Recruiting Character - Junior and Collegiate Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | November 1, 2014

The Head of the Charles is a significant point in the rowing recruiting calendar for many programs regardless of whether they attend the regatta. It is by mid-October that college programs have commitment from a handful of top-level recruits and are starting to get a picture of what their early round admissions will look like. As we close out the early round, it is clear that each of the recruiting “markets” (LWT W/M, Open W/M) are consistently getting more competitive. Hand in hand with this is an increasing level of fear on some recruits’ part as well as a need for some recruiters to dig deeper than erg, program, coach reference, and academics to select their recruits.

More and more we hear about recruits who refuse to tell any school that they are their second or third choice. They are scared of consequence; recruits also burn recruiting coaches by indicating a school is their first choice then switch to another institution without letting the original first-choice school know for fear of reprisal. This is a major mistake and ultimately a black mark on recruits’ character for which they and their mentors should be held responsible. Despite being competitive, coaches in the same conference exchange information on recruits and if a recruit is caught lying it sometimes results in the college program’s ceasing recruiting from the recruit’s junior program.

Experienced recruiters are savvy to unethical tactics and see them every year. Given this and the needs of college programs, a premium is placed on recruits’ character – but not as you might expect. It is an eye-opener to parents when we explain to them the numbers in terms of erg and academics required for certain programs – but more so when we explain the level of accountability and maturity required from recruits by some coaches on top of concrete requirements. In 90% of cases, it is a greater level than has ever been required of their child in the past.

Recently, a coach told us that the final “gate” he requires recruits to pass through before he considers any type of support (after they have met erg and academic requirements, mind you) is the following: “tell me about the worst challenge you have faced and how you overcame it.” That may seem trite here – but picture that question as the last remaining barrier between you and your first choice school after years of work with the knowledge you’re actively competing with others and suddenly it may become more serious. For this coach, solid answers involved overcoming genuine moral demise rather than getting a C in AP chemistry.

Many college rowing coaches believe juniors have been increasingly sheltered from failure – particularly the more affluent ones. Given this, many juniors have not developed an ability to overcome or the appreciation of themselves and life that comes with such a process. As such, they are unaware of who they are and pursue the recruiting process with a fear of failure rather than confidence in themselves and their school choices. This leads to recruiters getting burned, but it also leads to high attrition rates once recruits are at college programs – not to mention potentially ineffective people post-college (unless Mom is going to come on job interviews!) Thus, the process is evolving to be about more than erg and academics – in the words of another college recruiter: “We aren’t looking for good students and people who like rowing; we’re looking for the best oarspeople in the world who happen to be good students and people.”

The quote represents a reality check in the difference between junior and collegiate rowing; emphasis on development versus performance moves more towards performance in college. Rowing is about a continual challenge of self in that it is never perfect. For endurance athletes, there is a sublime joy in placing one’s self outside of one’s comfort zone and the internal dialogue that presents itself in that place. Regardless of a recruit’s talent level, if they’re not able to engage in that type of internal dialogue before they reach college they are most likely not able to withstand the commitment required by many competitive collegiate rowing programs. Character requirements beyond erg and academics (particularly resilience) are a reality check for many families in the recruiting process, but many would agree that it is the ability of the sport to teach these lessons that makes it worth pursuing.