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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.

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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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