Sunday, October 15, 2006

Georgetown Voice gives Voice to Crew Critics

Last week the Georgetown Voice (a student run magazine) published a feature story on the Georgetown crew. Although the article starts off well enough, it soon quotes a coxswain, who recently left the team, discussing crew-cest. That term is usually used by critics and this ex-coxswain is not about to disappoint. The author of the article talks primarily to rowers and coxswains who have quit the program, as well as an ex-coach, and not surprisingly, they are all critical of the team.

There seem to be four main complaints against the crew - a lot of novices quit, there is pressure to stay on the team, there is a lack of funding and poor facilities, and the program is poorly run. Let's look at these complaints as rowers, not as uninitiated laymen.

When it comes to false advertising, rowing is a prime offender. It looks really easy and effortless and what better way to become a varsity athlete than by doing something easy and effortless? Largely because of the intensity and pain involved, rowing is a love it or hate it sport. No one is ambivalent about it and those who are on the fence for a while usually only need a few morning practices in March to decide. All those people who go out for the team for something to do quickly realize that there are a lot easier ways to spend 2 hours of every day. The fact that a lot of novices quit cannot be a criticism, it is simply a rowing fact. Losing recruits, as the articles details, is a problem. For sure, some high school rowers don't understand what it will mean to row for a varsity program at the collegiate level and are unable or unwilling to keep up. If this seems to be true of a lot of recruits, however, perhaps the wrong athletes are being recruited.

Remember when coaches were supposed to help you reach your potential? When they served to instill confidence in your own abilities? When a good coach helped you to do things you never thought you could do? The dark side of all of those admirable qualities is pressure to persevere. Those athletes who do, often credit these coaches for changing their lives, while those who don't become disgusted with the pressure they felt to stay on the team. Certainly some people are not meant to be rowers and quitting does not make them "quitters." A good coach, however, owes it to himself, his crew, and to each athlete to make sure a rower who wants to quit is doing so for the right reasons. Once that rower actually quits, there should be no stigma attached, but until then, what's wrong with a little pressure - from peers or coaches?

Lack of funding and, in particular, lack of facilities and equipment, is a lament often heard in rowing. One reason it is heard so often is because great facilities are the exception, not the norm. Sure great facilities are an advantage, but no one has ever won a race with a boathouse. Those teams that win, win because they accept nothing less than excellence. Do you think that when the Wisconsin eight comes back from a race anyone asks, "How was your row?" No, they ask, "Did you win?" That's the difference - we can hear how the row was later but what's important is if you won. Who cares if you had a great row but lost? The boathouse complaint is a crutch. When teams with crummy facilities win once, they say, "Gee, and we did it with crummy facilities!" When they win again, they say, "We're winners!" They know the facilities don't matter anymore. Good facilities help recruit and they may keep some rowers who would otherwise quit, but they don't make anyone go fast. Despite all of that, it is a crime how long Georgetown has been trying to build their boathouse, how many hoops they've had to jump through, and that it still isn't close to being built. The canoe club needs to get a clue.

The last criticism is a little more worrisome. A former women's heavyweight novice coach says that the program is poorly run and that no one demands success (a criticism of both the athletic director and the coaches). If true, this is a serious issue for Georgetown. But if true, how did the lightweight women finish 2006 second in the nation? Quite honestly, I wonder if any of this coach's comments were meant to apply to the lightweight program as it is today? Before the arrival of Jim O'Conner the lightweights were coached by the women's heavyweight coach so I suppose she meant to criticise that team as well as the heavies. Now, however, there seems to be a different breeze blowing through the lightweight boat bay. Yes, we've heard how tough O'conner can be. He probably even tries to convince some women not to quit! Today's Georgetown lightweights (and probably yesterday's too) are successful and committed. If the rest of the program is having problems, perhaps they should look to the lightest rowers in the boathouse for a model of success.

Criticisms aside, one interesting quote from the article, referring to the lightweights:

The team’s fate this year is questionable, however. Some rowers graduated, some are abroad, and some simply quit the team. With such unpredictability, Jimmy explained, “It’s too early to tell,” and asked, “How do you gauge success?”

Jimmy is the women's heavyweight coach, Jimmy King. I'm quite sure that quote was taken out of context because I think we all know how to gauge success. At least, Jim O'Conner does.

[Update: A reader provides the other side in comments.]


Anonymous said...

While athletes should always strive to win (that's the point of competition), there is something to be said for performing well and losing. Given a choice between winning while performing poorly and losing while performing well, a true athlete would choose the latter.

A close race is what pushes you to go beyond what you thought possible. That transcendence is the goal of pure competition, and winning is only a motivation to strive for that experience.

I refer to Vince Lombardi's revision of his famous quote. Originally he said, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Later he clarified this by saying, "winning isn't everything, but wanting to win is."

JW Burk said...

Well said. And that transcendence is extremely difficult to measure. Try as we might, the closest we have come to such a measurement is winning or losing. Winning then, becomes something of a proxy, albeit a terribly imperfect one, for that state. One of the things that I believe makes rowers different from other athletes is their understanding, either consciously or subconsciously, of this higher purpose of competition.

Anonymous said...

I have to presume that the author must have personal issues with the program/personel, and we should take the criticism with a grain of salt. It is most likely not directed at the lightweight program, and unfair in its criticsm of the other teams. As a mother of one of the lightweights, I can't say enough about the quality and character of the girls and the coach. I am proud to have a daughter associated with this program and I am pleased when I see the depth of character that rowing at Georgetown contributed. Although the author speaks of girls quitting the program, the ltwts have all their rowers returning, sans those who graduated. Some are abroad now, but they will be in the erg room this spring... If the author is mistaken about such an important detail, perhaps we should not spend much more time on a poorly researched article...

row'n dad said...

This article was just a rehash of two heavyweight coaches who couldn't co-exist,but ended up as a hatchet job on the whole program. The ltwt's should never have been included. O'Connor is a D1 Head Coach in the making; Motivator, Communicator,Listner, and a consumate Instructor. They don't have this soap opera going on. Jimmy King is a brickwall, and rec'd the graffitti; desrevedly so!