As part of UK Coaching Week, we spotlight CJ White’s inspirational journey into rowing and how it led him to becoming a Community Coach for London Youth Rowing. He talks to Rebecca Charlton
As most of us have become accustomed to during lockdown I sit down to a Friday Zoom call in my kitchen, on this occasion not for a virtual pub quiz but to interview London Youth Rowing coach CJ White.
As we chat away, I immediately warm to CJ’s quietly confident manner, but the Chigwell based 25-year-old wasn’t always like this.
“I was 13 or 14 and up until that point I was a very fat, inactive kid. I always wanted to be big, strong and muscly. I just always assumed you were born with the genetics for it or you weren’t, I never understood that you could change your physique if you trained for it,” says CJ. But, in year nine at school he discovered rowing and all that changed.
Staying behind after a PE lesson one day led him on the path to what would become a life-changing journey, physically, mentally and academically. He sat down on a rowing machine for the first time and beat the school record for four minutes by just over 100m.
His teacher immediately pointed CJ in the direction of a member of staff, Sam, a rower, who explained there was an indoor rowing competition for the local borough at his school the following week and suggested he come along.
“I absolutely hated it because I didn’t know how much rowing hurt but I came fourth, and that wasn’t good enough for me; it sparked a fire inside of me to go back and try and get first place,” continues CJ.
“Rowing was my incentive to not be the naughty kid at the back of the class”
He and Sam started training in the gym together a couple of times a week. True to his word, CJ returned the following year and won. I’m intrigued to know what impact this had on his self-belief.
“It was pretty much instant, not only was I inactive but I was a bit of a pain in the bum for teachers. Once they realised I could row, they said ‘Okay, you need to be good or you can’t go to training.’ It was my incentive to not be the naughty kid at the back of the class.”
Having truly believed his path had been genetically programmed for him as ‘inactive’, having a coach provide a mentor figure in his life was undoubtedly pivotal, explains CJ:
“From a sporting perspective I’d never really been picked for anything – I got picked for things like rugby because [I was] the big guy, it was like ‘just go in the scrum and push people over,’ I’d tried gymnastics and, to this day, I still can’t do a forward roll! So, for me the impact of having someone say: ‘I want you to do this because you’re good and you can win things’ was a big game changer.”
At just 15 years old CJ was progressing at an impressive pace. By this point he was in the gym five days a week, twice a day.
“I didn’t always tell my coach,” he admits. “I just thought ‘the more the better’. I went on to do regattas all over the country and I kept on winning.”
“It’s about removing barriers, involving everybody and getting ethnic minorities into sport”
While on a winning streak CJ was also doing Olympic weightlifting and devastatingly dropped a 100kg weight on his left knee when he started sixth form, which he says spiralled him down a rabbit hole.
“I couldn’t train anymore. I’d gone from this promising kid being offered a scholarship to walking around limping all the time. I wasn’t happy and I started to get into a bit of trouble again at school. I just didn’t know what the purpose was anymore.
“One of the reasons I wanted to go to university was to row. I was hoping to go to Oxford to do the Boat Race, I was studying super-hard to get into Oxford and training hard to get Boat Race ready and that was all gone,” he explains candidly.
Whilst full of reflection about his future, CJ was offered a coaching job with Redbridge indoor rowing team and admits he had no idea what he was doing. He’d never coached before but he went for it with his usual vigour.
“We as females in the Muslim community don’t do sport, so the fact you’re getting our little girls out here is amazing”
“I hoped there would be another coach there so I could smile, look pretty and get away with it. That wasn’t the case,” he laughs. “I had to work out how to translate my language to the kids in a way they’d understand.”
And they did understand. He went on to win the Manager of the Year award and subsequently became a community coach for London Youth Rowing, where he remains today. We move on to talking about increasing diversity in rowing, something at the heart of London Youth Rowing’s work.
“I was coaching at a school in Hackney and I got about 10 Muslim girls on the water – it was absolutely phenomenal and a lot of their parents turned round and said ‘we as females in the Muslim community don’t do sport, so the fact you’re getting our little girls out here is amazing’. The fact they’d even allow me into their bubble to coach as a male was incredible,” he says.
“You develop so many different skills as a coach. I used to find it so hard to talk to people and I’m now a public speaker”
“It’s about removing barriers, involving everybody and getting ethnic minorities into sport… Not just about winning all the time,” continues CJ as he notes the importance of UK Coaching Week. “It’s a great way to get what we do out there. Sharing experience and sharing knowledge is the way forward, whether that be my journey into sport or the coach that’s just won Henley five years in a row. ”
CJ explains how the sport of rowing always pulls him back and has truly changed his life for the better. I wonder what he’d say to reassure anyone doubting their path in coaching.
“Just do it, take the plunge,” he replies without hesitation. “It will probably be one of the best things you’ve ever done.
“You develop so many different skills as a coach. I used to find it so hard to talk to people and I’m now a public speaker. I’ve never had a negative experience.” He pauses, laughs and concludes. “Except for when you’re coaching, in January and it’s minus 2 degrees, and you can’t feel your fingers.”
When Zoom eventually boots us out I’m left feeling we could have chatted all day.
I’ll be closely following CJ’s next journey which I have no doubt will be game-changing yet again but in the meantime, I’d definitely want him on my team for the next Zoom pub quiz. I’m confident it would be a winning move.