BRUCE: Today's guest is Roger Barrow, coach of the South African National Rowing Team. What on Earth is this got to do with anything to do with Solutionist Thinking? you're wondering. Well stay tuned because there is no greater performance sport that requires greater teamwork, I would argue, than rowing…
ROGER: My job, if someone wants to stop pulling, or stop rowing, they can stop. I'll never push them that they must continue. But the team culture is to push that limit. So they wanting to push themselves, often I'm watching and I'm thinking “This is hard, I'm glad I'm not doing it!” and I think “OK they are going to stop it's too hard” but they continue. And it's those boundaries and those understandings that they learning about themselves… That's my job. It’s how do they push themselves more? How do they learn more about themselves? How do they see where the limit is?
BRUCE: I'm Bruce Whitfield and you're listening to RMB Solutionist Thinking. What is it that makes rowing so unique in the world of teamwork.?
ROGER: I think it's one of the few sports in the world that precision is key. If there's one person out of time, more than likely the boat is not going to go very fast. I think the second point is that it takes years and years of precision work just to get that timing right. The advantage of that is that it's not like rugby, where someone else could alter the game or change the way you thinking or the way you're acting… is that a lot of preparation can go into play and perfecting the rowing stroke on a day-to-day basis allows for that perfect race to happen.
BRUCE: People look at eight burly men with a little guy... Do they sit with megaphones as you see in the movies that sort of American college movies - and shout down the length of this, what, 10-meter boat?
ROGER: It has advanced a little bit where they put little higher definition speakers and he's got a little microphone that he can talk through so it has advanced somewhat.
BRUCE: But you’ve got these nine athletes in a boat, which is gossamer-thin, it's super light amd they each have two oars. And they spend years practicing pulling bits of plywood through the water. Forgive me for denigrating it, but it doesn't see massively scientific.
ROGER: You’re exactly right on everything you've said and I think it's massively scientific. I think the work that goes into, from a physiological element, getting them all on the same page on how much power is going through that oar, I think if you could give an analogy to it, eight people hit a golf ball exactly the same distance, exactly the same height, and all landing in one hole at the same time say 300 meters away… that would be precision of an eight rowing together. So as a coach, I'm looking at the oar, precision landing, precision execution - the same amount of wattage and force between 10 watts and 600 watts – all going through the pin at the same time. That's where you can see why that golf ball, of eight guys, has to land them a whole 300 meters away.
BRUCE: And the odds of that are practically impossible on a golf course…
ROGER: Hence why we practice so much. I've been to three Olympic Games now and at each Olympic Games right up until the last moment we’re still trying to perfect that perfect stroke. We’re still talking, “that's not quite right, we need to push there a little bit”. So I don't believe you actually ever get it perfectly right, but the art is how do you get as close to perfect on the day.
BRUCE: And you're operating in nature. And you know, if the winds blowing slightly there's a ripple on the water. I'm sure you in your youth you would have rowed the Kowie River which is full of crabs, for example… and some poor guy is going to hook a crab at some point on some crucial race and that destabilizes everything. The difference if your flank is having a bad day on the rugby field that doesn't necessarily cost you the game. If one of those eight is having a slightly off day, or the timing is slightly off, and the other team is being precise, you lose.
ROGER: Exactly right. You've got to be at your best all the time. And the conditions are huge. You know in Rio we had a massive crosswind, and, obviously we had been to visit Rio a few years before, we knew the weather was a wind off the coast and you've got to be able to cope with that. And for us many teams didn't cope and it was actually in our advantage. So you've got to look at every dynamic - water density, water temperature, how the boats sit out the water, wind direction, if it rains, you know, all these sort of things make a difference in how you hold the handle. So there's so much science, that's just the elements. Then you’re looking at the mental side, the physiological side, the teamship - do people get on? - and some of the pair's when it's a two-man boat, it's almost like being married to this person because you with him for six to eight years - do you get on? - so many different elements.
BRUCE: Tell me about this essence of teamwork. Because the skulls are the individuals, these are the people who are in a boat by themselves, they have two oars and they do the individual race. You then have the pairs, you have the fours, and then the eighth's those are the various formats. Are you taking eight to the Tokyo Olympics next year? You taking four? You taking two? You taking individuals?
ROGER: So at the moment we're not taking anyone. We've still got to qualify…
BRUCE: We assume you will qualify. We think you've done this before. You've ridden this rodeo, you've got rowers with extraordinary experience in the squad. So, let's assume you qualify, who do you intend take?
ROGER: So we're looking at pairs. It's two guys in a boat which was successful before in Rio - Lawrence Britain and Sean Keeling. Not that they’re still rowing. And then we looking at a lightweight woman's level. So that's two women in a weight category or fifty seven kilos and they each hold two oars so different dynamic there. And then we looking at a men’s four. So that's four big brutes, as you said, and each holding one oar. And at this stage, there are ten guys going for those six spots, so you can imagine the team environment is quite intense - because no one knows yet who’s going - and I've got to do that selection process. And then in the girls, there are three ladies going for two spots.
BRUCE: So much of this is physical ability. And then much of it is character. And big game temperament. And the team. The best rower in your squad may not be the best team member?
ROGER: Exactly, right. And I think that's why it takes a long time. It takes time for myself as the coach to understand their characters. That BMT, you know, I have some guys who are great trainers, but then when it comes to dishing out big stuff on the day, they whittle a little bit. Rowing is a brutal sport on the body. Who can withstand pain and think on their feet at the same time, and be in time, and cope with environment? Those are massive dimensions on dynamics that they've got a handle. And I think it takes me time as a coach to understand how they react. And it gives me time to empower them with techniques to cope with all of that.
BRUCE: Are you in training at present for the Olympics which are more than a year away?
ROGER: Yeah. We've been training with this squad since Rio. I've been building a new squad. Luckily I've got some athletes that I had in Rio, but I've got a new very young team. And I'm trying to build them experienced and mature them as quickly as I can for the next event. So we in training 24/7 they get one day off every six weeks, but apart from that they're training two to three times a day.
BRUCE: Are these people with proper jobs? I mean rowing isn't professionalized in the same way as tennis and golf might be. This is not a high paying gig. How do you get people to commit between Olympics to a four-year training program for five-point-six-weeks of every cycle? They are all mad!
ROGER: They all are mad. I think you only understand rowing is when you sit in a boat. And I think one of the rowers Kirsten McCann was describing just the feeling every day that she enjoys of the boat gliding underneath her… obviously being an outdoor sport and we row in beautiful places… but that feeling of the boat moving underneath her, and the art of chasing something to get this ultimate feeling… and when their ultimate feeling comes the boat’s obviously going very fast, and that's what I understand why they're doing it. I wouldn't like to be coached by me. I think the training program’s quite brutal and their bodies suffer on a daily basis.
They’re doing it to win. There's no doubt about it. The character of a lot of these athletes is about standing on the podium. I think they doing it for South Africa because we are the underdogs. And there's nothing better, when you the underdog competing against the GB, New Zealand, Germany… the First World countries who have a lot of the stuff laid out where they are paid a lot better, and beating them. Our biggest thing is racing the Poms. For us going to London, going to Henley-on-Thames and racing one of the biggest regattas in the world, and beating the Poms. We love it!
BRUCE: What is it about you as a conductor of an orchestra, if you like, and when the music of rowing, there must be something in there in terms of an orchestra… What is it about you that makes you good at what you do - in terms of getting the ultimate well-oiled human machine to work at its absolute optimal at a moment in time?
ROGER: I think the challenge for me is the first goal. I mean, I'm very challenge-driven. And I enjoy that challenge. When things are against us that certainly thrives me to say, how can we do it? I would love to get to the Olympics and say hang on, we are from South Africa, we need to start two lengths up… give us a 10-second head start. But that's not the reality of it. So the challenge of putting something like this together thrives me in a big way. I think the second point is I like working with people. I like putting people and drawing up from their strengths. Once we've got a whole lot of people’s strengths, then I know that that person is going to draw on everyone's strengths are going to get a lot more out of it. Never exposing weaknesses.
And I think I've been quite successful in putting really good people on the table with different knowledge – physiology, psychology, different techniques on how we can coach the boats - in one room and giving the best to athlete. And then thirdly, I love working with athletes. I love seeing how they grow as people and how they improve in the sport of rowing.
BRUCE: Who is the ultimate rower. Do you have any neurophysicists sitting in a boat - or are they people who are able to shut out the outside world? People who, if you met them on the street you would say nice, but they're not going to change the world, they are not going to invent something brand-new…
ROGER: I think when you look at rowing, it's quite an elitist sport. When you look at the American Universities of Harvard Yale, Oxford and Cambridge…
BRUCE: In South Africa, it's a private schools private school sport
ROEGR: Private school sport, exactly… So I think they are well educated and clever people that often do row. In the sense that their mindfulness of how they do it and they go on to be very successful businessmen post rowing. I think being a rower, you have to manage your time extremely well. As you said, these guys have to train five to six hours a day and then still hold down a job and some of them also have families. So I think the mindfulness of how you go about life is controlled, and understanding of what you need to do. So, I think it develops that character. I often take on new school kids that have just left school and once they jump in the deep end on our team, they've got to be mindful of how they looking after themselves, how they are covering, how they still getting an income, still studying. So I think it does teach that part of so many facets of they've got a control.
BRUCE: How big is your drop out rate?
ROGER: Not very big because I don't have many starting. But I think the dropout rate is the ones that realize that it's too hard and they can't succeed. So each year I probably take in three to four athletes and every two years one will drop out. For me, the dream is massive. The team culture is the dream. So I think they are learning from the older athletes that you not going to make Olympics in your first two years. It's going to take six years of hard work, ten you might be considered for the Olympics.
BRUCE: It's an extraordinary commitment…
ROGER: You've got to be a bit mad.
BRUCE: The movies you see about Navy Seals training all the British Secret forces - those sorts of guys - it strikes me as the same sort of mindset of people who are extremely capable physically, but have to be mentally extraordinarily dextrous… iIn order to better cope with not only the schedule, but the repetition, and the striving for perfection where 99% frankly isn't good enough because the guys in the boat next to you could be operating at a 100% on that day and you lose.
ROGER: That's exactly right. And I think that's why we work as a system and we don't let anyone try on their own because I think that sheltered. So what we do do, is we work in a brutal environment where every day they’re racing each other and they actually… we're strengthening their minds to be stronger to go out there and fend for themselves. So it is a very brutal environment and that drop out sometimes is the athlete factors can't cope with that. But they're not going to cope with the Olympics. At the end of the day my job is to prepare athletes to win at the Olympics. That's my mandate…
BRUCE: ... and to weed out those ultimately who are not going to make it
ROGER: And look I've got some good athletes who've come through, and they become social rowers or they say that's not for me, but I enjoy rowing. And that's still important because rowing is a beautiful sport.
BRUCE: There are 3 000 people who are members of rowing South Africa. And in the United States, they 78 000 registered rowers… It gives us a sense of the scale in terms of the sort of odds that are stacked against you as the underdogs…
ROGER: Certainly is! And I'll stay a stat because I love it and I get on well with a British coaches, and the British obviously qualified more boats for Olympics, but the five boats that we qualified, we actually won 3-2. And I love telling that to the British coaches with all their money and their stats. But the difference I think of their culture and ours is that they have everything on tap. When you give someone a reason why they should perform or why they should win, everyone's equal in that race. And it's who's going to suffer, who's going to want it the most, and who's put in a lot beforehand to get to that place
BRUCE: When you look at rowing as a profession, as a sport, it's got quite a long lifespan. Some of the great rower of the world have been growing at Olympics in their 30s and sometimes into their 40s.
ROGER: Yes, and I think that's got to do with your medical team and the way you practice. Rowing's not so good on the injuries on lower backs because there's a lot of forces going there. So some people only last two or three years. I'd like to say they're not doing correctly, in the way they do, yoga, pilates - and all these sort of things - to strengthen the core. I mean, we hear it through schools - and the second point is the overdevelopment… how fast are kids coming into the sport? How hard are they training at young ages? But that's a whole another discussion. But I think my goal is I only have so many athletes… so I need to look after them - and look after them very well.
BRUCE: In 2004 Donovan Cech and Ramon di Clemente won a bronze medal in the men's coxless pair. In 2012 Olympics, your lightweight coxless four did very well, they got the first Olympic Gold. In 2016 in Rio Lawrence Brittain and Sean Keeling won Silver. What is your goal for Tokyo 2020? Dare you think about it? Dare you dream about what's possible?
ROGER: Look I'm a big dreamer so I want to win. I want to win three gold medals. Right now my thinking is we first got to qualify. I want to qualify as many boats as possible. So, you could see in Rio we qualified five boats, and we got three dreaded fourth places… which, that was the worst day of my life. It was really heart wrenching and even more heart-wrenching for the athletes.
BRUCE: They spent so much time preparing to get to the ultimate test of human physical prowess, but like swimming, the margins can be fairly tiny... can be centimeters?
ROGER: Yeah, so tiny. And I would rather, after those experiences, I'd rather actually come last just because it's just didn't go well at all. But when you come forth it went so well, but then you just missed it at the final hurdle. So in Tokyo… right now, it's about preparing people who can have a shot at a medal. That's the goal - it is putting people in a position that they can go out and win. The difference between winning and losing is up to that athlete how he wakes up that morning. If I think back to the London four, l with Paul Jackson being involved with them, they were confident waking up that morning... they knew they could do it. And I could see the same with Sean Keeling and Lawrence - the semi-final, we were petrified. I was trying to think of jokes, how to relax them, get them in the right frame of mind, but when it came to the final they're ready to go. So it's up to the athletes on the day. Hopefully, we've prepared them in the right position - to go out and have fun, firstly - and to really say I can do this.
BRUCE: How do you push people to the very limits of their endurance, their ability their capabilities, to the very limits of this spirit - and not make them hate you? Or is that part of it?
ROGER: Look I don't think they hate me. I would hope not. I don't hope this mutual respect. But we have a good forum where if they don't like me or they're not happy. We have a forum to talk, openly. I think we travel a journey together. So we’ve just been up to Lesotho, at altitude, on Katse Dam - training like thugs every day, seven hours, and we’re with them the whole journey.
My job, if someone wants to stop pulling, or stop rowing, they can stop. I'll never push them that they must continue. But the team culture is to push that limit. So they’re wanting to push themselves, often I'm watching and I'm thinking “This is hard, I'm glad I'm not doing it!” and I think “OK they are going to stop it's too hard” but they continue. And it's those boundaries and those understandings that they learning about themselves… That's my job. It’s how do they push themselves more? How do they learn more about themselves? How do they see where the limit is?
I think as a young coach I can't believe what the human body can endure and I've learnt as I've gone along through the Olympic cycles that it can endure a huge amount.
BRUCE: How much is it about the body? And how much is it about the brain? And how much of it is about something that we can put our finger on… the character, the instinct, the killer instinct perhaps that some people, just somehow, have in them?
ROGER: It's definitely killer instinct. And it's definitely what they have in them. And it's about the brain. Look, there actually are some physiological elements, you know, Vo2, how much oxygen, muscle… how strong… but the brain can train this. And the will can train this. I think Lawrence Britain, who recovered from cancer, and he's a true story on all of this, is the true character of how to do it. You know, three weeks ago fell down a mountain, tore all the ligaments off his ankle and fractured it. Three days later he's back in the boat, rowing. Now that's considered probably mad, but it's the will of I will survive and I will win.
BRUCE: How are you going to make these guys ready? You’ve got twelve months, twelve… fourteen months perhaps, until Tokyo. What's the program?
ROGER: We've just finished our five month block of Winter training, so-called Winter training, which is a lot of endurance work and repetition. And we’re off to Italy this weekend and we'll be racing and just testing where we are in the world right now. I'm hoping this year we can be in the top six in all the boats and once they get the confidence… in this game if you’re confident that you can do something, then 90% of the job is done. So this year is about building confidence in the international events, we taking in - race strategies, about getting those right - and just preparing them. That confidently they're going to go into the race not scared, but I can do this. So when a rower comes to me before the race and says I've got this, I know we're going to have a good one. When they come to me and say no, the boat wasn't feeding this - then we still got work to do. So the goal is to make sure they've got the confidence of going into battle knowing they can come out on the front foot.
BRUCE: What does the element of teamwork, the element of collaboration that is required between members of the team; whether it be the individual skull who is a team around them to make them the best they can be, whether it be the pairs, whether it be the fours or in the large format, the eights…
ROGER: It's its massive. I mean, I'll game I'm a coach who believes in bringing multiple coaches in. And I've worked with different coaches for 2012 as Paul Jackson who worked with a lightweight four, he did huge work with them. At the moment we've got three coaches working with this group. And I don't have all the answers and I don't click with all the athletes perfectly. So the collaboration is bringing people in who can just tick where that athlete needs that little push, or the doctor that little push, or the physiologist.. and just seeing how do we get the best out of him. I think there's too much of coaches saying they can control everything. I certainly don't believe that I don't know everything. I want to bring the best in the team to give little Johnny the best chance of rowing the fastest boat in the world.
BRUCE: Roger Barrow is coach of the South African National Rowing Team. Hoping to take the 2020 Tokyo Olympics by storm, if his team doesn't kill him first.