Team chemistry can be an undervalued concept in sports. It doesn’t always matter how much talent a team has — if they don’t gel, they won’t win. Just look at any all-star team.
Going off that theory, former Penn and current Temple men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy recently tried a unique way to build his team’s chemistry — he had his players go out on the Schuylkill River to train with the Temple crew team.
Dunphy explained that while all sports require teams to work together in order to succeed, that need is amplified in rowing.
“The sport really emphasizes the need for complete teamwork,” Dunphy said. “The oars all have to be in the water at the same time, you have to pull together — it’s just a fabulous example of what teamwork really needs to be.”
Dunphy credits former Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock with the idea. Each year at training camp, Hitchcock would devote a day to team-building, which in 2005 was a day rowing on the Schuylkill.
“He and I had a conversation about doing different things with your team and having these bonding experiences,” Dunphy recalled. “He thought it was great for his team to do.”
For college athletes like the Temple basketball players, who are used to excelling in their sport, getting put into boats and being sent out on the river was certainly a change.
“I wanted them to laugh at one another,” Dunphy said. “Just getting in the boat was a chore for many of them. They were all pointing at each other, seeing how foolish one another looked because they weren’t very good.”
Dunphy believed the experience was worthwhile for his players — not only for the bonding aspect, but for working with another sport to see firsthand how they conduct their practices, which for crew meant being out on the river before the sun rises.
“I enjoyed having our players understand the culture of being down at the river early in the morning … experiencing what other teams do and how hard they work.”
While it was the first time Dunphy took the Owls out on the Schuylkill, he first used the tactic when he was still at Penn.
Last winter, the Penn women’s soccer team practiced with women’s crew, but it wasn’t just a one-time thing like it was for Dunphy’s squad. Penn soccer practiced once or twice a week with the rowing team, and their purpose was more for cross-training than for team-building.
“In the winter, when your offseason can get monotonous, we just wanted to do something that was low impact on their legs,” said Darren Ambrose, currently in his 11th season as coach of women’s soccer. “Not the pounding that can lead to stress fractures and other joint issues with running on hard surfaces.”
Ambrose said all the coaches at Penn are a “close group,” so he began brainstorming with some of his colleagues about different offseason workouts.
“He approached me and asked if I would help because he was looking for something a little different for his athletes, to keep them fresh,” women’s crew coach Mike Lane said. “I was pretty fired up to do it.”
Unlike the Temple team, the Penn soccer players did not make it out on the river. Instead, they erged with the rowers and also used the indoor rowing tanks.
“People think of rowing, and they think it’s all arms, but when you get on the erg, it’s actually all legs,” Ambrose said. “You have to get on one to understand how difficult it is.”
To keep things interesting, Lane organized erg relays, forming teams based on erging times.
“They weren’t just rowing against the clock, they were able to compete against each other,” Ambrose said. “It kept it competitive, they worked harder at it, and it kept it fun because they enjoyed competing.”
Not only did it give the players a change of environment, it gave them a chance to see how coaches other than Ambrose operate.
“I think they liked being around the rowing coaches,” Ambrose commented. “It’s a change in voice and a change in philosophy … I think it just keeps their edge a little bit.”
Overall, both coaches enjoyed the experience of working together and believed it was worthwhile for their athletes. Lane, though, would like to change up one thing for next time.
“If we do this next year, our goal will be to actually get them on the water and into a boat,” he said.