The Rowing Retrospective: Turning Today’s Loss Into Tomorrow’s Win

No one likes to lose, especially when you expect to do well. But how many times have you left a race course with the pangs of defeat and not done anything about it? For those races where you felt you could’ve done better, the post-race debrief with your coach is not the end of the conversation. In this post, you’ll read about a reflection technique which separates top performers from just good ones. Let’s dive in.

Enter the Retrospective

Retrospective. Adjective. Looking back on or dealing with past events or situations.

We’ll use “retrospective” as an abbreviation for “retrospective meeting.”

It’s a tool to take ownership of any negative situation, process it, learn from it, and move on. There are lots of traps in this process (playing the blame game, being quiet to avoid conflict) that can make it difficult to do right, so let’s start with what you need to be successful.

What Teams Need First

You need everyone on your team to commit to three things to make retrospectives work:

  1. The emotional intelligence to share your own experience. No one likes to be criticized, especially in front of the rest of the boat. Keep your comments focused on what you sensed, not what you think someone else did wrong.
  2. The self-awareness to recognize that judgment of an action is not the same as judgment of a person. When you hear that “6-seat was late,” it can sting if you were in 6-seat, but you have to work through this. Without identifying what possibly contributed to a disappointing performance, your boat takes a chance on repeating history. Easier said than done. (If you’d like further reading, chapter 3 of The Inner Game of Tennis dives into how you can reframe your thoughts so statements about your performance don’t feel like attacks.)
  3. The trust to put the team ahead of yourself. Let’s take an extreme example. Say David (me) fell off his seat in the last 500, and that was a key moment which slowed us down. Fixating on David’s action is ego at play—obviously it had an impact, but your team’s mindset needs to center on “How can we all prevent that from happening in the next race?” and “How do we respond if that happens again?” instead of “David should just fix that.” Retrospectives focus on what the team has done and what it should do moving forward. If you don’t trust your teammates to do that, and you hold back from sharing your experiences, then you risk wasting time not just with this meeting but also with sub-optimal action items going forward.


You should perform retrospectives when the team has had time to process the results at least a little bit, but not wait so long that people forget what happened, usually between a few hours and 2 days after the race.

Coaches should facilitate these conversations to make sure the conversation stays on track and that everyone has a say. Retrospectives are not just a process for reflection; they are a process for athlete growth and self-discovery. Having a coach facilitate speeds up that learning.

Hold this meeting in a shared space with a wall or whiteboard that you can put sticky notes on. Bring a lot of sticky notes and Sharpies for your athletes to write on—we’ll cover what to do with them down below.

You can do these virtually, but I recommend doing the first few in person to emphasize that you’re in this together.

Set the Stage: 5 Minutes

Coaches, set the stage by sharing the purpose of the meeting (to reflect on past experiences to determine what needs to change moving forward) and what time period or event/race you’re reflecting on. Help your team feel empowered to have open and honest conversation by setting norms for how everyone should behave. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Ask for everyone to be present. (No phones)
  • Remind everyone that we are here to grow as a team and to assume the best intent in others.
  • Remind everyone we’re here to share and take accountability for our own experiences and perceptions.
  • Remind everyone this is a no-judgment zone.

Another I like to start with is called The Prime Directive. I write it on the whiteboard for everyone to look at:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Especially if this is your first retrospective, I would get a verbal “Yes” or head nod from every athlete in the meeting, stating that they agree with the directive. It might seem cheesy, but it gets people to buy in and sets the stage for the conversation ahead.

Finally, ask for suggestions on what else the team needs for a successful conversation.

Gather Data

What Went Well: 15 Minutes

Our brains are funny. Even if you did 99 things right, you fixate on the 1 thing you did wrong. To combat this and express gratitude as a group, each athlete will take a Sharpie and some sticky notes to write things that went well. Stick to 1 idea per note. Take about 5 minutes for this.

After the 5 minutes is up, have each athlete (one at a time) put their sticky notes on the wall and share each idea. Limit any discussion to questions asking for clarity, not on actions or implications.

(If this is a virtual meeting, the facilitator should write these on a shared document as the athletes share them.)

Aim to write things that should actually be celebrated. For example, writing “we all made it to the race course” isn’t useful if this has never been a problem before. (I hope it hasn’t!)


  • We all got 8 hours of sleep the night before the race.
  • We kept our grip on the oars even though it was pouring rain.
  • We matched incredibly well in the first 1000m.

What Didn’t Go Well: 15 Minutes

Okay, onto the hard stuff. Follow the same process as the previous section, this time focusing on what didn’t go so well. This can bring some tension so coaches should prepare to keep the conversation on track in a few ways:

  1. Keep the team focused on actions and outcomes that could’ve been better, not on solutions.
  2. Remind the team to frame their words in terms of their own experience, not about what other people did.
  3. Remind everyone this is a no-judgment zone.

Sometimes the team won’t bring up a sensitive topic (like catching a crab or falling off your seat example above) because they don’t want to call someone out in public. This is tricky, because you want to unearth the facts so you can look at how to improve, but even a statement of fact like “David fell off his seat” can feel like criticism. This is why it’s so important to emphasize that there is no judgment in this meeting.

If you have a healthy team culture, the person who messed up should it bring it up themselves, because they trust the team knows that even good teammates make mistakes, and they believe everyone is focused on making the boat faster. If you’re working on that culture, you may want to have a conversation privately with this person before the meeting to see how they feel about talking about it in a retrospective.


  • We got cold at the start line.
  • One of the oar collars popped off during the start.
  • Stern 4 and bow 4 weren’t together during the last 500m.
  • We didn’t get faster during our sprint.
  • We caught a crab during last 250m.

Identify Themes

Group Items into Themes: 10 Minutes

Now that you have these big lists, it’s time to look for themes. This helps identify what was on people’s minds the most, so you can choose a topic area to focus on in the next step.

Coaches, let 2 – 3 athletes come up and organize sticky notes into groups for about 5 minutes. Afterward, look over the groups, make any final tweaks, and make sure each group has a name.

It’s entirely possible that a sticky note can belong in multiple themes. Don’t overanalyze it; choose the theme you believe has the strongest tie to it.

Example Themes:

  • Technique
  • Rigging
  • The Ride to the Race Course
  • Trust

Theme Vote: 5 Minutes

Now the team must choose a theme to spend time discussing and brainstorming how to move forward with it. If you have 5 or fewer themes, give each athlete 2 votes for which themes they think are most important. If you have 10 or fewer themes, give them 3. Keep following this pattern. (Hopefully you don’t have much more!)

The purpose is to get the team to decide where they need to focus, so the theme with the most votes wins. Coaches, take note of any close seconds or thirds; it may be worth another meeting to address those.

Find Root Causes: 10 Minutes

If your theme has statements about what didn’t go well, your team will be hungry to start solving them.

Before you start, double check you’re solving the root cause of the issue, not just the issues itself.

An easy way to do this is to prompt the team to ask “Why?” at least 5 times, or until it becomes absurd.

For example:

Issue: We weren’t warmed up enough at the start.

Why? We didn’t do any work at high-pressure or high-rate during the warm-up.

Why? We didn’t have enough room on the race course.

Why? There were too many other competitors in our way for us to do high-intensity pieces safely.

Why? The regatta allowed for this many competitors during our race.

Why? We don’t know!

By going deeper you will make sure the solutions you brainstorm in the next section address not just the symptoms (poor warm-up) but actually the root causes (too many competitors in our race led to a crowded warm-up area).

Create Action Items: 15 Minutes

Now it’s time to drill in as a team and figure out how best to move forward. If your discussion centers around some things that didn’t go well, ask yourselves two questions:

  1. How can we prevent this from happening again?
  2. If it does happen again, how will we respond?

Coaches should allow a free-flowing brainstorm, and attempt to consolidate ideas into 1 or 2 action items when you have 5 minutes left.

Each action item should…

  1. Have a clear owner who’s responsible for it being completed. In many cases, this will be the coach.
  2. Be implementable during practice as well as races. It’s important for action items to build habits, and most teams don’t race enough to create habits only on race days.

Wrap-Up: 5 Minutes

Thank everyone for their time, honesty, and commitment to self-improvement. If anyone has any feedback about the retrospective process, invite them to share before closing the meeting. The process itself is something you can evolve, too!

Coaches: Things to Watch Out For

Coaches play very important roles as facilitators. They need to be on the lookout for potential disruptions to the process. I’ve listed a few below.

Extroverts vs. Introverts

Meetings with active participation favor extroverts and their opinions over introverts. If you have introverts in the room, encourage them to do their own reflection ahead of time so they can come prepared to share in the meeting. You may need to gather their ideas ahead of the meeting so you can make sure they are heard.


Everyone saying the same thing. We’re hardwired neurologically to try to fit in and not rock the boat. If you notice the same people speaking up and everyone else agreeing, consider asking people who aren’t contributing how they feel. If they’re shy, you should follow up afterward one-on-one to make sure they were really heard.

Everyone Being Too “Nice”/No Recognition of Problems

Again, we don’t want to rock the boat, but we also want to get better. If your team hesitates to bring up examples of what they felt didn’t go well, then you may need to change the meeting into one that helps you address why people don’t feel comfortable sharing everything. Chances are you won’t get feedback in this meeting, and you’ll need to follow up one-on-one. If your athletes trust you, you should be able to learn more; if they don’t, or it’s too early, then this will be a challenge.

Attempts to be Perfect

You will not be perfect. Do not try to be perfect. This process is messy, and you will make mistakes. However, remind everyone to assume the best intent, even in you as a coach. As you get more practice with retrospectives, you’ll learn more about which steps to spend more time on and which steps to spend less time on. Keep experimenting, getting feedback from your team, and refining the process.

Don’t Dominate the Conversation

As a coach, you’ll have several ideas on how to fix problems, but remember one of the main goals of this retrospective is to empower your team to feel like they have control over their destiny. This creates a tremendous amount of buy-in to your program, but they need to play an active role this process. Let them drive and provide the guard rails when needed. You may be surprised by what they come up with.

Too Many Action Items

It may be tempting to create 5 – 10 action items from this meeting, but the goal is to do the action items well, not to have a to do list that your athletes will forget. Stick to 1 or 2, perhaps 3 at the most.

Learn by Doing: After the Retrospective

After the meeting, every athlete should know when and where to start their action items. Over time, you may realize that what you’re doing isn’t helping enough, and you need to brainstorm again. This is part of the process of learning by doing. From here, you can have follow-up retrospectives which address the gaps you’ve discovered, and the process starts anew.

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