“Baseball bat!”

A few weeks ago I went to the What Works Summit coaching conference at CRI and one of the main things I was looking forward to was hearing Kevin Sauer of UVA speak. He was a huge reason why I looked at UVA in the first place when I was applying to schools so to get the chance to hear him talk was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

He gave two presentations, one on how to make the boat move and then another as part of a roundtable discussion on championship programs. During the roundtable he told this story that, even now, just kind of blows my mind because it’s so awesome.

So, a bit of background to start. UVA won the 2012 NCAA Championship led by the 1st Varsity 8+, which was the first time they’d accomplished that. They’d won NCAAs previously but never with a 1v8+ win too. After graduating a good class the previous spring (2011), they were now tasked with putting together a boat that could match or exceed the skill level of the rowers they’d graduated. When they came to Head of the Charles in 2011 and won (in a time of 16:11.519, eight seconds faster than 2nd place Radcliffe), he was pleasantly surprised. They weren’t going against the national team since they were training for the Olympics, but they beat the other college teams, which is obviously who they needed to beat. Then, when they went to Princeton Chase and won there too, he started to realize this boat had something.

Now, looking at the competition, Michigan was solid last year. They killed it all season, basically just blowing the other crews they raced out of the water. They only lost twice on their way to a Big 10 Championship and 2nd place finish at NCAAs. When Coach Sauer was telling us this, he started talking about this race that Michigan had against Princeton.

Michigan got out hard and controlled the entire race, winning with a length of open over Princeton and two lengths of open over Brown. He called a team meeting and played this video for the girls, without saying a word from beginning to end. They silently watched it and at the end someone asked, “So, how are we going to beat them?”, to which he replied “I don’t know.” They started throwing ideas out there on what their race plan and strategy was going to be, how they were going to train for this, etc. Everyone’s contributing ideas and he just kind of blurts out “baseball bat”, to which the girls were all … “what??”. And he said “Baseball bat! We’ve just got to keep hitting them and hitting them and hitting them.” At the time, and still now, he said he had no idea why that was what came out of his mouth because it didn’t make sense to anybody, including him.

Part of their strategy was this move that they make at the 1000m mark but because they knew Michigan’s tendencies, he told his coxswain on race-day that if she needed to take it right at the beginning of the race to avoid letting Michigan get away from them, do it. The goal was to not let them get an inch of open water on them, otherwise it’d be all over. Coach Sauer and another coach were following behind the race in the launch and saw that, like they’d predicted, Michigan got out hard and fast. They started to walk, seat by seat, until they were six or seven seats up and he said he was thinking “come on, make the move, gotta go, don’t let them break away, gotta make it now…” and then all of a sudden they started seeing UVA walk until they were even with them.

The other coach in the launch said “You’ve got it. They (UVA) won.” and he said he was thinking this guy was crazy because they were only 750m into the race. BUT, they had won at that point because by making the move and walking on Michigan, they broke them. Michigan couldn’t and didn’t know how to counter it, presumably because it wasn’t something they’d had to deal with all season (which you can look at as either a good thing or a bad thing). UVA ended up winning and the rest is history.

When they got back to the dock, Coach Sauer went up to the coxswain and said “What did you do, what did you call? What’d you say to them to make that move?” and she said “All I said was ‘baseball bat‘.”

That is like … wow. This random thing that he’d blurted out during a team meeting, something that meant nothing to anyone at the time, is what they all internalized to help them win a national championship.

Related: When do you call power 10s, both on the erg and the water? Would it be like when you see a girl’s split dropping and staying down on a 2k or during a race if you’re close and want to pass another boat? Or could it be any time just for a burst of energy? I don’t really know the strategy, I just know at some point I’ll have to sound like I know what I’m doing and call a few.

My point with this story goes back to what I was talking about in the question I answered this morning (linked above) but it also touches on a lot of other things too. The moves you plan aren’t always going to happen when you want them to – sometimes you’ve got to do something spontaneous to reap the maximum benefits. The calls you make are important, which is why I try and stress to you guys to say what you say with a purpose. When you’re talking with the coach or your crew, pay attention to what people say – you never know what is going to resonate with people. Baseball bat?? I mean, come on!! That’s such a basic, meaningless term but it became the rallying cry of sorts for this boat. It is your job to figure out what it takes to get your boat to move, so always keep your ears open – you never know when you’re gonna hear the call that changes everything.

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