Last week, Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA) announced that Mike Spracklen, an internationally renowned rowing coach would no longer be part of its coaching staff and it has put most rowers, and those who follow rowing, into one of two camps. You either think it is a good thing, or a terrible thing; it is very difficult to be in the middle.
Mike Spracklen has had a brilliant career as a coach and is passionate about the movement and effort of rowing. His thoughts and directions to his crews often sound poetic. He is an artist and like most art – discussion of it can be very polarizing.
The situation leads me to remember a play I saw in London a few years ago called Art. It was a one-act play – a kind of British-Seinfeld discussion where one of the three characters had recently purchased a very expensive piece of art. With great pride he showed his beloved new painting to his best friend who absolutely hated it. “It is a white paining with white diagonal stripes. How could you possibly have spent so much money on such a thing?” The comical yet heated play that followed discussed how they could remain friends if they were so opposite on whether this was art or not.
After the London Olympics, there were four possible options for the 75-year old rowing coach. Mike could either retire, be offered a new 4-year contract with RCA (in the same or a new role), receive no offer from RCA, the fourth option, which few would have genuinely anticipated, would be to take a new coaching position in another country. In the last few years some had heard that he was becoming increasingly difficult for RCA to manage but many assumed that Mike Spracklen would control the direction of his career and retire.
Back in 2008, the then 70-year-old rowing coach led his Canadian Men’s eight to another gold medal and some wondered if he would retire then. But the British born and raised coach looked to the next, London 2012, Olympic games as a unique opportunity. After coaching UK rowers to 4 Olympic medals between 1976 and 1988, Mike came to Canada when the British Rowing didn’t offer him a coaching contract. Always a little stung by their rejection, some thought that the 74-year-old had created a perfect ending to a brilliant career when Canada recently beat Great Britain, taking the silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics. But like any true artist, Mike still has ideas and a passion to create. I don’t think Mike will ever choose to retire; so… RCA made the decision for him.
There is no question that Mike is an excellent coach. His training program, famous for it’s intensity and quantity, has resulted in 12 Olympic medals – 7 of which have been for Canadian crews. His messaging has been unrelenting – if you do everything he says then you will win Gold. The unspoken but very clear corollary is that if you don’t win Gold it is because you didn’t do everything that Mike told you to do. In my book, The Power of More – How Small Steps Help us Achieve Big Goals I included Mike in a discussion on the many styles of leadership. Here is a small excerpt of that discussion;
Guilt is a tremendous tool, and Mike seems to be a master at using it; he knows exactly how to tap into an athlete’s own worry that he hasn’t done enough. This forces an athlete to dig incredibly deep to prove to Mike and to himself, that he has. Mike’s leadership style was to demand an unquestioning commitment to the goal. His contrasting quiet and gentle delivery, which seemed incongruous next to his unrelenting message, instilled a fierce confidence and loyalty in his team.
Knowing all the loyalties of those who love him and all the frustrations from those who don’t, I find myself identifying with the third character in Art, the play. As a friend to both the art owner and the art hater this character is asked to weigh in and cast the deciding vote; is it art or is it …not?
In anticipation of RCA’s recent actions Mike’s supporters had begun petitioning to keep him weeks ago. As demanding as Mike can be, the rowers that make it through his program with a medal, and the supporters around them, love him. To them, he is their unselfish leader, their muse and their family. As unyielding as he is on them on the water, he is a gentle and kind man off of it.
Mike is extremely hard on his rowers; mentally, physically and emotionally. Some have said that it is as if each time Mike arrived to a new country with a pool of fresh healthy rowers the question always became … will they last the 4 years to the Olympics? Instead of building up and growing his base of athletes he ‘throws his eggs’ against the Spracklen training wall packed by volume and intensity. The conventional wisdom was that Mike’s program would be great for about 3 years after which it was very likely that he would run out of good eggs. The ones that don’t crack will be the guys in his crew. And…it’s true – it often worked. Those that survive – and by survive I mean barely, because no one gets through unscathed – often won medals. But since the number of talented Canadian athletes who even get to the level of ‘eggs’ is limited, it is an unsustainable system for building a national program.
Many talented rowers leave his system too early or, if they happen to be in the crews that don’t succeed at the Olympics – the blame and guilt that is put on them (because they must have done something wrong) – is lasting. Three years after Canada’s 2004 Olympic eight, coached by Mike, finished 5th I still had parents of those men telling me how much their sons were still really struggling to make sense of what could have gone wrong. Mike’s post race comments had been simply that the only explanation was that someone must have given up – he never said who, so they all took his blame. Olympic disappointments always linger, but I had to agree with the parents; this disappointment seemed different to me – it was more personal than just sport.
This is where one needs to wonder if the ends do in fact justify the means. But I was once told that selection (and the training that proceeds and follows) is not for those who do not make the team – it is for those that do. There is something glorious in surviving a workout, a week of workouts and then a year of them, where many are designed to test your every desire to quit. When you survive that – you feel a warrior. I have to admit that having retired from competitive rowing in 2000, I miss being often tested that way; but often is no way always.
The argument that Mike’s hard methodology is incongruous with building a sustainable national program is not new. The same pattern has followed him through his coaching duties in the UK ( – 1988), Canada (1990-1992) and then USA (1993-1996), returning to the UK (1997-2000) and back to Canada again (2000-2012). In every country but the US, he found Olympic success, was then thanked for his efforts and… let go. In 1993, attracted by the deep pool of American rowers, Mike left Canada and quickly coached the Americans to win the men’s eight at the 1994 World Championships. But that pool of men wasn’t able to keep up with Mike’s pace and limped into Atlanta games, finishing 5th. I’ve heard it said that the British rower, Sir Steven Redgrave, who won 5 gold medals at 5 consecutive Games and most of the World Championships in between would not have been able to continue past his 2nd Olympics had Mike remained his coach. For Steve to continue his long career he needed a different leader with a more balanced training plan.
In 2000, after Mike’s 2nd stint as coach in the UK, having coached the British women’s quad to a silver medal he was again released. The following excerpt from a BBC article could very well be what we are reading this week here in Canada.
“While he has achieved the target set by British rowing, an Olympic medal, that success has come at a cost – the depletion of those willing or able to train at his national centre.”… “The man could do no wrong, unless of course you were one of those that had fallen out of favour. By the time the (2000) Olympics started those in this latter group out numbered those who were in favour. As well as the women’s eight, the silver medal pair from 1998 had left him to be coached elsewhere. In his defence, it was those in Spracklen’s ever-declining group that delivered the goods in Sydney, but at what price?” (Here is that full BBC article )
Spracklen has had a leadership role in Canada longer than anywhere else. I believe the key to the Canadian men’s success in the last 10 years has been that they have mostly figured out how to survive his intense program. Experience has taught the veterans that if they want to stay in for a 2nd 4-year term, they need to take an extended break in the form of a pseudo-retirement. (A third Olympiad has become extremely rare for his men.) Even though they risk being labeled AWOL they tend to ‘hide’ from his program in post Olympic Years as they recover and regain some life balance.
If you can survive his training program you will be extraordinarily strong – but not necessarily well prepared. All sports – and perhaps all vocations – progress by technique and then power steps. Someone will establish them self as a leader by setting a new benchmark of being stronger. That amount of strength will eventually become the norm and so, for advantage, someone will establish them self as the new leader by mastering a more efficient technique. This progression strength – efficiency – strength – … will be repeated time and again.
Mike’s crews are all almost entirely about power and tenacity – they row well but they have never been referred to as technicians. The vast majority of their training sessions are about power application with a very minimal focus on subtle drill work. Even the technique workouts that I have seen required huge force output. They arrived at the London Olympics with an incredible level of fitness, average technique and below average actual-racing-experience. (Heavyweight men’s crews can, in some cases, get away with this but I was not surprised to see lightweight crews that trained in this style struggle.)
Every crew in the world is training fiercely hard; no program, no nation is taking it easy or cutting corners. In London, the German men’s eight that beat the Canadian crew had been undefeated for 3 years even though the Canadian crew looked more powerful. The German’s rowed with a markedly beautiful and efficient style. That, combined with their power, resulted in a racing ability that no one could match. The programs that I trained in had an assortment of workouts; many were competitive and incredibly demanding like Mike’s, but there were also many that were about technique, precision and long term recovery. There was some balance. (I am not about to espouse that high performance sport is ever completely balanced or with out it’s life-style costs.)
Both sides of the ‘should RCA have kept Mike or not’ battle can be right. Appreciation of his leadership is the right of the beholder. I absolutely understand and respect the support and defence that many athletes have mounted for Mike. Having coached 7 Canadian crews onto the Olympic podium, he is the one of Canada’s most successful coaches but in the 20 years that I have been a close observer of our team – his way is not the only way to win. In the same time Mike’s Canadian crews have won 7 Olympic medals, Al Morrow coached Canadian women to 8 Olympic medals. But this discussion is in no way a comparison of programs; there are many successful ways to lead. This is about RCA’s decision to look for new leadership to build a bigger more successful program; just 1 of 6 men’s heavyweight Olympic medals is not the target.
There is no question that Mike Spracklen has achieved success. His leadership and ability to produce is absolutely ‘art’, but the question remains – is he the program leader that Rowing Canada needs in 2016? In 2012 Canadians only qualified in 7 of 14 Olympic rowing events and won only 2 rowing medals while the UK won 9 and a small country like New Zealand won 5 medals. Canada needs a full program – a collection of coaches – with all areas working supportively together. Will this 75-year old be able to keep up with his own standard of workload and creativity and work with others for the next 4 years? It’s possible – but like everything in his program – it won’t be easy.
I wish there was a way that Mike Spracklen and RCA could have figured out a solution, but for Mike – there are no half measures. If Mike worked well with other Canadian coaches, or mentored young coaches well, giving them responsibility and then some respected autonomy it would be a massive mistake to let him go. But Mike actively disparages other programs. To believe in Mike’s program means that you are taught to disrespect others- his is the only right way. Even as Kathleen Heddle and I were winning World and Olympic titles – I know that he was undercutting our successes – the only way we could be winning (if we hadn’t trained his way) was if our races were easy. That’s his way of leading his team and a long time ago I came to accept it, but that is no way to build a full and successful Canadian rowing team.
I do feel honored to have seen and heard Mike Spracklen work for so long. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. To hear him speak so passionately about the way a rower needs to pull on the oar, and how the blade moves though the water is a sound bite I hope never to lose. There are so many Spracklen stories that drip with his cutting wisdom that are part of my own fond collection of rowing memories. Kathleen and I did not work with him, but a compliment that he gave us in 1991 just as we were about to start a streak of career wins still sticks out. I have seen him create warriors who have battled at the highest level who have had life-defining moments. He will always be a legend.
But he has always made me nervous… his program and methodology is so risky. It is not one that is because of the journey, it is because of the reward and if you miss it – if you do not win Gold – you have failed. If you did not survive the training it is because you are not, and will not be, enough. Strangely – I truly believe that Mike is about the process and the journey of coaching. He loves it – the extreme of the day to day. But for his rowers, they are inadvertently taught that the value of their journey will be defined only by the result – a gold medal or nothing. That’s not they way to build a sustainable program or healthy people.
The joy the men’s eight displayed for their Olympic silver medal in London was so unique for a Mike Spracklen crew. That regatta was an emotional rollercoaster for the Canadian men’s eight. After a terrible first race where they scrambled with inexperience, Mike lambasted them; the only thing that could explain their performance was that they did not do what he had told them. With Mike not on their side, I was told that they went onto the water for their do-or die repechage ‘broken’. Then and there the crew rallied, drawing on the few veterans like Malcolm Howard and Brian Price, who reminded them that they had done so much work together. They owned that work – not Mike. At that moment they realized that it was their effort, their journey. Despite Mike’s terrible pre-race send-off they had a good race and advanced to the final.
Two days later, just before the Olympic final, which would include the still unbeaten German crew, Mike did something, that by all accounts that I’ve heard – he’d never done before. He told them to “race for the winnable medals”. For the crew it was liberating and inspiring – all that they could do would be enough, regardless if that meant gold or not. They could race their own race – in no ones shadow – with Mike on their side. To me that race was, maybe for the first time for a Spracklen crew, a race that they won for themselves, with but not – as he would suggest that they do in a pre-race poem that he had penned for them – ‘for’ Mike.
Like many others I watched all of this unfold with relief because it would have been such a shame to watch them either devastated with a silver medal or even worse, collapse mid-race as Mike’s 2004 Olympic crew did as their Gold or nothing mantra revealed that they would get nothing.
I’ve always understood Spracklen’s style even though it wouldn’t have worked for me. In the past week we have heard many of Mike’s rowers speak out with heartfelt endorsements of Mike’s leadership. Mike pushed them excruciatingly hard but through it they felt like family. I am sad to see Mike go, he has given some Canadian rowers so much, – but I’m not surprised.
Not everyone needs to understand or like the way Mike leads. Like art, appreciating a style of leadership is very personal. Some people are inspired by the same style that leaves others incredulously angry. Unfortunately Mike is not a painter or a writer – he does not work in isolation and can’t just create for those who stay near him. Mike Spracklen is a rowing coach and he works within an organization that needs to build a program that includes more than a handful of devout followers but a full complement of high performing and healthy rowers.
High Performance sport is an investment and to improve overall results at Olympic Games, Canada needs to have rowers who are staying in for 2, 3 or even 4 Olympic cycles. Mike’s “old-school” methods work, but they only work for a few for a short time. I do not assume that Rowing Canada is looking for a new coach(s) to take it easier on Canadian rowers but one who will lead a team to broader success. No different than other international rowing programs, RCA has 4 streams of Olympic rowers – heavyweight men and women, and lightweight men and women – and resources for all rarely meet demand: Co-operation is required. I believe RCA has always respected Mike – but they need to know that he is working with them and their other program coaches to develop a bigger more successful team in Rio 2016 and beyond.