Alan Roaf

Alan Roaf was born in Canada in 1946. He has had a long career as an eminent rowing coach, coming to work with the Queensland rowing administration in the 1980s. This is his story:
“I started rowing in 1959 at Shawnigan Lake School where I rowed for four years and I was in the first eight for two years. The last year when I graduated in 1963, we did a tour to English Henley and around Europe for seven weeks racing and learning and having fun. It was so motivating that I couldn’t wait to get to University and pick up an oar there and quickly made the first eight, the first boat and became captain of the team a year or so later. I had a wonderful time there. Every day was a pleasure. I was one of those people who love getting up at 4.30 in the morning and getting down to the boat house. However it was a big disappointment in 1968 when we missed winning the [Canada] Olympic trials in the eights to go to Mexico City. I didn’t resent not winning but I felt we’d underperformed and that kind of stuck in my craw. So I got into some serious coaching and four years later, at 26 years old, I was coaching the Canadian Olympic team in Munich. 

“So at a young age, and obviously with some flare for it, I was on a steep learning curve and soaked up every single lesson I could learn at the Olympics in ’72 and then carried on for the next four years. In ’73 Canada realised that the ’76 Olympics in Montreal are almost on our doorstep and we’d done very little to prepare. Rowing was certainly amongst those sports that hadn’t done their homework, so because of my youth and greater flexibility, I was a good candidate to be put into place for the next four years to help prepare the next Olympic team. So I was the first professional coach hired by Rowing Canada and I did that on the west coast at a place called Burnaby Lake, a suburb of Vancouver. We trained there and came on over a period of three to four year build-up through a lot of other experiences, just took us from strength to strength. Our whole program started slowly in the sense of we maintained this club based method of selection, or the first club crew crossed the line would win. But we were doing quite well internationally against composite crews, the typical method they use now. “A change was needed so I was part of the group that helped shift the whole Canadian national team culture to a composite program. I should put it in a way that I was one of the coaches that worked towards achieving that. We were led by a fellow named Tudor Bompa who was a very good friend of mine and he gave us the collective inspiration to do it. We only really had a coordinated all star team for one year leading up to ’76 Olympics, but in one year was it was amazing to see what the Canadian athletes had been able to do. We went to Europe and we won Lucerne, both days with the crews I was coaching. Our women’s eight won and did outstanding, and many other crews did very very well to the point where we were written up in the European newspapers as being the “Canadian miracle”. “I went on from there to 1980 Olympics. I was then put up to Chairman of the Technical Committee for Canadian National Team in 1977 and 1978 and got through 1980, we had a pretty good team. I was coaching the women at that point and would probably have brought home a few medals, but we boycotted the Olympics, with the Americans, the Canadian government felt obliged to support them. So that was a disappointment. “I went back to University to do a Masters degree in the theory of coaching. My specialty was in behavioural and educational psychology from a coaching perspective and then physiology and bio-mechanics as well. I had two fabulous years when I could sit and just research things and find out what the theory was of all the practical experiences. I graduated in the spring of 1982 and I was sponsored on a forum of a two-month tour to Europe to go and investigate western training centres to see what made them unique. I learned that there was nothing really that made them unique except the strength of a really strong leader. “Shortly after my return I got a phone call from Jack Pritchard, chairman of the Queensland Amateur Rowing Council, inviting me to come down here and work. My thesis advisor, Brent Rushall, was an Australian living in Canada. He and I were very good friends and he was a specialist in sports psychology the director of the university program that I attended. Brent was here in Australia and he suggested I might be a good person to come and help them and so that’s how Jack got a lead on me. We agreed to a six month test period to see how it would work out. I got down here and I connected with people and four months into the project, they asked me to carry on for four years, which I did. “The smartest thing I did for the first six months was not saying anything, really. And then people came up to me and said well – when are you going to tell us something? And I said – well I’m not going to tell you anything but I will start when you ask me. That approach worked really well so that I think they realised that I wasn’t coming down as a, be an aggressive director. I wanted to be an educator, so setting that tone was important and it carried on quite successfully over the four years. It took a lot of work, everybody sacrificed and gave up a little bit of their own little ego, including me, including Queensland rowing but it paid off. The main thrust that I was working was coaching education, coaching education, coaching education plus setting up very good standards for objective selection wherever possible and performance standards that people had to measure up to in order to receive support and be included in the team. Those are the overriding principles. But at the beginning, it was another world. I’d be out in the motor boat with the coaches and we’d be going up and down the river and it was as if, if say an opposition club’s tinny would go by, and the people on the shore would, you could almost imagine having a cannon lobbing a charge across there and blow them out of the water. It was a bit humorous from the arm’s length position I had but apparently this had been going on forever. “The impression I had was that people would be happier to beat the other crews on the water than say win the King’s Cup in some way. That’s a bit extreme, but there was this intense rivalry based on not much. You had some extremely good coaches who got good results but as a system, there was no system and that was the challenge, bring it together and give people a sense of common purpose. “The Queensland Management Committee was very supportive as they made the commitment to see things turn around. After that it was getting a small cadre of coaches who were leaders in the community to listen to me and get to know me and buy into the vision, and which became our vision. They were active in that and that made the big difference because then I could go out feeling I had some back up. “One of the things we did as a program, I spent a lot of time going to the schools. The schools in Queensland in the rowing environment were not part of the mandate of Rowing Queensland that they delivered services to. In other words their GPS system was outside of Rowing Queensland. That was fine too but Jack Pritchard, the Chairman and I felt, and others felt that going to help them was a gesture of goodwill cause really what we wanted to do was have rowing in Queensland be successful for all of us. So this was a very non-intrusive no cost way of making an impact and that would be my going into the schools and making myself available to help the rowing masters and others enhance their skill levels from the coaching point of view and make them feel that somebody from Rowing Queensland really cared about how they were doing. The performance increments increases over the four years in the level of school rowing was really significant. “I was a contributing author of Levels 1, 2 and 3 coaching accreditation program. Australia only really got to Level 1 and 2, but using our Canadian material and when I was here I wrote the Level 2 for Australia. But then back in Canada I also designed a Level 4/5 course which is graduate level program. So coaching education in written form and say curriculum form plus the practical implementation has been a passion of mine for a long time. “People saw the benefit once we had a few sessions and they could see my intent. They really wanted to get to know more and more and more because they could see it was influencing their performance as coaches with their crews at whatever level. I would say that our coaches were probably the best educated coaches in Australia. They developed a thirst for the knowledge and I was their facilitator to help bring it to them. “In the first couple of years that we went to the nationals, we had a bit of a wrangling because of the level of senior men’s rowing wasn’t very high and I recommended to the Council we not send a King’s Cup Eight and of course they were apoplectic. You just don’t do that kind of thing but we pushed on it and I made the point that you can’t reward mediocrity. We have to take a stand some time and when the Council, particularly Jack Pritchard had the courage to make the decision, I said – “Jack, wait to see what happens next year, cause people will realise that Queensland means business. It’s out to do the best it can do.” And sure enough, it really created a wave, a momentum, a realisation that people saw Queensland wanted to have strong crews and they weren’t just going to send the same old same old. It was tremendous. So from that point of view, from that point I should say, progress really moved ahead in small boats and what I knew that was, our program needed was wins, they needed gold medals. “That first year was 1983 and then we took a strategy where we wanted to get the runs on the board because, you only win one medal, you got to lose to get the other two. People remember first place and it was important for our backers and for the State government and others to see that Queensland rowing was on the move. So we picked out events that we could have a high probability of winning and probably not the ones that necessarily the Victorian and New South Wales might focus on but we’d create the culture of success here because ‘a win is a win’. In the last two years that I was here, we were, according to the national championships points system, ranked second behind Victoria, and Queensland had historically been sixth all the time. “In other words there had been a great deal of learning. It was sustained and I think that result was really important. But there was another thing that’s a little less tangible that I think reflected a spirit. When I was learning the ropes down here, I said “Jack we’ve got to send people to the National championships, more than the ones just being picked for the interstate crews, they’ve done good things, they deserve to go. If they make the commitment and get the results, we’ve got to support them.” So financially it was very difficult to do that but I got the Council to agree, those athletes who were deemed to have been worthy of support – they may not have been on the interstate team, but they were allowed to wear a Queensland track suit, with the “Q” maroon. I can still see it with an Adidas track suit they got all these things and they’d wear their club uniforms for racing but they wore the maroon track suit. So we got to the regatta and it was like a swarm of bees coming out all over the place. There were a lot of people now who were performing well and got support. I remember, I think it was maybe the third year. I was standing down by the water somewhere, watching the crews come down and one of my Victorian friends came over and said “What the heck’s going on up there in Queensland? Look at all these people. As soon as any Queensland crew comes down, no matter what club they are, the swarm of maroon comes over to the shore yelling and screaming.” What was happening was that the athletes and coaches in Commercial Rowing Club were cheering for Toowong and vice versa and everything because it became a team. And I think that was less tangible than the hard core results that I referred to earlier, but at least as significant or more so than the actual wins, because people saw what can happen when we work together in a common goal and that mattered a great deal to me. “I had some interaction with the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS] at that time. When I arrived in Queensland I knew well some of the senior leaders in Australian rowing. They saw what I was doing up in Queensland and after a few months I went down to see the President of Rowing Australia, John Coates, and talked to him. He asked me what I saw as the big need and how I might help. I told him I thought there’s a need for a much greater enhanced national program for coaching development. So they appointed me the National Director of Coaching Education, the first time that position had been in place, but it was consistent with what I was doing in Queensland. Rowing Australia made a financial contribution to Rowing Queensland to help offset my salary costs which were hard for a state association and in return for that I would be the leader of this program. Now when I say “leader” there’s other really excellent coaches across the country and I kind of facilitated all the direction. I took on the task of writing much of the material for this new Level 2 course that people tried to get going but never did. So I could still remember sitting in my apartment here in Queensland in the middle of the night with my pencil and paper and eraser and writing out long-hand and photocopying charts and putting them in where they should be done and taking these hand-written documents into Jack Pritchard’s office and having his secretary very kindly type it all up. It’s amazing when you think back today when it can be done by computer but it was a labour of love and, considering the day, I think it was very good material, such that it was accepted and adopted and used for quite a few years. I think it’s still good material, although it could be updated, but they’ve moved on from there, I’m sure. “In Queensland I was able to work through others and with them set higher standards and hold people’s feet to the fire to realise that high performance is not a – you can’t be half pregnant. You can’t half do high performance, you’re either in or you’re out. The state moved towards that to a great extent so that concept of Queensland being on the cutting edge and taking a novel way of moving in to the mainstream of high performance rowing. We were able to do that and it was standard setting, education, teamwork and expecting top results. Poor results weren’t acceptable anymore. Jack Hutchinson & Alan Roaf – 1986

“I look back fondly on my time in Queensland. I said to many people over many years, it was four of the best years of my life. The work we did, the results we got in a relatively short period of time for reasons I discussed earlier were fantastic. The people I worked with became friends well beyond just the rowing activity and remained very dear friends of mine till today which is over than 20 years ago when I left. I think that’s a hallmark of a good relationship.”

In 1986 Alan returned to Canada at the invitation of Sport Canada and the Coaching Association of Canada to be the first Executive Director of the National Coaching Institute. After many years working with Rowing Canada, Alan returned to Brisbane in September 2007 to review rowing in Queensland.

“This request came up to review Rowing Queensland’s high performance program and make recommendations on how it could move ahead and also support more strongly Rowing Australia’s initiatives at the top level. I’m interviewing many many people to try and find out what they think the current reality of Queensland high performance rowing and then find out from them where they think the program can go and collate this information. The first part of the report will be on what I’ve heard from the constituents, the stakeholders and coaches and all these people. Then I’ve been asked to make some recommendations based on my own experience.

“I think Rowing Queensland does an excellent job, but when I saw all the papers sent to me by email from Australia to Canada, I was reviewing the material. I kept going through it – it’s a good plan, this looks really good, but I didn’t feel any sizzle. Nothing grabbed me in the gut cause any bureaucrat can write good papers and send them to the government. It wasn’t causing any movement ahead in the areas they’re concerned about, which was high performance. So my feeling is Queensland needs a strategic goal that’s going to rivet everybody from top to bottom and I’m going to recommend that the strategic goal be that “Queensland rowers win gold medals”, cause I know that works. It doesn’t mean you have to be a member of Rowing Queensland to be under that umbrella. It’s anybody that’s rowing in the state, it goes back to that whole process of how can we move the whole sport ahead, and decisions that support that in high performance should be supported and the ones that don’t shouldn’t. There should be strict standards back in place that are high performance. I’m going to make some recommendations of what might be suitable and the people here will decide whether those are good or not, but those are important criteria and it will make standards that replicate the competition against which you’re racing. “I believe in systematic recruiting, much more sophisticated and hard-nosed than we did all those years ago. That’s the next challenge and we can get the genetically pre-disposed athletes that come in, put them on a training program and move up. Remember high performance is different than club rowing. It’s a different animal. In Canada for example we expect all our senior eight athletes to go within our training centres either in London, Ontario or Victoria and train all year around. You have to do it. That’s what high performance rowing demands. Australia has a different climate, different situation and I can see where there are situations where some athletes can remain in their own home situation a little bit longer, but at some point a crew has to come together and train. The question could be in Australia, at what time of the year and what time of the Olympic cycle is that necessary to be there totally. There’s no question that at certain stage of the year the crew has to be together, when it’s going to come together is the big issue. If rowers stay here [in Queensland], they can be trained extremely well, so don’t think that the motivation to go away has to be because they feel they’re going to get better coaching elsewhere. “I’ve remained optimistic about Australian rowing and about Queensland’s role in that as I ever was. My hope is now that whatever program’s put in place will be sustained through the change in board level leadership and the evolution of coaches and things like that. It’s got to be a systemic approach not a personality dependent one. So if that comes about, I think Queensland’s future role is very bright.”

(Alan Roaf was interviewed in September 2007).