Archive for Rowing

Demonstrating Character as a Recruit

In our interview with UVA rowing coach Kevin Sauer, he talked about the importance of character. He said, “My philosophy is that if character is there, a lot of good things can happen.” The Rower’s Edge asked a great follow-up question, “Since coaches are looking first for character in a recruit how do you demonstrate that to a coach?”

I think character is a lot like the wind, or gravity. You can’t see it, you can only see evidence of it. Character, at least as it pertains to athletics, means persevering through adversity, a willingness to keep grinding it out when you feel you can’t and putting the success of the team ahead of individual success.

Certainly pushing hard at an anaerobic threshold for an extended period takes some character. So, does that mean a great erg score is evidence of it? The great bike racer Greg Lemond once said, “It never gets any easier, you just get faster.” By that thinking, a great erg score doesn’t necessarily mean you suffer more than a slower athlete. She might be working through just as much pain but doesn’t have the same conditioning level. You can’t say who has more character.

How about the fact that somebody has achieved a high level of conditioning? Does that mean character? After all there is no shortcut to conditioning. Surely it takes character to put in the training hours day after day, right? Well, that depends. I had a conversation with Jeff Stiles, women’s D3 cross country Coach of the Year and he said, “You just don’t know if the athlete is coming from a very rigid program, where they have no choice but to put in the miles and do the work. I really want athletes who are intrinsically motivated – not just doing it because the coach is standing there with a stopwatch.”

So to further pin down this elusive trait of character, let’s define it as being intrinsically driven to succeed, despite adversity – and putting the success of the team ahead of self.

Great, so how is that trait demonstrated? After a hard loss, if an athlete gets up early to put in an extra workout by herself, I’d say that’s evidence of character. If an athlete sulks off, or snaps at a teammate or bad-mouths a coach or training program after a loss – not a great indicator of character (at least not the positive kind).

So to get back to the Rower’s Edge question, “how do you demonstrate character to a coach?” My answer is that it’s not something that can be put on a resume or really even in a coach’s recommendation letter. Character is demonstrated every time you practice, race and especially when you lose. So when you are at camps and showcases this summer, remember, character is like the wind, while you can’t see it, it’s pretty easy to see evidence of it when it’s strong.

The Coach’s View: UVA Rowing Coach Kevin Sauer on Camps, Early Commitments and Advice for Freshmen

Coach, I see you have a rowing camp starting up in a few days, do you end up with a lot of future recruits coming through your camps?
Ten years ago it was zero, but now, there are always a few kids that really want to get seen. But it’s really about introducing rowing to high school kids that may not have had a lot of exposure to the sport.  If you think about it, the kids who are really, really good are very busy right now (mid-June). They’re going to selection camps and development camps. So our camp may be more attractive to kids who aren’t training for Junior National teams and that sort of thing.

We’ll sometimes get 8th and 9th graders coming through who we don’t have any interest in  as recruits, but they’re just trying to improve  and over the course of 4 days we’ll try to help them do that. And there have been a few times where a kid has come in who wasn’t on our radar screen and we’ll get to see them up close and personal for 4 days and we’ll think, “hey this kid’s alright, “ and we end up recruiting them.

Or, like we talked about earlier, we’ll get kid’s coming from other sports, swimming or volleyball who want to give it a try.

I know in sports like soccer and lacrosse, early verbal commitments have become pretty common. Is that something that’s happening in rowing, too?
Boy, I hope not. I think rowing is so developmental – as a kid grows and develops in their later years in high school, they’re going to be a different athlete. Unless somebody’s just off-the-chart good already, it’s just too much of a roll of the dice in our sport. In all honesty, I think it’s a roll of the dice in every sport. I mean, you have a 15 year old kid that’s really good, who’s to say at 18 she’ going to stay good, or stay motivated? I like to see a little more of a long-range track record.

I’m glad in rowing we haven’t seen the early commits yet. Kids come and visit as juniors, and I don’t really know of anyone that is committing before the summer after their junior year.  Most kids are taking visits in the fall of their senior year before they make up their minds. It’s very rare that a kid will even commit in the summer after junior year. I think that’s a good thing. They can take their officials, see what the classes are like and what the team is like. I think that’s great – they get to stay overnight and really get a feel for the team culture. It’s important for them, and it’s just as important for us. We can see how they interact with the team.

Even after an athlete has taken their time and gone through the process, D1 rowing is tough. What kind of fall-off do you see in your roster numbers over the course of the year, and from freshman to senior years?
Well, there is some, but we just graduated 19 seniors – so that tells me there something good going on.  There is attrition, of course, no doubt about it. There are a lot of kids that come out freshman year and walk-on, and some don’t really know the sport – they think it’s a canoe club.  And maybe they’re expecting we’re just going to go on trips over the weekend and they find out, ‘whoa – it’s not like that at all.” So there’s natural attrition with that. You may have 40 or 50 kids that come out and you end up with 10 or 15 because they find out it’s pretty hard and it’s really not what they were expecting. So that kind of attrition is everywhere.

But as far as long term attrition, we don’t have a whole lot of that.  The kids enjoy what they’re doing and they’re getting something out of it, so they keep doing it.  So 19 seniors is a little out of the ordinary, but we usually have 12 or 15 seniors each year.

What’s the time commitment required?
Well the NCAA limits are 20 hours per week. You have to have a day off and you can’t go more than 4 hours per day.  So if you go 4 hours per day, you’re going to be done after 5 days.  We have to turn in an hours sheet that the kid signs off on every week.  With lifting and rowing we’re usually in the 17-19 hour per week range.  Some kids will do some extra workouts on their own but what we can program and require – 20 hours  per week.

How about taking on a difficult major as an athlete? Is it doable?
There are kids from every conceivable major.  I told you about the girl who graduated number 1 in the nursing school.  We had 4 kids with 4.0s this spring.  Especially here during racing season, that’s really hard to do. Our team GPA was 3.2, and we’re talking about 63 kids with 3 coaches, so the ratio is pretty large. We have a good academic adviser, so between the coaches and adviser, we stay on top of the kids pretty well.

There’s also something to be said for the ‘work-ethic’ type of sports, Whether it’s cross country or swimming or wrestling or rowing. Those sports where you have to put in a lot of time, those type of kids also seem to excel academically. They’re used to grinding it out in their sport and they do the same academically.

In your experience can you put your finger on the one thing that freshman seem to struggle with the most?
I’ve been doing this 35 years, so I’ve seen 35 freshman classes go through. 8 at Purdue, 3 at Yale and this year makes 24 here. All three schools are academically challenging.  The biggest challenge, what I tell kids every fall is to get a good start and learn to say ‘no’ early.  Be a nerd for the first month or 6 weeks.  Get comfortable saying, “sorry man, I have to study.’ It might be hard at first, but come November, you’ll really thank yourself for doing that. You can’t get that time back. So just say no for the first 6 weeks and get a solid start, and then you can start saying, ‘yes’ a little bit more.

I think that’s the best advice I can give, especially if you’re doing a sport at a challenging school: Get a good start and be a nerd for the first 6 weeks.

When it comes down to making decisions and commitments, what can you tell kids about handling that last step?
A kid really needs to step back and evaluate what’s best for them. If a kid tells me they’ve really thought it out and decided what they feel is best for them, I’m okay with it, either way. And if you approach it that way, you’ll see kids at races that you recruited and they’ll come up to you and thank you for the way you treated them during the process.  You might get a note from a kid that you recruited, who’s now competing against you, that sends you an e-mail congratulating you and thanking you – I mean, that’s what it’s all about.

Coach, thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions. I’m sure it’s a help for kids that want to know what it takes to compete at a top school.
Thanks and it’s nice to see UVA on the Tier1College list. I think it’s great for kids to get the perspective that you’re trying to provide, because it is a tough road.

The Coach’s View: UVA Rowing Coach Kevin Sauer on Erg Scores, Scholarships and Character

Kevin Sauer, Head Coach of the 2012 NCAA Champion UVA Cavaliers women’s rowing team took time out of his schedule to talk about recruiting and competing in a top D1 program.

Coach Sauer, besides erg scores, what sort of qualities are you looking for in a recruit?
Well, it sounds like a cliché, but really – character. My philosophy is that if the character is there, you can do a lot of good things.  Obviously you have to start with athletic ability, no doubt about it. But there are people who can make up for some athletic deficiencies, whether it’s height or power with character. It makes a difference as far as their work ethic and how they’re able to really put forth the effort day in and day out.

Do you always recruit kids who have come from a rowing background, or do you sometimes recruit good athletes from other sports that you think you can develop into good rowers?
Well the “guarantee” is someone who has the rowing background, but sometimes there are some good kids that come from other sports.  Swimming, for example, is a great correlating sport – no doubt about it.  They’re used to the hard work, they’re used to grinding it out – they’re used to looking at a black line for a long period of time and they get into rowing and they look around and say, “hey, cool, scenery”. So I’ve had really good luck with some kids that have a strong swimming background.

I coached at Yale for 3 years as well, and there was a guy that was 6’6” and 210 lbs and was a 500 yard freestyler in high school. There’s not a much better combination that that.  This was a guy that was willing to work hard. After 3 years of rowing he was a world champion.  And the next year he went to the Olympics in ’88.

So the NCAA allows up to 20 womens rowing scholarships in a D1 program. Do you allocate the full 20 at UVA?
Yes, we’re fully funded and have been for about 5 years now. Before that we were not, but the department decided to fully fund all the sports, so we’re fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of that.

So this is all open weight, correct?
Yes, we have lightweight sized rowers, but we don’t have a lightweight team.

The 20 scholarships cover the entire roster of 65-70 women?
Right. Not everyone is a full scholarship. There are a few full scholarships, but it’s a lot percentages.

Are there certain benchmarks based on erg scores, where if you’re hitting this mark you’re in the realm of 100% and if you’re hitting that you might qualify for 50%?
It’s not so much erg scores, as much as what you’ve done while you’re here.  I mean there are some kids that come in as a full scholarship because they’re very, very talented and a lot of schools are after them.  But there are others who come in on a percentage or nothing at all, and earn their way to get some financial help as they go through their careers.  I had 2 kids in the 2009 Varsity 8 that started at zero and ended up at full by their senior year.  So again it’s not a specific benchmark because you can have a great erg score and still not be able to move the boat.  It’s  back to character, being a good teammate and a good boat mover more than a certain erg.

That said, the erg score is very quantitative and easy to assess, and those other important factors are a harder to quantify. The erg does tell you that at least she’s got a lot of power and probably endurance and toughness, so if we can teach her how to row, she’s probably going to be pretty good. But you can have kids who are great rowers, great erg scores but they’re just not good teammates.  They just don’t have what it takes, character-wise, to be an asset to the team.

What’s your philosophy about weight in a boat? Is there a benefit to be a lighter rower with a good erg, compared to a heavier rower with a better erg score? Is there a tradeoff?
At some point, there is.  You have to consider the fact of power per pound.  There are lot of smaller people who create really good scores for their weight, but in the end, you need horsepower.  Even if you’re 130 lbs and have a 7:40 erg, that’s pretty good, but a 7:40 erg no matter how much you weigh is not going to create the kind of horsepower that you need to succeed at the Division 1 Varsity 8 level.

There’s room for kids that size in an open weight boat, but they’re usually pretty fast. So you have to balance that.

Sometimes that comes out in a seat race – you switch a rower in a boat and see what difference it makes.  Of course you’re trying to control a lot of variables – so it’s not perfect.

How about the Coxswains, are there scholarships available or are they generally walk-ons?
Well, it’s very hard to assess a coxswain, there aren’t any quantitative measures there. But you listen to coaches and listen to tapes, that type of thing and hopefully you come up with some indications that this kids is going to be pretty good in college.  There are times when you can give them some aid (financial) but a lot of times, here at UVA it may just be a matter of helping them get into school, which is pretty valuable. And then if we’re able to help them financially as well, that’s pretty attractive.

But we tend to lean more on the side of the rowers, helping them a little bit more than the coxswains. But we have helped some coxswains in the past as well.

You mentioned being able to help an athlete get into school. Obviously UVA is a very academically competitive school.  If you have an athlete that you want, but they may be on the border, how much support can you give with admissions?
Yes, absolutely. We have a few slots each year where admissions will allow us to identify those kids that we can support. It’s no different than at any other school. As for the academics they’ll need, it’s really a case by case basis.

There was a girl who was in the nursing school who just graduated that I slotted and helped her get into the school and she ended up number 1 in the nursing school with a 3.95 GPA. She ended up an academic All-American.

How solid are the slots? If you slot an athlete, are they pretty well assured of getting in?
It’s solid. We can get a commitment from admissions and be able to tell them, we’re willing to slot you if you’re willing to commit to us. The only thing that would make it fall through would be the same sort of thing that would get your regular admission rescinded.

Next, Coach Sauer on early commits, time demands and challenges D1 athletes face