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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Question of the Day

Hi Kayleigh, I’m entering my senior year of college and 8th year of rowing. Our team has 1.5 coaches, 3 coxswains, no academic advisor or AT and once our class graduates our team is going to be half the size it is now. Do you have any advice on how to make the best of a seemingly crappy situation?

Not to diminish the situation or anything but that doesn’t sound that crappy, unless there’s something I’m missing. It actually sounds like what a lot of club teams experience each year – minimal resources, coaching inconsistencies, varying class sizes, etc. I guess what I’m saying is that it can be done, it just might take a little more work, flexibility, and sacrifice than in years past.

I think the best thing to do is work with what you’ve got and be very clear in your goals, priorities, and responsibilities this year, in addition to making sure the classes below you (particularly the juniors) are prepared enough to take the reins next year. The current team leadership is definitely gonna have to step it up on all fronts to make all that happen.

If you don’t have trainers you can go to when you’re sore or injured then the team needs to make sure they’ve got a recovery plan in place that minimizes residual soreness and prioritizes injury prevention … and you’ve gotta make sure everyone buys into that and actually stretches, rolls out, etc. before and after practice. Everyone also needs to commit to acting like athletes outside the boathouse too, not in the how you carry yourself kind of way but in how you treat your body. That’s one of the big things our captains want to focus on this year is making sure the guys are sleeping and eating enough so that their bodies are consistently ready to go and not always on the brink of crashing and burning. We’ve already got some strategies in place to make this happen so that might be something you do as well, come up with something that holds everyone accountable and consistently reiterates the importance of recovery, sleep, good nutrition, etc.

If you don’t have advisors from within the athletic department then you’ll need to rely on the advisors you have within your individual colleges to help you navigate your classes, requirements, etc. There’s a lot of discussion on our team about classes, professors, which academic track to follow, etc. so using your teammates as a resource if/when necessary is always a great and easy option too. (I assumed when you said you don’t have academic advisors you meant ones that the athletic department assigns you in addition to your regular one. That’s how it was for us at Syracuse but I know not everyone does that. I can’t imagine you meant that you have no advisors at all though … that doesn’t even seem possible.)

Only having 1.5 coaches – by which I assume you mean a full-time head coach and a part-time or volunteer assistant coach – can be tough but ultimately the responsibility is going to fall on the coxswains to pick up the slack and help the coaches out. Your practice management skills have gotta be on. f-ing. point. this year in order to maximize your time on the water and ensure you’re actually getting shit done. Communication is gonna be even more imperative between the coxswains and coach(es) so that if the coach says they’re going off with Boat C today so A and B are gonna be on their own for most of practice, the coxswains know exactly what the plan is and can execute it accordingly.

I wouldn’t focus on the things you don’t have though, otherwise that’s just gonna make you bitter and introduce a lot of stress and resentment to the overall atmosphere … and ain’t nobody got time for that, especially when you’re a senior.

Qualities of a Varsity Coxswain

One of the last questions on our coxswain evaluations asks the rowers what skills and qualities they believe a varsity coxswain should have. What follows in this series (going up every other Wednesday throughout the summer) are some of their responses to this question from the last two years. Consider these food for thought as you start thinking about your goals for the upcoming year.

Defining the role of the coxswain: Motivation

Despite not being that high on the list of things you’re responsible for doing, helping to motivate your crew is still an important part of your job as a coxswain.

Related: What do coaches look for in a coxswain + Motivation (tag)

I’ve talked a lot about motivation in the past and there’s definitely no shortage of inspiration in the quotes, videos, and recordings I post but if you want something simpler to go off of, here are the two most basic things you can do to motivate your teammates.

Lead by example

Be present because even on days when practice is boring, you can’t be. If you’re motivated by something, whether it’s a personal goal or a team goal, bring that energy to practice and on the water. Your interactions with the rowers, coxswains, and coaches, your engagement during team meetings, etc. are all things that might seem inconsequential but can actually be strong motivating factors for the people around you.

Know what your teammates want

If you’ve asked me any version of the question “what’s a good call to make to motivate my crew”, you’ll know that my first answer is ALWAYS to talk to your teammates. Everybody is driven by different things which means you have to pay attention and get to know the people on your team so you know where their motivation lies. Remember, your job isn’t necessarily to give them motivation, it’s to draw out what’s already there.

Both of these should be considered “non-negotiable” – you should be doing them every single day without thinking about it and without being asked. Given that most of us are in the midst of winter training and are likely to be stuck inside for at least another six weeks, doing both of these is a good way to start setting yourself apart from the other coxswains.

“Do you really need that?”

Over the last few days I’ve been emailing with a coxswain who initially wanted some advice on what to do over the summer to make sure they’re in shape for the upcoming fall season. As most of you who have asked me the same or similar questions over the last few weeks know, my response was and has been to just make sure you’re within a healthy range (which gives you plenty of leeway) of your respective racing weight by being smart about your diet and doing something  like running, cycling, etc. a couple times a week. Really simple stuff, nothing too crazy.

Related: I know it’s silly but staying a lightweight is consuming me. Literally every moment of the day I’m thinking of ways to be smaller and I hate myself for even worrying about this so much, like 123 is a FINE weight but at the same time … I hate being like this. It’s really worrying and I’m not eating as much anymore and I just need advice. 

Now, as most of you know, I have zero patience when it comes to coaches and rowers who openly disrespect coxswains and make unnecessary (and often times, pretty hurtful) comments about their weight when their weight isn’t an issue. I totally get being pissed when your coxswain is far, far over the minimum but seriously, speaking in general here, you guys have got to stop doing this. Below are some excerpts of the emails this coxswain sent me after our initial ones where we talked about getting in shape for the fall (shared with their permission).

“…Our coach is generally just impatient with us while we’re on the water and they complain about it more than I do. And to top it off, whenever we went to a meal during races, our coach would scrutinize what I ate and tell me things like. “Hey you need to fit in the seat…” Or “Do you really need that” but then tell me that she would prefer I didn’t starve myself.  She mentioned me losing weight before going into summer and said that “then we can actually go fast”.”

They told me that they’re a vegetarian so a lot of what they eat when they’re traveling is fruit or something else light.

“… I honestly have never had an eating disorder, like EVER. But after being treated like that I have been so vulnerable and not confident and it is so horrible because it made me not confident in other things too, so much that when I came home I asked my mum if I could talk to a therapist about it, like I’ve been struggling to bring myself back to the person I know I am, which yeah, is completely shitty.”

Making comments like that is not cool, it’s not funny, and it’s not appropriate. There’s a difference between playfully ragging on a friend (which you can really only get away with if you have a solid relationship with the person and even then, there are limits…) and being a jerk. I don’t want to get too into this because I’ve talked about all of it numerous times on here before but consider this another reminder/plea to just think before you say anything like what’s posted above to your coxswain(s). You don’t know how it’s going to affect them and if an eating disorder is something they’re already struggling with (which you most likely wouldn’t know about), hearing someone say “you need to find in the seat” or “do you really need that” can be pretty damaging. For more on that you can check out the posts in the link below.

Related: National eating disorder awareness week

I would also stop for a sec and consider this: I get a lot of emails from coxswains and when I find them serious enough to post on here I keep the details as vague as possible so as to not give away who they are or who they cox for. There are obvious reasons for doing that but I also do it because I want everyone who reads this to assume that it was your athlete and your coxswain that emailed me because, for all you know, it was. So … if you’re reading this and are thinking “wow…that sounds like something I said to my coxswain this year…”, this post is probably about you.