A scattering of studies have been done in several different sports drawing sometimes confusing conclusions. World Rowing decided to ask some of the world’s leading rowing coaches not to provide hard evidence or hard facts, but to discuss their experiences in coaching men and women in the sport of rowing. Held at this year's World Rowing Coaches Conference in Rio, the panel, comprised of Josy Verdonkschot (NED), Christine Gosse (FRA), Premsyl Panuska (CZE), Gianni Postiglione (ITA/GRE/LTU), Morten Espersen (IRL) and Gary Hay (NZL) set out to look at the myths and realities.

The first question posed to them was the simple – are there differences in coaching men and women and from your experience, how does this influence your coaching? All six of the panellists essentially answered: there is no major difference in coaching men and coaching women. Verdonkschot followed that by saying, “successful coaches don’t exist. You’ve got good coaches and bad coaches and successful rowers.”

But as the questions continued and the panel reflected on their male and female crews and it became clear that, despite the initial response, there are important differences in the way coaches approach their male and female athletes.  

One of the first points to rise was communication. Verdonkschot joked that one of his male rowers asserted that women need to say ten times more words every day then men. Postiglione described it as a 'quota.' But joking aside, all coaches agreed that two-way communication between the coach and the female athlete plays a key role.

“You don’t always need to find a solution,” says Verdonkschot. “Sometimes, you just have to listen.”

Listening, but also explaining differs for these coaches between male and female athletes. Gosse, who coached men for almost 12 years before coaching women says, “It’s important to explain to women why this programme, why this selection, why this boat.”

Panuska, coach of the two successful Czech single scullers, Mirka Knapkova and Ondrej Synek sees this difference as well. “When I want to change something with Mirka, I must go deeply into it, I must have the perfect answer because she will ask me why. With Ondrej, I say something and he does it without any questions. Mirka would like to be perfect in all circumstances.”

Successful international coach, Postiglione says that women think more about the concept of things, but that women also communicate in different ways, crying for example. “I believe that when a woman is crying, you need to know when to investigate further, is it overtraining, or is it something else?”

So, outside of communication, are there other major differences? Gary Hay, coach of the lightweight women’s double sculls, the women’s pair and the women’s single scull for New Zealand says, “I focus more on technique and boat feel, more precision instead of raw power.”

The consensus among the panel was to use the individual athlete's strong points to full advantage and try to improve the weaker points where possible. “Women have better boat feel,” says Postiglione, “They try to coordinate their bodies better to get more efficiency out of the boat. Women are more flexible and it is often easier to teach them technique, the body can move very easily. So we maintain the positive and improve on the weaknesses, such as strength or endurance."

However, all coaches were quick to reinforce the fact that coaching must truly be on an individual basis. The differences between individual rowers are far greater than the differences between genders. In overarching terms, gender may help the coach to identify certain needs for the athlete and shape how they tailor their individual approach. Identifying the athlete's individual qualities is  important.  

In many ways, the panel opened the door to a broader discussion that is vital to the future of the sport. The consensus seemed to be there is nothing wrong with coaching men and women differently, in fact, it is crucial to their well-being and their success. However, the true art of coaching is being able to identify how each individual rower responds, regardless of gender, and cultivating their success and the team’s success through these avenues.