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Case Studies in Rowing Club Structure

Friday, November 14, marked the opening of USRowing’s weekend-long 2014 Youth Coaches Symposium. Held in Princeton, N.J., the symposium drew more than 100 coaches, some from as far away as Gibraltar, to learn from experts in the field and to share ideas through panel talks and discussions, presentations by experts, and on-the-water sessions by top coaches.

The symposium began with opening remarks by Kris Korzeniowski, Director of Coaching Education at USRowing, who introduced a panel of experts including Holly Hatton, Casey Galvanek and others, to talk about junior club structure. According to Korzeniowski, this is a highly requested subject by visitors of previous symposiums, as many clubs struggle to various degrees with their internal balance of power.

“Every club has some obstacles in common, and some that are unique to their club,” said Eric Catalano, head coach and executive director of the Saratoga Rowing Association, in his opening remarks. “We are not going to assume that the same thing works in every place. Many roles that are filled in by coaches rely heavily on having the right person for the job.”

In order to tackle the various problems and talk about solutions, participants were presented with six cases, each offering different club structures and issues.

“The discussion comes down to how to run a club successfully, it comes down to how to manage three parts of the club: board of directors, parent group and the coaching staff. Some clubs are able to find solutions; some clubs are not. Those clubs without solutions are in limbo,” said Korzeniowski.

The cases

The first case dealt with a non-rowing board of directors and non-rowing boosters, who all want to micromanage operations and tell the coaches what to do. The head coach and six assistant coaches eventually had to do everything, from managing the payroll to event planning, from fundraising to launch boat maintenance. It’s a situation where it becomes just a matter of time before a coach will quit. It’s an example where, the boosters and board don’t recognize expertise and force coaches to take matters into their own hands, leading to more conflict.

Holly Hatton, junior rowing coach at Bromfield Acton-Boxborough and the 2013 Fan’s Choice Junior Coach of the Year, asked the room: “How many of you work at a club where the board has a term limit?”

A sparse number of hands came up, with coaches sharing limits averaging around three years.

“The continuity of individuals who have been at your club for a while can add positivity to your program,” Hatton said, “but there are sometimes people who have been there too long, who aren’t invested enough anymore.”

“One of the things you first have to identify,” suggested Casey Galvanek of Sarasota Crew, “is what exactly is broken.” Without knowing what is broken, Galvanek explained, you don’t know what to replace. He spoke about the restructuring of his club and board over the course of several years in order to better function with the coaching staff.

The second case offered a unique twist, where the hypothetical coach dealt with a similar issue to the first case, but the resolution was more evident. A non-rowing board of directors micromanages everything, but the new coach they hire demands three years of carte blanche, freedom to act as he thinks best. The coach eventually proved he was right when the club started growing, as the structure proved clubs might need a board with expertise outside of rowing, but with at least one strong leader with expertise in the sport. In this particular situation, a lot of praise was given to the model of parental involvement, which allows parents to sign up for certain roles within the program, but avoids any parental overreach. Additionally, athlete captains relay issues first to their direct coach, then if necessary, to the head coach, avoiding conflicts in a program focused on youth.

The third scenario initiated a response in unison, offering a case where coaches had the freedom to run a program, but answer to the board. This was a board made up completely of masters rowers and intentionally void of parents. The program did not have a parental booster club either, out of fear that parents would influence decision-making.

Nearly all the participating coaches in the room agreed that they could not imagine running a club without the help of parents. One of the coaches said her club benefitted from coordinating parental support through a program director, which guarantees that parents are kept away from line-up decisions and other coaching conflicts.

In some cases, such as the fourth scenario, there was a functioning structure in place, but not necessarily with the right people. Take, for example, a board of directors made up of parents overseeing the budget, a program director overseeing the coaches, logistics, assistance with fundraising, and also coaching the varsity girls. The boatman coaches the varsity boys, overseeing equipment and rowing site management. A parent group oversees main fundraising, team events, and other on-site team equipment, both during travel and at the club.

“Here, you need a strong program director to allow people to do their job,” said Hatton, after it was explained that in this specific case, the club struggled with board members overestimating their knowledge of rowing. “If you hire someone for their expertise, you’d better listen to them. The board’s job is to make sure the coach doesn’t overspend, but they need to allow the experts to do their job.”

In scenario five, the emphasis was on a much disliked “employer-employee relationship” developing between the board and the coaches, where the board members want an increase in regattas and participation. With a rotating board of parents, the same issue kept occurring. The main problem was considered the communication from coaches back to parents, explaining that, similar to case four, coaches are hired to do something the board can’t do and something the board shouldn’t try to do.

“Here, you need someone who is really good at conflict resolution,” said Paul Allbright of the James Madison Crew, “and also knows how to run a complaints department. If anybody then has a complaint, it doesn’t go straight to the board or the coach, but to someone in a fact-finding mode, whose job isn’t necessarily to support the coaches, but to find the right information.”

The perfect case

Following the five cases with a clear issue, a sixth case was presented, which Korzeniowski called “the perfect case.” Based on a model used by Oakland Strokes, it involves a board of directors with rowing knowledge and the power to hire and fire personnel, a second board made up of parents with major input, but not on personnel decisions, and additional committees to tackle specific issues such as parental complaints about coaching decisions. In this model, complaints are relayed to the coach through a knowledgeable liaison committee to create a more neutral, objective decision-making process.

Ethan Curren, a former head coach at Community Rowing, Inc., added that he believes clubs need to be led through four important pillars – mission, leadership, communication and management.

“When we are looking at some of the dysfunctional situations, comparing them to some of the highly functional situations, you see the need for clear structures that enable communication,” said Curren. “Communication is more than just being able to talk a lot; it’s about making sure that the information is out there. If you have those four pillars, the exact details of the structure aren’t necessarily going to be the same, but you are going to get all the elements you need for your organization to be successful.”

“A lot of these things rely on the right person,” added Catalano. “This person needs to be good at communication, and they need to have a clear sense of mission. These points need to happen at a club. Clubs approach it differently, but if you are missing those pieces, that’s when things start to go wrong.”

Knowledge game

Coaches in the room generally gravitated towards the final case as a great example of how it should be done, despite other cases offering a greater role to coaches. While the number of people involved in governing was considered interchangeable, most coaches – some of whom shared being board members and parents of youth rowers as well – supported finding the right mixture of wisdom and power for different roles. Whether through term limits, dialogue, or a diverse structure, it is important to be able to keep tabs on everyone within the club, while avoiding overreach.

Some coaches shared that they had found success by finding board members based on their expertise and not just their dedication to the sport, such as lawyers, businessmen, former coaches or parents. Clubs should aim for the right combination of people in not necessarily a rigid structure, but one that serves a defined purpose and clarity.

When asked if a larger club is better off with a larger board, Catalano summarized the search for the perfect club structure the best: “It’s not a numbers game, it’s a knowledge game.”

Written by Jules Zane | Nov 26, 2014

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