Rowing is becoming a serious sport in girls’ schools, but the rowing formula developed in boys’ schools is not suitable for girls’ schools. A different approach is needed to motivate girls to row.

From my experience, girls and boys come at rowing from different angles and are motivated by different factors. For most boys, rowing defines who they are. Boys talk incessantly about sport and use it to measure and identify each other. Rowers are respected for their toughness and strength and they push themselves to prove it. They wear toughness as a badge of honour – early mornings, the gruelling rowing machines, the burning muscles and the devotion to the boatshed are all signs of strength. Sweat, grit and pain are part of the image, and punishing competition is the fire that drives the game.

Not so girls. Most girls so do not aspire to be seen in sweaty, grimacing poses with pained expressions. They don’t wish to be described as aggressive, nor do they aspire for a body rippling with muscles and thick powerful biceps. Technique must replace strength.

ffective girls’ coaches need an understanding of these gender differences and the psychology that propels girls to row.

For example, one of the things that struck me when I started coaching girls was the contrast in the conversations in the boat. In a boy’s crew the only sounds are grunts and groans, but in the girls’ crews there was non-stop chatter and laughter. Rowing for girls must maintain a strong element of social interaction to hold their interest.

Team personalities are played out quite differently across the sexes. If a boy does not like another crewmember he will have it out. A few brusque words usually do the trick. On the whole, boys don’t think much about liking or disliking other members of the sport. If each one pulls his weight they get along. But girls are different.

Good personal relations are vitally important to them. One disagreeable girl can destroy a whole team. The crew simply decides they do not want to deal with that difficult person morning after morning, and so they all give up rowing. A girl’s coach must be sensitive to interpersonal relationships in the boatshed and teach students to get along on the basis of respect for the strengths that an individual brings to the team. On this basis, I have seen interesting and unusual friendships develop.

Generally speaking, boys row for power and glory. They revel in hard training, discipline and a merit hierarchy. They train to win. But this holds small appeal for most girls, who tend to row for enjoyment and fitness. If a girl does not enjoy the sport, she will quit. If her friends do not enjoy it, they will all quit. Keeping rowing enjoyable and sociable, while keeping the training sessions serious, is a balancing act for a girl’s coach.

Motivational strategy
Traditionally, rowing is a boy’s sport, so the image of rowing must be repositioned in girls’ minds as a graceful sport, not prissy or petite, but one of ‘smooth elegance’ on water.
A promotional push was needed at St Hilda’s to attract students and combat the pull of other sports. Several steps were undertaken to lift the sport’s profile, including talks in assembly, video production, engagement of parents and the introduction of rowing to Year 7 as a compulsory part of their sport rotation program.

When our coxed-four crew won the Head of the River in an undefeated season, each girl was awarded her winning oar as a memento. This generous gesture by the school sealed the newfound prestige of rowing. It was the first time in the school’s history that the school had won a crew race in the Head of the River. Gradually, as we elevated rowing to a status sport with a reputation for fun, as well as honour, the numbers began to grow.

• Winning ways
It’s one thing to get a girl into a boat for a few mornings a week in order to keep fit; it’s a different challenge to train her mentally and physically for peak performance. Here are my five essential ingredients for success.
• Respect
Respect for each other and for the opposition is indispensable. Girls do not have to like everybody at the boatshed, but they must learn to respect their fellow crewmembers and coaches for the strengths that each person contributes. They must also respect their opponents and never take them for granted. Never be over-confident. At St Hilda’s we do not train as if we are the favorites, we train as if we are in second place and hungry to win.
• Presentation
A winning crew wears its school uniform well. This makes the crew feel part of a team rather than five individuals. A well-presented team is visually appealing to spectators at a regatta and gives supporters a sense of pride. It sends a message to opposing teams; just one look will tell the opposition that we are formidable competition – well-prepared and united in purpose.
• Discipline
Training to win is an earnest task. At St Hilda’s each girl knows that as soon as she puts her hands on the boat to lift it off the rack, we are serious about rowing. This discipline is maintained until she puts the boat back on the rack. There is no mucking around, no personal chitchat. Only the coxswain’s voice is heard above the lap of the oars. This level of discipline is hard for girls at first, but they get used to the expectations. There is a time for fun, and we have lots of that, and a time for work.
• Mental preparation
Being mentally prepared for racing is as important as being physically prepared. A girl’s performance can completely alter if one thing in her life is out of harmony, so a lot of work needs to go into emotional regulation when training girls to win, especially at school level where emotional ups and downs can easily govern performance.
• Focus
Race day is an exciting spectacle of well wishers, anxious parents, finishing hooters and loudspeakers, so the challenge is to maintain focus. After cheering for the other teams and prior to our race, I gather my girls together for an hour of calm reflection away from the crowd where we visualise the race and discuss likely scenarios. The crew emerges from this session calm, confident and eager to realise their potential.
The girls are motivated to win in the knowledge that they are doing it for themselves, they are doing it for their school and they are doing it for anybody who ever doubted that St Hilda’s School could win a Head of the River.
Win or lose, the girls are aware of what rowing has taught them. They have heard it from me every day since they joined the boatshed. They know they have developed life skills that will stay with them forever – goal setting, pulling together as a team, friendship, commitment and time management.
Yes, winning is sweet, but at the end of the day, life skills are so much more durable. Girls appreciate this.

Ben Vining (B Applied Science) is Director of Rowing at St Hilda’s School on the Gold Coast Queensland. Before taking up coaching and consulting, he was a rower at The King’s School, then at Sydney University. He is coordinator of land training at The Southport School and a coach at Griffith University. He is presently helping establish a rowing program at Varsity College, a new co-educational school on the Gold Coast. His contact is mob 0403 195 339.