2020 Racing Food for Thought
In August of 2019, a month that could be argued as the biggest month for masters rowers, with Canadian Henley and Masters Nationals back to back, the biggest print media outlet for rowing in the U.S. neglected to dig into any number of possible feature piece articles pertaining to or involving masters rowers.
Instead, the August issue of Rowing Magazine contained a "Quick Catches" article titled "A Growing Segment". The article briefly discussed the growing presence of masters rowing, the upcoming Masters Nationals in Grand Rapids MI., and some brief comments from current masters rowers.
While I appreciate the token piece on masters rowing, I take issue with the fact that two weeks before Masters Nationals there is not a larger story on the regatta, or a couple of in depth profiles on masters who will be racing. It certainly didn't go unnoticed to this writer that one of the featured articles of the magazine for August was on the new cox box.
While this may sound like sour grapes with regards to the attention (or lack thereof) that masters rowing gets, it is important to note that last 2019 season, one of the regions with arguably the largest contingent of masters rowers, did not have a regional championship regatta in 2019.
Why is that?
The Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Region of the U.S., the historical birthplace of rowing in the United States, had what USRA described as an "undersubscribed" regatta. Too few entries were registered in order to run the regatta.
There are a couple of issues with this.
1. The fact that too few clubs/rowers registered to race at their regional championship regatta and...
2. That USRowing made the call to actually cancel the regatta. Quite a precedent to set.
Let's start with the issue of not enough entries.
In discussion with a long time friend and fellow coach, she posited that with all the regatta choices in the NE and Mid-Atlantic region, a small geographical area, that perhaps more masters rowers are choosing certain regattas without an eye towards the regional championship. They have lives, kids, vacations they want to take, and the thought of racing continuously throughout the summer is just not appealing or possible.
So, one thought is that the region has become saturated with racing opportunities, that have to some degree, overwhelmed the masters rowing population with too many choices. Great for those that will race til the cows come home but for those seeking a harmony between rowing life and life life, this could be a culprit.
Another possibility is that sprint racing has become, over time, not as popular within this region as head racing.
Could it be that going head to head from a shared start line, down a course with boats right next to you has become too stressful for the average masters competitor?
Is it that the head race is psychologically easier to navigate because one can pretend to just be racing against the clock and therefore not feel the pressure of several crews right next to them on a start line over a 1000m course? Has the sprint course become viewed by some as only for those that are "hardcore racers"?
I doubt this is the case but I'm throwing it out there as a provocative possibility.
Another question is, are clubs successfully developing racing crews from novices who may not have had athletic experience in the past?
Certainly the addition of collegiate rowers who graduated from their collegiate programs and now are competing as A's and B's on the masters course are an easy gimme for clubs since these rowers are experienced competitors, but what about the 40 and 50 year olds (and older) who started rowing 3 months ago or 6 months or a year ago?
How are those rowers integrated into a racing program?
What is the conversation that rowing coaches and Program Directors have with new rowers in that age bracket on why to race, how to race, developing the self around racing opportunities, etc?
The assumption that racers will appear naturally for clubs is a dangerous one. In fact intentional development of racers is necessary in order to continue to feed the competitive pool. Some clubs fall back on, rely on, cater to, a select few racers that end up becoming insular, fearful of new blood coming in, ultimately inbred, and weakened by the absence of new racers.
To be clear, I have no patience for this level of selfishness when it comes to calling yourself a competitor. Competitors seek out challenge and welcome the opportunity to grow from being pushed outside their comfort zones. Without bringing in novice racers to experience the joy and increased self development of racing, one (those of you that are seasoned racers) closes oneself off from growing the competitive side of the sport, decreases the opportunity for the long term competitiveness of your club, and worst of all, extinguishes those opportunities for other women, shame on you, but I digress.
For coaches, engaging in the level of coaching effort necessary to bring in someone who may not know they are a competitive athlete yet can be daunting. Especially if the coach does not know how to approach that type of athlete development, or how to navigate that conversation with the masters rowers in question.
I myself have had many conversations that go something like this.
Me: Hey Jane, You're looking good out there in those racing pieces we're doing. Have you ever considered signing up for a regatta?
Jane: Thanks Coach! Me? No! I'm not a competitive person.
Me: Well maybe we could talk about that sometime. I actually think you ARE competitive because I've seen how you attack those pieces during practice. Let's talk more because I think you'd actually be a strong rower in a race. I know Betty felt the same way last year and now she loves racing. Maybe we can touch base with her and she can fill you in on her process.
Jane: Ok. That sounds good.
Me: No pressure. I just want to make sure you know that I think you'd be great, and that the option is there for you.
If the majority of the coaches who are coaching masters rowers have a majority of their experience with collegiate athletes, then there is no reason to believe that those coaches would have the first idea of how to talk to a 50 year old about racing, or why racing is good for rowing development as well as personal development.
Their experience is that rowers come into a program and that the next logical and natural and expected step is to move on to the JV or Varsity level the next year. Period. You either show up or you don't.
With masters rowers it is a very different approach.
It has to be.
Yes, I get it coaches. It's awesome to have those A's and B's who are hungry and show up with a built in competitive mindset. But, the development of new converts to the sport who do not fit the mold of a competitive athlete becoming medal winners, can be much more rewarding.
Now let's discuss scrubbing the regatta completely.
There are so many things wrong with the fact that the regatta was cancelled that I'm really not sure where to begin.
But I'll try.
1. How about thinking outside the box and creating a regatta that meets the needs of the registrants without cancelling? How about combining races in some way, creating a race that could be run with fewer entrants while keeping the competitive juices flowing?
2. How about actively asking all of the regional crews why they did not register for the regatta and then create an incentive to register. Maybe more crews would register if the winner of an event got a discount to enter into Nationals? Maybe the expense was too high for some clubs and some consideration could be made for smaller clubs?
I suspect the decision came down to the bottom line of dollars.
I have to believe that there could've been some way to navigate that by, again, thinking out of the box, or engaging in conversation with club leadership on an alternative approach. Cancelling the regatta was the easiest solution, but not necessarily the best.
Obviously I am not privy to the big picture that is the United States Rowing Association. Granted, I do not know the conversations that took place around whether to cancel and whether there were alternatives bandied about.
With regards to this, I would say to USRowing, please share those with your membership. Please let those rowers know in that region what exactly you are doing to insure that this years regatta does not suffer the same fate.
Are you considering strategies to help clubs develop stronger pipelines of competitive masters rowers?
Have there been discussions on an organizational level about the number of regattas in the region in order to insure that there is not regatta fatigue?
Have you polled the clubs within the region to determine the possible causes of low registration numbers?
I am hopeful that the 2019 cancellation was just a one off.
The fact is it lends itself to a discussion on how masters rowing and racing is being managed from the club level all the way up to the high echelons of the USRA.
While the A and B age groups grow bigger and bring their competitive edge to the 1K masters courses, let's not lose sight of the C's D's, E's, F's and up that either don't realize they have a competitive side, need support to consider being competitive, or are wanting to explore being competitive and are looking to those of you that ARE for a welcoming invitation, an opportunity, and some mentorship.
Food for thought as we move into the 2020 racing season.
Row hard, Row well Compete, Have fun!