Happy Rowers are Fast Rowers: Performance, Recovery and Self-Worth

by Patrick Larcom

Caryn Davies Olympic Gold Medalist IRL at CRILast Summer the IRL Fellows were lucky enough to have Olympic Gold Medalist Caryn Davies share some of her thoughts on leadership and trust with them as a guest speaker in our leadership class. Caryn said, "Trust is a belief that someone will act with my best interest in mind." It was a very inspirational class with many stories and from then on we knew she had to come speak at the What Works Summit and share more of her knowledge with us. Caryn's breakout session this year was aimed at delivering actionable strategies that coaches can use to help athletes increase their enjoyment, develop their self-worth, and ultimately get faster.

Caryn represented Team USA in three Summer Games, earning a silver medal in Athens 2004, a gold medal in Beijing 2008, and another gold in London 2012, all in the women's eight. Caryn served on USRowing's Board of Directors for six years, and she currently serves as a Vice President of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, Caryn studied psychology and Germanic languages. She went on to earn a JD from Columbia Law School and an MBA from Oxford University's Saïd Business School. For her day job, Caryn works as a corporate lawyer at Goodwin, a large Boston law firm. Caryn also works as a consultant and performance coach at Valor Performance, Inc., a company devoted to helping executives and salespeople ignite and sustain peak performance.

If you missed Caryn's presentations hopefully the following post will help fill you in and spur some questions on how we can develop happier and faster athletes.

If you're interested in delving deeper, consider applying to the Institute for Rowing Leadership. It's a great way to test your thoughts on the sport and pack years of learning into one intense year! The IRL is accepting applications on a rolling basis until April 1st, 2019.
You can see our course catalogue, download the application and find more information on our website or via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

What Coaches said were key takeaways from Caryn's presentation:

  • “Burn out” means there was a fire, look back at the fire to learn from it

  • I learned more depth about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

  • It’s important to know more about your athletes to help you all get the most from a program

  • Make sure the team knows that performance is not an indication of your self-worth

  • How to reframe “bad” practices or races, to make them productive experiences

Interested in how you can create Happy and Fast athletes? “Read More” below!

CarynDavies webClick here for all of Caryn Davies' content from the 2019 WWS:

Follow Up Questions for Caryn:

What do you suggest as a tool for coaches to use at the start of a practice?

I think it’s important to remind kids on a regular basis why they’re there.  One day, as Tom (the Olympic team coach) was explaining the workout he wanted us to do on Sunday, which was usually our day off, an athlete at the back, who was new, raised her hand and asked, “Is this workout optional?”  Tom stopped and looked at her for a moment, and then he said pointedly, “Every workout is optional.” Of course, we all were there because we wanted to be, not because we had to be. Isn’t it funny how we forget that sometimes?  I recommend building in small reminders that we do this because we want to—because it’s fun. For example, you could ask each kid at the beginning of the season to come up with a word that represents why he or she wants to row, and at the start of every practice have a huddle where the cheer is each kid saying his or her word.

What techniques are there to change from rumination to reflection? Are there keywords, phrases, or ways of presenting information a coach can use with athletes?

The main difference between rumination and reflection is that rumination is backward-looking whereas reflection is forward looking.  Rumination holds your mind hostage in the past. Reflection helps you learn from your mistakes and move forward. To remind me of this I like to use the phrase, “What; so what; now what?”  What happened? What did you learn from it? And what will you do differently in the future?

How does a coach flip the switch between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation?

The key is to make it fun.  Athletes who are intrinsically motivated do the sport because it’s fun, not because a coach tells them to or because they get some kind of extrinsic reward.  Ask yourself, how can I design a program so that these kids would show up and do the work even if I weren’t here?

As you ponder that, keep in mind the three psychological needs that must be satisfied in order to develop intrinsic motivation: control, competence, and connectedness.

Control.  Athletes have to feel like they are in control of the situation.  Encourage your athletes to take ownership of their performance. Ask them what their goals are rather than telling them what their goals should be, and then encourage them to figure out what they need to do in order to get there.  Make it clear that your role is simply to support them on their journey. Perhaps the most poignant thing my Olympic coach ever said to me was, “Coaches don’t get a medal. This is your Olympics.” 

Competence.  The challenge that you set for your athletes needs to be well matched to their skill level. Too easy, and it’s boring: too hard, and it’s frustrating.  Neither of those are fun! So, when designing your training plan, make it hard enough that the workouts are a challenge but not so hard that nobody can hit the targets.  Some people think I’m crazy, but I really like erging because I can set targets for myself, work hard at it, and see measurable improvements.

Connectedness.  Your athletes need to feel connected to others in their social sphere.  Focus on building a sense of community at the boathouse both within the team and around the team.  Erg relays are a great way of building team camaraderie because you can pair the faster kids with the slower ones and have everyone cheering for each other.  Social events are also good; I recommend planning them around an activity (such as a fundraising carwash, for example) so that everyone feels valued.

Are there certain steps that can be incorporated into a boathouse or community?

As a coach, you need to model the behavior you want your athletes to exhibit.  Start by understanding why you want to coach, and make sure that you’re getting out of it what you need to feel fulfilled.  You can’t expect your kids to want to be there if you don’t want to be there either. And then enjoy yourself! Have some fun with it.  Be professional, but after that, be yourself.

Any thoughts/ideas that you or others came up with after the weekend at CRI?

Actually, my answer to the previous question (above) came out of an exchange between two coaches in the audience.  I recommended in my presentation that coaches figure out what motivates their athletes, and said the easiest way to do that is simply to ask them.  Someone asked, “what do I do if they can’t tell me what motivates them?” Another coach said that she models the behavior she wants to see, so in this case she shares with her athletes what motivates her to coach!

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Love talking about rowing? Want more than a weekend? 

Come to the Institute for Rowing Leadership and pack years of learning into one intense year! The IRL is accepting applications on a rolling basis until April 1st, 2019.
Check out our course catalogue, download the application and find more information on our website or via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.