Five Tips for Making the Most of Summer Camps

It’s that time of year and I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately on how to make the most of your time at a summer rowing camp. This year will be my third one doing camps so below is a list of tips that I’ve pulled together from several other coaches I’ve worked with and my own observations from the camps I’ve done so far.

You must be an active participant

This means engaging with the coaches, engaging with the other athletes, and taking a lot of notes. All the camps I’ve been too give you a notebook on Day 1 for this exact reason, because we know there’s going to be a lot of information dispensed and you’re not going to remember it all. Don’t wait for coaches to say “you should write this down” either because in most cases, we won’t.

So what should you write down? Any and all questions you want to ask the coaches you’re working with, their responses, feedback you ask for/receive on your individual rowing technique, anything you learn about technique that you might not have known before, any new drills you pick up (and their purpose, how it’s done, what it targets, etc.), any new calls or phrases you learn, post-practice reflections, etc. The opportunities to take notes during camp are endless and it makes it super easy to answer the inevitable “so what you’d do at camp” question your parents will ask on the drive home.

Your experience is a direct reflection of your level of investment and engagement

Have you ever worked on a group project and had that one kid who said nothing, contributed nothing, and made trying to engage with them akin to pulling teeth … and then complained to the teacher after the fact that the other people in their group sucked, they wouldn’t let them do anything, and whatever grade they got isn’t fair? Don’t be that person.

It’s pretty obvious when someone wants to learn and ask questions but is just shy and unsure of how to engage with the coaches or other kids. That’s totally fine and easy to work through. It’s also obvious who’s there just because their parents have the money to spend and want their kid to do something over the summer, even though the kid couldn’t care less about becoming a better rower or coxswain. This one is a lot harder to manage for both the coaches and athletes because … if you don’t want to be there, there’s not gonna be much that convinces you to try and make the best of it.

To quote another coach, “don’t make us pull information or a conversation out of you – it gets exhausting fast and isn’t where we want to put our efforts”. I’ve never worked with a coach who didn’t care about the experience a kid was having. We all want you to have a good time and get something out of being there but the onus can’t be put entirely on the coaches to make that happen. We’ll facilitate it but you’ve gotta work with us and not just sulk in the background whenever the coaches are laying out the plan for the day or trying to create a dialogue. Take ownership of your time at camp and be involved in the process.

Have specific and realistic goals

“Lower my 2k”, “learn about technique”, and “steer straighter” are three of the most common “goals” I’ve seen kids come into camp with and none are specific enough or realistic for a camp that lasts 3-5 days. Coxswains especially, when you say “learn about technique” … what does that mean?? There are umpteen hundred different facets of technique that I can promise you will take longer than our 3-5 90 minute group sessions to go over.

Related: Coxswains and summer camp

The more specific you are about what you want to learn, the better we as coaches will be able to address those things during practice or in group/one-on-one conversations. If the starting point is “I want to become a better coxswain in three days”, it’s like … great! … but how? Break that down into 2-3 things based on stuff that you were working on or struggled with during the previous season. Last summer we had a guy who wanted to pick up some strategies on improving his communication skills because that was something he struggled with throughout the season after unexpectedly getting moved into the varsity eight (as a freshman coxing juniors/seniors). That was a great goal because not only could all the other coxswains contribute their own advice on what’s worked (or hasn’t worked) for them but he also had two opportunities per day for six days to test everyone’s suggestions and find out what worked for him.

We probably weren’t going to see the benefits of the work he was doing at the end of the week but that was never the point … the point was for him to soak up as much information as he could so he could take it home and continue employing and tweaking it throughout the year. He came in with one very specific goal and was able to collect tons of advice from the other coxswains and the coaches (I distinctly remember him asking us about the best/worst coxswains on our team and why they were such) that ultimately paved the way towards him becoming a better coxswain in the long run. That was unlikely to happen though if he’d come in with something more vague and generic.

Come with questions

This goes back to being an active participant. There’s always scheduled opportunities for you to talk with coaches individually and you should take full advantage of that by coming prepared with a list of 5-7 questions that you want to have answered throughout the week. Don’t make them all about recruiting either because nearly every camp has dedicated time where they’ll talk to the entire group about that specifically. This is a good opportunity though to learn more about that specific coach’s program if you’re interested in rowing there but don’t be that guy that goes up to the Cornell lightweight coach to ask about the Harvard lightweight program. Know your audience.

Ask them for advice based on their personal experiences too. Several of the coaches I’ve worked with at these camps have rowed for the national team, been to the Olympics or World Championships, won NCAA/IRA titles (as athletes and coaches), etc. so you should pick their brains and find out what’s worked for them that might also work for you. If you’ve been trying to hit a new PR for awhile but seem to have hit a plateau, ask how they overcame that if/when it happened to them (or their teammates). If your boat had trouble this past season forming a cohesive identity, ask them how they/their coxswains/coaches handled similar situations where there were a lot of strong personalities in the boat who always seemed to be at odds with one another. Trust me when I say rowing coaches have stories that would put your grandparents “back in my day” stories to shame so don’t be afraid to engage with them and ask questions that go beyond “this is my 2k, how recruitable am I”.

For coxswains, one question that should be on your list for every coach you interact with is what’s their best piece of advice for improving communication with your coach. I guarantee every coach will tell you something different based on the experiences they’ve had with their coxswains and everything they tell you will be gold. One question I remember being asked had to do with something I said relating to someone’s technique – the coxswain had honed in on a specific phrase I said and asked how she could incorporate that into her calls because that same issue was something someone in her boat had struggled with the previous season. We spent a couple minutes brainstorming more concise ways of saying the same thing, as well as going over what exactly I was getting at so she understood the background of the technical issue we were working on, how to identify and correct it (using the calls we came up with), and how to tweak those calls based on whether they were doing something like steady state or in a faster-paced environment like a race.

Make mistakes and don’t assume your way is the only way

One of my favorite things that I’ve heard another (coxswain) coach say is that you’re gonna get called out for mistakes at camp because you’re not getting called out for them at home. If you were, you wouldn’t be making them. That applies to your rowing technique, your practice management skills, etc.

Related: Making mistakes

You should go in with a very open mind and be prepared to do things differently than you’re used to doing them … especially if you’ve been doing them wrong. “Suspend all beliefs you have about coxing” was how one coach phrased it last year because if you’ve been taught how to cox by people who have never coxed, you’re in for an eye-opening few days.

If you’ve been to a summer rowing camp (either a week-long one or a longer program like dev or HP camp) in the past, what are your tips for making the most out of your time there?

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