Sunday, May 4, 2008

Interview with Martin McElroy

Interview with Martin McElroy Coach of GB Olympic Champion Men’s Eight 2000

Q: How did your crew achieve peak performance on the day of the Olympic Final? -Rick from MA

A: It seemed like everything was ready for that day. The equipment was ready, the athletes were ready. We'd always prided ourselves on learning at every opportunity. Over the years we'd learned lessons about training, we'd learned lessons about technique and we'd learned lessons about the mental strength needed to perform at the highest level. For me, the challenge in the olympic environment was mainly psychological. It was about managing the whole experience. It was about doing what we knew in the olympic cauldron. Even in our first race we were still making mistakes. However after that things began to crystallise. From then on a momentum started to build. Two days before the final we did some speed work that was exceptional. We had never gone that fast before.

The day of the final was almost calm by comparison to earlier days. We were on a very early bus to the course. It was still dark as we sat on the bus. The radio was playing and then something that I'll remember for the rest of my life happened. The DJ played a track by AC/DC - 'Back in Black'. This was a heavy rock song that had pounded around the gym at Imperial College during my early coaching days. I looked around at Louis Attrill our four man and also an Imperial alumnus. He'd latched on to it as well. I'm not superstitious but that warmed me up. It just seemed that even at 6am in the morning, halfway around the world on one of the most important days of our lives things were looking good.

All our planning was for this race. The final event of the project was here and it seemed that everything was in place. I suppose that's what preparation is all about. Even four years ago we all knew exactly when and where that race was going to take place. The light would turn green at the appointed time and you were either ready or not.

Q: There was a lot of controversy involving performance-enhancing drug use at the Sydney Olympics (especially in the sport of rowing). What measures do you take to make sure your rowers remain clean? Do you think there are countries that try to cheat the system? -Michelle from VA

A: The testing was rigorous from the moment we arrived in Australia. There were times that I wondered if the athletes would have any blood left to race with! Seriously though, I don't think drug use is endemic in rowing. Rowing is not a big money sport. It's not as if thousands of dollars of prize money is riding on it. Of course individual athletes may feel the desire to cheat and that is more difficult to eliminate. The best we can do is to develop a culture where it is unacceptable, both in terms of peer pressure and through the rules of our sport.

There is a strong anti-drugs culture in sport in the UK. It's probably something to do with the british sense of fair play. There is also a tough regime of testing both in and out of season. Testers can arrive at an athlete's door any time, day or night. It would take so much effort and expense to attempt to buck the system, that I doubt any athlete would find it worthwhile in the UK. That's not to say that it couldn't happen, indeed there have been cases in other sports although they've become tangled up in the debates about contaminated supplement products. The advice from the governing body of rowing in the UK is train correctly, eat well and avoid anything that is of dubious origin. I think the drugs and supplements policy of the governing body is available on their website.

Q: As last year's top eight, I imagine there are lots of crews gunning to knock your crew off of the winner's podium. How've you prepared your crew to handle this pressure? -Roger from FL

A: We will continue to focus on what got us into that position rather than worry about the winner's podium. Keeping focused on the process rather than the outcome is what's important. If we keep working on our process, then the results will start to follow. Remember, it took us 4 years to figure it out the last time. Sure, we have the benefit of experience, but it will be a new crew with new challenges and dynamics.

Q: Is there any frustration from you or the team with the amount of press that Redgrave and the four has gotten? (After all, you guys did win gold in THE top rowing event) -John from VA

A: We always knew the attention would be on Steve and after all it was a pretty remarkable achievement. Steve deserves all the plaudits he can get! We also used the situation to our advantage. With so much attention on Steve before the games it took all the pressure away from us. The eight was very low key pre-olympics. That allowed us to focus on the job in hand. The other thing to remember is that none of the guys were doing this to be famous. They were doing this for themselves. After all, they're a young group of guys. The the thrill and excitement was about going to the olympics, and meeting the challenge. That is what it was all about. The press and media coverage were a bonus after the event. The eight's win did take the imagination of the public, but in a different way to that of the four, precisely because they were a very different group.

Q: I'd like to hear coach McElroy's thoughts on how to move your club/team up to a higher level of competition. Right now it feels like my own team is stuck in a rut, we go to all the same regattas year after year and never seem to be better than middle of the pack. We've had a few fast novice teams but they seem to either quit or fade. How would you go about infusing a team with a sense of purpose and raising their standards of quality and commitment?

A: Not matter what level your club operates at you have to strive for excellence at that level. Analyse the training that you do relative to your competitors. Are you doing a similar number of sessions. How are these distributed in terms of gym and water work. Then make sure the balance is actually right for effective training. On top of this it's worth looking at the lifestyle of your athletes. Can they cope with the demands of the programme and all the other things going on in their lives. Maybe they can do a little bit more! Maybe what they already do needs to be better led.

Treat it like any problem solving activity. Take a look at your resources and how they're utilised. Is it effective? In that analysis include yourself. Do you have all the skills necessary. Are there areas that you could upgrade your knowledge in. If you want to have the best crew at their level then you have to be the best coach at that level. It's not all about having the best equipment and the flashiest gym. What's much more important is what you know and how you apply it.

Success retains people. When people get the winning bug they want more. From my own observation this success is almost always down to the organisation and coaching within a club. I've seen it at so many different levels that I'm thoroughly convinced these are teh main factors. People competing at club level will do what they're being asked to do. They're attending because they want to do it. They just need the leadership to show them what to do. When they start to reap the rewards they enjoy it even more and the cycle starts to reinforce itself. It's the old adage "success breeds success"!

Q: The Aussies were really charging in the last 500m of the Olympic final. Rumor has it they actually hit the gate at the starting block. Do you know what really happened and does Australia have enough to catch you guys this year? -Ashley W.

A: I've heard that comment about the gate before, but could never see it on the video. Who knows? As for this year, it's a new year. After all, the americans went pretty well in '97,'98,'99. I'm sure they'll be back. I don't know what the priorities will be in other teams this year. The australians, croatians, and don't forget the italians will be there, they were not far behind either. We should also expect to see the germans rebuilding in this cycle. Realistically, there is very little amongst these crews. A single mistake racing at this level is enough to drop you to the back of the field.

Q: I was wondering what process you went through in selecting the boat and oars you used. Was there a lot of testing involved? Did you allow your athletes to participate in this decision, i.e.. their comfort factor? What were your rigging dimensions for your Olympic eight? -Holly from MA

A: As an engineer by training I never take the status quo for granted. In the past crews mainly used empacher boats and concept oars. Was this because they were the best or because everybody was scared to do anything different? I didn't know the answer to that question or even if it was the right question. What I did know was that I'd like to test the hypothesis. It also concerned me that athletes got so hung up about equipment. Very few, if any, crews are constrained by their equipment. The differences due to equipment are so small compared to the impact of how a crew rows or how fit they are. Of course if there's any potential for advantage from equipment then I'd rather have it than not...

So, in the right context I set out to see what I could find with regards to equipment. Boats tend to be evolutions of something earlier. Things get lost in the mists of time. Why is it a particular shape? Just because something else was or because some serious research has been done. If research has been done, then what tools and methodologies were used. Are they correct and up to date? When you start to ask these questions there aren't many who can answer through progressive levels of questions. With regard to boats, Vespoli can answer quite a few questions. Carl Scragg, the naval architect has taken a good look at boats. Overall, I'd be more inclined to go with this than with data that originated in the former GDR. Things have changed a lot since then. Much more powerful computational tools are available...

I've done practical testing before and found the results questionable. Quite often the faster boat is the more uncomfortable. But does there come a point where being uncomfortable inhibits the athlete? As it happens the Vespoli is very comfortable but then most heavyweight boats are. With regard to oars, we used concept smoothies in '97 and then Croker slicks after that. Although I like the idea of adjustable handles, I found the early concept version required a lot of maintenance. I spent two days at the world championships in '97 changing inserts and grips. I didn't think that was the most productive use of my time. The more we used the Crokers the more we liked them. They sat very positively in the water right from the entry. I'm not fixed in my views about oars. Athletes adapt to oar types just as they do to rigging within reason...

We rowed a number of different rigs. In the end our boat was set on a span of 83.5 cm. The oars were 375.5 cm with an inboard of 114 cm. There's nothing drastic about this rig. It might even seem a little on the light side, but then how you row has a major impact. Referring to technique, if you row effectively then a seemingly light rig will feel just as heavy as a heavier rig that's rowed ineffectively. It's important to link rigging to the way you row. I'd advise coaches to use other crews rigging data carefully. It's only part of the picture...

Oh, and I should say that we use ordinary concept oars in our pairs. We've spent periods of the year training in an emapcher eight. My message is that sure, use the best equipment for you needs if you can, but don't be dependent on it. What would happen if your boat falls off the trailer on the way to a regatta and somebody offers you the use of a perfectly good boat, but it's not what you usually use? Do you blame the boat if things don't go well? Seek to make your crews resilient. Develop a flexibility that allows you to focus on what really matters. Currently, we have a culture amongst the eights group that doesn't worry about rigging and equipment. That's not saying it's not looked at, it is, but not as a 'big' issue. I'd much prefer athletes to focus on how they use

Q: Does your crew do weight training? What kind of exercises?

A: In the normal pattern of things we train with weights twice a week. During the winter if we're away on a cross training camp we might do more. The exercises are quite straight forward. Bench pulls, bench press, leg work,
core stability work. We didn't tend to do high repetitions, mostly 6-8 reps. In the end we're there to row so we want to make sure that our training is specific.

Q: Could you give some tips on determining line-ups? I'm sure it is a much different ball-game at the National level, but perhaps some of your techniques could apply to juniors as well. Also, any thoughts on switching rowers from side-to-side to maintain flexibility in your lineups?

A: There are many views on this topic. At national level, I'd ideally like athletes to be able to row in any seat. The rhythm should be coming from the whole crew. Again at national level you'd expect the boat to feel the same no matter where you sit. This is very difficult to achieve, but is the ideal to which we aspire. As far as sides go, it is an unfortunate situation that most international athletes tend to row one side only. There are exceptions but not many. James Cracknell from our coxless four has changed sides this year to row in a pair with Matthew Pinsent. That was after 12 years of rowing starboard...

Determining line ups is a difficult matter and it's very difficult to be prescriptive. So much comes from the coaches judgement on this one. In developing athletes there are so many factors that can play a role. The more inexperienced or those with slightly less developed skills tend to sit in the middle where they feel stable and have a pattern to follow. In effect, follow is what they do, which does result in a different feel because although the visible timing might be similar, the pressure generated is slightly lagging down the boat. At international level this would be a disadvantage as loadings would be different. At a more developmental level I'd say it it was almost inevitable...

People with relatively stable technique tend to work well towards the stern of the boat, although it often helps to have a stroke who can lift the tempo a bit if necessary. I'm sure I'm not telling you anything new on this one. It's important to trust your judgement, but don't be dogmatic about it, always be prepared to change your view of athletes as their skills improve. The biggest mistake you can make is to label an athlete for a particular seat. On many occasions I've had to develop people into roles that I might not have envisioned previously. Always be prepared to be surprised!

Developing the flexibility to change sides is a tremendous asset. The earlier athletes develop this flexibility, the better. In the UK most juniors start their careers by sculling for about 3 years. Most coaches then try to keep their athletes flexible by rowing on both sides. That generation hasn't yet come to senior level, but the approach has worked well in other countries that have tried it.

*Webmaster Note...we have time for about 4 more questions*

Q: What style/technique do your rowers use to row so smooth? How do you go about making changes to their technique? -Mike from LA

A: I've worked closely with Harry Mahon, the reknown New Zealander, for the past few years. I've learned some invaluable lessons from Harry. Overall, I'd say our technique is based on simplicity. A stroke has to have reasonable effective length, the power must come on in a sustainable fashion and nothing should be done to slow the boat down.

Our sport is about taking both athlete and boat down the track in the best possible time. The athlete has a finite amount of energy to offer during the race. An effective technique tries to maximise the boat speed that can be generated over this period. Putting the spoon into the water in an effective manner is crucial. This is much more a matter of timing than speed. You see a lot of crews trying to put the spoon in faster and faster which results in a choppy, tense stroke. So, for example in this case some of the athlete's precious energy is diverted away from effective propulsion. Being a closed skill sport every element of the technique influences what follows. An aggressive, tense catch interferes with the athlete's ability to then generate an effective power curve. Problems with how the power is generated affect the release at the finish. Problems here then interfere with the ability to organise the recovery in such a way that the next stroke has the required length, whilst also allowing the boat to move forward easily...

I just started the above example by beginning at the entry. I could have started anywhere in the stroke really. Without trying to categorise out technique relative to others, I'd say we attempt to row in a natural relaxed fashion. We focus a lot on eliminating extras - if it offers nothing to the speed of the boat then why do it? The momentum of the athletes in the crew is crucial.The athletes moving back and forth along the slide can be basis of a rhythm. You can either bang off the footstretcher and pull yourself back up the slide for the next stroke, or you can spring off the stretcher just as a good basketball player would to gain maximum height and then allow the forward moving boat to bring your feet to you before springing again. Of course, the spoon must be used (timed) to harness this momentum. If the spoon is not put into the water before this change of direction then the boat is kicked backwards AND the resultant stroke is shorter as well because some of the athlete's length has been expended before propulsion can begin...

Changing technique is just the same as changing any behaviour - it ain't easy! The learning process is just as applicable here as in any aspect of life and work. The first thing is that the coach must be sure of the model or vision of how to row. It's also worth saying at this point that there are many ways to do it! if you watch international crews row, they don't all row the same. Yet all have their day at some time. Be ccareful about this. If you can't justify it to youself then you'll never sell it to your athletes. Seek to understand why you wish to row in a particular fashion. This may develop and change over time. That's ok! Then when you've got your model and can fully understand it yourself you can start to develop it in the minds of your athletes. Ultimately your athletes will have to perform under tremendous duress. They will be operating right at their limits. It's not like a kicker in football who has to do it once. The rowing athlete has to do it about 200 times with no break over the course of a race. Under this sort of pressure there can be no doubt about how its going to be done. There isn't really time to think about it...

In a racing situation the action has to be automated. It's pretty crucial then that the action is the right one. Adherence to the model is then the next challenge. In the 3 years that I worked in the lead up to Sydney, I'd say that I spent the first year developing and clarifying the model in my own mind and then the next 2 years teaching and clarifying it in the minds of the athletes. For us the whole thing was very process driven. The challenge was always the process not the outcome. Obviously the outcome was pretty important in the final race! By the end there was no doubt about how we intended to row. The athletes and cox developed a tremendous abilty to analyse their rowing...

I've often thought that the challenge for the coach in this situation is being able to stick at it. All through the long training periods it takes a lot of passion and attention to keep working on it. It's very easy to let it slip, to accept something that's less than 100%. The ultimate test has to be at the end. If you can look back and say that there was absolutely nothing more that could have been done then perhaps the other crew was just better on the day. However if your crew wasn't as fit as it should have been or couldn't hold together technically or whatever, then the coach has to start by examining himself/herself. Was what I was doing right, and had the athletes understood and assimilated it to the point where it was their natural mode of operation?

In a practical sense this means taking advantage of every possible opportunity to engender the technique necessary. Use every possible tool and common sense idea that you can find. If that doesn't work, develop some of your own! Remember, what you're trying to do is help the athlete to share your vision. the difference is that they will be in whole world of pain as they're trying to do it. There can be no room for ambiguity.

Q: I have a couple questions regarding the Olympics: How long did the eight row together prior to the Olympics. Was it the same crew from the '99 Worlds? Also, what kind of speed-work did you do the 2 weeks prior to the Olympics?

A: There were 8 of the '99 crew in the sydney crew including the cox. Through the winter the athletes trained as individuals. In the spring they went into pairs and then raced in pairs at the spring trials. From this race and the other tests like ergo tests selections were made to race in the FISA world cup regattas in the eight. Even through this period there were still some changes and only after Lucerne regatta in july was the crew finalised. It was a really tough decision to have to cut someone at this stage. We had a really good group of athletes including four guys who went on to win the coxed four at the world championships. This strength in depth was important to create a competitive training environment.

As for the spped work, we did some 500m and 1000m pieces. We also had some 250m for top speed work. Some of these would be flat out, others were at race pace. Crews at this level can generate speed quite quickly so they don't need to do large amount of speed work. Over the course of the week we wouldn't have done more than four 500m, four 1000m and a few 250m pieces.

Q: OK, last question, and as the Webmaster, I get to ask it. Aside from the countless television interviews, bundles of cash, and athletic apparel endorsements, what sort of recognition have YOU gotten from the local and international media?

A: I wish! As in many similar situations, the coach tends to take a back seat in the media attention. However just as in the case of the athletes, I wasn't doing it for media coverage. Now a few new pairs of training shoes might be a different matter! Perhaps I could endorse a coaches bicycle or something! Seriously though, all the coaches of medal winning sports at sydney were well treated by their peer groups and sports organisations. I've been to Buckingham palace and checked out the queen's pad. A bit big for my liking! I did get an award from the national coaches foundation that puts me in the coaching hall of fame alongside some great coaches from many sports in the UK. That probably means most to me. Recognition from your peers is quite special.

Martin McElroy is currently a High Performance Coach with British International Rowing. Martin coached the Great Britain men’s heavyweight eight that won the gold medal at the Sydney Olympic games. Great Britain last won the gold medal in this event in 1912.

Over the 4 year period of the Sydney Olympiad Martin developed the men’s eight team from being a crew of aspiring young athletes into a tightly knit group whose performance in Sydney excited the whole nation. Having only taken up coaching at Imperial College Boat Club in 1995 and then becoming a full time professional coach with the national team in 1997, Martin has had significant wins at every level of his coaching career.

Martin studied engineering at University College Dublin and after working as an engineering manager for a number of years including a spell working in Africa, Martin returned to university to complete a Masters in Business Administration (M.B.A.) at Imperial College in London. Having rowed himself, Martin became involved in coaching after completing his course at Imperial College.

Martin’s credits this background for much of his success as a coach. Drawing on his engineering, management, and business experience Martin is a methodical coach who develops the athletes and resources necessary to achieve excellence. Being an Irishman, the final element in Martin’s arsenal is a liberal helping of Celtic passion.

Career Highlights

Olympic Games 2000 Men’s Eight Gold
World Championships 1999 Men’s Eight Silver
1998 Men’s Eight 7th
1997 Men’s Eight 4th
Nations Cup 1996 Men’s 4- Gold

Henley Royal Regatta 1996 Grand Challenge Cup Winners
1995 Thames Challenge Cup Winners
Head of the River 2001 Men’s Eight Winners
2000 Men’s Eight Winners
1999 Men’s Eight Winners

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