Mary Whipple on strategies and skills athletes develop at her 9th Seat Coxswain Leadership Camp

By Mim Haigh, Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

Mary Whipple, who won three Olympic Medals, two Gold and one Silver, plus five World Championships, knows exactly how to achieve extraordinary results. As coxswain to the serially successful USA Women’s Rowing Eight, she was responsible for leading, understanding and ultimately driving her team across the line in first position, multiple times. Now, she shares her knowledge at her Coxswain Leadership Camps through her consultancy, The 9th Seat. She talks strategies and skills that win on the water and in life beyond the boat and importantly for coaches, she shares her proven strategies. 

Just to give you some background, we’ll recap the highlights of Whipple’s incredible career.

2012 Olympic Games London US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2011 World Championships Slovenia US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2010 World Championships New Zealand US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2008* Olympic Games Beijing US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2007 World Championships Germany US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2006 World Championships United Kingdom US Women’s 8 Gold Medal
2004 Olympic Games Athens US Women’s 8 Silver Medal
2002 World Championships Spain US Women’s 8 Gold Medal

(*Also, in 2008, Whipple’s crew was named World Rowing Women’s Crew of the Year.)

With those in mind, Whipple says, “what I’m most proud about my rowing career is, not all the races I’ve won or world’s best times I’ve set – it’s the team’s I’ve been honored to lead. The team cultures I’ve helped create. That is what makes me the proudest when I look back on my competitive career.”

So, it’s no surprise that the 9th Seat Coxswain Leadership Camp, in its seventh year in 2019, focuses on leadership, effective communication in and out of the boat, team dynamics and self-awareness, in addition to rowing and coxing techniques.

The 9th Seat Coxswain Leadership Camps target the unique mix of skills that every coxswain needs to be successful. Whipple articulates the contribution Coxswain’s make when she says, “the coxswain seat is a unique position within an athletic team. The skill set that is required of the coxswain is part leader, driver, analyst, and above all, a trusted teammate. The position is the epitome of a manager in the same way that the coach is the CEO. Whether the coxswains realize it or not, they are gaining invaluable skills that will carry over to the real world after their athletic careers are over. I’m stoked that I can give my students a skill set that will help them make fast boats but more importantly will give them the confidence to thrive outside of their boat.”

Bo Hanson, Senior Consultant at Athlete Assessments, explains the very specific and unique role a coxswain plays, “the coxswain plays a vital role in creating boat speed. They must be able to take charge, energize the crew, keep them in rhythm and manage a structured race plan. This means all aspects of behavior are challenged. This makes the role exceptionally demanding.”

Further, Whipple says, “it’s easy for a coxswain to think that their role is not as important as their teammate who are rowers and who physically move the boat. My camp helps coxswains realize that their words can equal speed and that their decisions can create change within their boat. This week is for them to truly become a student of sport and to ignite their curiosity of how to unite individuals into a united team.”

Of the camps Hanson says, “Mary’s program is unique in assisting a coxswain to learn what behaviors are critical and when to use them. If a coxswain’s leadership is demanding when they really need to be supportive, the crew can become visibly upset and this impacts the rhythm of the boat, slowing it down. Mary has an exceptional range of experiences to offer her coxswains and can truly speak from experience on how and when to use various behaviors to bring out the absolute best in her crews.”

The program develops skills that ensure campers will be sought-after, an asset to any crew they’re part of in the future. The learning and experiences come at a pivotal time because coxes at the camp are aged between 14 and 19 years, a foundation period for young adults. This is the time to establish self-awareness, leadership patterns and grow a capacity to foster team dynamics. The impact of these skills is immediate, and the benefits are long lasting.

The Camp program begins before coxswain even reach the boat house, with each coxswain completing an Athlete Assessments AthleteDISC Profile. At camp, they receive their individual AthleteDISC Profile Report which details their personal style, strengths, limiting behaviors, communication preferences and the environment they perform best in. Throughout the camp, coxswains and their coaches use the profile to further develop their self-awareness, improve coaching and leadership strategies.

Whipple shares a personal perspective from one of her campers, “It came home to me how important the camp learnings are when I received feedback from one of the campers. Before camp, she had set the goal of being the 3rd Varsity Team’s Coxswain, after camp, she reset her goals and was competing for the position in the Boy’s 1st Varsity crew. She said after camp, everything her coaches had talked about in practice became clear and the concepts covered in the camp were simple and so essential. Her experience of using the AthleteDISC was that it completely changed her perspective of herself as a coxswain. Because of the AthleteDISC Profile, she understood how to use her natural strengths and felt a new found belief in what she could do, now and in the future. I was inspired by her words, to me that the camp had truly opened doors that weren’t even a dream to her before.

The camp’s program is challenging, supportive, experiential and most importantly, fun! The daily camp schedule runs from 7:30am till 7:30pm and sees coxswains on and off the water for rowing and coxing training, audio review, team building and leadership talks. The camp is a phenomenal opportunity for coxswains to learn from and learn with their peers in an environment orchestrated and facilitated by an incredible role model. The impact of a role-model is immeasurable, particularly a role-model of Whipple’s caliber who draws on international and Olympic gold medal performances and shares techniques which solve problems and led to successful outcomes.

On the very first day of camp, Bo Hanson, 3 x Olympic medalist and 4 x Olympian in rowing, does a video conference with the camp to debrief their AthleteDISC Profiles and explain the application of those results to their role in the boat. Immediately after this, they do an activity which highlights their individual strengths and illustrates the way working together produces a complementary and complete team, capable of creating exceptional outcomes.

Of the AthleteDISC Profile and the way it can be used in a camp setting, Hanson says, “the AthleteDISC Profile gives coxswains a tangible way of talking about their behaviors, learning new behaviors and when to do them. This knowledge puts coxswains in a great position to learn from Mary and the other coxswains at the camp. It also shows how there is no perfect profile and that all coxswains must adapt their behavior at multiple stages even during the course of a race.”

Throughout the camp, Mary takes this valuable information and creates opportunities to incorporate the AthleteDISC Profile results in with different activities coxswains do for a holistic experience.

When it comes to empowering each athlete to adopt the most effective approach in any given situation, Whipple says, “being a coxswain takes all aspects of the AthleteDISC Profile and having the campers become self-aware of their natural behavior and what behavior each situation needs, gives them the confidence to put on, whatever profile hat they need, to create solutions for their teammates that will ultimately make their boats faster.”

“The confidence Athlete Assessments gives my campers about what characteristics come easier to them and what behaviors they need more practice at gives them the confidence they need to be themselves amongst their teammates. Just knowing that their individual strength adds value to their team is such valuable information to help them perform at their best.”

She adds, I’ve been searching for a way to measure progress of leadership skills gained during my week-long summer camp. I was feeling uninspired to have the kids fill out yet another survey until I found Athlete Assessments. Having the kids take their AthleteDISC assessment and discussing the results on the first day of camp set the tone for the rest of the week. It gave them the tools to become self-aware but more importantly to become aware of the dynamic of the group. The campers left with new skills of self-assessment and peer/team assessment that they could bring back to their home teams.”

In summary, Hanson says, “I shouldn’t be biased, but I always love working with rowers. Mary attracts such high-quality young people to her programs and it’s easy to see how engaged they are in learning to be their best.” 

And, Mary says, “this is the kind of summer camp that I would have wanted to attend when I was in high school.”

The 9th Seat Coxswain Camps take place in Seattle, at the University of Washington’s Conibear Shellhouse, so the campers also get an idea of what it’s like to train in a Division I athletics facility.