Interview with Tim McLaren

Tim McLaren interviewed by Rowperfect
Tim is the Head Coach and director of California Rowing Club – a new club established 2 years ago and located next door to California University Berkeley Rowing Club’s shed. Rowperfect caught up with him in the final days of the Boat Race preparation. Tim has been a longtime hero for us achieving Olympic and World medal winning crews year after year.

When did you first start coaching?
I started with school kids when I was 19, coaching rugby league. I played for 18 years as an amateur and as professional against the UK in 87. When I was 25 I switched to fine boat rowing but I had done surf boats from age 16 to 25. I grew up on surf life-saving in summer and rugby in winter.

What is your coaching record?
I have not had many wins….[I think Tim is being modest here!] Olympics – 1992; 2x, 1996 bronze in Lwt 2x and 4x; 2000 4- bronze; 2004 8 bronze.
Worlds – I have had some crews that won worlds.

Who taught you how to coach?
Nobody teaches you how to coach. When you start at 19 you do the best you can with the commonsense you have at your disposal. You approach it largely led by your personality. I will let others comment on my personality. Most coaches have a good work ethic and that’s probably what you need. Put the hours in and be diligent – the same stuff you tell the athletes. A bit of a carry-over from your own competition days.

Who has influenced your coaching method?
Everyone has a method. The people that coached me in surf rowing and rugby league and then John Williamson and Paul Rowe. He was a national sculler. Rusty Robinson, he was fantastic. He was outstanding and you remember the people more for their personality and how they handle situations. Reinhold Baatchi. All these characters you absorb stuff off them. Coaching with other coaches on the national team too. It is good to coach in a group. That is an art that Cambridge has mastered over the years the “cooperation in a good environment”. Donald Leggett, Robin Williams and Harry Mahon.

How would you describe your ‘perfect’ rowing / sculling stroke?
I am not into words. Every rowing book around the world is the same but we all row differently. Me explaining it to me you will be your own interpretation of my words but that may not be my interpretation. There are many ways to do it – but whether you are a pusher or a puller do it to high level and you have a chance of being competitive

What is your main focus at different times of the season?
I think that comes with the programme and how it shifts to technical sessions and as the need demand. Look at your crew. What’s in front of you? Deal with that – it’s just like football. You can be in the competitive part of the season and if the crew is average you may need to do technical sessions too. There is no foolproof method on paper. There is the normal theoretical framework which every coach has to work within. And there is always room for personal and collective improvement.

Do you have any advice for young coaches?
Try and get out with older coaches now and again. A trip in a boat and discussion; ask questions while you have the crew in front of you. Read a bit of history and get a good understanding of the sport. I think to be organised in a practical sense is important.
Plan your sessions… I sense a lot of volunteers are under time pressure and this gets cut. If you can organise the hour into sections with drills at various pressures, rates with slide work and body work. You improve concentration and their ability to carry that onto racing. Have a plan with your session. Warm up, drills, ratings, pressures, and times. Bring all those things to the session. Not just work on row 40 minutes steady state. You need to be doing rating, starts and teaching skills. Young people need to be organised to fit all those things in over a period of time. You need structure of sessions in order to get it all in. Young people want variety. In schools; coaches are organised off the water with equipment and crews and maintenance. But on the water they need the same degree of vigilance.

What is the thing you are most proud of in your coaching career
I am not sure. I think wherever I go I try and create a culture around the club whether surf, football or rowing and bring that element of teamwork to the culture of where you coach. A social element with hard work which brings people together and makes a stronger unit and makes you a better competitor. I try to set a high standard and get people to rethink possibilities. Raise their level of thinking and to manage themselves really well. That is people’s biggest challenge. You aim to try and keep them developing not only in a rowing sense but in life.

How about national coaching styles?
When you work in a system you are dragged along by the philosophy of that system, often people try to replicate them from one country to another. They sometimes fail to factor in the culture of the people. Many countries moved to a centralised model and there are some more successful versions than others. UK is lucky because here is a healthy underpinning of strong clubs. Outside the national programme there is a lot happening in rowing. Lots of volunteers and people with a passion for rowing without the national programme being the prime focus. That is the result of the historical importance of rowing in UK particularly.
School rowing is very successful in many countries but it is that step after school when you have to catch them, coach and develop them and that often gets very shaky. I am looking at that in US now. I am looking at the best way to approach that and collect kids with ability who are interested in rowing at a higher level. There is a lot of development there.

How should coaches continue their learning?
Your perspective shifts a little when you get older. Coaches develop as well and they need to. It is not only your coaching knowledge but your management of yourself and your athletes. Coaches that are reading this will understand. Athletes improve as they get older but coaches should do as well. Sometimes you can. Go back to who you learnt from and their influences. You learn a lot off the athletes too. Try different things and they are the litmus test of your method of feedback. It is good to have a group of athletes that can give you feedback. Learn through trial and error and athlete feedback. Trust your own intuition. Particularly if you have rowed yourself you have seen a lot of good athletes and you can learn from them and should try things and sometimes it is successful and develop those and carry on working on others. It is a patience game.
I do a bit with development athletes like Cambridge and sometimes the people are inexperienced. You can get good feedback off novices about what it feels like. Anyone can give it; some are better than others, more articulate.

Are there any common themes that all coaches can work on?
I once watched Thor Nilsen in a meeting of national coaches who were trying to describe the perfect stroke without a picture or a model. Everyone has a different interpretation of the same words. This is evidenced by the different styles in different countries. Look at the crews to see the outcomes. This struck me early on. Communication and interpretation are big things for thinking in coaching but in the end everything is limited by what you see. There could be more training teaching people to see a little better. One day I’ll do that.
Your athletic ability coordination and your understanding. Every athlete brings faults to the game. You are limited by how well it was explained when you first started, your understanding and how well you can transfer that understanding into action.
Rowing teaches you a lot about yourself.

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