How do rowing coaches stay at the cutting edge?
I love talking with Gianni Postiglione. The wise and weather-beaten Italian who has helped rejuvenate both Greek and Lithuanian rowing has been at the cutting edge of rowing coaching for many years.
When I asked him what being there meant for him, the 65-year-old said; “I don’t think I am a genius - at the cutting edge. In my time, I have seen the same problem from so many points of view. Imagine several coaches are watching a fire. They describe the same thing but each one of us sees a different angle: how high the flames go, how hot it feels, how the flames seem to dance. It’s like that when you ask: ‘what is the cutting edge?’ Each coach will see something different.”
So let me describe what the ‘fire’ – or the coaching cutting edge – looks like from my perspective. Walking along the ‘edge’ of coaching can be exhilarating and yet frightening, because being on the edge means that you may fall off.
Making mistakes, and learning from them, are part of coaching at the cutting edge. Any coaching system that does not allow its coaches to fail - and then support them to integrate that experience into their practice – is not operating on a cutting edge.
Being a cutting edge coach is not always easy. To sustain the desire, they need to be highly motivated, with a strong vision of what they are trying to attain. It’s that which can help sustain them through the inevitable periods of uncertainty. Rather than spend most of their time talking to their athletes, they listen. A cutting edge coach knows that they must attempt to understand the world as their athlete sees it; hence they coach from the athlete’s inner world outwards.
But most of all, a coach at the cutting edge has to hold two contradictions: they must constantly try to develop themselves while at the same time remain true to the essence of what it is that makes them who they are.
So it’s no use a Juergen Grobler trying to coach like a Noel Donaldson. To be at the cutting edge – and for much of the time they are – it’s their own potential they must develop. And as Postiglione suggests, understanding how others see things is crucial to that process. “When you speak with others it puts a light in your brain,” says Postiglione.
“I see my work like a mosaic,” says Postiglione. “With the help of other coaches – and also my son and daughter - I make a more and more clear picture. I start to see something and in one way, this is the cutting edge for me. Every time I put one small piece of the mosaic in, something changes”. This is why Postiglione likes to talk to others. The more he shares, the more that comes back to him. It’s a bountiful – rather than a scarcity – mindset.
The late, great New Zealand coach, Harry Mahon had a similar outlook. Both athletes and coaches sought this unassuming man’s company. And in doing so, they believed he could help them become better rowers, or understand at a deeper level what the stroke was and how a boat might move. I once asked Mahon how he felt about this: athletes and coaches hanging on his every word. He was silent before a reflecting ‘yeah’ broke the silence. “I feel I’m responsible for what might happen to people. If I stop to think about it now, I find that quite a heavy burden”.
Pressed further Mahon reluctantly replied; ‘I seem to be able to (turn) just about any group of people that I might coach on the water into something that somebody else might have been trying harder and not managed to do”. This is what it means to be on the cutting edge.
This view may not be what some think of as being at the cutting edge. For some it means having access to new ideas or information and utilising them in a novel way. In Great Britain cycling’s Dave Brailsford seems to underpin this view. His notion of accruing marginal gains in performance for the successful Sky team has passed into the folklore. In rowing, the highly successful British team spends a significant part of the £33 million government grant that they receive each Olympiad, on buying-in experts. Head coaches, Juergen Grobler and Paul Thompson use the latest thinking in fields like strength and conditioning, psychology, data-analysis and biomechanics.
For United States coach Kris Korzeniowski, the knowledge of cutting edge data does not necessarily produce results. “Yes we make some progress in biomechanics,” says Korzeniowski. “But even now, the interpretation of those results is as vague as in the past.” For Korzeniowski, using this data in the wrong way can produce disastrous results. He pointed to one of the men’s eight at the London Olympics. “I was told that after a workout the boys were not able to say how it felt until they saw the data. They rowed like robots, without any feeling.”
Postiglione agrees. “For me what is important is feeling. Biomechanics and GPS data are very important. But we have a big issue about using more instruments in rowing. If you just get better numbers on the biomechanics and GPS because you put more power, it’s not enough. You must do it with better technique. The instrument has to be the architect of your technique. It must underline the relationship between you and the boat.”
At the cutting edge, mistakes can happen. Research carried out by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck shows how the willingness to make – and learn from mistakes – is a crucial indicator for the possession of a ‘growth’ mindset. Dweck believes this is crucial for both coaches and their athletes to possess. She contrasts ‘growth’ with a ‘fixed’ mindset, which tends to lead to a deterministic view of the world, where intelligence is static. People with a fixed mindset are often threatened by the success of others. It would be difficult for these people to realise their potential, not least because they often try to avoid making mistakes.
Dweck has proved that having a growth mindset is not only an important predictor of a person’s future success, but that success actually comes from a person’s willingness to embrace failure. Those with a growth mindset use their ability to find lessons and inspiration in the success of others, as the path to mastery. Other cutting edge research underlines that too.
Daniel Coyle’s introduction to his best-selling book ‘The Talent Code’ talks about a very normal 13-year-old girl learning a new piece on the clarinet. Initially her efforts are described as ‘so bad that she must be failing’ in her efforts. But as we learn, “she is not ignoring errors, she’s hearing them and fixing them constantly”. In the end, she plays the piece in six minutes after what was a “magically productive session”. This is an example of cutting edge stuff.
“The problem or difficulty of coaches with more experience like me,” says Postiglione, “is that on the one hand, we can be more certain about what’s necessary but on the other, that certainty can also make us a little blind. That’s why I am the first critic of myself. I ask always for critical comments from my rowers and I’m disappointed when I don’t get them. I must try and develop myself where I’m weak.”
“The most important point,” says Postiglione, “is how much can you transfer to your athletes? You must understand completely what the rower takes from what you say. The key point is the rowers. I spend a lot of time building empathy in order to transfer what I have in my mind and to understand how they will get it.”
Ultimately cutting edge coaches will have a sense of their own limitations as well as their strengths. Crucially, they will recognise that ‘cutting edge’ results come - not from them – but from their athletes. Realising that can sometimes feel threatening but also energising. Learning how to manage that tension is what it means to work on the edge. To look at your view of the fire and understand why it’s not the same as anyone else’s.
By Martin Cross