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Nov. 2013 Meeting Summary - Al Morrow

Category: Newsletter
Published Date Written by Keith Harasyn

High Performance Coaching
Al Morrow - Canadian Olympic Rowing Coach


Al Morrow -  Inductee in Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame

I am a great believer in Luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.  Coleman Cox.

Al Morrow considers himself to be incredibly lucky.  In his words he has continuously been in the right place at the right time.  However, when one considers his approach, technique and preparation to coaching, it is easy to see why he has had unprecedented success.


High Performance Coaching - Team Building, Leadership, Developing Talent

Al Morrow spoke to the ASQ-London section on November 14, 2013, on the topic of team building, leadership, and talent development.  Based in London Ontario, Al is one of the founders of the High Performance Athletic Centre located near Fanshawe Lake.  Although it is not widely known, Fanshawe Lake offers a relatively wake free training environment, next to an Indoor Training Facility and Office.  At the Athletic Centre, rowers typical train 3-1/2 hours per day, 5 days per week: 1-1/2 hours rowing; 1-1/2 hours cross training and 1 hour with weights.  This mix is due to the fact that rowing is considered an power-endurance sport.  As a "closed skill sport", which means that the same basic motion is repeated, rowing is relatively easy to learn even at an older age.

Teambuilding - Getting Your Team to Perform as a Team

Marnie_Mcbean_Kathleen_Heddle_barcelona_GoldAl recalled reading a story by Ken Blanchard on one of his many excursions on a flight to Europe.  Ken is the author of such best sellers as The One Minute Manager and Gung Ho! Turn On the People in Any Organization.  Ken's article outlined the seven characteristics of successful teams using the acronym PERFORM


P - Purpose
E - Empowerment
R - Relationships and Communications
F - Flexibility
O - Optimal Performance
R - Recognition and Appreciation
M - Morale

Of these 7 characteristics, Al stressed that two factors stood out more than the others:
1. Optimal Performance - Al achieved optimal performance by encouraging creativity within competitors; that is competition is good and brings out a high level of achievement.  The athletes Al coaches will typically compete against each other 2 to 3 times per week, while setting high goals.  In fact he has had the most success when the team goals are set higher than the Canadian Olympic Standard.  Al's advice, in two words: "Aim High".  In his experience, success finds individuals who seek optimal situations.

2. Morale -  Al notice that athletes had better results when they were enthusiastic about their work.  As a high performance coach, he recognized the need to encourage his team in a positive way.  A memory that stuck with him was working with fellow coach Steve Sibath  in Victoria in 1978.  They had arrived early at Elk lake after a late night and the mood was somber.  It was a beautiful setting but still very dark at the lake that morning.  When the first rower came down to the lake, coach Steve's mood immediately changed to one of enthusiasm.  He created a positive mood and stayed positive.  Remember, we choose our attitude and lead by example.

A different problem can occur once a team has tasted success.  That is, staying on top. In 1991, the Canadian Team that Al coached won three world titles.  The dominant Eastern Bloc had fallen and an opportunity for a new rowing dynasty had emerged.  They had won and raised all expectations, but could they sustain this level of success? Al was worried and so he took action.  He researched how successful teams stay on top.  Being from Canada, Al looked to the great NHL teams of the past: the 1976 Montreal Canadians began a string of four consecutive Stanley Cups.  They had chemistry and hard work.  A theme that was common to every team on their way to winning their first cup.  However, when trying to win a repeat championship most teams changed their focus to distractions; next year's contract, or that there was too much work.  The answer: the team needed to refocus on hard work.  Not one to sit back on their laurels, Al's Canadian rowing team won 3 gold medals at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Leadership - Find Your Leadership Style

For leadership performance, Al stressed that there is not one style of leadership that is perfect, but one needs to find what works for you.  This applies in your personal life, sports or business; anywhere you may take a leadership role.  Al recalled an answer he had given in a pre-interview to CTV at the 1992 Olympics.  Who are the leaders on the team?  His answer, "They're all leaders".  A poignant statement given that this was followed by, at least on tv, winning a goal medal in the team event.  On this team, as on most teams, leadership came in many forms:
The catalyst - can be positive or negative but consistently instigates change.
Energizers - cheerleaders that provide the team support and pick the team up when they're down.
Quiet Example - individuals who lead by example.

Empowerment at all stages of training and performance has greatly changed the coaching landscape.  This differs greatly from the coaching style prominent in the 1970's, when a coach such as Don Cherry could be effective with the "my way or the highway" approach.  The disciplinarian ruled the coaching landscape.  In contrast, today's athletes need to know that the coach cares about them before they care to listen.  Al recognizes the need to include elements from both approaches in his coaching, describing himself as a "Benevolent Caring Dictator".

Talent Development - Eagles, Sparrows, and Turkeys

Coaches often find ways to challenge high performance athletes in order to separate exceptional athletes from the average performer.  Al described a two step process for athletes of 1) getting a foot in the door; and 2) sticking around, a type of survival of the fittest. 

In a normal group of 8, he would have 2 "eagles", 4 "sparrows" and 2 "turkeys".  The eagles were incredibly dedicated with a strong work ethic and were destined for greatness.  The sparrows were good athletes at a lower tier.  The turkeys were lacking discipline and direction.  A common error for many coaches was to spend too much time with the turkeys to try and bring their level up slightly.  However Al explained that for elite athletes this approach is flawed, and in fact coaches should spend 50% of their time with the eagles, 40% of their time with the sparrows, and just 10% with the turkeys. 
The result is too push the top athletes that much further; an athlete who is already highly motivated to succeed.  An added benefit is that the middle 'sparrows' see the attention the 'eagles' are getting and try that much harder.  The 'turkeys' either raise their dedication or quit.  This approach effectively raises the entire team's performance.

Closing Thought

Al shared an experience speaking to a large group of middle managers right after a successful Olympic Games in Sydney.  After the talk, he received a plague from the group that he keeps at his desk to this day:
"Good coaches inspire people to have confidence in the coach, Great coaches inspire people to have confidence in themselves."  What have you done today to inspire your people?

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