Since returning from a month of workshops and holiday visiting with family on the West Coast I have been reflecting on my interactions with numerous masters women. This trip was a fantastic opportunity to hear from masters women about what they are excelling at, what they love about the sport, what troubles them about it, and what they struggle with, through no fault of their own.
After having many in person heartfelt conversations there's something I need to unload about, and yes, it's about coaching.
First I want to state clearly from the get go that I KNOW there are amazing masters coaches out there that are motivating their athletes, collaborating with them, not underestimating them, and supporting them to rise to a higher level in a healthy way.
These coaches are changing the lives of the individuals they are coaching and I commend that.
This post is not for you dear coach, but if you are looking for a little distraction from your day to day feel free to read on.
I need to be clear about the fact that I have been a coach, and make no doubt about it, I struggled through my own process of learning how to coach masters rowers. It is NOT the same as coaching Jr's or Collegiates, and while there is some overlap, there is not as much overlap between masters and those other two groups as there is between those two groups alone.
In other words collegiates and Jr's are a bit closer genetically than the masters species. Which means it's important to recognize that the same approaches that may seem to work with the former are not transferable to the latter.
As a coach, if you apply the same coaching techniques used with jr's or collegiates for motivation, physiological training, or technical change to masters rowers, I can almost guarantee that you will run into:
A. some resistance from said rowers for a myriad of reasons.
B. frustration on your part due to the fact that the same approach isn't garnering the same response.
C. a disconnection between you and your masters athletes that can stymie the progress of your growth as a coach, the growth of the athlete and ultimately the growth of the team.
To be frank, coaching masters the same as the other two groups is a lazy approach.
To be fair, you don't know what you don't know.
From a coach's perspective it may appear that the way you relate to and coach any athlete regardless of age is essentially the same but in fact it is not. In addition, some coaches may feel that they should not necessarily take age into account since there is so much baggage around aging in general. They may think, mistakenly, that it is more respectful to coach the masters athlete in the same way, disregarding any limitations that could be present due to age. Thereby showing the masters rower how much they are capable of regardless of their age.
I get that.
But, in fact, it is more respectful to own the age difference and work within it's advantages and/or limitations. ALL age groups have both advantages and limitations. Limitations are not limited to masters rowers.
When I first started coaching masters I fell back on a coaching approach for Jr's and Collegiates because that's where I had started my coaching career. It was relatively easy (the lazy part) to use the same approach and since this was a part time coaching job with masters who for the most part were not very competitive I was able to rationalize the approach. I also did not realize how changing my coaching approach would better serve them, and in the long run, myself as well.
That's the not knowing what I didn't know part.
But no sooner had I started than I realized that by throwing the same jr/collegiate coaching blanket over my masters, I was not only doing myself a disservice, more importantly I was not serving the rowers I was coaching.
Which brings me to my first point.
COACHING IS SERVICE
I have always felt that coaching is a privilege. But it wasn't until I adjusted my approach to coaching masters that I really gained the benefit from the service I was providing.
Teaching someone anything that expands their vision of themselves and assists another human being in becoming more of what they can be is service. Approaching this service from the standpoint of a dictator/win at all costs/you're on a need to know basis, and you just don't need to know type of style is not just counterproductive with masters rowers, it is detrimental to the process of masters rowers becoming better rowers, better athletes, and better people.
I also want to emphasize here that when it comes to masters women, this approach especially can result in alienating your athletes not only from you the coach but quite possibly from each other. Speaking from experience that's the last thing you want when you are trying to bring people together to row WITH each other.
Service in the form of coaching is transparent, collaborative, and generous of spirit. It's humble, self-critical and open to sharing leadership.
If one of your athletes is not making the change you want to see them make then take a look at yourself first as opposed to abdicating responsibility and leaving all of the weight on the rower.
You are the coach. It's your job to figure out how best to interact with and develop the athlete. Rowers, especially masters, have unique paths of development and therefore require unique paths that the coach must be willing to explore.
Which brings me to my next point.
COACHING IS TEACHING
I know this should be obvious right? But would a teacher say to a student that they just don't understand why the student is not getting it. Would they embarrass the student in front of their other classmates? Hopefully not, and if they did that would be cause for reprimand or dismissal. I think we can all agree on that.
Why should coaching be any different?
Indeed I have heard from some masters women that their experience of their coaches runs along these lines. These women have experienced embarrassment, ridicule, negative feedback, and described to me feeling as if they were frustrating the coach with questions and their desire to actually be better.
I mean sure, I can understand how one sometimes needs to bite their tongue when it comes to the barrage of questions that masters rowers can hurl, but the coach is, supposedly, the professional in this environment. Just as the teacher is the individual responsible for the classroom, so is the coach responsible for creating an atmosphere that supports the learning and growth that is the evolution of an athlete.
In the case of many masters women this is their first exposure to that evolution and so it is incumbent upon said coach to be patient, not lead with their ego, and figure out the best way to work with the athlete, in a way that encourages the evolution of that athlete.
That is your responsibility as a coach. Not winning. No masters coach out there is going to get fired for not winning. Right? Sure, it's fun to win. I completely agree. But if winning is placed above development of the athlete as opposed to on equal footing, the winning will be hollow. I am by no means suggesting that we are not in this as competitive athletes to win. I love winning, and yes, that is always one of the priorities of any competitive club. I'm suggesting that the main stage of winning be shared between a strong competitive focus and developing masters rowers (in my experience women masters) on a personal level, a self actualization level.
The essential reason for this is that you cannot control whether you win or not, but you can contribute to someone's personal growth. That, will last a lot longer than a piece of hardware.
That takes quite a bit of sophistication on the part of the coach and that comes with years of experience and confidence.
Which finally brings me to my last point.
COACHING IS LEARNING
Show me a coach that thinks they know it all and I'll show you a coach that has stopped loving coaching. In my humble opinion it is a coach's love for developing people that keeps them wanting to learn more and grow as a teacher.
This means that one not only has to be open to learning but also has to be open to making mistakes. Just as I have written about the importance of rowers risking failure, so must coaches seek out ways to push themselves. More often than not coaches will seek out opportunities to learn about rigging, or technical innovations, or physiological training, but I think there is more to coaching then the big three.
To some degree the coaching education available to new and experienced coaches always seem to revolve around these specific elements. This ignores the social, personal, and team development work that is a huge part of working with adult learners. The conclusion therefore is that most of the coaching education available, dare I say all, revolves around coaching young/college athletes and not adults.
As I said in the beginning of this post, masters athletes are DIFFERENT. Any coaching education offered should have a minimum amount of information on adult learners and team building as it relates to adult teams.
Masters rowers can be a wealth of information if the coach is willing to let down their guard and collaborate. This does NOT mean rowers are making decisions about rigging settings or lineups for races (obviously every club is different so these may be things that you, as a masters rower, do make decisions about, but I think you get my drift). It means that you as the coach can gather a wealth of information from your rowers if you are willing to sit down and learn from them about what works, what doesn't, what they need in terms of coaching, how they best receive the information you want to share, and ultimately what they want to gain from their experience of rowing and your coaching.
I know sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but the experience of masters rowers can be harnessed for good and not evil..that's a joke btw.
If you are a rower reading this and are unhappy with the level of coaching you currently have, consider having a heart to heart conversation with your coach and try to communicate to them how important they are to the process and that the process is a collaboration between you and them. Both elements need to work together to produce the best result.
If on the other hand you are happy with the coaching you have then for heaven's sakes let that coach know! So many coaches work tirelessly to offer their best coaching selves for little to no recognition. And lord knows these coaches are certainly not doing it for the money. Think of creative ways to express your thanks for your coach(es). Put up a personalized banner signed by all the rowers thanking the coach and hang it up so coach sees it when they come into the boathouse. Offer them a gift card from a favorite store. Send them for a weekend away at an inexpensive Air b and b. Just consider offering up something that says thank you and we love you.
If you are a coach reading this, god bless you. No, I'm not being sarcastic. Coaching can be tough and duh, you know this first hand. There are so many challenges when it comes to coaching masters rowers, but the rewards can also be great. Having an adult tell you that you have changed their life is priceless. Gaining experience with adults can be fulfilling in a different way than coaching other age groups. Thank you for coaching!
If you struggle with coaching your masters for any reason, take a look at yourself first and ask yourself if you are really meeting them where they are. Are you dictating or collaborating? Are you enjoying coaching them? If not then what can you change about how you are approaching your coaching to make it more enjoyable? Sometimes it's just necessary to take a step back and take a hard look at whether you are really invested in them as athletes or is this coaching gig just a placeholder until something else opens up at a junior club or a collegiate program.
If this is the case know that the rowers you coach deserve more than just being a placeholder.
Good coaches focus on coaching people to be better athletes.
Great coaches focus on coaching athletes to be better (self-actualized) people.
Row hard, Row well, Compete, and Have fun!