So You Want To Be A Rowing Coach?

By Patrick Rufo | October 15, 2015

What goes into being a rowing coach? During your rowing career you accumulated a lot of knowledge and observed how some of the top coaches plied their trade. After a few “ah ha” moments and collecting medals, you decided that you wanted to give back to the sport that helped shape you as an individual.

Coaching is much more than showing up to practice and coaching athletes to glory. Coaching means wearing many hats and owning responsibilities you might not have thought of.

Here is a list of six components that goes into being a rowing coach beyond being on the water, along with quotes and anecdotes from coaches who are in the business.

Rowing Coaches are Safety Conscience

Rowing is a water sport. Coaches need to be aware of the risk that. In other sports, practices and competitions are held on campuses where athletic training staff and medical personnel are on call. On the water, a team may be miles away from the nearest hospital. Coaches are the only first responders in most cases and need to be prepared for anything.

Safety IS the number one priority when you are on the water. Coaches may need to miss water time and have a back up for practice if water conditions are dangerous. Recently, when the Schuylkill River was too high, I created an “erg relay” based on headrace strategy to prepare my Masters athletes for the upcoming Navy Day Regatta. The workout ended up being more fun and achieved our training goal. There were no damaged boats and no injuries.

USRowing now requires rowing organizations to implement SafeSport in hiring and maintaining coaching staffs throughout the year. Coaches are responsible for the safety and well being of the athletes. A coach must monitor what the athletes are doing, who they are speaking with, and how they fit and interact within the safe rowing culture the coach is trying to create.

Rowing Coaches are Trainers

Coaches are responsible for properly implementing training programs for the team. That means creating training plans for both the water practices and on land. The overall training plan should include the right combination of aerobic training, technical drills, strength and conditioning, and recovery work. Because of the breadth of knowledge required and the level of expertise needed to be competitive, coaches may need to seek training knowledge outside the sport.

Coaches also need to know the injury history, physical state, and mental state of every athlete as they walk into a training session and how to deal with these issues.

“Each athlete is different,” says Frank Biller, head coach of Virginia men’s rowing. “Balancing these aspects is part science and part art. If it was straightforward a monkey or an app could do it. The goal of training is never to get everyone to the same level but to develop each athlete to their potential.”

Rowing Coaches are Counselors

Athletes will go to their coaches for advice on rowing, training, and life. They want to talk about their hopes, fears, and the things they don’t want to share with their parents. They want to talk about their social issues and relationship problems. Coaches have to find the time because this problem may be the most important thing in the world to the athlete. And there could be 30+ rowers waiting outside the door to get the same counseling.

"Over the course of four years in high school or college, a rowing coach is the faculty member who often has the most consistent interaction with a student. You might be the only person they feel comfortable coming to and you never know when a subtle knock on the door or leading question is actually going to require you to drop everything to be there for that person. That's part of the role coaches must accept,” says Nich Parker, Lightweight Men’s Coach, Columbia University

Rowing Coaches are Administrators

Coaches are often responsible for a budget that includes boats, ergs, oars, repairs, travel, and a myriad of smaller expenses. Coaches of club teams may be responsible for raising the money for their own budget AND salary. They may need to organize fundraisers or “rent-a-rowers” that can interrupt training, schoolwork, and resting.

At the collegiate varsity level, there is required paperwork associated with NCAA compliance and tracking the grades of every athlete. Coaches may spend hours of their day on administrative work that isn’t a whole lot of fun.

Coaches often attend alumni events to help their institution raise money and celebrate the past successes of former athletes. Events mean time away from focusing on the team and from family, and working towards building the program for long term success. All of that extra work can be exhausting and is absolutely necessary.

“The logistics of training and racing requires extensive planning,” says Coach Parker, “Planning transport, meals, trailer maps, and creating an itinerary that maximizes the ability to have a successful race are just as important as teaching the rowing stroke.”

Rowing Coaches are Recruiters

Full-time and part-time collegiate coaches need to recruit. Good recruiters will scour the country and look internationally to bolster the team. To communicate with these athletes, coaches often keep office hours late at night or early in the morning to call athletes on a different coast or abroad.

Recruiting also requires coaches to meet with these athletes, either on campus or during an official visit or sometimes during a home visit. That could mean flying across the country for a couple of days and being away from the team. The recruiting component takes an enormous amount of time and is a job unto itself. The very best programs in the country also have the best recruiters.

“The prospects we work with lead lives that are exceptionally and highly scheduled. From club and scholastic teams to jobs and volunteerism all on top of their other enrichment they are busy during the typical 9-5 timeframe and well into the evenings. Finding a time on a Tuesday evening or Sunday morning may be your only chance to have a few minutes of their attention and focus,” says Linda Muri, Head Women’s Coach at Dartmouth College.

Rowing Coaches have Jobs & Responsibilities Other Than Coaching

Sometimes coaches are the designated trailer driver for the team, which means driving the trailer across the country for a regatta or down south for a winter training trip. Some programs have professional drivers on staff, but these are few and far between.

Do you have any experience working with fiberglass or carbon fiber? Coaches are often the designated boat fixer, pressed into service whenever a boat gets a ding or a skeg busted off.

“Knowing that I may have to work an extra evening or lose the majority of my weekends to regattas and coaching, I try to take advantage of the flexibility in my day, making it a plus rather than a minus,” says Coach Muri. “Mornings are also the best time for me to do paperwork and answer emails. I'm much more efficient at that and can save less critical thought projects for later in the day.”

If a coach’s salary is part-time, they may need to seek another part-time job to make ends meet. Coaches may make enough money to support themselves, but not necessarily anything else they are seeking in life – a family, home, security. Coaches may need to stick with this lifestyle in order to move up in the coaching world, and that commitment can take two or three years. Young coaches need to be aware of how demanding the early years of a career can be.

Coaches eventually become spouses and parents. Coaching demands a lot of personal time and may require a coach to work evenings and weekends. Regattas can completely eliminate time spent with family. That’s a hard reality and the need for balance and sacrifice is very real.

“The struggles for coaches are no different than any other profession. The bottom line is important: is it worth it? There is an organizational and habitual part and a deep spiritual part of the ‘why.’ Hint: no medal or win is worth it!” says Coach Biller.

Conclusion: Why We Coach

The best advice I can give, and the one I heard the most from the coaches I spoke with is there must be a “why” for coaching besides glory and winning the championship. There has to be a deeper reason to choose the profession because the work/life balance can be tough. If you don’t have your “why” dialed in, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I was fortunate enough to get my foot in the door at a prestigious Ivy League program with a top-level head coach. When there was a change at the top, all of sudden my hours changed. My wife and I were about to have our first child and I looked to the future. Did I want to continue working 60-70 hours a week coaching and recruiting, or did I want to be there for my daughter for first few years of her life? I chose the latter. It was one of the toughest decisions of my career.

There is a common desire among coaches to better their athletes as individuals. Rowing is a sport where athletes can improve on little things each day. It’s a sport where athletes bond with teammates from all different backgrounds to make a boat go fast. It’s a sport where athletes achieve glory at championship races. It’s a sport that carries on the traditions of rowing clubs and institutions that have long histories. It’s a sport that allows athletes to escape and reflect on their real life. It’s a sport where athletes can have fun after practice.

As a coach, if you can make your athletes better, even happier, then it will help them do the same for you. It’s why we do what we do.

For more information on training modalities, rowing instruction, strength training, nutrition, and DISC please contact me at or like me on Facebook at Rufo Optimal Workouts.