The Art of the Debrief

"The post-race talk is about what happens next, not about what just happened."

Coaches coach every moment they’re with their athletes.

Messages are sent and received, whether purposeful or not, subtle or overt.

Whether the athletes or the coaches realize it or not, the greatest coaching impact occurs when emotions run high following racing.

Regardless of the outcome, well-chosen words and actions from a coach help athletes prepare for and perform better in their next competition.

On the other hand, without careful attention to detail, a coach’s behaviour can dig an emotional hole that’s difficult for athletes to climb out of.

Debriefing Following a Win

The race debrief following a victory is an often overlooked coaching opportunity.

Many coaches just convey that it’s business as usual—“just keep doing what you’re doing” after a win. But that is a dangerous message.

In reality, a winning team always has things they still need to improve to reach higher levels of success in bigger races.

Telling a team to just carry on can breed arrogance and complacency. This is setting the team up for a rude awakening in the future when they will, inevitably, get beaten.

Remind them how motivated the defeated teams will be to improve and beat them next time.

Keep focused on improvement, making sure to provide specific examples of what can improve and how collectively you as a coach are going to address those shortcomings.

It is extremely motivating for the team to realize that despite winning, with specific improvement the boat can go even faster.

Debriefing Following a Loss

The debrief following a disappointing loss is fraught with peril.

Everyone feels raw, so above all else the coach must possess emotional control when addressing his or her athletes.

The more disappointing the outcome, the more important it is to speak softly and calmly and without profanity. A coach who lets their temper flare up sets a bad example to their athletes—coaches need to be a rock that their athletes can rely on when times get tough. Delay the debrief if necessary to gain composure. If the team wins, by all means, shout and swear all you want.

Avoid singling out individuals for criticism, especially the steers or the drummer. Publicly reprimanding one person can cause irreparable harm. If someone needs greater attention, give them feedback privately. Conversely, there is great benefit to praising a good effort or performance publicly.

There’s no need to sugarcoat—be honest with the group. A negative appraisal should be delivered using inclusive language. A team’s failure to perform is as much the coach’s responsibility as it is the athletes’.

When they hear the coach accepting responsibility they will feel a greater sense of shared purpose and will more likely buy into what the coach wants done.

The race debrief partially covers what just happened, but it is more about moving forward. It’s the first act of the next campaign. As such, always end on an upbeat, optimistic tone. Let them know that you as a coach have a plan for how to improve even if you don’t have specifics to share yet.

It’s fine to feel disappointed for a time, but never let them feel defeated. A loss is not a defeat. Hopelessness and quitting are defeats. The coach’s words and behaviour can steer athletes away from these sentiments.

Express confidence in your athletes’ ability to meet the next challenge—whether that’s how they prepare, what they can improve upon, how they race, or the actual outcome.

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