Billy Boyce & Harvard's Lightweight Rowing Program

By Sparks Editorial Staff | August 30, 2016

Billy Boyce, Harvard’s Lightweight Men’s Coach, has learned from the best.

“I’m really lucky,” he said. “I have been really fortunate to be around some legendary coaches, and that’s not an overstatement.”

He’s speaking of Harry Parker and Charley Butt, two Harvard coaches that have inspired Boyce to be the leader that he is today.

“I think a huge part of what I’ve done is learn as much as I could from the both of them. I’ve learned different things from each of them,” Boyce said. “Harry has created a really competitive environment. He was great at motivating guys and getting guys to achieve their best. He had a clear picture of what he wanted. There were no analogies, no long-winded demonstrations. He had such credibility, that there was no question: the guys would just do it. It was really refreshing, to see someone at the peak, in their element.”

“Charlie is the opposite in a lot of ways,” Boyce added. “He’s far more hands-on, and really innovative, lots of technicalities and videos and different drills. He really teaches guys how to move the boat. It’s not to say that he’s not creating a competitive environment, but he has a more technical angle. I got a solid coaching education observing him and the way that he teaches.”

Boyce credits his time with both men, along with his previous five years as an assistant coach with the Harvard’s heavyweight staff, with his recent appointment as the University’s Lightweight Rowing Coach for men’s lightweight crew. His previous time at Harvard has allowed him to understand and comprehend the particular elements of being a student athlete at the Ivy League institution.

“This is a very unique environment,” he said. “It shares many similarities with other Ivy Leagues, but there are some things with Harvard that have to be handled strategically for these guys as both students and athletes. Once you get a handle on this place, and what to push and back off on, things go a lot smoother.”

One of the distinct hallmarks of Harvard is the extensive course catalog and the academic scheduling of classes. Classes are ongoing, and offered throughout the day and afternoon, unlike some schools that have blocks of time carved out especially for athletics. However, as Boyce says, his student athletes have the best of both worlds.

“These guys benefit from the enormous course catalog. We don’t want the rowing to push [the students] to certain courses, or, even worse, certain majors,” he said. “We offer a flexible schedule, and it works to their benefit as athletes.”

In short, the athletes tell coaching staff when they are done their classes for the day, and are scheduled to practice in groups. This creates smaller practice units, which Boyce compares to the reduced class sizes on the campus.

“We are aligning with what the professors are doing with their students,” he said. “There’s more interaction with the professors, and more participatory learning, because of the small class sizes. Similarly, the smaller practice sizes provide more coaching, and things are more hands-on.”

“When you look at our roster, there’s a tremendous diversity of what they are studying,” he added. “It would be really worrisome if you looked down the roster and everyone was studying the same thing. The rowing would be forcing them to make a compromise, and we want to avoid that compromise. We want them to have it all.”

So far as Boyce’s coaching philosophy is concerned, he prides himself on his organization and his goal-oriented mindset. However, it’s his communication with his athletes that he finds to be the most important element of his job.

“I like to have the guys do a drill on the water and then get some feedback,” he explained. “Do you feel like you’ve implemented the drill? Do you feel the difference? It only matters if they can do it again, or it’s not going to show up on race day. If they can explain what they did, they can internalize and repeat it.”

However, Boyce knows that, on race day, it’s up to his team to perform everything that he’s tried to emphasize during the hours of practice.

“Once I’ve shoved them off the dock, that’s the only time I get nervous,” he admitted. “There’s nothing you can do at that point. Everything we can do we did in practice. They are fully equipped and strategically prepared. It’s time for them to go out and execute.”

Sure, Boyce likes to win (“I’m very competitive,” he shared), but the most gratifying experiences for the coach at Harvard have to do with the development of his student athletes as humans first.

“I like to win races, but I’m most proud of how these guys win races,” he said. “They aren’t suffering academically. They aren’t compromising for their rowing. These guys have a rhythm, are on the same page, believe in the plan, and believe in how we asked them to row. We are sticking to our process.”

“When they get that, you’ve had an impact on a guy’s life,” Boyce added. “He can see he’s learned a lot about himself, about being on a team, about overcoming obstacles. All of these are life lessons that are clearly incorporated in the process.”