Teachable moments

Yesterday someone posted a thread on Reddit titled “Things I Wish Novices Knew” and when I read it I ended up having a much different reaction than I thought I would. Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the sport for awhile, maybe it’s because I talk to so many novices on here, I don’t know. I cringe at the thought that maybe it’s just because I’m getting older but I’m starting to lean more towards finding the teachable moments in situations like this rather than just reading what’s written, closing the tab, and quietly moving on.

I posted a really long response to the original post (unintentionally, to be honest…) and got a couple emails from people asking me to post it on here because they thought it was “good advice that I wish my teammates would listen to” and “I know several people on my D1 team that need a reminder of how to treat/work with novices if they want them to stick around”. Another person asked “Can you please post this on your blog? I don’t think many of my teammates are on Reddit but I know many of them, including a couple of our coaches, read your blog and this is something I think they should all read. None of them would take it seriously if I brought it up (I’m a junior in high school) but I know they will if they see if on your blog.”.

Here’s the original post:

And here’s my reply:

“OK, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that instead of just posting all this stuff on Reddit and snarking on the noobs because they’re all complacent about, well, everything, maybe actually spend some time discussing all this stuff with them. Like [username removed] said, regardless of whether or not this was what he/she actually meant, they just started and they’re still learning. The upperclassmen when we were novices probably/definitely felt the same way about us as we do about the novices right now. There’s no excuse though to not spend the time teaching them all this stuff. And maybe you are, who knows, but if you’re doing it through various offhand, easy-to-ignore conversations or pissed off diatribes before or after practice, your message isn’t getting across.

If they aren’t used to participating in a sport, let alone one that says “fuck the elements” like crew does, they ARE going to assume that on certain days you won’t have practice because of the weather. That’s what NORMAL people do. They see that it’s foggy and think “I can barely see across the street, there’s no way we’ll be on the water today” or “It’s basically hurricane-ing outside, we can’t row in this”. That’s a NORMAL reaction for someone who hasn’t done crew before. You can say “don’t assume we won’t have practice” but part of them always will, at least for the first year.

Instead of having issues with people missing practice, why not have someone send a text to the novices (or everyone) in the morning if the weather looks iffy and say “practice is on, see you in an hour at the boathouse” or “fog’s pretty thick this morning, we’ll be in the erg room on campus at 7:30am”. I know it might seem like you’re holding their hand and making them less responsible but in situations like this, communication is key. Assuming that someone is going to assume something and then getting pissed when they assume the opposite of what you want them to assume is pretty messed up on your end.

If you want them to respect the boat, have them help you fix it when something happens to it so they can see how much time and effort goes into repairing the damage they caused or contributed to. If you’re a club, ask them contribute to the repair costs if they snapped off a fin or lost all the nuts and bolts to one of the riggers. Just saying it’s worth more than your tuition literally means nothing. It’s a fun fact you can tell people at the beginning of the year but after that, no one cares. I can pretty much guarantee you that the only time you start thinking about how much your tuition actually is is six months after graduation when you get your first student loan payment in the mail.

Saying the boat has won more championships than you is a real asshole thing to say, plain and simple. I bet the boat you row in has won more championships than you too but again, that doesn’t really mean anything. All it does is make them feel less a part of the team and lower on the totem pole than they already do/are. Don’t say shit like that to people who are new to the sport if you want them to stick around.

If you want them to go to bed on time, talk to them about time management. How do you manage your schedule? Give them actual examples instead of just repeating the same shit they hear from their parents, teachers, and advisers. Don’t just say “you’ve gotta be awake for practice”. Yea well, no shit. There’s a difference between being awake and being awake and they’re most likely going with the definition of awake that says “my eyes are open” instead of the one that says “my eyes are open and I’m firing on all cylinders”. Explain to them how just having your eyes open doesn’t count as being awake and why it’s important for everyone to be fully coherent at practice because at the very least, it’s a safety issue if they’re not.

If they say they’re having trouble getting all their homework done because they’re having difficulty understanding the material they’re learning in one of their engineering classes, say “oh, Andrew took that class when he was a freshman too and did pretty well in it … you should ask him for help and see if you guys can get together sometime”. If they’re working on a really big paper, offer to proofread or help them edit it. If they’re terrible at math and struggling with their calculus class, hook them up with the person on your team who just happens to have been a TA for that class last semester.

Even if you did everything all by yourself your entire way through college not everyone is like that and sometimes people need help but have a hard time asking for it. If you want to earn their respect as a teammate, be there for them OUTSIDE of practice, not just when you’re at the boathouse. Offer to help them when you can see they need it. Stuff like this will not only help them understand the close-knit feeling that being on a crew team has but it’ll also help them get their work done, stay on top of their classes, and go to bed (hopefully) at a slightly more reasonable hour.

Tuning out, goofing off, etc. is to be expected until you help/make them understand that they are ONE boat, not five or nine individuals. In order for the boat to run smoothly, everyone’s gotta be on the same page. If you’re that one person who is on page 3 while everyone else is on page 5, the boat will be effected. If you can see that they’re tuned out, figure out why. Don’t just brush them off. Engage them, ask them how the boat feels to them, what’s something they’re having trouble with, how does what we worked on yesterday feel today, DUDE your catch timing looks so much better than it did last week, oh, your back’s hurting and that’s why you aren’t focused? well, your posture’s not great right now so let’s fix that and see if it helps. Stuff like that.

Make sure each member of the crew (including the coxswain) gets an equal amount of attention, regardless of how big someone’s issues are compared to someone else. Don’t give them the chance to goof off or tune you out because if they see it, they’ll take it if they’re that kind of person. You, the coach, and the other rowers might know that they’re fucking around but until one of you steps up and addresses it or finds out the root cause, it’s going to keep happening.

To an extent, I don’t disagree with you on having a healthy fear of the sport. I do disagree with what you said about how it will help you avoid things. People new to the sport (or any sport, really) don’t understand that healthy fear the way we do. All they hear is the word “fear” and think “this is something I should be afraid of” and then they become scared of those things. What happens when you’re scared of things? You become meek, timid, and do everything you can to avoid being out-pulled, running into things, catching crabs, etc.

In the boat, you know what that translates to? Pulling harder than you’re capable of right now which leads to you getting injured. As a coxswain, you become over-zealous with the steering leading you to zig zag across the water or you firmly plant yourself smack in the middle of the river so that you’re far, far away from anything that might impede your path, traffic patterns be damned.

With catching crabs, you try to avoid catching them by fighting the handle which either a) gives you a really sore ribcage for a few days or b) throws you out of the boat, which then causes copious amounts of embarrassment that makes you question whether or not you want to keep doing crew. As a novice, is being out-pulled that high on the priority list? No. Learning the stroke and developing good technique should be WAY above anything involving power. If you want to worry about being out-pulled when you’re just starting out, go join CrossFit. The douchebro attitude you’ll develop and the injuries you’ll sustain will be the exact same. You’re most likely all gonna be in the freshman/novice boats anyways so it’s not like there’s going to be THAT much individual competition.

If you want them to worry about not hitting things, have an experienced coxswain walk them out of the boathouse and down to the water with the novice coxswain beside them so that they can see the path of least resistance that they should take when going out/coming in. Remind them that the equipment is precious and they should treat it as such. That’s all you have to say. Have your experienced coxswains explain how to steer the boat, what to do if they get in various less-than-ideal situations, etc. and then put them in a boat of experienced rowers so that if something DOES happen they’ll at least have knowledgeable people on hand to help them out. If they hit something because they don’t know how to use the equipment because YOU as the coach/experienced teammate didn’t THOROUGHLY teach them how to use it, that’s on you WAY more than it is on them and you HAVE to understand that.

Telling them to be afraid of something is going to do the exact opposite of what you want. Instead of saying “have a healthy fear so you can avoid all these things” explain to them that these are things you should always be conscious of so that you can always be striving to improve. Let the thought of catching a crab MOTIVATE you to really work on your technique so that crabs don’t happen. This will lead to all of those issues becoming less-than-likely to occur because you’ve developed the necessary skills that allow you to avoid them with no effort.

Raising the hands, lowering the blades, etc. is just something that you’ll have to keep explaining to them until it sinks in. I’ve worked with enough novices to know that they think the handle is everything, so if you say “lower the blade” they’ll put their hands down instead of the blade. Come up with some drills or something that will help them distinguish the two. You could do something like a basic catch drill at the finish and have them say “blade” when the blade goes in/hands go up and “hands” when the blade comes out/hands go down. I donno. Do the thing where all the starboards put their hands on the gunnels and all the ports lift their hands up to their faces, then switch, then have them figure out how to balance it on their own. Once they’ve got it, ASK THEM what they did to fix it and how did they know that’s what they needed to do. The more you engage them instead of just talking at them the better they’ll understand and the more focused they’ll be come.

Novices drive me insane so it’s not like I don’t understand how you feel. I’ve been in your position as a coxswain and a coach many times. I’d pick an experienced crew over them any day but working with them has taught me a lot of things that we tend to forget the more experienced we become. 10+ years of coxing more and more experienced crews made me complacent about a lot of the basic stuff. It wasn’t until I started coaching novices that I had to really go back and think about each individual step so that I could break everything down into individual parts so that they’d understand what I was trying to communicate. You really do have to spell out everything for them in the beginning. Is it time consuming and kinda annoying? Obviously, but it pays off in the end.

I’m one of the most impatient people on the planet and I get frustrated very easily when things that seem like common sense to me appear not to be to other people. With novices, everything we think is common sense isn’t to them. You have to be patient and work with them but I promise you that when it clicks and they finally get it, you experience a really rewarding sense of accomplishment, not only for them but for yourself too.

As much as I enjoy snarking on novices for the silly things they say and do (and man, do they say and do some seriously snark-worthy things…), ultimately that doesn’t do anything to help them get better. If they’re (hopefully) working hard to get better we should be working just as hard to help get them develop their skills and become competitive athletes. You most likely had someone like that when you were a novice so now it’s your responsibility to go be that person for someone else.”

I won’t elaborate any more on this since I think I covered everything pretty well already but what I hope you guys will take away from this is what I said in the last paragraph. That doesn’t mean you have to stop getting amusement out of the things novices do – I know I never will – but at least guide them towards the right way of doing things instead of just posting about it on the internet.


One thought on “Teachable moments

  1. Abby says:

    I love this! I made my whole group promise when we were novice and that we would be nice to the new novices when we were varsity and that we would leave the team better than we found it. So far it has been great we are closer with the novice than with the old varsity(sad but true…) I think some people are scared and giving the novices tip because they don’t want them to take their place or become better than them. I say that’s rediculous. We train as one boat but we are one team. Great post!



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