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Minimizing Regulation in Rowing: Creating cultural controls in our sport to keep regulation at bay.

In January, this article from the New York Times popped up in my news feed:

I encourage you to read the article, but here is a summary: the director of the Department of Sports and Recreation for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was charged with reigning in (via increased regulation) what some see as a growing trend of abuse in youth sports. If effect, the claim embedded in this article is that adults, coaches, recreational business owners, and even parents have been using children’s involvement in sports to further their own personal and professional agendas.

In the rowing community, we have all unfortunately witnessed this type of behavior and known individuals who have steamrolled over the interests of adolescents in order to further their own competitive agendas.

The tea leaves tell me, however, that changes are on the horizon. We coaches who work with children and adolescents, and even with college-aged individuals, should start increasing our awareness of how these athletes are being instructed and treated. If we fail to become more diligent about having healthy coaching practices and not just letting the ends justify the means, then regulators – either government or the NGB – will step in and do it for us. Those who work in NCAA environments know exactly how frustrating and limiting that can be.

This phenomenon is already happening in rowing. The recent controversy around youth lightweight rowing is a perfect example of how years of abusive practices on the part of coaches and parents have forced USRowing’s hand in dealing with the issue. At first, USRowing made an attempt to remove the category altogether. Facing a substantial amount of opposition, the NGB then pivoted and handed out new regulations for youth lightweight competition, detailed here:

I speculate that there are three intentions behind these regulations:

  1. To protect young athletes from potentially abusive training practices enforced or encouraged by adults holding personal, competitive agendas.

  2. To help protect USRowing from any and all liability around this issue.

  3. To regulate the category out of existence.

I’m personally weighing the last point as the heaviest (pun intended). Regardless of your opinion on the issue, in 2020 it is harder from an administrative standpoint to field a lightweight crew. The “last minute” lightweight will eventually become a thing of the past. Most of the natural lightweights will likely live in the U15 category. My prediction here dovetails neatly with what some speculate will be the future of youth rowing in the United States: competitive classification by age.

This example ultimately demonstrates that we as coaches need to take responsibility for our environment and our methods before the NGB or the government decides to do it for us. It isn’t easy because we’re working against the pressure to win, and for many of us, our employment depends on our competitive success. Our instinct not only to win but also to hold onto our jobs will lead some of us beyond the boundaries of what is healthy or appropriate for young athletes. For example, if someone is competitively successful by training his or her athletes for five hours a day, six days a week, others will emulate that training “program”. The eternal arms-race of training will then continue until it is unsustainable or an uninformed authority intervenes.

How then do we get everyone to agree on boundaries regarding health and safety so that all the race lanes are fair? For a coach, the first litmus test must be answering this question: are you pursuing an action, policy, or training plan because you want to win or because you want to provide the best competitive opportunity for your athletes? There is a difference, and it is an important consideration.

Organizations that host youth programs also need to stop evaluating coaches strictly on their competitive success. Winning is great, and it can drive participation and revenue numbers up, but this model is unsustainable if it relies too heavily on competitive success and leads to turnovers in staff every two to four years (as much a losing coach will be fired, a winning coach will inevitably move on to the next higher paying position.)

How does a coach stay competitive and “win” without being tempted to cross explicit or even perceived boundaries? The answer to that question, which should be a part of every coach’s professional approach, is this: the enjoyment and professional reward of coaching stems not from competitive success directly but rather from the creative processes through which you approach the competitive challenge. These processes might include creating the most effective training plan to suit your athlete constituency, crafting the most efficient technical stroke for the crew, athletes, and boat class, and creating a team culture that encourages everyone to work together toward competitive success. These are the processes that should drive coaches and ultimately keep them on a straight path. They may not produce a championship every year, but they will add value to an athlete’s competitive experience. And this should really be the final consideration when judging whether a coach is doing a good job. Is he or she ultimately adding value to the individual, the organization, and the sport?

For better or worse, our community will decide on the direction we take. We can remain independent and make informed choices that suit the growth and development of our sport, or we as individuals can pursue our own agendas that will ultimately result in people getting hurt and leaving the sport, will require greater regulation, and will limit our potential. The choice is ours.

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