10 simple things you can do to be a better athlete

When I was at Penn over the summer, Wes Ng, who is the women’s head coach (and also the women’s U23 coach), came and gave a talk on the simple, ordinary things you can do to make yourself a better athlete.

What’s the plan for the week?

If you’re gonna row at any level, it takes a solid amount of commitment. When you’re a collegiate athlete, rowing needs to be a priority (not necessarily the #1 priority but still a pretty high one) and that will probably require moving your lives around to make it work. Up front communication with the coaches, your professors, etc. about what you’ve got going on is important.

We send our yearly training plan out at the beginning of the school year so that the guys can see what we’re doing each day, when we’re testing, when our races are, when our training trips are, etc., that way they know where they need to be, when, and what the time commitment is so they can plan everything else accordingly. Obviously it’s a given that there’s some flexibility when it comes to academics, job interviews, etc. but it’s made clear up front that frat stuff or other extracurricular activities should not be put above their commitment to the team.

Always arrive early

You’re not prepared if you’re only thinking about performing when you arrive on time. Wes spoke about the U23 women that he’d see arriving early who would spend that time before practice going through their own personal checklists of the things they needed to do to perform at their best, which included warming up on the erg or bikes, rolling out for 15-20 minutes, or just closing their eyes and doing some meditative breathing. Regardless of what each individual routine entailed, they knew that it was worth coming in 30-40 minutes early for because it was setting them up to have a good row.

Rolling into the boathouse at 6:25 for a 6:30am practice might not hurt you but it’s not going to help you that much either … and it could set the wrong tone for the underclassmen who are looking to the senior members of the team to set the example.

“How can we help?”

Rather than being accusatory towards someone who, for example, consistently shows up late to practice, instead ask them how you can help. Wes used this example because they had a rower who said she was having trouble getting up in the morning for their AM rows and the response from the team was to buy her a lot of instant coffee and share their morning routines with her to help her figure out something that would make waking up earlier easier.

It’s really easy to just get pissed at someone who’s showing up late or constantly making the same mistake in the boat but getting pissed doesn’t help anyone and it doesn’t fix the problem. This goes hand in hand with the “don’t punish the symptoms, address the cause” or whatever that adage is.

Take care of the equipment and the environment you row in

This is simple – it’s about pride. If you have pride in the space you row out of, as well as the equipment you use, then you’re more likely to take your training seriously.

Make pre-row stuff light and fun

I loved the question that Wes posed when he brought up this point – “Who are you gonna be? Are you gonna make atmosphere better or wait for someone else to do it?”

Know when to shift gears from fun to intense focus

One of the things I really appreciate about our team is their ability to shift from loose and chill before practice (during which some of the most ridiculous conversations I’ve ever heard happen) to completely dialed in and ready to get shit done the moment they finish their warmup. It makes things easier for the coaches, it gets us on the water faster, and it sets the tone early on (for practice, for the underclassmen, and for the team as a whole…) that regardless of whatever else everyone’s got going on or whatever riveting debate you were having earlier, all of that is put on pause until 8:30am so that we can all collectively focus on accomplishing that day’s goal(s).

Ask questions but don’t ask just to be heard

This is all about maturity. Everybody can relate to this one because we’ve all been in class with that person who says something, not because they actually have anything to contribute but because they want to be heard so they can get their participation points (or just disrupt the conversation). This is an easy trap for coxswains, particularly younger ones, to fall into because they know they’re expected to know things but rather than just asking a question or saying they don’t understand, they blurt out and rattle off a hundred different things that are all wrong and wildly off base because they think that’ll give off the impression that they’re making an effort.

If you have something important to say or contribute then you should absolutely put it out there but don’t waste your or everyone else’s time if whatever you’re gonna say isn’t relevant, is grasping at straws, or is just disruptive to the flow of practice.

“Thanks coach, see you tomorrow.”

Wes phrased this well – “we’re all in this together to try and be the best we can be”. You might not always agree with your coach’s decisions but you’re both working towards the same goal of having a successful season so you should, at the very least, be appreciative of their efforts and respect the time they spend helping you become a better a athlete.

Saying “thanks coach” after they’ve spent time on the erg with you or going over evals or just after a regular practice row … it’s a simple gesture that can strengthen the bond between the team and the coach(es). Some of the moments that have meant the most to me at MIT have been when someone’s said “thanks for working with the coxswains, all the work you’ve put in is really paying off” because it motivates me to work harder to help them get better which in turn motivates them to work harder because they know someone’s got their back. If you put in effort your coaches will too and that’s only going to help you get better.

Use rowing to make your life better

This has been a big topic of conversation this week between myself and one of the other coaches. Everyone gets something different out of rowing but you’re more likely to get something out of it if you’re actually making the effort to get better. If you’re open to being coached and getting advice/feedback from other people, you’ll start seeing that stuff manifest in how you act and carry yourself in your everyday life.

“How can I do my thing better?”

You have to take care of yourself first before trying to help others get better. This is huge for coxswains because you can’t help the rowers or the boat if your own skills are subpar. If you want the boat to get better, look first at what you can do to improve and then find a way to translate the skills you’ve been developing to your teammates.

None of them are groundbreaking but that’s also probably why they’re easily overlooked when someone (rower or coxswain) asks the question of “what can I do to get better?”. It’s the little things…

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