A Look Behind the Curtain of College Rowing Selection
This article was co-authored by Nate Rooks and Mike Hughes.
As a rower, it’s easy to blame a single event--a bad seat race or bad erg text--for what boat you end up in. For coaches who make the lineups, it’s a complicated and lengthy process that includes many objective and subjective variables. We spoke with several NCAA coaches to understand how they select their varsity eights.
States Andy Teitelbaum, head coach of the three-time (and reigning) NCAA champion Ohio State Women: "First boat selection is relatively easy because coaches have six or seven months to figure out who their top six would be, and then there are only two seats to be selected.”
Using a body of work to evaluate rowers rather than a single performance engenders belief in the process. “Kids trust we are doing what is best for the team,” said Teitelbaum.
Megan Cooke Carcagno, the first-year head coach at Duke who just led the Blue Devils to their first-ever NCAA appearance, echoes the need for trust. “It’s important to teach the athletes that we can be successful if they are ready and open for change. That starts with trust between the head coach, assistant coaches, and athletes.”
Despite the oft-repeated maxim “ergs don’t float,” most coaches we spoke to agreed the ergometer is where selection begins.
“It starts with the erg score because it is quantitative and not arguable,” said Kevin Sauer, coach of two-time NCAA champion University of Virginia Women’s Rowing.
“We use a power ratio using watts per pound and rank the athletes by combining that ratio and their average 2k,” said Sauer. This highlights that while each team approaches weight-adjusting and preferred testing protocals differently, the erg provides the foundation of selection.
At Duke, Carcagno has the athletes do a hard erg test at the beginning of each week, and that sets her boats for the week.
Finding ways to extend objective evaluation to the water has long been a goal of coaches, and the advent of the SpeedCoach GPS has made it a reality thanks to instant, standardized feedback on boat speed. For everything from ten-stroke bursts to 20 kilometers of steady state, the GPS gives an erg-like 500m split on the water, which gives rowers and coaches the opportunity to see their boat speed reflected in hard numbers.
“We use GPS units for evaluation,” said Gonzaga women's head coach Glenn Putyrae. He uses the satellite-fed SpeedCoach to see which of his boats maintain speed in the second half of pieces.
To reduce the gray areas of testing in bigger boats, many coaches use the pair as the next step in their selection. Dave O’Neill, two-time NCAA championship coach with UC Berkeley and current head coach at Texas, relies heavily on the smallest sweep boat. “We start by rowing six pairs on the water and race Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Then we swap pairs and race again until the fastest people come to the surface.”
ACC rivals Sauer and Carcagno have a very similar approach when rowing in pairs. They spend their fall seasons with the top 16 rowers in pairs and the next 16 in fours. “They get several racing opportunities,” says Carcagno. “The erg and the week in pairs. After that, the bottom two pairs switch with the top four, giving them two opportunities to get things right: on the land and on the water.”
Carcagno also believes that time in the pairs also gives coaches a great sense of who wants to race at a high level. "The kids who put their boat in slings and go over it meticulously or review their race plan… we can see rapid improvement and identify kids who want to race,” she says.
For Teitelbaum, regular switching doesn’t exclusively happen in small boats. Classic one-for-one switches in bigger boats still occur, but he likes to move athletes around constantly to see how they perform and not rely too much on seat racing.
Drive, attitude, and will to win are common characteristics sought in subjective evaluation. Subjectivity is the most contentious part of selection as it brings opinion into the equation, but nonetheless it plays an integral part in how varsity eights are selected.
Carcagno says, “Spring is all about the combinations. You can watch the top 8 ergs lose all day. It’s 50% objective results on the erg, seat racing, and in the pair and 50% just guts. I want to be able to say ‘this boat’s impressive, I have faith and confidence in this boat.’”
Putyrae and his staff also watch how the rowers react off the water. He asks, "Do they look for excuses or do they look within themselves for the answers?"
Just as athletes are multifaceted and constantly evolving, coaches have different personalities and traits they seek in their boats. Mike Davenport, coach of the Washington College women, looks at specific positions first.
“The most important selection is the stroke and the coxswain because they have to work so well together. The next most important seat is the 6-seat… the equalizer [who] keeps the boat together mentally and physically.”
Coach O’Neill echoes this when he envisions, “a race where we have 750 meters to go and we’re down by two seats to someone like Ohio State... who do I want in that situation?”
Putyrae works to constantly evaluate the intangibles of consistency, mental toughness, boat chemistry, and attitude. He looks at how athletes row in the lead and how they row from behind.
For rowers, their results, effort and attitude build a portfolio of work for the coach to analyze.
“We take objective data and make subjective decisions,” says Dave O’Neill. "There is no single factor or an all-encompassing calculus to make the top boat. Selection is a process with dynamic elements and methodologies and ultimately relies on shared trust and goals."
Nate Rooks was a four year letter winner and team captain for the Stanford Men’s Rowing Team. He was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Stanford women for seven years. Nate rowed internationally in the United States U-23 eight at the 2006 and 2007 World Championships in Belgium and Scotland, respectively.
Coach Mike Hughes was the Varsity Women’s Head Coach at the Naval Academy for 18 seasons. Mike is a four-time Patriot League Coach of the Year, Region II CRCA coach of the year in 2015, and finished his storied career with three conference titles and two NCAA championship bids. Prior to Navy, Mike coached the US Junior National team and managed the US National team for several years, including at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.