Nich Parker & Columbia Lightweight Men's Rowing

By Helen Tompkins | May 18, 2014

NEW YORK, NY The Columbia Lightweight Men are ranked #2 going into Eastern Sprints, and the last time the Columbia lightweight varsity boat medaled was over ten years ago.

Finding the right people is the first step for head coach Nich Parker. As a former C150 freshman coach, he looks for individuals with an insatiable need to be the best. Parker believes it important that the athletes choose to be successful and states that his ideal athletes are "self-reliant, self-managing individuals, who have an unrelenting desire to be the best.” To clarify what they mean by best, Parker says, “It’s their best – it doesn’t mean they’re winning or losing. It means that whatever they can do – they’re doing. For some guys that’s making the 3V, though for others making the varsity doesn’t mean they’ve arrived.”

Parker has been at Columbia for five years and one of the changes he has seen is increased athlete coach communication and transparency in the training program. Coaches explain the reason for particular tasks and listen to the team’s feedback. The coaches sometimes make changes and sometimes not, but reasons are always given for the decision made. Parker and assistant Jesse Foglia believe in letting the athletes find their own path to be the best they can be.

Parker elaborates, “The simple phrase we’ve been using is ‘framework of autonomy.’ We build a framework and everything inside is grey.”

In fostering the framework, the coaches have basic non-negotiable rules and high expectations. Some rules are fairly standard, such as be on time and prepared for practice, though Parker asserts he takes athlete ethics (at and away from practice) just as seriously as their ability to get the rowing done.

The team is “self-policing” in its culture of discipline, a discipline that is rigorous but not ruthless. Within this framework the athletes have a lot of flexibility, and training is individualized to meet different athletes' needs. Afternoon workouts can done independently to allow for schedule flexibility. This flexibility is possible because of what the coaches assert is a culture of zero-tolerance for missed workouts and through-the-roof expectations.

To emphasize this culture of self-care, Parker and Foglia cite their structure for spring break training. Parker found a location where the rowers could cook their own food and stay on the water, which allowed maximum workout flexibility and the athletes’ control over their nutrition options.

Parker and Foglia also assert the importance of grounding their coaching in the latest sport science journals and research. They say recent developments in rowing, coaching pedagogy, physiology, sports science, physical therapy, mental training, and fitness are taken into account when designing the training program.

"It's not two coaches running the show," says Parker. "We are managing high-level research and creating a program based on that information."

Along these lines, the rowing team recently hired a rowing fitness advisor for pilates based core endurance training. "Canadian researchers found core endurance training, different from core strength training, to be specifically more beneficial for rowers,” says Parker.

He attributes improved body awareness and injury reduction among the team to the bi-weekly core endurance training. Columbia athletics also provides the team with a nutritionist to help the team monitor and plan nutrition through the fall and winter. During racing season, the team hired an outside consultant, Robin Brown, a registered dietitian, and also a former rower and coach. Parker makes a point of trying to utilize every available resource again.

Some athletes’ training programs are tailored to help them maintain weight without damaging their bodies. Strength training is altered throughout the year depending on the team’s weaknesses. As the team moves into Sprints, they are focused on maximum strength and power (and by the time you read this, we’ll all know whether that worked or not.)

Additionally, mental training and mindfulness is an important part of training. The rowers meet with full-time sports psychologist Dr. Brent Walker to develop mental strength and to confront stress. They have team meetings without the coaches, boat meetings before races, and the opportunity for individual meetings. Big on the mental aspect of the sport (he edited Jim Joy’s book The Mind’s Eye) Parker says, “We do these things because they make you whole – wholeness is knowing that you are a body, not just that you have a body. We try to eliminate the mind-body boundary, and expand that into athletes’ entire lives.”

Each C150 athlete is pushed toward the Columbia career development program during their freshman year, which then allows athletes to aggressively explore their career opportunities and as such, take lessons from the sport into the greater world. To conclude Parker says, ”You’re alone in your own head even though you’re on a team – our ultimate objective is to allow you to get to know who you are, which is both rooted in both your mind and your body – and there has to be a greater sense of that connection if you’re going to be successful. ”

[Postscript: At Sprints, C150 won golds in the third and second varsity LW 8+s; they placed fourth in the first varsity LW 8+]