A coach’s dilemma: Selecting an Olympic team when the Olympics are delayed
It could be justified for rowing coaches to throw their Olympic cycle four-year plan in the bin as the ramifications from the coronavirus pandemic spread through the sporting world.
Few people realise the level of meticulous planning, calculating and decision-making that goes into producing medals at the Olympic Games. The Dutch women’s head coach Josy Verdonkschot is one of the coaches known for his love of numbers and calculations and winning Olympic medals.
The Dutch women’s team secured five qualification positions for the Tokyo Olympic Games at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in the women’s quadruple sculls, women’s double sculls, women’s single sculls, lightweight women’s double sculls and women’s four.
“We had good results at the worlds, I cannot deny that,” Verdonkschot says. “On the other hand, there is no guarantee for the year after, so you have to be open minded and see if you can improve a crew. I imagine the opposition will do the same.”
Verdonkschot’s plan leading up to what was to be this year’s Olympic Games was simple.
“Our plan was to do final selection for those boats, somewhere before the first official race, which would have been the first World Cup in Sabaudia, Italy in April,” he explains.
But, of course, the first World Cup did not take place.
“We had to postpone everything,” he continues. “But if you look at it, if I had just pressed the repeat button and selected before the first regatta in 2021, that would have meant I put my entire group in a selection situation for more than a year.”
According to Verdonkschot, the team had started feeling the selection pressure in October of 2019, just after the World Rowing Championships. That pressure had been mounting throughout the winter season.
“It’s a condition of uncertainty and feeling like you cannot fumble because you are under the looking glass,” he says. That pressure should have been relieved after the selection in April, but delaying the selection for an entire year would have prolonged that period to 16 months.
It's unusual to have crews selected a year before the Olympics. “I think the psychological disadvantage of being in a selection period for so long weighs up against the fact that you have selected your crews one year before the Olympics,” Verdonkschot says. “And once you’ve started a selection process, you can’t stop it again.”
The solution was to hold selection for the Olympic Games in July of 2020, exactly one year before the competition. Out of the five qualified boats, only four were up for selection. Why? Because in the Netherlands, there is another layer of complexity.
The Dutch National Olympic Committee will only allow crews to compete at the Olympics if they have proven an Olympic standard – defined as a top six finish. This differs, of course, from the FISA qualification requirements, which allow more than six places in each boat class. Four of the five boats had achieved a medal at the 2019 World Championships in Linz-Ottensheim, securing their place not only from FISA’s qualification standards, but also in the eyes of the Dutch Olympic Committee. The women’s single, having finished eighth, would be considered a ‘functional’ spare for one of the bigger boats.
Verdonkschot lined up every combination he could come up with. As he puts it, he wanted to optimise.
“Let's put it bluntly, I've got three medals from the World Championships for the heavyweights: two bronze and one silver. But you have to be sure that the composition of the different crews is optimal. Not averaging out, but optimal. So, in my philosophy, I would prefer one gold and two minor places over three bronzes at the Olympics,” he says. Verdonkschot is less interested in the number of medals, more in the colour of them.
Verdonkschot’s puzzle was not only to find the best combinations, but also to consider whether some rowers should sweep or scull – several of the top Dutch women have been competitive in both.
Did he find the golden combination?
“Let's put it the other way around,” he says. “Since we do not have the international benchmark to test ourselves against, I have to look at our own benchmark. We had some fast times in the doubles and in the straight four and in the quad. I told myself in order to change, I must be sure that change gives a better result. I didn’t make changes because I wasn’t convinced that I found a better solution.”
The selected line-ups almost mirror the 2019 World Championship crews, with the exception of Laila Youssifou in the women’s quad instead of Sophie Souwer, who decided to prepare for the Olympic year in Switzerland, on her own. Looking back on the 2019 season, Verdonkschot says that they had an interrupted preparation, due to injuries amongst other things, which means there is still speed to gain.
“I think there's room for improvement and the room for improvement gave me more confidence than the feeling that one combination was better than all the other combinations, so that's why I made this choice. I cannot make a faster combination. So, don't be a fool, just work with what you have,” he says.
The Dutch women’s team will head to the 2020 European Rowing Championships this weekend, giving them an important opportunity to be in a competitive environment. As Verdonkschot says; this is a racing team, they are meant to race.
But a podium or not? To Verdonkschot it doesn’t really matter. The results will head into his many calculations as he works his way toward optimum speed for the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.