that each individual athlete reaps some physical, mental or social benefit in team communication.

From time to time, every coach is not as organized as he or she would like to be. I think back to frenzied times and know I wasn’t at my best. Coaches are leaders, and we are expected to be in control though it may be difficult for us to admit otherwise. As I used their warm-up time to finalize practice, I said to myself Why should I tell them I need a few minutes? Isn’t it better to just get practice started? Yet from the athlete’s perspective, I have noticed my teammates are significantly more focused when we are informed of the day’s workout before we hit the water. Otherwise, a general anxiety lingers in the boat until we know what is expected of us. Ideally both athletes and coaches would always come to practice organized and prepared. For those times we are not, I believe we owe it to our athletes to communicate what we can.

Communication is a two-way street.

At times practice is long and arduous, even from the coaching perspective. Occasionally, I don’t want to take that extra five minutes to talk to a runner about something I hope will just go away or that she can fix by herself. However, in returning to the role of an athlete—the person in need of coaching, I crave that outreach. I am hungry to know what my coach sees, and I want to improve. Did I make the adjustment she recommended effectively? How can I increase my flexibility? Such conversations are better suited for when we are “off the water.” That time after practice allows for dialogue and creative problem solving. One time, my coach even drew a sketch so I could visualize how to amend my stroke. Although we laughed at her illustrations, I valued the lengths by which she went to help me grasp the technique. Good coaching does not assume our athletes will get better by doing; good coaching initiates outreach so our athletes can succeed. Communication is paramount.

Here lies a paradox: I also believe it is important to let teens advocate for themselves and approach me with their questions. In my transition, I am more aware this can occasionally be difficult to do. Is now the time to ask? Is it really a big deal? When I return to coaching, I will encourage my runners to take the initiative to communicate with me as I will with them. I hope to provide a presence that indicates I am open and willing to talk. I will encourage my captains to model this philosophy of communication. It takes time and may even be a risk, but it is central to improving individually and as a team.

What I Have Lost
Many of us carry biases that can get in the way of good coaching. Returning as an athlete has helped me recognize one bias I carry that is worth losing. I often view this generation of young people as coddled and cajoled by the belief that everyone is a winner. I have seen my response to this mentality hinder my skill as a coach. To combat my belief that these kids grew up receiving prizes for everything, I committed to giving positive feedback only when it is deserved by my standards. I was proud of myself for using it sparingly and for what I believed to be appropriate. My transition from coach to athlete has encouraged me to think otherwise.

Not all of our athletes are maestros or naturally competitive. They need encouragement, and a little affirmation can go a long way. On the water, I am frequently told what I need to fix by both the coxswain and my coach. When I hear that I have made a good adjustment or the recognition “that’s it!” I thrive. I keep my focus and try to repeat the change I made for the better. When I don’t hear anything, it is very easy to get down on myself. Different coaches have different philosophies such as “sandwich a recommendation between two commendations.” Whatever ratio of positive to negative remarks you decide to give, be sure the positive is loud and clear.

What I Have Loved
Without a doubt, I love being on a team. Athletes join organized sports because competition and play is fun, and so is being on a team. Obviously, without seven other rowers and a coxswain, crew is a different sport. Being on a team again has helped me realize the value in committing to something larger than myself and my own goals. Being late or missing practice impacts others. I also now hold a deepened appreciation for the unique talents each individual brings to the whole. For example, when I told my teammate Dana after practice that I loved rowing behind her she was caught off guard and said “Most people don’t like sitting behind me because they get wet” (due to her backsplash). When I responded by saying, “You pull harder than anyone else on this team and I know you’re extremely competitive. I’m competitive, but I need someone else to fire me up” I verified what I know in myself through the example of another athlete. I will encourage my runners to recognize the gifts their teammates bring to the team and learn from their example. Who on this team runs hills hard? Who really knows when to pass a girl? It is much more fun to learn and work together.

Not all coaches may have the opportunity to participate in a sport different from the one they coach, but participating on a team, pushing yourself as an athlete, and setting goals can be a great opportunity to test yourself and examine: What can I learn? What might I need to lose? And what do I love about my sport? There are things to take with us and things to leave on the water or on and off the trail as I will when I return to coaching this fall.

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