Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What Makes a Good Coach? - Rowing Coach Ryan Sparks Puts His Oar in the Water

Over the years, I have dealt with many successful business executives. I find that the vast majority of the men and women who make it to the corner office and attain the title of CEO were successful athletes. Much to my surprise, the one sport that seems to show up with the greatest frequency among business leaders is the sport of rowing. So, when a mutual friend introduced me to Ryan Sparks, I was intrigued to learn that at a relatively young age, Ryan has amassed an amazing record of success as a rowing coach. Sparks has held coaching jobs on three continents - on the junior, masters, club, varsity collegiate and international pre-elite levels. Of the boats he has coached, 92% have made the ‘A’ level final in their respective championships.

So, when Ryan and I got together a few weeks ago in Hartford, I asked him a number of questions about his approach to coaching, and then asked him if he would organize his thoughts so that I could share them with the readers of The White Rhino Report.

On race day, a rowing coach has very little to do with the performance of their team. He or she shoves them off the dock and walks away. They must trust that the action of the stroke will be implemented seamlessly through a variety of conditions and situations by all nine members of the rowing shell simultaneously with vicious strength.

The challenge of rowing is that it is an endurance sport which requires nine people to perform precisely timed actions together as they suffer under the load of more and more lactic acid. While the action of the stroke is consistent, it is complex and requires as much grace as strength. Challenges arise when the keel of the boat drops off to one side, causing timing errors – or when the boat simply ‘feels heavy’ through the stroke. The successful athlete will learn how to move through these things and have a very low tolerance for them.

As a coach, I’ve found the easiest way to create consistency and trust within the boat is to create a culture of consistency within each training session. I lead by creating consistent norms and expectations and work not to micromanage each athlete’s individual process. This can create a very stable, predictable environment where people feel secure and excited to get things done. In time, this becomes a machine I can feed with a certain amount of knowledge every day in order to satisfy consistent expectations for performance and improvement. This consistency in turn translates to competition, where everything must come together without a coach.

Over the last year, I’ve learned how to implement the concept of ownership within my coaching style. This has served as an extremely effective motivator. In rowing, teams are made of two or more boats of nine people. Each boat has its own training dynamic and its own performance goals – by creating a baseline with a consistent, stable environment and allowing each boat to own a small portion of the training process once they feel comfortable has proved excellent in terms of getting the most out of everyone. The athletes are allowed input and decision making power regarding the pieces of knowledge that I then feed the ‘machine’ for the day. This comes as a reward for their individual boat’s above average performance the day before, and results in pushing the standards of training higher given the value placed on that day’s knowledge increases overall expectations. I believe this - when controlled in a reasonable manner - allowed me to make major gains with each boat at crucial times during the season.

I just finished a contract at Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine. The problem with rowing in Maine is that there’s hardly any water until the middle of the season, when Connecticut schools have been rowing for four weeks. Athletes at Bates must therefore lose to win – they have to trust the improvement curve they’re on as steeper than the schools that beat the daylights out of them at the beginning of their season and continually work hard even as they lose given the lack of water time. I believe that consistency and ownership was one of the pieces that allowed both the men’s and the women’s teams I worked with to finish top five in the country in Division III at the end of the year.

It occurs to me that the principles that Ryan outlines so clearly that have led to success for his teams may explain some of the business success of rowers who have taken these lessons from the water to board room.

Thank you, Ryan, and best wishes for continued success for you and for your rowers.



Anonymous said...

I would agree with this. The key factor here is performance - which isn't really taught in the nuanced, relativistic manner of most educational institutions these days. On top of that, the philosophy of consistency and ownership is an excellent one - one could say coaching is as good or better leadership preparation as a mid level corporate management job...

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