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Business, Olympic Edition No Shortcut to Success

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By: Chris O’Brien •  4 years ago •  

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GROWING UP, MY FATHER WAS A ROWING COACH AND I SPENT MANY YEARS SITTING IN THE COACHING LAUNCH WITH HIM, EVENTUALLY PROGRESSING FROM COX TO ROWING THROUGH SCHOOL AND IN TURN CLUB. MY OWN ATHLETIC PURSUITS, HOWEVER, WERE RAPIDLY OVERTAKEN AS I FOUND AN AFFINITY FOR COACHING THROUGH PICKING UP A PART-TIME ROLE WITH A SCHOOL PROGRAM IN BALLARAT. I STARTED HAVING SUCCESS WITH THE SCHOOL CREWS AND ENDED UP IN CHARGE OF THE SCHOOL PROGRAM AT AGE 20.

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fter 7 years in the role, I felt it was time to cut my teeth so decided in 1996 to take a year off from full-time work so I could move to Melbourne, enrol in a Grad. Dip. in Sport Science and coach full-time in rowing. There were very few paid coaching roles in the country and they were very secure positions. That year, I tried to build my profile as a coach in the club environment. I checked out the main clubs along the Yarra and saw that while Melbourne University’s club had not had a lot of recent success, they did have good backing. I decided to join them, and started coaching their athletes along with some athletes from my school program who had come with me.

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We rapidly built a good stable of athletes, one of which I ended up taking to the U23 World Championships within 6 months of starting. It all happened very quickly. I also secured a position on the board of Rowing Victoria and became a selector for the State youth teams. This meant I was building brand and identity around myself as a coach. After the first year, the University engaged me to do the club administration, which then built to coaching and administration, and finally into a full-time position.

I also picked up a role with Melbourne Girl’s Grammar’s rowing program and ran both this and the University club program concurrently. We created entry points for young athletes to come in, and started targeting talented people to join the club. We created a mission statement of what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. One measure of my coaching success is when I have to tell people to go home! That’s when you can tell that they’re really enjoying the journey.

NO SUCCESS SHORTCUTS FOR COACHES

After the 2000 Olympics, due to top coach movements overseas and Noel Donaldson stepping up a role, there were a number of senior men like James Tomkins and Drew Ginn who found themselves without a coach. They unexpectedly approached me, given some were already Olympic medallists. I chose to go down the path of coaching pairs, which led me to becoming Head Coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport in 2004 and then Performance Director for Rowing Australia in 2012 (a non-coaching role).

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Often, young coaches seem to expect things to happen too quickly, meaning they miss out on the breadth of experiences and skills they could be building. For instance, coaching a school program has the benefits of learning to deal with a parent group and run a program. It’s one of the greatest opportunities for skill development as a coach.

We’re also seeing changes to the role of coaching in rowing with the broader development of other roles within sport: sports psychologists, physiologists, biomechanists, skill acquisition experts, and any number of other experts/specialists. This can potentially have the effect of diluting the coach role, circumventing it, or get in the way of delivering performance with the amount of information that needs to be sifted through. The coach should be the project leader of the boat they are looking after. Growth in the sports industry is great, but also poses a threat to the dilution of the skill set of the coach. The coach needs to ensure their own continual development in these areas so they can engage appropriately with these experts and bring all the relevant information together for developing the athlete. The experts should be working toward the coach’s objective, not hindering it. The coach needs to see the bigger picture and target the expert information as necessary. Therefore, they need people management skills and the ability to apply the information in a coordinated manner for the best outcome.

FINAL PREPARATIONS FOR OUR BEST PERFORMANCE

Since the start of 2016, I’ve been coaching and program managing to be more hands-on with the program delivery. Our most important thing as a sport is to achieve medals in Rio and it’s been thoroughly enjoyable to be leading a team of coaches and having a direct impact on athletes. My deputy Performance Director is picking up some of the administrative parts while I stay purely focused on our senior/Olympic team to deliver our best performance.

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We have 8 boats qualified for Rio and have a number of coaches working on delivering those boats. I lead the group of coaches and am also the specific coach for the Men’s Four. Each training session, I’m looking at biomechanical data and analysis, GPS data, comparing it to previous workouts and to other crews, video, and feeding back information to the crews. I have lots of catch ups with the other coaches to ensure their teams are progressing and they’re making good decisions, and medical meetings with the team doctors to run through injuries and illnesses. We have one dedicated coach meeting each week devoted to our Rio plan. All of this information is pared down into a manageable size that can then be shared with the athletes, usually at our weekly athlete meeting.

It’s not just about knowing individual athletes, but getting them to work together well as a team. My team of four ranges from age 23-28. We have a citrus farmer, a med student, an engineering student, and an event manager. It’s a real mixed bag of people. 3 have rowed together for a limited period last year, but this will be the first time this crew will have raced together internationally. We’ve had 7 guys that have rotated through this boat in different cycles, and we’ve medalled in this boat every year since 2011. While there’s some common thread in people working together, it hasn’t always worked, so we’re trying to ensure we have the right team for Rio.

We have an expectation of medalling at Rio, and will have a crack at winning it. There are certainly some challenging opposition: Great Britain has their No.1 crew who we haven’t beaten this year. On our best day though, we think we’re capable of achieving it. We train the athletes to be able to make decisions mid-race, using their problem-solving skills under pressure, and the team trust those decisions. We want them to get to the end of it all and say, “I did the best I could do” or “I didn’t quite get it right, because X”. If we don’t develop those skills on a daily basis in training, they can’t cope when things don’t go to plan in performance.

ONES TO WATCH

Definitely the British, who are the world No.1 team. The British coach has had his crews win gold medals at every Olympics since 1972! The Italians are also strong and are the current World Champions. We will be the No.3 seeded crew after those two. Then come the USA, Dutch and Canadians.

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