For many coaches, engaging and inspiring today’s teenagers can be especially challenging, largely thanks to the rise of social media and the pressure of exams. But coaching junior rowing can also be hugely rewarding. Rose Crawford from JRN spoke to Rachel Saunders and Alex Fawcett, Head Coaches at Putney High School and City of Bristol RC, about why they like coaching juniors, their top tips for engaging this age group and how they face up to the challenge of retaining their recruits.
Rachel started rowing as a junior, following in the footsteps of her parents and her older sister. She began coaching Cambridge colleges while at university, and developed her skills further in Australia before moving back to the UK and Putney High School. Her favourite thing about coaching juniors is that, ”every day is different” and she finds motivation in how inquisitive young people are.
Alex, pictured at the top of this page, took a more unusual route into rowing as an adult, by signing up to row across the Atlantic in 2018, before learning flat-water rowing and joining the men’s squad at City of Bristol RC. He got into coaching by teaching his daughter and her squad how to row. Alex’s favourite thing about coaching juniors is their enthusiasm and positivity and he also finds being a part of their journey very rewarding.
Rachel’s biggest bit of advice for engaging and inspiring teenagers is to keep it on their level. “For most juniors, beating a rival club or school at one of the major races is the most important thing to them,” she acknowledged. “Recognising that they are not all going to become Olympians is crucial and actually making sure they are enjoying it, having fun and staying involved in the sport is all that matters.”
For Alex, the best way to engage juniors is to ”make the training sessions fun”, because, at the end of the day, that’s why juniors row. He is also quite heavily involved in the coastal rowing scene and often takes his squads to the beach during the summer, which they particularly enjoy.
Although one of the great things about rowing is that it gets youngsters away from their screens, both coaches identified the power of social media in keeping athletes engaged. “My juniors love being featured on the school’s Instagram page,” explained Rachel. “But more fundamentally, I believe that social media can help young people stay engaged with trends and allow them to follow different rowing accounts to keep up to date with all the different events going on across the world”. Her belief is the lens of digital media can open up a sport typically perceived as elitist and the preserve of the privileged.
In terms of retaining young rowers, Alex is often faced with that age-old club conundrum; how to grow both the performance and inclusivity aspects of your program simultaneously. “Despite the obvious challenges, we’ve made really broad strides across both fronts in the past few years” he said. For Rachel, open communication is vital, particularly around exam season. “If a junior really enjoys rowing, why would they stop doing it in one of the most stressful periods of their life?” she said. “We need to help juniors understand why doing sport is so good for their mental health and that it is an ideal chance to switch off from work and exams”.
Injuries are another common scourge of many a promising junior career. “These kids will have only one body for the rest of their lives,” said Rachel. “It is critical we make sure that they are not pushing through injuries, and they get adequate rest and recovery time.” Alex’s athletes have been injury-free throughout the past year or so, a fact of which he’s extremely proud. “We use ultra-polarised training with a focus on a majority of long and easy sessions, building up gradually through the age groups,” he explained.
But not the winning
Rachel believes that junior rowing should be for everyone and having juniors going out and getting on the water, particularly in the summer, can be hugely beneficial for all involved. For Alex and City of Bristol, their club ethos is that they want ‘rowers for life’, and they that includes juniors continuing with the sport as adults.. “It’s not all about winning,” commented Alex. “Just going out and having fun is usually the most important component for any budding junior. That’s the approach I try to instil into all of my coaching.”