Question of the Day

Hi Kayleigh!  I am a junior in college and due to a combination of good and bad experiences with coaches as well as a love for the sport,  I’m seriously considering coaching once I graduate and just had a few questions.  Would you say you need a specific degree to coach,  or is the saying “A degree is worth the paper it’s printed on” true? Do I have any chance of getting the opportunity be a grad assistant if I’m not studying exercise science, sports management or something else related? In general what advice would you give to someone who wants to coach? Thank you!

Ah, I love this question!

You definitely don’t need a specific degree. I studied exercise science because I went into college wanting to do research with/on athletes. (You know the show Sport Science on ESPN? I basically wanted to do all the stuff John Brenkus does.) I guess in some ways having that background has helped with coaching but I can’t think of a specific instance where I’ve actually used my degree in the four years I’ve been coaching. (Literally me.) Off the top of my head, the majors of the other coaches at the boathouse when they were in college were history, law (our head coach was a lawyer for 15ish years before he started coaching), theater, sociology, biology, political science, and English. Ultimately I think it’s less about whatever degree you have and more about how you apply the skills you learned while getting it … which I guess is true for most jobs.

Grad assistants and volunteer assistants are kinda the same and kinda different. Grad assistants sometimes get paid but they also obviously have the added hurdle of getting into grad school first. Volunteer assistants don’t get paid at all (NCAA rules, limit on number of coaches, etc.) and don’t have to be in grad school to coach there. I looked at a few schools that were hiring grad assistants but I’m just so burned out on school that I never pursued it. (Learning is great but school is blech so getting another degree, even if I can do it while coaching, is tabled for the foreseeable future.)

The best way to get into coaching is to just find a junior team that’s hiring coaches and reach out to them. They’re practically a dime a dozen so as long as you’ve got some rowing/coxing experience it shouldn’t be too hard to get involved. I definitely think starting out with juniors is the way to go because even if it’s with a top program, the environment is just more conducive to you being able to figure out your coaching style and trial-and-error stuff to find out what works. In some cases it’s something you can do while you’re still in school too. One of my friends started coaching his junior year and would coach the novices twice a week in the afternoons when they were in season and then four times a week during winter training. In the summers he helped out with the learn-to-row camps they offered and then after graduation he became their head coach for a year or two while working for a local company.

I was at a coaching conference a couple years ago, around the same time I decided coaching at the college level was what I wanted to do, and I asked Kevin Sauer (UVA’s coach) if he had any advice. He said that the best way to start coaching at this level is to go be a volunteer assistant because not only does it give you a lot of valuable experience but also because pretty much no team is ever going to turn down free help. I had a lot – like, a lot – of people tell me that was an awful idea (including other coaches I know who had been volunteer coaches … they compared it to indentured servitude) because you don’t get paid (the biggest deterrent, especially for people my age who are saddled with a ton of student loans and can’t really afford to work for free) and it’s not always a positive experience. One of the coaches I talked to told me that I’ll either figure out exactly what I want in a team or I’ll find out exactly what I don’t want and the latter kind of sums of my first experience with volunteer coaching.

I was initially really excited about it (and blatantly ignored any and all reservations that I had, which was stupid) and then spent the next few months thinking “I’ve made a huge mistake“. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep coaching after that, at least at this level, but my high school coach encouraged me to keep looking and that’s how I found my current job at MIT. One of my friends rowed here so I knew a little about the team and I figured what the hell, I’m moving back to Boston anyways, might as well reach out. I think within like, ten minutes of talking to our assistant on the phone I was like … this is where I want to be. At the end of our conversation he said he still had two or three other people to interview but I flat out said (a lot more aggressively than I’d intended) that I wanted the job and that was pretty much it. It was very much a “when you know, you know” situation for me and I haven’t regretted it once since. (I could seriously go on for days about why this has been such a positive experience for me but I’ll spare you.)

Something I see repeated a lot (and that I agree with) is to not assume that just because you’ve been rowing or coxing for awhile that you can just jump right into coaching (especially at the collegiate level) and be good at it. You do have to humble yourself a bit and put aside your own success and recognize that that has little to no bearing on how good of a coach you’ll be. There’s definitely some work that goes into figuring out how to communicate the things that seem like common sense to you to a group of rowers (especially novices) who might not conceptually understand what you’re saying. I think that’s probably what I spent most of my first year coaching working out how to do.

Definitely work your contacts though and keep your eyes and ears open for coaching or other volunteer opportunities in the summer as a way to get your foot in the door. One of the camps I coach at (Northeast Rowing Center) has college kids work as the counselors so that’d be something worth looking into if there are any camps being hosted near you. (If you want more info on NRC feel free to email me.) It’s super low-key and chill since your main responsibility is to make sure the kids get from Point A to Point B and don’t do anything stupid outside of practice and you get the benefit of being able to spend time with other coaches who could prove to be helpful connections in the future.

There’s probably a lot more I could say on this that I’m just not thinking of right now so if you have any other questions, feel free to ask!

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