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What Kind of Coach is the Best Kind of Coach?

Your organization is on the hunt for a new coach. Regardless of whether it is a new head coach, full time assistant, or 10hr/week volunteer, you need to take a practical perspective on whether the background and experience of the coach is a good fit for the team and organization. It is easy to get excited about a resume that is competitively successful, full of both coaching and athletic success, but should that really be the best indicator of success at your club? Judging qualifications solely on a coach’s competitive success (often coming from a different level) might be asking for frustration further down the line. This is less a question of over/under qualification, but instead about giving consideration to the specific qualities that a coach may bring to the organization. In short, this is about fit. In this piece I will review the different kinds of experience coaches can bring to the myriad of rowing organizations out there, as well as offer some case studies of what went wrong, and what went right.

Although I dislike using “categories” to build an argument, I hope you can indulge some shortcuts for the sake of time and copy space. I will create some broadstroke categories of coaches and rowing organizations and draw a subjective risk assessment between coaching types and organization types.

Novice - This coach has very little experience in the launch with a megaphone, typically less than a year. This coach will be eager to learn, but will often default to reading from a script of how they were coached as an athlete. They will have a bottomless well of enthusiasm and energy for almost any task, project or challenge.

Career Coach - Over 10 years of full time experience, may have coached at several different levels and brings a broad set of skills and experience. This person may or may not have a strong competitive background. Most likely has a .500 career if they’ve been doing it long enough. (#statistics)

Dabbler - A coach that has been here, been there, but has never coached more than 20 hours in a single week. Their experience, or lack thereof, might not be a limiting factor. They may be a very good coach with a high level of competitive success; they’re just making more money at their primary career. Typically you see these coaches at the club and junior level, but occasionally they are at the college and pre-elite level.

Pre-Elite - Majority of experience for this coach is as an athlete. Often they are retired as an athlete, but just kept showing up at the boathouse and found themselves in a launch with a megaphone. They are sometimes unfairly given the benefit of the doubt regarding their knowledge base and skill-set.

Senior Elite - Has a high level of knowledge and experience around the sport. Might be challenged communicating that knowledge with anyone not as experienced or motivated. Like the pre-elite, they can be given the benefit of the doubt regarding their knowledge base and skill-set. Will often emulate what their coaches have told them (mostly at a high level) and will often be misunderstood, not just technically but also in regards to their intent/motivations.

Also for simplicity, here is a categorization of rowing organizations in the United States:

Club - A publicly accessible rowing club, with few barriers to membership. This organization typically offers multiple tiers of participation/competitive opportunity for novices, masters, juniors, adaptive, and pre-elite. There is of course lots of mix and match here, some clubs offer all of these things, some offer only one or two options.

Scholastic - Offered as its own category because they offer a very specific type of rowing experience. Scholastic rowing teams are directly affiliated with and at least partially subsidized by a secondary education school, and only work with secondary students. They tend to have limited budgets. They also typically train/compete for only 4-5 months a year.

Collegiate/University - A rowing team affiliated with and at least partially subsidized by an institution offering tertiary education. Much like the rowing club, there is a lot of variability here, from NCAA Division I Varsity to recreational clubs with fewer than 10 athletes. The age and abilities of the athletes tend to be definitively narrow, however (18-22). At this level there is an increasing emphasis on competitive performance, and coach turnover can be high.

Pre-Elite Club - Often an extension of a pre-existing rowing club, they nevertheless tend to keep their own coaches and budget. They primarily exist for those athletes looking to move to senior-elite status and compete internationally. The primary coach(es) of the pre-elite club may have little crossover with “regular” club members and teams/squads.

Elite Club/National Team - An exclusive team/club reserved only for those selected or pre-selected for international competition.

With these ideas in mind, here is a cross-matrix designed to show how well these categories play with each other:

The concepts of “fit” and “risk” are open to subjective interpretation. Fit, or alignment can be defined in this case as, “Is the prospective coach actually qualified to do the job?” The risk element qualifies as how likely they are to do a good job. Can an elite-level athlete successfully coach a club masters rowing team? Of course, retired national team coxswain Yaz Farooq was happily ensconced as a coach at OAR (Oregon Association of Rowers) before taking the reins at Stanford and winning an NCAA National Championship in 2009.

There are certain expectations in place however, given a candidate's background. For example, using the chart above we can see that a novice coach is best aligned at the club-level, assuming there are already more senior and experienced coaches in place that can teach and mentor the novice coach. On the opposite end of the chart, we can see that elite level athletes are best aligned to be elite level coaches. Is it because the drive and motivation that made them great athletes will transfer into coaching? Of course not. It has to do with spending time observing and evaluating other top level rowing athletes, understanding how they train, how they move, and what a truly quick catch looks like.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that sometimes organizations make hiring decisions that have little to do with whether or not the candidate is well aligned for the position’s responsibilities. Hopefully this matrix can provoke some thought and discussion into how your organization evaluates a candidate’s fit, or alignment with a position.

Here is a mix of coaching hire anecdotes that represent good alignment that went well, and unfortunately some that were poorly aligned and did not go so well:

  • A club leader and regular masters rower with a full time career outside of rowing, picks up the megaphone to coach the club’s junior sculling team. Builds the team to one of the most successful junior sculling programs in the country, with ten consecutive years of Youth Nationals Grand Final appearances and medals in multiple boat classes for girls and boys.

  • A successful club team at a major university hires a former Olympian as Head Coach. This is a full-time position with benefits. The Coach is still training for elite level competition while managing a roster of 40 student-athletes. Two years later the coach decides to relocate to a new training venue and leaves the team with one eight of athletes remaining.

  • Former national team athlete and Olympian is hired to coach a national team. Team then pursues an unprecedented run of international success including world and Olympic championships.

  • Retired Olympic Medalist spends 10 years “cutting teeth” at the masters, junior and pre-elite level. This individual is hired to lead a collegiate varsity team with no prior collegiate coaching experience and guides them to 11 years of consecutive top 12 finishes.

The consistent trend with all of these cases, good and bad, is that competitive experience ≠ successful coach. More often than not, the coach is successful because they are a good fit, and they are well aligned with the needs of the organization/team/squad. The lack of success can almost always be traced back to a lack of alignment, or in other words, poor fit.

As always, read the entire resume three times, check references, don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions, and good luck in your search!

Madder Consulting offers search and recruiting services for organizations looking for help. I offer a start-to-finish turnkey solution, or a la carte services specific to your needs. Contact me directly at for more information.

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