Trends in Training: Collegiate and Youth Panel

summarized by David DeWinter
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Heidi Hunsberger Varsity Women Co-Head Coach, Greenwich Crew
Cam Brown – Men’s Head Crew Coach, Orange Coast College
Catherine Starr – Varsity Women Co-Head Coach, Greenwich Crew

The 3-Sentence Summary

COVID-19 has drastically changed how coaches run their programs over the past 2 years, but coaches can use those changes to guide their approach to future seasons. For example, there is a role for fun that we have gotten away from in the pursuit of results (especially at the high school level). Additionally, empowering kids with controlled autonomy and purpose in their training helps create a boathouse environment that is a reliable, enjoyable safe place for athletes.



0:38 Introductions

  • Heidi: Alum and Former Coach at University of Wisconsin
  • Catherine: Alum and Former Coach at Brown University
  • Cam: Started coaching in Australia, moved to the states about 15 years ago and coached at Oklahoma City, now at Orange Coast College

2:57 What were the biggest things you were facing in the early pandemic?

  • Catherine: Loss of control. We wanted to keep training/coming to the boathouse fun but also purposeful. We wanted to give back autonomy, accountability, and control to the athletes, so we gave them a lot of choice, including being able to say no to training ideas. Our goal was to keep as many athletes as we could.
  • Heidi: Keep it simple and straightforward because the kids relied on the boathouse as a safe place every day.

Athlete Engagement

5:30 How did you create an environment where kids who had to stay at home did not feel out of touch with what was happening at the boathouse?

  • Catherine: We kept a running Google Doc with the daily workout plan, so kids could replicate it at home.
  • Heidi: We didn’t want them to fear being left out.

7:24 (To Cam) You were shut down even earlier. How did you handle it?

  • Cam: We felt a lot of uncertainty the whole season. The full team was still on Zoom at the beginning of fall 2020. Older athletes helped newer athletes feel connected. We tried to keep motivation going using Strava, but it only goes so far when it’s remote.
  • In November we could gather at the boathouse, but still under heavy restrictions. 4 people in an 8+ for practice to enable social distancing.
  • Overall, we wanted the boathouse and practice to be a stable part of their lives.
  • In spring, we could go to 8 people in a boat. We didn’t know if we would race, but our mantra was that if we did get a chance to race, we would be ready.


10:40 We all started with how to keep kids engaged. What about the logistics of keeping a large club of kids engaged? How did you do that?

  • Heidi: We had to go virtual for spring 2020 and then figure out how to get ergs to every team member. In May we could go out in singles. We got back to 4s by fall 2020 in specific pods. We had some scrimmages with Saugatuck. Everyone wants a clear answer on what the next few months looks like, but we had to be transparent that we just didn’t know.
  • Cam: 50 to 60 athletes but only 30 ergs, but we couldn’t spread them out enough to use them all. My job became more of a manager trying to enforce COVID rules, not a coach. This season I learned and adjusted to focus on building relationships with athletes instead of being a manager.

Athlete Care

16:24 How did you change your focus from team performance to care for each athlete?

  • Catherine: That’s 99% of our job. We were transparent that we didn’t have all the answers; we were using the same strategies we gave them for managing our self-care.
  • Heidi: We had to find the balance between coaching and moving the team forward and also making sure athletes feel heard and taken care of –it’s always a battle.
  • Cam: When we realized it was going to be longer than a short shutdown, we continually evolved our goals and focus for the season. Ask the athletes, “What can we control?” Let’s make the best of this situation.

22:22 You couldn’t do as many team meetings, so did you create more check-in points individually?

  • Heidi: Yes, nonstop. We try to see 3 kids in our office before practice every day. We can help as coaches (we’re not therapists), so we had to know when we could help and when it was outside of our wheelhouse.

24:51 Did you bring in any outside professionals?

  • Cam: We didn’t (logistically it would be challenging). My wife is a counselor and helped me a lot working through the challenges as a coach. We have other services on campus that we’d refer kids to.

Coach Self-Care

26:24 How did you make it through and take care of yourselves?

  • Catherine: Having great people in your support system to use as sounding boards.
  • Heidi: As coaches we are very supportive of each other, so if one person is having a hard time we try to pick them up.
  • Cam: Relying on and supporting your peer coaches is critical. I felt how much it affected me after the season–it took a much bigger toll than I realized. In my reflection, I reconnected with the idea that this should be fun, not a grind. This season I am not going to stress as much about it since I know what to expect; now I see ways to enjoy what I’m doing again.

Training Changes

32:41 How did your training evolve through this?

  • Catherine: In the winter we dropped to 90-min practice. Athletes had to come in and feel accomplished with what they did, their time was valued, and it was efficient.
    • Workout structure: How can we continuously move towards a goal?
    • Giving autonomy: you need x minutes of steady state, pieces no longer than minutes, z total minutes of rest. Go!
  • Heidi: We had to train in separate pods, which we couldn’t always see in the dark, so it was imperative that they would execute in ways that would not hurt themselves. Coxswains helped here.

36:46 Were you surprised at the results based on the difference in the volume of work?

  • Heidi: A lot less volume, but hard to draw conclusions about results because we don’t know what other crews did.
  • Catherine: We kept it simple and streamlined. Our workouts were strategic and the athletes knew the why behind them.
  • Cam: Our volume was abnormally low and our boat speed reflected that. It can be really demotivating to see your current 2k/5k/6k vs. your PR, so many coaches have changed their benchmark to something new just so athletes could focus on progress (e.g. 3-mile run, 2-min erg). Small tests that you could test frequently.

Fun and Play

43:14 Did you see differences in rowing quality from athletes who got a chance to be in small boats?

  • Catherine/Heidi: Yes! We had a freshman in our varsity 8+ who just learned how to row a single this year. Small boats also create an atmosphere of play that the athletes enjoyed and encouraged learning.

46:38 Cam: Let’s make sure athletes are enjoying the season.

48:44 Catherine: It took this uncertainty of COVID to allow us a little more play as coaches and as a team. We grew a lot as coaches. Don’t go on defense and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.


51:12 Since omicron is out there, what have you taken away from the past 2 years that you will employ moving forward?

  • Heidi: Treat every practice like it’s your last and always put your best foot forward. Our most important job as coaches is to make sure we are providing a safe, happy place for our athletes.
  • Cam: We can handle it differently because everyone has a different perspective of what this is. “It is what it is.” Make your practice time productive. Find some way to get better.
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