Michael Morgan: My Coaching Journey – Part III

Early influences on my Coaching Journey

New South Wales eight in 1976.

4 February 2022

By Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan continues his story about his coaching journey. Part I of his story is here and Part II is here.

Here are some of the people who have influenced me during my rowing and coaching careers.

Freddy Bachmann
Alfred “Freddy” Bachmann was a reserve for the Swiss team going into the Munich Games in 1972. When the bowman of the Swiss pair was injured, Freddy became the last-minute-replacement. The crew remarkably won the silver medal in a tough race.

I caught up with Freddy in Mr Pickwicks bar after the Lucerne Regatta in 1973, which was to be my last international regatta as an oarsman. Over a number of beers, he explained his theories on rowing, and I was all ears although I didn’t know about my coaching career ahead.

What appealed to me the most was his explanation of what can be achieved without seemingly applying effort.

  1. When the legs were in a compressed state, they naturally spring out and hence the first part of the leg drive is for free. You do of course have to get the blade into the water in time with that reaction.
  2. If you accelerate the seat the last few cm into the front of the slide, the boat will shoot ahead. At the same time the legs will automatically come on as in 1.
  3. At the back chocks, the boat will jump forward again when the seat comes positively from the back chocks.

Little did I know at the time that 2 and 3 was simply “Newton’s Third Law of Motion” as I had not done Physics.

Putting this knowledge, learnt on a very boozy session in Mr Pickwick’s bar, into a racing boat, has always been a challenge.

My first attempt at following Freddy’s Pickwick Pub tips were in the four with I. Lee, E. Hale, R. Curtin and Tony Brown at the 1975 Nationals. Islay Lee had just come from Glebe Rowing Club and was new to sweep oar rowing and after two rows, he said “I don’t think I can row the way you want me to.”

However, we persevered with each other, and the following season Islay stroked the winning State and National coxed fours and eights and then the Olympic eight. The problem I was having using Freddy’s principles were that it held down the rate because you had to control the middle of the slide. New South Wales won the Kings Cup by 11.6 seconds at the rate of 34.

Paul Guest: “You are a long time retired”
In 1970, I drove Paul Guest to the airport after the small boat trials for the 1970 World Championships. Paul was a three-time Olympian (Rome, Tokyo and Mexico) and was rowing in the 5 seat of the Victorian eight, which had won the Kings Cup in Ballarat and had been nominated for the World Championships in St. Catharines, Canada. I had competed unsuccessfully in the same trials in a coxed four, which did not go well only adding to the NSW Kings Cup crew disappointment, which ranked as the worst crew I had ever been in. Feeling somewhat dejected I contemplated retiring from the sport and getting on with my career in the family business. I was all of 23, which these days is considered very young in an endurance sport like rowing.

Fortunately, I had offered to drive Paul to the airport from Penrith. He suggested I go to Victoria and try out for the Australian eight. It was flattering to be asked, but I was at bit of a low in my rowing career. As Paul got out of the car, he said, “Remember you are a long time retired”. That night, coach David Boykett rang and asked me to come down for a trial. After discussion with my boss, i.e. my Dad, I went down to Melbourne the next weekend for a trial. The Victorians in those days rowed vastly differently to NSW. With this in mind, I spent the week on the ergometer down at Sydney visualising and rowing the way I thought they rowed.

Having got the nod, the next weekend I moved to Melbourne for three months of winter training before departure for the USA and Canada. I ended up in the 4 seat in a tandem-rigged eight with Paul Guest rowing 5 in front of me.

The article writer in the 4 seat in the tandem-rigged eight going to the 1970 World Championships in St. Catharines. Paul Guest rowing in the 5 seat.

We finished a close fifth in the World Champs. But for me I was revitalised and went on, thanks to a chance trip to the airport, I went to two Olympic Games, and then a coaching career that kept me in the sport for my working life.

As a coach and mentor for nearly 40 years I have used the line “You are a long time retired” many times to influence boys and men’s thinking.

No matter how bad the row has been, there must have been one good stroke. If you go home remembering that stroke when you come back for your next row, you will have a positive point to start from instead of starting off on a bad note again. – Paul Guest

Wisdom like that was probably why Paul was a successful Barrister and later, a Judge. It is a line so true of life. Do we focus on the 20% wrong or the 80% right? With an average training row being two hours for a serious rower, there is always plenty of time for at least one good stroke.

Rusty Robertson: “It’s all in one stroke”
In late 1972, after the Munich Olympics, Sydney RC was raising money to send a club team to Royal Henley Regatta the next year, and as Club Captain I was helping to raise the necessary funds. Rusty Robertson was the New Zealand head coach and was fresh from coaching the New Zealand gold medal eight in Munich and I asked him to speak at a fundraising dinner at the club.

Rusty accepted, and part of the deal was that we would put him up for the weekend. I had the responsibility of entertaining him until he flew home after a four-day visit. I saw this as an opportunity to pick his brain on why his crews were so good and why they were so fast over the first 500 meters of the race. In Mexico, against all logic of racing at altitude, his coxed four opened up clear water on the field by 500m gone and won comfortably. The same followed in Munich with his eight where they again had clear water by 500m and won well.

With this in mind, I spent a lot of time with Rusty over that weekend pouring plenty of truth serum down his throat as I searched for his secrets. Now, Rusty did like a drink and on the last night I approached the subject of the ‘Fast Start’. Rusty finally said, “It’s all in one stroke”. I was satisfied that I had done my job and went home to finally go to bed. The next day when I woke up, I said to myself, “which stroke did he mean?” Rusty never did give much away.

Message received, I drew my own conclusion that if you could learn to row one perfect stroke and multiply that 240 times (the number of strokes in a 2000-meter race), you would do very well.

After the Montreal Games, Rusty moved to Australia and coached at Drummoyne Rowing Club as well as many Australian crews. We became fierce competitors at home, but in 1979 and 1981, we were both on the same Australian team and spent many hours talking – often into the small hours of the morning. He was a great mentor of mine and taught me so much about rowing and coaching.

Lance Robinson: “Don’t forget the Ninth Man””
When I first started to coach in late 1973, Lance Robinson kindly acted as my mentor. Lance was a Haberfield stalwart and had coached me in 1967, which was my first representative crew to the North American and European championships.

Very early in this role as mentor, Lance said, don’t forget the “Ninth Man”. I soon realised that he was talking about the boat. The boat must be given a chance to work. The simple fact is that in a 6-minute race, the oars are out of the water for 4 minutes and that is when the “Ninth Man” must be allowed to do his work. Obviously, with 2/3 of a race being spent with the oars out of the water the time between strokes is very important.

Robert Buntine: “Like farmer Brown on his porch, sit back and watch the cows come home.”
In late 1975, the Newington Rowing Master John Turnbull announced that Bob Buntine was starting at Newington as Senior Master. Bob had successfully coached The Kings School to four wins in a row at the Head of the River. A very excited John organised a meeting at Sydney RC, so that Bob could come down and tell us all his secrets. Bob arrived at the meeting and explained that he was in bit of hurry but said if we could coach the boys to clear 4 feet at 34 strokes to the minute, they would cover the 1 ½ mile race in 8 minutes and that should be enough to win the race. The Newington first eight became ’Clearance Conscious & not Rate Conscious’ and did indeed win the next two Head of the Rivers.

Bob Buntine, whose rowing origins were Geelong College and later Melbourne University, loved what the Victorians called ES & EO (Every stroke you stopped at the Easy Oar position until the command to row was given and you took another stroke before stopping again at the Easy Oar position where you stopped again). Bob would paint a mental picture of farmer Brown sitting on his porch of an afternoon as he watched his cows wander in for milking. The simple message was never hurry from the Easy Oar position.

His crews would do this for mile after mile. Generally done at a firm pressure the crew would sit back and watch the puddles go away. In later years, Bob worried that the coxswain was being overworked by saying “row” after each stroke. So once the crew had been asked to “Easy Oar”, they would be told to do it on their own count, i.e. a 1-5 count meant they sat at the finish and counted up to 5, 1 was when the blade went in, 2 was when it came out and on 5, they swung forward and left the back for the next stroke. After some time, this would come down to a 4 count, then 3, which is close to the normal rhythm. Finally, they would be asked to row continuously with a “mental” ES & EO.

Basically, they are given time to think about the “Ninth Man”.

The other side of this is with 1/3 only of your race with the oars in the water you need to be extremely accurate. The blade is really only in the water for a split second.

It was not until the 1983/84 season that Bob and I coached together which turned out to be a very successful combination winning eight Head of the Rivers in partnership.

Bob had a simple formula to measure speed by clearance and rate combinations. Very simply, if the crew could learn to clear 4’ at 34 strokes to the minute, they would cover the mile and a half in 8 minutes and that would probably win the Head of the River. Our boats had two pieces of tape on the back deck measuring 4’. This was so that the coach had a visual on what the clearance might be. The oarsmen could be reminded before each session of their clearance target.

Bob Buntine’s Speed and Clearance Combination Chart.

As you can see with the hand-written notes above, by the late 80s, 4 ft @ 34 was not fast enough and the Newington crews were aiming at 7 minutes for the mile and a half. Hard to believe that the race was nearly a minute faster than when I first won the Head of the River in 1963. A seven-minute mile and a half = 5.50 for 2000 meters, which is probably why in 1990 Newington were the Resident holders of the New South Wales Champion eight beaten only by the The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and finishing ahead of the other NSW club senior eight.

Training had changed, boats were lighter, carbon fibre was replacing wood. 

Part IV will be published next week.

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