Alex Henshilwood talks to Junior Rowing News

Last Thursday, we were given the opportunity to sit down with Alex Henshilwood, the Head Coach at Eton College who has coached 6 crews to victory in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup in eleven years of coaching juniors, and countless more to medals and trophies in national and international events. He has also coached a number of international athletes including current Olympic champion Constantine Louloudis. He joined me to talk about his career, coaching style, and the future of the sport.

Just for the benefit of the readers who aren’t aware, what is your background in rowing?

I started at Bedford School and from there went to Oxford Brookes (it was a polytechnic back then) and latterly NCRA. I have rowed at every level, really, from junior to senior, on the international team, between June ’91-’98 but I wasn’t good enough to get to the Olympics as a lightweight. After a bit of soul searching and a job in the “real world” I started teaching in 2000 at Pangbourne College, and then went to Eton in 2003.

What did you find to be the difference between coaching school and university students in your three years at Melbourne University Boat Club?

At MUBC, I was very much part of the machinery to get the athletes to perform well, and as a consequence of that, I was a resource which they would use in order to get the best for themselves. That sounds harsh, but it can be very rewarding. But, personally I find it more rewarding to coach junior athletes. I find my coaching is not just about rowing, it’s about other things I can help them with. We don’t really get that at a senior level very often, but maybe we should.

Is there a high point in your coaching career?

No. Every year brings different challenges and emotions, therefore one year is very difficult to compare to another. My PE win at Pangbourne was a great experience, and I’m still in touch on a weekly basis with that crew. There’s currently some chat about who’s going to row the course in Gloriana at the ’17 HRR, or something. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved at two good schools, and we won quite a lot of stuff. Sometimes the wins are not as sweet as going out and having a good time during an outing, and just enjoying coaching a great group of young men. You look at the wins and think ‘wouldn’t I like to be in that position?’, and yes, it is pretty cool, but honestly, after the first time you get a big win, 9 times out of 10 the rest are just a relief not to have let people down.

Is there any time where you’ve felt an overwhelming sense of failure?

I actually like to fail in the short term; you have to embrace the failures, but not too often! The failures are what make you better. In 2007, Eton won Championship VIIIs at NSR, but lost at HRR and that was very disappointing. Then in 2008 we lost the final of the PE after getting our nose in front just about by Remenham. But, from these ashes came the unbeaten ’09 and ’10 crews. The ’07 and ’08 crews formed them. People are very quick to be dazzled by the bright lights, but I’ve lost more races than I’ve won. However, I like to win the big ones when I can.

What would you consider the most distinctive part of your coaching style?

I’d say it always changes. I don’t think my style is formulaic, and I try to be different. Flexibility, and dealing with individuals and people is important. I am always thinking about how to be different, how to incorporate a bit of incongruity, and how to coach in a way that reflects the people who I’m working with at the time.

Is there any feature that you’ve maintained over the years?

I think simplicity. Rowing is a very simple thing, which we coaches often complicate. We’re not trying to do something hugely technical, like gymnastics or figure skating, rowing is simple when done well. Athletes are sponges, they absorb information, but if you tell them everything you know about rowing in one go, it won’t work. You need to say the right thing at the right time, don’t say things all the time.

Do you have any concerns about the lack of participation from state schools?

I think that British rowing is doing a lot to improve that. There’s a lot of money being put into improving participation, and finding the most talented athletes. I’m not particularly worried about those elements. They’re laudable aims and need to be reinforced and I think British Rowing is doing that.

Do you see cutting lightweight events at an international level having an effect at the grassroots of the sports?

The fact that the events have been cut makes no difference to my athletes. It’s a bit too much to think a change at the very top will trickle down to the grassroots. If we’re serious about lightweight events (and I raced as a lightweight at the Worlds in ’97 and ’98, believe it or not) then I think we need to look at opportunities for people to row in more lightweight events at local level regattas. If there was the ability for smaller people to row at a competitive lightweight level in the UK, that would increase participation. I don’t think cutting the lightweight four will change the number of people rowing immediately.
A lot of UK universities are very worried about top athletes going off to universities overseas. Do you have any views on this?
I think there are some universities doing a great job competing with the USA universities, and you only need to look at Oxford Brookes to understand that. The first priority for a successful club is inspirational coaches. If you have great coaches, then the athletes will come. You must also be able to create a great, competitive environment, for people to have fun and enjoy themselves.

What are the greatest changes you’ve seen in junior rowing in your career?

Coaches are scared of competition, and they will enter events to avoid other crews. The quality is extremely high at the moment, on account of some phenomenally talented coaches. These coaches do great things with athletes that GB coaches might turn their noses up at. The junior boys’ and girls’ rowing scene now has real breadth and depth, and as a consequence the club programmes are starting to struggle.

What can you see changing in the future?

I wish the competition programme would be more simple. It’s complicated and as a consequence we’re seeing more private matches. When I was at school, we used to travel to other schools, and it was a great way of getting to experience rowing like you would experience an away rugby match. Why should rowing be different to other school sports? Match teas at the end of whole school fixtures are a great thing! You might even learn that you opponents are just like you and not so bad afterall.
For rowing, there tends to be a lot of resistance against coverage.

Why do you think rowing is so inwards looking sometimes? Could it benefit from more coverage?

I do believe in trying to share experiences and give rowing a wider voice. My articles in Row360 are about that. I sometimes worry about misinformation, and wonder what can be accurately searched up when people want to find an answer online quickly. Sometimes coaches are scared about giving away their competitive advantage, but being open forces you to reinvent. By copying, you’ll only even be as good as the person you’re copying once was, not as good as they might be later. I struggled with the coverage of HRR two years ago, but last year I embraced it and that was better. There is still a generational difference and a mistrust of social media, and a fear that it will be damaging in some way. It takes a lot of courage to turn around and embrace it, particularly as coaches like me get older!