A Love Letter to My Fabulous ROW Coaches

Last month, I raced a 2K at my second Chicago Invitational Rowing Championships (CIRC) with 3 of my fellow ROW sisters. This event is held at the gym of Chicago State University and the smell of teenage perspiration is rather strong and memorable. All 4 of us posted personal best times and got a medal, which was really pretty amazing–and I was smiling for days.

The thing is, I wouldn’t have gotten out there that morning if it hadn’t been for my coaches. I wouldn’t have attempted CIRC 2 years ago–or kept at this amazing thing called ROW, either, for 3 years now, if it weren’t for our coaches.

I’ve learned so much because of them.

In the sport of rowing, when in the middle of a race and it seems too hard to continue, crews will call a “Power 10” (10 hard strokes) to pick the boat up and move forward. This “Power 10” is an unspoken commitment from all the athletes in the boat to the race, to their coaches, to their teammates, and most importantly, to themselves.  From Mission of ROW’s Power 10 Camp

ROW received a great deal of positive attention during 2017. The team did a photo shoot for Athleta and was featured in Athleta’s October ad campaign. Our novice team was featured on Good Morning America in early November and teammate Amber Gallman was featured on CBS’s Living Stronger program in Women Race on the Water with Much More at Stake than Finishing First. The support has been awesome, but has been focused on our team members. I’d like to shift the attention to our behind the scenes team–our coaches–and do a very special Power 10, a Power 10 of the lessons I’ve learned from my time so far with ROW–which I attribute in great part to our amazing coaches. So, here goes:

The Power 10 Lessons Learned From My ROW Coaches

1. Break Down Challenges Into Manageable Amounts

I didn’t decide to race CIRC one day and do the race itself the next; instead, we spent nearly two months training for it. When our Leader With the Mostest, ROW’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Jenn Junk–who in 10 years has leveraged her experience working with a rowing program for breast cancer survivors while she was in college and rowing for Michigan State University into one of the most viable and well run non-profits I have ever known–sent out an email in December that she was going to be leading this indoor winter season’s 2K training, I knew I had to get on board.

Jenn, ROW’s Executive Director with the Mostest

2 years ago, I did 2K training for the first time and was blown away by the impact it had on my fitness level. For the first time in my life, I felt like an athlete. Not just someone who was working out regularly and active, but someone in training and serious about reaching the personal best fitness level possible. Someone who was being coached and encouraged to do her best. I could not have done that training on my own and remember just how motivating Coach Devlin was that first winter in helping a group of us prepare for CIRC. While life had taken me a bit off course and sideways after racing in CIRC 2016 and I was not able to maintain the high intensity of training, being active with ROW has remained a constant.

Where would we be without our Coach Devlin? Such an asset to the team–even though I’m sure he frequently feels like Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own”! 🙂

Rounding out 2017, I realized that I wanted to train for CIRC 2018 so that I could jump start a more athletic year–a year that I hope will turn into a physically stronger decade.

Here’s the plan that Jenn shared with us:

1/10: 2K- We will row 2,000 meters so we have a base to do our workouts from for the remainder of training. We can do two waves so we can cox each other…AND decide on goals (seconds off 2K, etc)…I can help you make a realistic goal for your 2/24 2K from the 2K we do this day
1/17: 250m x 10 @ 2K goal pace, 3 mins rest between
1/24: 500m x 6 @ 2K goal pace, 5 mins rest between
1/31: 750m x 4 @ 2K goal pace, 5 mins rest between
2/7: 1000m x 3 @ 2K goal pace, 6 mins rest between
2/14: 1500m x 2 @ 2K goal pace, 7 mins rest between
2/21: Practice our warm up- then 2,000 meters NOT at race pace- mental prep….since it is three days before CIRC. We will sweat but not much…we will work through each section of the race and finalize your race plan.
2/24: Chicago Indoor Rowing Championships- Race day!

 

Jenn summed up her plan this way:

“The psychology of this is probably pretty obvious: We are going to go for the split you want for your 2k for further and further distances every week. We will build your confidence, mental capacity and physical capacity to hit the splits for the distances. You will surprise yourself.”

Completing the practice on 1/17, where we did 10 sets of 250 meters at an all out rate, turned out to not only be very doable, but I was shocked at how much I was able to crush my benchmark 2K rates. It started this whole process by building my confidence and while I didn’t quite crush CIRC like I did with those 10 sets of 250 meters, I still managed to get a personal best, beating my 2016 time by 12 seconds.

I’m finding that outside of rowing, I’ve become more conscious of breaking down challenges into manageable chunks. It had always been something I did, but not with quite this focused attention.   The funniest part of this awareness, however, is the impact it is having on my own coaching of students as my school’s International Baccalaureate Coordinator. I find myself peppering class talks and individual meetings with pep talks about meeting challenges and issues and tough assignments by making them manageable.

2. Celebrate Overcoming Obstacles

I’ve tended to look at challenges as something very personal. A “How dare that happen to me?” kind of thing. Challenges are to be dealt with and then forgotten, not really focusing on the resilience and perseverance that it took to overcome the hurdle–or using it as a building block for dealing with the next challenge. That has changed with rowing. The practices designed by our coaches are not easy peasy, a day at the beach reading a good book, types of practices. Many are really challenging and force us to push ourselves and get uncomfortable. Many a practice I have wanted to quit and go home. Something doesn’t feel quite right or I go into a negative mental space. But more often than not, I persevere and overcome that hurdle. Often that is because of coaches and coxswains (who are our mini coaches on the boat) encouraging and yelling at us to push ourselves to succeed. Ok, maybe they don’t really ‘yell’ at us in the traditional sense, but they do very passionately raise their voices to get us to move. 🙂

Coach & Coxswain Monica–one of our most loved and passionate coxswains!

And at the end of many a practice, we high five or fist bump one another and acknowledge that we have worked through a tough practice or piece.

We also document our accomplishments and track our progress. The Erg, the Ergometer Concept 2 rowing machine we use, has both an app as well as a paper record book for tracking meters and progress. This coaching tool allows us to monitor ourselves–and celebrate our victories.

Not only have my student pep talks changed as a result of ROW, but so have my letters of recommendation. I honor and acknowledge the hurdles and challenges my students overcome and want colleges to recognize that these students are up for the challenges of college life–because of the challenges they have already faced and overcome.

3. If Your Oar Pops Out and You Catch a Crab…Keep Rowing!

In July 2015, I was a Novice Rower heading out to my first Chicago Sprints, a 1000 meter sprint at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Lagoon, with my fellow newbies. This race turned out to be an epic fail. And an epic win.

Early in the race, my oar came out of its oarlock and in trying to get it back into its proper place and lock it down, I caught a crab, where the oar handle comes back at your chest, and I had to duck. We had rowed our 1000 meters up to the start without incident, so I was in shock when everything fell apart. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry because I was so embarrassed that something like this had happened to me. But this is where the epic win came in. Our coxswain wouldn’t let me quit. She calmly had me and Margaret in the stroke seat hold up so that I could get myself together while the other 6 members of our team continued to stroke towards the finish. It worked and by the time we passed our support group of coaches, teammates and supporters on the shore, we were back to stroking in unison.

We finished as a team. Nowhere near a record time, but we finished. While waiting to dock, I started to melt and feel like a horrible failure. I never wanted to row again and wondered what insanity made me think that I could row in the first place. But then a funny thing happened. We got to the dock and all of the coaches congratulated me on finishing and catching my first crab and not quitting. They told stories of their own major rowing mess-ups and somehow managed to put my catastrophe in context. They made me realize that it’s not all about the race or winning, but persevering through the mishaps and challenges that inevitably happen. The accomplishment is in finishing and seeing the race through. I ended the day on a positive note, a win. And appreciated what being a member of a team can actually represent.

That ability to see that it is all about persevering through the mishaps and challenges that inevitably happen in life has been one of my biggest take aways.

Coaches John and Sheena on the left, out there giving us that awesome encouragement!

4. Lean In To Your Team…Tap In To Your Resources

One of the things the past 3 years of ROW involvement has taught me, is that I can lean into my ROW team for support and resources. That’s what a team is supposed to do. It may seem strange that I don’t mention breast cancer very often when it comes to ROW, but it is the thing all of our team members have in common and the team’s whole mission is summed up in the name of the organization: Recovery On Water. We are recovering and dealing with breast cancer…on the water. We are processing this BC thing for the majority of us, by learning a new sport. We may not spend much time talking about BC like in a traditional support group, but ROW has been set up to offer BC support in different ways. We learn over time what it is to both be there for each other as members of a team, but also to accept support. In the process of attending regular practices, participating in races and being involved in team functions, I’ve been able to build this really cool network of support through the shared experience of ROW which means that not only can I lean into my team for more traditional support, but I can also count on this team to provide resources when I am dealing with challenges in my world–whether they are related to BC or not. There has always been someone who has a similar experience or insight that I can draw from or a contact that I should reach out to in order to deal with a challenge, be it a doctor or medical procedure.

Our coaches lead by example with this. They themselves are a team of coaches, led by the head coach, Jenn. They are continually examining how they can improve their coaching of ROW’s very unique population and refining the types of supports they can offer. They are always building their resource tool kit, as well.

It was fun to see our coaches come together during the 2016 Chicago Sprints to race and win a medal.

Not only am I conscious of the support and resources ROW offers, I am now more aware of seeking support and resources to meet challenges in other areas of my life. Last month, I had a bit of a work situation that set me off on a really negative trajectory. However, after the initial shock wore off, I started to work through the drama in an almost methodical way, that I attribute to rowing. First, I leaned in to ‘my team’ for support. Initially, that team was my inner team–my husband, sister and parents–and then my ROW team. Then I started to lean in to my work team. With leaning into each of these teams, I was connected to resources and ways to deal with the situation. When situations like this had happened in the past, I was isolated and alone, not sure what resources I had available to me. This time is different and I attribute that to being a part of a team, with a coaching staff and programming that encourages each of us to lean in to one another, sharing resources. Turns out, not only are we building our physical strength with all of this practice, we are also building our social and mental strength.

5. The Importance of Creating Goals

Goals. This one almost goes without saying–teamwork and sports tend to include goals, be they team or personal–but I really do appreciate the different goal setting initiatives that our coaches have implemented during my time with ROW. They have helped me to focus and grow as a rower, an athlete and general, all around human.

The one area where goal setting has been most obvious, has been the requirement that if I want to race on the water, I have to meet certain benchmarks and attend practices regularly. Making sure that I hit those benchmarks has been a major goal focus–and I have found it so rewarding to hit them and be able to race! And the support our coaches give us with racing–from helping us meet those goals to coordinating our participation at the races themselves is incredibly special. Seriously, making sure that boats, as well as all of their parts, coaches, coxswains and rowers are ready at the starting line for any of our races, is not an easy undertaking! From the support of coaching rockstars Sheena and John during my novice year…

Sheena, on the far left, went above and beyond my novice year. She made it to ALL of our races, from Sprints to Milwaukee to ROWtober Fest and was incredibly dedicated in preparing us for those races–including multiple ‘extra’ practices so that we could race by rowing on the feather for Sprints and as a unit in Milwaukee. She inspired us to each have a motivating ‘word’ that we would tap into during a race (mine was ‘focus’ which is often a challenge for this girl who loves to watch the scenery when she is flying by it!). She was also my own personal coxswain at CIRC 2016 and I will always hold on to that as a special memory. 🙂

…to our team of coaches–led by superstar Devlin and Wonder Woman Barb as his main backup–being so involved with our races the past two summers…

to Jenn, Lily and Lindsey last month prepping us and being there for us at CIRC, our ROW coaches are simply amazing.

6. Make it Fun!

Simply put, I’ve learned that the team that plays together, stays together. Our coaches and coxswains love to play–and they make sure that the team has fun, too. The perfect example is ROW’s involvement in Chicago’s annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities, which regularly includes a fundraiser and the opportunity to get out on the water before the water season starts for us. While I wasn’t involved this year, ROW had 11 boats full of team members, coaches and supporters out when the Chicago River was dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day–and everyone had blast!

These pics are from 2015 and 16.

And these crazy coaches make an event like Ride For ROW into a great time!

Putting more play into other areas of my life, is something I definitely have to work on, though!

7. Incentives Do Work

In early December, we had a team meeting at the Eleanor Boathouse where our coaches introduced the new race eligibility guidelines, as well as a new winter indoor season incentives program. Let’s face it: the majority of us love getting out on the water to row, while the nearly six months of indoors rowing that Chicago winters force us to do, can get a little grueling.  It’s all fine and good to have personal goals and to rely on ones inner strength and fortitude to keep an exercise program going all winter, but in the past, team participation has really slacked off during the winter months. The incentives that the coaches introduced this year aren’t huge, but they have acted as enough of a motivator that practices are packed–and they weren’t a year ago. The incentives include pins with our coaches baby pictures on them that we earn when we hit certain meter marks and ROW gear if a member attends a certain number of practices.

It’s crazy how these small rewards can have such a great impact, but I’m excited that I have attended enough practices so far to have earned 3 of the 5 prizes and that I’ve rowed enough meters to have earned 5 of the 10 coaches pins.

8. Building Relationships is Key

Last month, we had an indoor water practice at Chicago’s Clark Park Tanks. After practice was over, Coach Lindsey and Coach Barb stayed to practice together. Watching them, it was so cool to see the poetry and beauty of rowing in motion–and to watch them working together. This is what we have learned to aspire towards as rowers–to row together, as a team, building relationships with one another and ‘leaning in’ for support and friendship, so that we can function as a positive team unit.

9. Be There For Your Team

Two years ago, my grandmother’s passing really sent my world sideways. One of the things few people know, is that the day she died, I was crushed, but I found solace at ROW headquarters, where at the time, Jenn and Devlin’s workspace was in the erg room. I will always be grateful for their kindness and that they gave me a place to be quiet and get on an erg. As Spring 2015 turned into summer and I went through two separate moves and all kinds of drama, ROW offered me a stable place to ‘be’. I remember more than once showing up for a water practice and volunteering to sit in the launch so that I could try to absorb all of the changes that were happening, knowing that focusing on my rowing strokes probably wasn’t going to happen. Barb’s calm, gentle, Zen-like launch attitude was the perfect energy companion for me on those nights.

Maybe it’s the fact that both of us are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or that she is simply so cool, but Coach Barb has really been a stand out of support and motivation as I transitioned from being a novice to a ROW master rower.

Kind of crazy that that not having to erg alone or just being out on a launch with my team could mean so much to me, but that is the perfect example of just how important it is to be there for your team. I find myself paying that kindness forward whether it is when I am leading a team of students or adults. I find myself seeking to create a stable place where people can ‘be’ around me.

10. Take another go at it. Tomorrow’s Another Day

During a recent practice, after a couple of months of shorter practice pieces designed to prepare me for CIRC and my 2K race, I did a steady state 40 minute piece. I started too fast and so by the time I hit 20 minutes, I was thirsty and tired and achy and when a teammate took a quick break, so did I. I didn’t quit, but the goal of the piece–as Devlin reminded me after I stopped–was to do 40 minutes straight, NOT 40 minutes total, and so I didn’t hit the mark. But something that is starting to really be ingrained in me, is that one missed mark does not make me. I know that I’ll get it together next time–or the next time after that. I don’t quit golfing because of a bad shot or even a couple of lousy holes or a whole messed up round. I’m not going to quit rowing because of a couple of bad strokes or a bad practice–or even catching a crab.

This awareness–and the repetition of moving beyond a bad stroke which coached practice gives me–has definitely carried over in to my non-rowing world.

So, summing up this special Power 10:

  1. Celebrate Overcoming Obstacles
  2. Break Down Challenges Into Manageable Amounts
  3. If Your Oar Pops Out and You Catch a Crab…Keep Rowing!
  4. Lean In To Your Team…What are Your Resources?
  5. The Importance of Having and Creating Goals
  6. Make it Fun!
  7. Incentives Do Work
  8. Building Relationships is Key
  9. Be There For Your Team
  10. Take another go at it. Tomorrow’s another day.

So, if you have read all the way to here, I want to close this piece by thanking all of my ROW Coaches–Coaches and Coxswains alike–from my first 3 years with ROW. Thank you from the bottom of my heart:

 

Much Love,

JoAnn

 

And if you are still reading–and new to rowing–this page from the Princeton National Rowing Association is really comprehensive. I really appreciated the Fun Facts at the bottom. Did you know that Dr. Spock was a gold medalist in rowing in 1924? Now you know! 🙂

7 thoughts on “A Love Letter to My Fabulous ROW Coaches

  1. Congrats on the medal!!!!! I was exhausted just reading about all of the hard work you and team have put into ROW. Seriously, I need a nap.

    PS I did not know Dr. Spock rowed!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up: The Life is a Lot Edition | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

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