Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Honesty is the Best Policy (How to win at rowing if you're captain)

Sincerity is everything. If you can fake that, you've got it made. --George Burns

If you're going to be captain, you need the trust and commitment of your people.

The best way to get that is to be utterly honest at all times. About everything.

And honesty does not just mean 'never lie', although that is crucial.

This is not the standard by which I live. It is not even the standard by which I would wish to live. I am recommending it as a winning strategy in the limited context of boat club captaincy.

This is very difficult and the temptations for the captain are strong and must be resisted.

Let people know where they stand. The minute you allow someone to spend a freezing Winter training in the expectation of a Summer's racing and then drop them for the Summer's races in favour of someone who's just turned up then you've not only committed a moral obscenity, you have demotivated your entire squad for good.

You will get to make this choice, and other choices like it, many times.

If you choose wrongly even once, you are no longer fit to be captain and your people will show little interest in training next Winter. It is possible that you will get an immediate benefit (it would not be evil if there was no upside, it would just be stupidity), but you are also likely to find that you don't get as much benefit from your betrayal as you anticipate.

If you are genuinely unsure as to which is the right choice, then it is usually fairly clear which side the short term advantage is on, and the right choice is usually the other one.

It is possible that this thinking doesn't apply at international level, or even at very good club level, where everyone who's even in contention for a place is already training as hard as humanly possible, but I wouldn't know the first thing about that. If you're overwhelmed with gifted supermen who are prepared to physically break themselves in order to have a chance of rowing for you, then you do not need my advice. And you'll probably win whatever you do. Good luck and do let me know how it goes!

There is no club in Cambridge which can afford to demotivate any of its people. You may not care about the results of your third VIII one way or the other, but there will be someone in it who will one day row for the first VIII. You need them to know in their bones that their efforts for this club will be repaid, that the contract they are entering into will be honoured.

If there are ten people in the running for eight rowing seats, and two people competing for one cox seat, then sit down with them and discuss, as soon as you are asking for any commitment from any of them, how you are going to decide whom to take.

As the training period progresses, let them know how they are all doing. If someone wants to work hard even though they have very little chance of a seat that's fine as long as they have their eyes open. You won't lose their loyalty or anyone else's.

There is a morally defensible way to run what is usually called a 'squad system', and that is to announce beforehand (and you must repeat it loudly and often, because it is so counter to the way things usually work that it will not be believed until you actually start acting like that), that no place is safe, and that it is *policy* that people, no matter how loyal or important to the club will get dropped if someone else who is better turns up.

You must also define better with sufficient precision that people don't get surprised. I have seen people give up rowing (or at least taking it seriously) because they won an ergo competition but were then told that they were dropped anyway because their technique wasn't good enough. I have seen people give up rowing (or at least rowing seriously) because someone with a better ergo score who didn't row as well was preferred to them.

And then, of course, you have to stick with that, even when it means stabbing your best friend in the front.

But you don't want to do this, even though you can keep a clean conscience and you won't alienate people. Because the minute you do, everyone who's borderline has a simple decision to face. Do I spend a large fraction of my life training, in the expectation that come racing season I will be suddenly dropped?

I know what I would do. You know what you would do. Think about what everyone else would do. Don't assume that everyone else will react like you.

You probably already know what you did do. If the club where you learned never stabbed you in the back, congratulations. Continue that tradition. That's probably a large part of why you care about rowing enough to be captain.

You will end up with an awful VIII where only the people who started in the top half have bothered. Even they won't have been caught up in the spirit of collective enterprise that makes people sacrifice oceans of time for an essentially meaningless goal that is only made meaningful by that spirit.

The good people who might have knocked out the lower end of the much better boat you could have produced won't be interested in rowing for you.

You'll end up scrounging round trying to pick up the people that other boats have discarded for whatever reason. And then you'll lose. And it will be your fault. But your personal honour will be intact, at least.

But the worst thing you can possibly do is to claim to be running the first system, but actually be running the second. Because the minute you reveal that you're actually running the second, the benefits of running the first start to disappear, and very soon you might as well be running the second system, only now nobody believes anything you say.

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