Interview: Alex Henshilwood coach, Eton College

We caught up with Alex Henshilwood after his crew from Eton College succeeded in getting to their fourth Henley Royal final in six years.  Sitting in the emptying boat tents, he told us that he is leaving Eton to go to Melbourne University Boat Club in Australia at the end of July.

So what was your rowing record as an athlete?

I rowed in the British squad from 1991 until 1998 as a junior and latterly as a lightweight in the eight.  Towards the end Jim Mcniven was my pairs partner and we realised since we were both ‘heavy’ lightweights that we couldn’t both make the crew and I decided to end it.

I studied urban design at Oxford Brookes, Nottingham and did a PGCE teaching certificate at Cambridge, although I didn’t row there.  And so I am now a geography teacher.

How do you teach rowing?

When I got my first job at Pangbourne College, I had the colts crew and you teach rowing by picking up things that you think are important and what you think you should do and should not do from many places.  I have been coached by Richard Spratley (Brookes), Sean Bowden, Lennie Robertson (Nottingham) and John Wilson.  They were all formative in helping me.  I keep up a relationship with Sean and I run ideas past him a lot.  The truth is you become a bit of a ‘geek’ looking at new things that can help.

Compared to your first job what is different about how you coach now?

Thinking about my development as a coach when you first start you are aggressive and up for winning.  And the wins come along and after a while you enjoy training more and producing good rowers.  The winning is less important.

You learn valuable lessons along the way – Karl Adam‘s book on rowing was translated and he said “there is no point in rowing if when you stop you can’t hand the skills on.”  That’s what it is about the skills.

What are the other things that matter in rowing?

I enjoy it when the athletes discern new stuff about themselves.  They find they’re better than they thought they were.  I enjoy seeing the boat working well.

Do you have a system you use when coaching new crews?

No I don’t have one fixed “system”.  It depends on the needs of the club at the time.  Pangbourne needed to harden up, frankly.  They needed to understand what they were capable of.  Eton, by contrast, needed to relax a bit.  I have been there 7 years now.

Basically you take what you’ve got and run with it.  Sean Bowden tells an anecdote about when he was having a ski-ing lesson and he asked the instructor what do you look for when you are coaching?  The reply was “I just want them to be a little better than they were before.”  I like that.

What are your guiding principles of rowing coaching?

There are three technical principles and I keep it really simple.

What are they?

The style of my rowing coaching gives an advantage to my crews and I don’t want to betray them by telling you what I coach.

How do you cope with the other pressures within the school?

The house masters can be very supportive but there are some that just don’t understand about rowing – they are probably jealous because I know many boys better than they do.

At Eton the academics come first and you have to balance the requirements and we train around that.  I don’t train my crews as hard as others do.  For example a hard week in the winter would be 4 water sessions, 1 ergo and 3 weights; in summer we row more and land train less.  In winter we ‘engine build’ focusing on aerobic capacity and strength – particularly upper body strength.

Overall you need to make sure it’s fun and keep it simple.  If you as a coach can’t enjoy it, then probably the athletes aren’t enjoying it either.

Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

The most important thing in your first years as a coach is commitment.  From showing your commitment and leading by example.  Commitment leads to success and from this comes confidence from the athletes in their ability.

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