I don’t know legendary rowing coach Mike Spracklen, but I certainly know of him. I’ve long heard the fabled stories about how tough and demanding he is, that he can be blunt and harsh and unforgiving, that he pushes you to the brink of your own sanity and then pulls you back. I’ve heard all of that, and I’ve also heard about the medals his athletes have won. He coached my childhood idol Silken Laumen and she was pretty damn good too.
I don’t claim to know one single thing about what happened between Rowing Canada, Mike Spracklen and all the rowers he coached but from what I can tell there was little to no consensus among those involved. Central to the issue, it seems, were his style, methods and standards. By all accounts, it was not an entirely agreeable decision to let him go.
This all got me thinking about the regard we have for toughness – and tough coaches – in Canadian sport. What does it say about a system that caters to the chirpers and prodders who didn’t achieve what they wanted, instead of propping up the ones who got the results?
Reaching the pinnacle of sport, especially in aerobic power based sports like rowing, tends to require a commitment to pursuing extremes: physical, technical and mental. It can be downright masochistic: the self-inflicted life of hard training and intense pressure to perform command a colossal personal investment but they are essential to achieving excellence in sport.
It is a monumentally difficult task to become the best in the world at one’s chosen sport. The prerequisite characteristics – good genes, mental fortitude, technical aptitude and a high tolerance for pain are a relatively uncommon combination. This is what makes sport so spellbinding – we are in awe of rare athletic perfection.
There are some athletes who can achieve this feat on their own, driven by some otherworldly inspiration that even they cannot explain. They can go it alone, reach their own limits and push to their own extremes. But they are the exception – most athletes need a system, a guide, a teacher, a boss – they need a coach.
There are a lot of good coaches out there who are passionate, skilled and experienced. They are certified, well-educated and respected within their sport. They work hard and they get results.
But the best ones are different. The best ones are also unyielding, exacting, themselves driven to extremes and, above all else, exceedingly tough. They tend to be unpopular because they do not offer mountains of praise or tolerate complacency. They do not compromise, they tell the hard truth to your face and they push you when you think you cannot take another step, another breath.
But, with your permission, they will also reach down deep into your very soul and unearth a potential you didn’t even know was there. They inspire resilience and independence. And they don’t just teach you your sport, they teach you how to win. Then, when you do win, they simply smile and nod quietly in the background, out of the spotlight, pleased with a job well done.
This is not always a bucket of laughs. The coach-athlete relationship is a fickle beast. It can be rewarding, difficult, pure magic or completely toxic. Usually it’s a combination of all of these things at one time or another but if absolute trust and respect are established, and the athlete buys in, magic things can happen. Relationships like this are as rare as the athletic feats themselves and the variables contributing to their success vary wildly between coaches and athletes.
These coaches come along once in a sport, once in a generation. If you’re lucky, you might get the chance to work with one of the best. This optimal combination of a master coach and a willing pupil is when the real magic happens. It’s not magic like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, it’s magic like synchronized, calculated, determined and uncompromising work towards an extraordinary goal.
For the last eight years of my career I had the great pleasure of finding that coach-athlete magic with my coach Xiuli Wang. I got to work with one of the best, although admittedly it wasn’t always pleasurable. She broke me down and her standards were exceedingly high but I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I would have accomplished next to nothing without her.
Xiuli had a reputation for being exceptionally demanding and many younger skaters were terrified of her and her program. I found this perplexing because in my mind, she was the best speed skating coach in Canada. She hounded technique relentlessly and was very short on praise. She was totally inflexible and never wrong. I often felt like a terrible skater but I wanted to be the best. I thrived in that environment and improved, a lot. Eventually, even though it was considered unlikely by many, I won.
Not everyone could handle Xiuli or her program and some left the group. Few, if any, went on to improve. It should be noted that she has produced three Olympic medalists who have, collectively, won eight Olympic medals and several more World Cup and World Championship medalists.
Every athlete has a point at which they will crack – a moment where they finally give in. It is a coach’s job to coax the athlete to that point, based on logical, periodized, science-based training. The ones who crack, who give in to the struggle, sooner than others, simply do not have what it takes, either physically, technically or mentally.
Athletes often think they know what’s best for them (including yours truly) and they will prod and chirp and tweak until the powers that be let up, relent and back off, not necessarily because the athlete is right, but because the coach or program is weak. This is completely backwards. The best programs and coaches will foster the development of athletes who are resilient, professional, independent and tough through the uncompromising implementation of a very demanding program.
Paramount to this system is effective communication, respectful discourse, efficient physiological monitoring and the like, but at the end of the day it is the athlete’s job to put their head down and simply do the work. If, after all that, the athlete doesn’t make it because someone else is better, well, then they’ve come face to face with the beast that is sport – at least they know they did everything they could. Athletes who instead blame bad performances on coaches and programs for being too tough, too hard and too demanding simply don’t have what it takes and chose the wrong profession.
Which brings me back to Mike Spracklen and his recent departure from Rowing Canada. Undoubtedly it is no easy task working with him. Winning an Olympic medal is no easy task either. All I have to say about this is if I had been a rower, I sure as hell would have wanted Mike Spracklen to be my coach.
Tough coaches beget tough athletes and tough athletes win.
We need more coaches to be as tough as Xiuli Wang and Mike Spracklen.