The Windsor Boys School – A Junior Dynasty

A couple of weeks ago, Junior Rowing News sat down with Mark Wilkinson, head coach at the Windsor Boys School, to discuss how their small state school in the South of England has become one of the most feared names on the circuit…


How are things going this season having won the Fawley Challenge Cup last season? How well is the rebuilding going and how strong are you looking coming into a new season?

Yeah so the boys are back in training and they’re doing some good work. There’s definitely an air of excitement. It is quite easy to inspire the next generation with the success over the summer at Henley and the National Schools, plus a couple of boys going into the British team and getting a silver medal as well. There’s lots of good things so as a result the buy-in to the program is even stronger than ever, which is what you want as a coach. We’ve been pretty pleased with the way the boys have come back in – we’ve been careful we haven’t overdone it in any kind of way though. We’ve just trained, we haven’t raced at all, just training and trying to rebuild and get people in the right place.


How many returners have you got from last year’s quad?

There’s three back from that crew that won, which is pretty good. I think it always has its dangers as well because rebuilding them after so much success is a challenge in itself. Whilst it’s very easy to inspire the next generation and all those who weren’t in the quad, trying to reset people who were very successful is pretty tough sometimes. They’re a very good bunch and they have managed really quite well but we’ve been pretty careful with the training and trying not to overload them and allowing them to get back into a good school regime because they did miss days off school and various things like that for trials. It’s important that they came back and felt they were in a good routine and too much wasn’t being asked too soon.


You talk about inspiring the next generation. When I was a junior rower, Windsor Boys were strong throughout the age groups so I assume inspiring the 13/14 year olds at the school is quite an important part of the project?

Very much so – it even starts before they even come to the school. They don’t even join us until they are 13 so we do various learn to row projects and go to the middle schools. The guys in that quad that won hadn’t rowed before three or four years ago, and it’s important the younger generation realise there’s a link between them and the top athletes. It creates the sense of realism because we do all sort of worship them.

On the topic of inspiration, we had 170 boys come down to the boathouse who want to start learning to row which is our largest ever turnout. It’s a logistical nightmare! We start with a mass swim and capsize test along with emergency drills. It’s a real feature event as their parents come down so there are about 500 people in the boathouse, which is basically a tiny little shed. It probably equals one bay at Eton College.


You win at all levels. How do you achieve this?

There’s not really a secret – you see boys go fast at all age groups but I think there’s a way of doing it and it’s got to be the building of the program throughout the year. I’ve got no problem of J14/15s going fast, winning, as long as it is done the right way. Fundamentally, stick to the basics and get them to row well. There’s a lot of training we do that involves slow burning through the age groups. We do put quite a large focus into year 9/10 rowing to make sure they get coached individually. No boy should go more than two days without individual coaching. I think that keeps them in the sport because they feel like they are being watched and this puts a consistent focus on how they move the boat.

I genuinely think that is why we are successful in all the age groups. We take that and just make them fitter and stronger as they enter sixth form. That’s when the two halves tend to meet.


I assume the Fawley Cup was the priority last year?

Yeah, it was. Basically, that was the third year in the last four that we’ve been in the final.


2014 was a bit of a surprise. I remember the quad had to go through qualifying and ended up in the final of the Fawley. I remember thinking how the hell has that happened?

Well, that’s basically just a very progressive training program through the year. To be honest, I’m just not interested in anything that’s happened before Easter in terms of racing. It’s all about using the racing that we do as training with purpose. It just adds a slightly bigger element but it’s just training so there’s no tapering just because there’s a head race coming up. I think that year we particularly tried to keep things under the radar. We didn’t race this quad at the National Schools and got a silver in the championship doubles, losing to Westminster. We really started to race the quad for the first time at Marlow.


So you ended up in the final of the Fawley, against an exceptional Borlase crew.

They were certainly excellent. We learned a lot from that though. In 2016, we had a J16 in the crew so it was a bit of an unknown but we really punched above our weight. It was a great example of rowing with skill because we only had an average ergo of about 6:33 that year. To lose again was quite gutting at the time.


The 2017 semi-final and final were phenomenal races though? 

Yeah, we got Leander on the Saturday. That race is definitely worth a watch. For our boys to cope with that much pressure – it didn’t just happen on that one day. It’s a culmination of years of development through the mind-set and the training techniques in the club to ensure they were ready to cope with whatever challenge they faced. If you’re truly ready then you’ll only think about getting to the finish line and that really was the mission – how good and ready can we be sat on the start line.

In the final, Claire’s Court took us on. We got out to a lead and they came back through us. It’s hard to be in the lead and then get overtaken so they had to step on it again. That’s one of the hardest skills in rowing I think. It kind of sucks the life out of you when a crew comes back at you and goes through you. Again, they just stuck to their plan and executed what they knew they were capable of doing. I think the emotion of the occasion is pretty special; it’s easy to be happy crossing the line but you know the real significance is not just the fact they won but the realisation that all of the process that they put themselves through actually added up to a moment which they’ll never forget. The biggest impact was probably what it meant to everyone else, the school environment and the wider community. If you look at the forecasting, its off the charts with people watching from all over the world, investors flying in throughout the course of the week especially after they’d won. It meant an incredible amount to the school and the boys. We have people from 50 years ago getting in touch. I had messages from the likes of America, Australia and the Far East.


Yeah, it’s fantastic. And on that note about alumni, I suppose another big tick for your program is the fact that a lot of the guys that row for you go and row at a higher level when they leave?

Yeah, definitely. 10 to 12 years ago, I don’t think that was the case but I’ve been really keen on trying to make sure it’s very much geared towards their own career. Right now, there’s more old boys rowing in some capacity than there’s ever been which is great, and some of the boys have gone on to do pretty incredible things. It is bigger than ever outside the club as much as inside the club which is great.


It’s a testament to your program. So how did you personally get involved with coaching at the Windsor Boys School?

Basically, I’m an old boy of the school. When I left, I’d had a pretty successful junior career, I was in the British team, I won two Fawley medals myself and a host of national titles. I went on to race at U23 level but never really made it, played around a bit and got a teaching degree. The headmaster at the time got in touch with me, heard that I was a bit all over the place and said ‘how about coming to work at the Windsor Boys School’. I was looking for a job and I thought that sounded quite good. I ended up at his desk and he said ‘yes, we want you teaching in the classroom but I’ll give you a job if you take on the boat club’ and I gave it a go. We’ve been up and down and I’ve been here for 12 years now. I don’t teach anymore, I’m just director of rowing. It’s such a massive thing at a boys school as we have the best part of 200 lads who are currently rowing. We only have one other member of staff who’s employed, and even that’s through fundraising. All of the other staff are voluntary.


And you won the Fawley Cup some twenty years ago this summer?

Yeah,  that was a long time ago. I’m starting to feel a bit old now to be honest. It’s pretty exciting but it’s good to move on from that sort of stuff because the 90’s were very successful for us. In the past years, we have had to fund raise for everything, even the water bill. The school is very well supported but we are a state comprehensive and in this day and age, budgets are extremely tight. It’s quite cool as it creates the mind-set that you have to earn it. I’m not complaining about it at all. I think it’s a strength for sure.


Anything you want to add?

Overall, it’s a tough sport to get into when they’re young. I think if you want to be successful, you’ve got to have the right mind-set. If you’re looking for the easy route then you’re not going to have a very good time. I think there are challenges all around you but it’s how you deal with them more than anything. You’ve got to either say it’s too hard or you get on with it. That’s what we’ve been doing anyway. It’s pretty cool.