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It’s never too late to find your zigazig-ha!

By Rachel Hooper, sports coach UK, Coach Education Advisor

Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog about women of a pensionable age dressing in leopard print lycra or union jack tea towels. It’s about a trend I’ve noticed developing over the past seven years at my club. Women of a certain age finally discovering ‘their sport’ – rowing.

I’ve been a rowing coach for 18 years and in 2006, began coaching a new ‘learn to row’ initiative at my local club. The ten week courses are open to anyone over 18 years old, of any ability and involves rowing in mixed crews with a fun regatta and a ‘graduation’ at the end. Far more used to coaching experienced juniors, it was a challenge to learn how to coach complete beginners but it is a skill I have developed and is now definitely my preferred coaching environment. I pride myself on my patience, tolerance and ability to explain something in as many different ways as necessary until a participant has grasped the concept of something as simple as how to hold onto an oar.

We all derive satisfaction from coaching for different reasons. My reason is simple- seeing the people I introduced to the sport still out on the water years later. People who now play an integral role in the running of our small club with positions such as secretary or welfare officer. Some of the people I introduced to the sport are now qualified coaches themselves and help out with the new intake of beginners as part of the ongoing success of our programme. Following the Olympics we had 140 people who wanted to come and learn to row at the club and having extra coaches is what made it possible.

One trend I have noticed developing with the learn to row ‘graduates’ is the high percentage of women who want to continue with the sport after their ten week course. Not the 18 year olds who may have been put off by the cold weather, but the women who are heading towards or well past 40 and find a  low impact physical activity, mixed with a new social life means they’ve discovered the sport for them. These aren’t high performance athletes who are starting a sport with the dream of an Olympic gold medal, but a group of committed, sometimes competitive women who want to be active, stay fit and make new friends. For some, it’s the first time they’ve been involved in any type of sport since school. Providing a non threatening environment where the main coaching focus for the first few weeks is ensuring they’ve not been put off and will come back for the following session means getting participants hooked so they want to come back and not only get fitter but also become part of a thriving club with a diverse membership.

Of course, there are a lot of men who have also progressed and become valued club members including our current captain. The legacy of the learn to row programme is evident in the current club makeup which consists of so many ‘graduates’. The place it has had the biggest impact though is in the veteran women’s section of the club. But what attracts women to a sport where blisters and bad tan lines are the norm? And why can I do as a coach to keep them coming back?

Both during and after the Olympic Games, the profile of women’s sport was phenomenal. Team GB women won an unprecedented three gold medals at lake Dorney and high profile athletes like Jess Ennis spoke about being a powerful, healthy woman didn’t make her any less feminine. And yet only last week I stumbled upon an article titled ‘3 Ways to Look Effortlessly Pretty When Playing Sport’. Once I’d stopped banging my head on the desk, I reflected on how the media feed the image that ‘getting sweaty’ is unfeminine and how being a strong woman is something abnormal. And maybe, the women who want to try a new sport need to reach an age where they don’t care what the rest of the world (or what the media tells the world) thinks about them. They would rather take pride in developing a new skill, make new friends and get fit at the same time.

It’s devastating to think that women need to reach a certain age before they’re brave enough to ignore the media and go and take up sport. It’s fantastic that they’re not afraid to come and try it, not be afraid of making mistakes or losing a race and still keep coming back. But shouldn’t take until they’re 40+ to be able to feel this is possible and it’s down to the coach to create a non threatening environment which is focussed on individuals and why there have knocked on the door of your sports club. Knowing each individual participant is the key to success. Why are they there? What do they want to achieve and what are their levels of commitment?

Having been an elite athlete, getting into the psyche of a recreational rower was a challenge to start with. Understanding that some people just aren’t competitive and only want to enjoy being ‘part of something’ is important though. How many people have you dismissed as a coach because they’re not interested in winning and in fact, they don’t want to compete because they’re frightened of losing? Does that mean they shouldn’t be involved in sport?

Everyone has a different reason for taking up a new sport and I’ve asked some of the women I’ve coached what made them come, and stay at the rowing club. One had a newfound freedom after her child passed his driving test and could take himself to his weekend activities; one wanted a new focus following treatment for breast cancer, another was a ‘rowing widow’ and decided the only way she would get to see her husband was to take up the sport as well! The main two reasons for taking up rowing however were wanting to try something new and wanting to meet a new group of friends.

After a number of years in the sport, these are women who aren’t afraid to get hot and sweaty. They don’t care what they look like in the middle of winter when their main priority is keeping warm. They’ve discovered that it’s never too late to discover the right sport for them. They’re stronger, fitter, healthier and happier as a result of becoming part of a sport and the associated club community.

So what role do we have as coaches to introducing, and keeping adult beginners in sport? Some areas of my coaching philosophy are;

  • Knowing your participants as individuals and why they are trying a new sport at this point in their lives can help you to understand what motivates them to keep coming back.
  • There’s nothing wrong with only wanting to come and train when the sun is shining. Being active in good weather is better than not being active at all.
  • Not everyone wants to be competitive - introducing competition will put some people off.
  • Integrate time for participants to socialise into your coaching session plans. For some, a good gossip is the main reason for them being there!
  • Keep session goals simple. Developing a new skill takes time and patience from both the participant AND the coach
  • Take pride in seeing people still involved in the sport that you’ve introduced them to.

The message is simple, understanding your participants as individuals is the key to keeping them involved in your sport. It doesn’t matter how late they’re starting to learn a new skill, it’s never too late to discover their girl power!