Teaching Grit On The Water: A Top Coach Mixes Rowing With Life : NPR Ed For more than a decade, a rowing coach in Oregon has been teaching teenagers the value of hard work with tough love that sticks.
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Teaching Grit On The Water: A Top Coach Mixes Rowing With Life

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Teaching Grit On The Water: A Top Coach Mixes Rowing With Life

Teaching Grit On The Water: A Top Coach Mixes Rowing With Life

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All sports require hard work and sacrifice if you want to succeed. Take rowing - there’s pain and exhaustion. There are early-morning practices and not much individual glory. If everyone rows well together, then the team is the star. Well, getting teenagers to buy into all that is a challenge. But for more than a decade a rowing coach in Portland, Ore., has been doing just that. NPR's Tom Goldman profiles him for our series, 50 Great Teachers.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Education at the Rose City Rowing Club starts long before oars touch the water. When head coach Nick Haley starts an afternoon practice, it’s not 3:59 or 4:01.

NICK HALEY: OK, gang, it’s 4 o'clock. Here we go.

GOLDMAN: After the lesson in punctuality, there's one about respect. It's a big deal at Rose City - respecting teammates, coaches, the sport, the equipment. And Haley, speaking to more than 100 high schoolers gathered before him, notes several of the club’s big boats - 60-foot long Racing Eights, as they’re called - some are getting repaired because some of the kids carelessly bang them together.

HALEY: We want to try to eliminate the silly mistakes.

GOLDMAN: And Haley gives them a chance to do just that, as we watch several rowers carefully guide a rack of boats outside.

That’s trust right?

HALEY: That is trust.

GOLDMAN: . That’s trust. That’s how much - what’s the expense of all those boats right there? How much…

HALEY: Twenty-thousand dollars they’re wheeling out the door (laughter).

GOLDMAN: They're wheeling them down, safely, to Portland’s Willamette River, where Haley will do his coaching from a launch. Five-foot-eight and wrapped in a vortex jacket, he stands, wheel in one hand, a bullhorn in the other. Early in the practice, he pulls up next to the varsity girls Racing Eight, where several of the rowers are struggling to get their oar blades out of the water cleanly. So, Haley, sounding like a hypnotist, has them row with their eyes closed.

HALEY: All right, imagine it is coming out perfectly clean, breathe, confidence.

GOLDMAN: He’s paying close attention to this boat. In a few days, he’ll travel with these girls to Boston for the celebrated Head of the Charles Regatta. But he knows prepping for the world-class event will require more than hypnotic rowing exercises.

HALEY: Come on, girls. Come on girls, no excuses.

GOLDMAN: They are racing now against several of Rose City’s boys’ boats. In between practice races, the girls’ chest heave, their faces are red. Haley, bobbing next to them in his launch, explains why the pain and discomfort are good.

HALEY: We have to practice sticking our neck out physically. We have to do that today, all right? The upside to doing that is that you’re going to have confidence at the starting line in Boston that physically you can do it.

GOLDMAN: Many of the lessons Nick Haley teaches on the Willamette are lessons he learned on the fabled Thames River in England long ago. When 45 year-old Haley was a teenager, he went to school in London. Rowing practice for him often meant exploring the river alone.

HALEY: I was allowed to develop a love of rowing in a kind of organic way. It wasn’t a factory. It wasn’t, you know, we weren’t just churning it out to get medals. So I think I was imbued with a real deep love of the sport.

GOLDMAN: It's been 11 years since he started Rose City Rowing, a nonprofit that pays Haley about 50,000 a year with no health benefits for a job he does at least six days a week, 12 hours a day. The passion he discovered on the Thames and that fuels his nonstop schedule, Haley tries to instill that in his athletes - not just by imparting wisdom but by making them active participants in the experience. He tells his rowers they make a decision on how much pain they can tolerate. He tells them trading late nights with friends for 5 a.m. practices, that’s not a sacrifice. It's a choice. Twenty-two year old Gregor Dierks is a former Rose City rower.

GREGOR DIERKS: Rowing is one of those sports where you really see what you're made of. You really find new depths to yourself.

GOLDMAN: Dierks rowed at Boston University and is now back in Portland as an assistant coach for the club. He’s one of Haley’s many success stories, not because Dierks kept rowing after Rose City, but because he took what Haley taught him, and, in Haley's words, ran with it. For Dierks, the main concept that stuck was a simple one - the value of hard work.

DIERKS: That was probably the biggest thing I learned from Nick because it was so early on, and that has totally permeated the rest of my life with school, with rowing, with relationships, with friends - you only get as far as the work that you put in.

GOLDMAN: The rowing and life lessons have bred tremendous loyalty and respect for Haley. But he’ll never be mistaken for a central casting-type coach - warm and fuzzy, a best buddy to his athletes.

HALEY: It's important to support them. It’s important to respect them. It’s important to nurture them, but, you know, a friend? No.

GOLDMAN: This philosophy also appears to have its roots in Haley's London experience. In a newspaper article several years ago, he praised his coach, a former Olympic rower, for teaching Haley how to be inspirational and tough. "He didn't coddle me," Haley said. "He spoke to me as if I was worth the straight story."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mount Saint Joseph in Pennsylvania, and they’ve already squeezed by bow number 25 - Rose City, Portland, Ore.

GOLDMAN: In Boston, the girls finished 34th out of 85 boats and showed the mental toughness Nick Haley preaches.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But bow number 25 is not giving it up here, and this is great. We love to see this kind of racing. Look at them taking it back.

GOLDMAN: Seventeen year-old senior, Molly Mastrorilli, was in the boat. She says she achieved her goal at the Head of the Charles – successfully representing what Rose City stands for.

What does it stand for?

MOLLY MASTRORILLI: To me, it’s not necessarily the fastest team out there, but we definitely are disciplined hard-working people who try to be good people and try to work hard.

GOLDMAN: Of course, winning is important. The team will try to add to its already full trophy case when the most important part of the year comes around - spring racing season. But Haley says the competitions - the endless practices right now - are as much an investment in what he hopes is a rowing future for his athletes.

HALEY: I’d like them to be able to walk into any boathouse anywhere in the world at any level, at any age and I guess be able to hop in a boat and work with the group that’s there.

GOLDMAN: Haley says it's impossible for his athletes to get to that finished point at Rose City. There’s too much going on in their teenage lives. But getting them on track, seeing the lightbulb come on, he says, is where he gets his satisfaction. So if you see a glow coming from Portland’s Willamette River, that’s why. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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