Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

summarized by David DeWinter
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Sandy Armstrong – Executive Director & Varsity Girls Coach, Marin Rowing Association; Chair, USRowing JrHPC
Lori Dauphiny – Women’s Head Coach, Princeton University

The 3-Sentence Summary

To be successful, coaches must (1) define success for themselves and (2) be very intentional about the roles they want to play well, the roles they want to simplify, and the roles they delegate to others inside or outside their organization. Because kids are under more stress than ever before, perhaps the most important role outside of core coaching is that of a good listener, so you can support your athletes and empower them to find solutions. We don’t know how best to balance the focus between emotional health and the grit needed to become a fast team, but if you prioritize helping your athletes become better humans first, then it’s clear you need to put emotional health first, too.


0:50 – USRowing Medal of Honor for Larry Gluckman


4:09 Panel intros

  • Sandy Armstrong – 37th year as executive director at Marin Rowing
  • Lori Dauphiny – 24th season at the helm of the Princeton Women’s program

Roles and Responsibilities of a Coach

5:16 How do you keep everything running? Do you have a blueprint you use for every situation?

Sandy: I developed my blueprint over time. It requires you to continue educating yourself, reflecting on your experiences, and learning from others.

6:47 Sandy: Athlete and program success is the result of several other layers of work that need to come first:

  • Organization (keeping the lights on, functioning equipment, launches, etc.)
  • Goal (the mission): Teach the art and sport of rowing
  • Philosophy (how to reach goals): Work hard to be nice
    • Communication is super important: be intentional and know what role to play in what context (dictator, nurturer, or in between)
  • Structure
  • Staff: Bought into the philosophy
  • Athletes
  • Success

12:38 Sandy: The best leaders are tough (holding high expectations of themselves and others), kind (empathetic), confident in their actions, but also humble enough to keep learning.

These are my touchstones.

13:57 What’s different from what Sandy mentioned about your experience at Princeton?

Lori: It’s very similar. Larry Gluckman (mentioned earlier) was a coach at Princeton, and he helped lay the foundation for a functioning boathouse–to teach us the importance of being one organization, not a divided one.

16:10 Lori: My touchstones: Am I helping others? Are my student-athletes thriving and growing? If that’s happening, we are headed in the right direction.

Similar to Sandy: be tough, have high expectations, but do it in a way that you care. Be confident but humble.

19:18 How do you manage to be all these different roles that a coach must play (therapist, mechanic, trailer driver, nutritionist, parent manager…)?

  • Lori: No one person or even a whole staff can be everything. What’s more important is to lean on resources that can fill in the gaps (strength trainers, academic advisors, online resources…)

21:32 What advice would you give to the coaches who don’t have the resources of a Princeton or Marin?

  • Sandy: Well we don’t have the same resources as a Princeton, but we have an idea of when we can simplify and when we rely on the expertise of others.
    • Simplify example: Nutrition – do encourage kids to eat fresh, unprocessed foods; don’t tell them to go keto because you want them to lose weight.
    • Outside Experts example: Strength Training

Athlete Care

26:10 Let’s say an athlete who comes to see you who’s completely overwhelmed and just needs a break from practice. How do you start that conversation?

  • Lori: The first thing I do is listen. I used to think that we have to fix this asap, but now I sit back and take in what they’re comfortable sharing. Then I ask questions for clarity. Then you figure out whether you can help or whether you need to point them somewhere else to find help.
    • Ask about the quality of their sleep!
  • Sandy: After listening, I think about whether there are patterns with this athlete that mean we need to bring someone else in – a counselor, their parents, etc. Sometimes, the kids just need to cry it out; I no longer try to fix (coach mindset); I listen and guide.
    • I sometimes offer them a day off. Do you want to sit in the launch with me? Do you want to go for a walk/run?

34:11 Rowing is a recreation. Athletes need to enjoy it!

35:54 How do you equip your staff to handle these situations?

  • Sandy: Even though it’s very black and white to me, I’m still very supportive.
    • Script to share: Here’s what we’re doing (mission/philosophy). Here’s what you’re not doing. Here’s what I need you to do/change. Go.
    • I asked to be copied on every communication between coaches and athletes/parents so that I can be aware of red flags and patterns and alleviate problems before they get out of control.
  • Lori: I have to listen because my assistant coaches sometimes have different solutions to situations I’ve been through. I also support them when they think they have to know everything–it’s not true.
  • Sandy: In front of others, you always have each other’s back (athletes, coaches, board, etc.). Privately, you figure out why you’re not on the same page.

Athlete Stress

42:43 What are you spending time on now that wasn’t on the radar 15 – 20 years ago?

  • Lori: Challenges surrounding outside distractions (phone, social media) and text communication vs. face-to-face. Listening is so much more challenging when someone is overwhelmed and only sends notice through text.
  • Sandy: Personal athlete stressors along with this new pressure to be the best (which comes from the home). The conversation has shifted from better training to supporting the people that are rowing for us.
  • Lori: The stress that not being the best is a failure continues into college. Kids don’t allow themselves to make mistakes.

51:05 What are parents and athletes asking you consistently and how do you handle those requests?

Sandy: As a junior coach, create boundaries. “It is not my job to get you into college. It is my job to create an environment where you could be the right fit for a college that wants to recruit you.”

Watch out for parents who want to make their child into something they’re not. Pressure to have an erg score, additional personal training, other coaches, extra tutoring…


54:29 What are you spending time on with recruiting that you haven’t in the past?

Lori: Rules have changed to recruit younger–we can start to talk with juniors now. It’s a catch 22. On the one hand, it’s too early to recruit–for them to know they want to row for 4 years. On the other hand, now that the option’s available, you have to compete against other schools to recruit talent.

We try to alleviate pressure for athletes by focusing on whether we’re a good mutual fit instead of forcing decisions. Let the child make the decision.

58:36 Sandy: Coaches can take pressure off themselves by suggesting that athletes and their families get help with the college recruitment process by speaking with college counselors and former rowers.

Challenge the rower to find the schools with the right academic fit first; then you can help them find the right rowing fit.

Be aware of patterns; juniors are overwhelmed during winter and spring because they’re being evaluated on what seems like all aspects of their lives (grades, erg scores, test scores, college applications, etc.).

1:02:34 In college, when do you have athletes coming to you under similar amounts of stress (internships, career, etc.)?

Lori: It used to be seniors, but now it’s juniors. It just gets earlier and earlier to focus on their career. Social media gives the false impression that everyone knows what they’re doing, but reality is a lot messier.

Sometimes athletes just need a day off to process.

Local Stress to Global Stress

1:06:23 When an athlete is going through a very tough time or something global is happening (e.g. pandemic), how do you address that?

  • Sandy
    • As an Executive Director, think impact-response-solution.
      • What’s the impact of the event on what I oversee?
      • What is my response to that? What do I need to manage and what don’t I need to manage?
      • What is the solution to the issues that impact the club?
    • As a coach, we’re a little more sheltered, unless something happened which specifically impacts the team.
      • We talked about #metoo and BLM because athletes brought it up.
      • Is this a learning experience and can it help us grow?
      • It’s easy to say BLM isn’t a rowing thing, but addressing it makes our athletes feel comfortable, involved, and included, and that’s a prerequisite for getting the most out of rowing together.
  • Lori
    • We were all over the world when George Floyd was murdered, but realized that we needed to come together. Zoom wasn’t a great platform, but we found it more beneficial to set up smaller meetings where people could share their thoughts and feelings.
    • Athletes owned the solution of how we respond.

Speed or Mental Health?

1:14:56 Does focusing on athlete emotional health in addition to discipline and grit potentially limit speed vs. if we didn’t focus on emotional health at all?

  • Lori: No way. It’s critical.
  • Sandy: I don’t know the answer to that. I have not been winning a lot of races recently, so it’s possible to consider this. However, we have a responsibility to help athletes be more successful humans, too. Maybe it’s 51-49 emotional health to grit.
    • We can talk about grit in a different way: how to find a solution, how to prioritize, how to let things go, how to turn it on and off. Find grit by being supportive of athletes and the challenges they face, not by “being an old-school coach.”

1:19:54 How do you coach grit without going down those old-school coaching routes?

  • Lori: It comes through knowing how to handle the good and the bad when it comes your way and how you experience it.
  • Sandy: Support your athletes in the challenge to be gritty. Lift them up. Be honest about their strengths and weaknesses, but assure them you’ll be there to work through it with them. When they achieve, they feel amazing. You HAVE to challenge them.

1:25:23 How do you handle your own self-care?

  • Sandy: I would love to have some great advice but I don’t. It means putting other people aside, and that’s hard for me.
  • Lori: If you can surround yourself with good people, it helps a lot.
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