Duncan Holland on Changing Ingrained Technique or The “uncoachable” Athlete


I have recently changed clubs and have got a whole new group of athletes to coach. With many of them there is an obvious and simple change that could be made to help them go faster. For example: the athlete who starts each drive phase by bending her arms and lifting with her back, the boy who drives nicely out of the catch and then loses connection half way through the drive and slows the boat down towards the finish, the girl who pushes her bottom hand away from the finish first when sculling. The list could go on for a while! It is in each case easy to see how the boat could be made to go faster with a simple change of technique.

In each case I made a suggestion. Of course I thought before speaking, explained why the change would be an improvement, told the athlete how the change would feel, described the change in different ways, praised positive change, and generally behaved as a good and positive coach would.

The athlete with the connection problem fixed it in 20 strokes, loved the change and ended the session beaming and totally convinced. The key for him was to realise that the boat was faster when he sculled that way. The girl with the hand troubles fixed it after a long spell of coaching, lots of different exercises and some questioning of the need to spend much effort on something trivial. The key for her was realising her long nails were no longer incompatible with sculling, good hand work eliminates scratched knuckles.

The girl with the horrible drive remains a work in progress. Or to put it differently, so far I have failed with her. She can drive more or less as I would like, with the textbook straight arms and correct sequence out of the catch. What is by turns mystifying and infuriating is that she wont! If I make suggestions she can, and will change but the change lasts for a few strokes at most and as soon as I turn my attention elsewhere she returns to the old ways. Why?

If we are on the ergometer the change will cause the score to improve, it will extract praise from me. In the boat praise is also forthcoming, public, enthusiastic praise in front of her peers. Still I havent been able to get her to hold the change for more than a few strokes at a time. Somehow I havent been convincing enough. The temptation is to think she is being deliberately contrary, that she doesnt believe me and thinks she knows better. The other easy option is to write her off as someone who cant make change, who is uncoachable, who doesnt have the ability to learn.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Nicky Coles address a group of athletes about her career and how she achieved so much. One thing struck me forcibly. Nicky said that she didnt make real technical progress until she realised why she was hanging on to old faults, why she preferred to row incorrectly. Her point was that it was often easier, more comfortable, to row badly, and that until the athlete took responsibility for her own technique things wouldnt change.

This has interesting implications for coaches. With athletes who struggle to change we may have to interact at a more profound level than merely physical instructions. I may have to engage with these difficult athletes and help them to realise that they are responsible, that the technique changes I want are not just to please me, to make the crew look good. I may have to come down from my position of comfort where I issue instructions to the athlete and expect compliance and help the athletes to be responsible.

In fact if you look at the previous paragraph you can see the problem; I refer to the athletes as difficult. Maybe I should see it as a shortcoming in me not them!


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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. David Levien

    Great article, Thanks Duncan..

  2. Beryl Crockford

    Interesting. As coaches/teachers we have all been there. What other strategy is there that can be used when we don’t appear to be getting through ????? Thanks.

  3. Dick Wallin

    Hi Duncan (and Beryl!)

    I don’t have *the* answer, if for no other reason than there cannot be *an* answer.

    But in business this case is very often seen for any sort of business change. Maybe tips are to be found in tomes on “change management”. We could Google it! Please let us know if you discover a magic cure.

    The technique I use (in business) to analyse it is called “Force Field Analysis”.

    A good place to read about it is here… at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_06.htm

    (Bizarrely a pop up opened with a testimonial from “Liz Holland, Dunedin, New Zealand”!!! Any relation?)

    In summary, in any change there are two sets of forces – some supporting the change and some opposing it. To make the change you could 1) make the supporting forces so strong that they overcome the opposing ones (forcing the change) or 2) remove the opposing forces (the change happens naturally) or 3) you mix these two (the normal state of affairs.)

    The connection problem is an example of 1.
    The sculler is an example of 2.

    For the girl with the drive problem, draw up the force field diagram, brainstorm all the obvious and non-obvious reasons for and against and make your strategy against each of them…

    Good luck!


  4. Ted

    muscle memory?

  5. Murray McLeod-Jones

    Good article and its a real challenge to get some athletes to alter their techniques. I have had a similar problem with a couple of scullers in a crew boat. These guys would make the change for a while and then slip back into the old way, especially when the pressure and rating went up. Partly muscle memory, partly reversion to what they thought was a comfrotable way of sculling for them, but what they did not realise was the impact on boat speed or the other scullers in the crew. I found a way of influencing these guys by getting them to understand the impact they were having on the rest of the crew and the run of the boat.

    I video’d the crew and did an analysis of stroke profiles and then a compared the profiles with each other. This was really baisc stuff, I timed the frames to see how long each of the scullers spoons were in the water for and how long it took them to extract and catch. It made for sobering reading as the evidence did not lie nor did the figures, the two scullers who would not change were actually spending alot less time with their spoons in the water than the other two. Result: they were not powering the boat as much as the other 50% of the crew!! I then got them to change their technique and repeated the process. There had been an imrpovement in the length of time there spoons were in the water and as a result the boat had moved slightly further per stroke.

    It was a real work in progress and still is but the crew are going in the right direction. So, in the end what did I really do? I suppose I got them to take responsibility for their role in the crew. They understood what the impact was and I showed them how they could address it. I did not point out the obvious, I just pointed out the facts and stated the impact on boat speed and let them work it out as a crew. Once they understood the issue I gave them the tools to fix it by advsing on their technique and then helped them do it by coaching them. We still have a way to travel on this.

    I use evidence such as video and simple analysis to help me make a point and get people to understand when they are off the water. Its one way of doing it but dependent on your resources. I’m sure there are lots of others way to do this but I have found this way works for me, with this crew and this crew only. Other scullers in the same club react differently and do what I suggest as they see the value and want to improve. Different crews, different coaches etc will need an approach that gives individual consideration. I look fwd to the next chapter in the coaching saga that we are all embarked on!!!

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