Collaborative Coaching: From LeBron James to Elite Rowing

    Author Profile Posted by Meghan O'Leary
    Vice President of InstaViser

    When LeBron James announced his decision to depart Cleveland for Los Angeles to join the Lakers, there was plenty of excitement (and despair), accompanied by grand projections for the decision’s impact on the rest of the NBA. A peripheral but intriguing storyline was the fact that James would now be coached by Luke Walton from the same 2003 NBA Draft class. Walton was drafted 31 spots after James, the number one pick that year. Only five years apart in age, they’re practically peers. It’s interesting that the youngest coach in the NBA will be coaching the larger than life, arguably greatest player in the NBA. Can it possibly work?

    Walton is known as a player’s coach, having developed his coaching style under some of the greatest coaches out there, including five-time NBA Champion (as a player) and three-time NBA Champion (as a coach), Warriors Head Coach, Steve Kerr. In a 2016 interview, Walton said of his time under Kerr, “It was the first time I'd been around that type of open relationship between player [and] coach. That's naturally who I am. I like being able to talk to the guys, can include them in decisions and get their feedback. The way [Kerr] did that and the success we had and how much that helped in having players take ownership of what we were doing as a team is something that is a big part of my coaching style now.”

    With a player like LeBron, Walton will have to continue to cultivate a collaborative environment much like the one he learned up in Oakland under Coach Kerr. If Kerr and what he has going on with the Warriors is any indication of the power of collaboration, Walton is on the right track.

    Sports fans and athletes alike have been debating the qualities of what makes the best coach for decades. For some, “great players make great coaches” or “the greatest players make awful coaches, because X, Y, Z.” The reality is that there is no right answer and it all depends on the situation, sport, and personnel. 

    As a professional athlete and Olympian, I’ve experienced the gamut of coaching styles and player-coach dynamics throughout my career. For the past few years, my boat partner and two-time Olympian, Ellen Tomek and I have been in perhaps our most nontraditional coaching arrangement, but also our most successful one. 


    (Photo Credit:

    Since Ellen and I teamed up in 2013, we’ve had to bounce around training centers, change coaches, and essentially fend for ourselves. We’ve had to make some big decisions, none of which were accompanied with a $154 million contract and ESPN feature, a la LeBron James.

    Despite the turbulence, we’re now the winningest women’s double in American history. We’ve won four World Cup medals, competed at five World Championships, the 2016 Olympic Games, and in all our years together have only lost one race on U.S. soil. We made history at last year’s World Championships where we took second, the best finish ever for the U.S. in the event. Our silver medal also broke a 27-year medal drought for the U.S. in the event.

    Left without a coach heading into the Olympic year in the fall of 2015, we turned to former teammate and successful U.S. rower, Sarah Trowbridge who had retired after the 2012 Olympics to begin her coaching career. Only a couple years older, Sarah was very much a peer. We had all trained together at the U.S. Rowing Training Center and Ellen and Sarah both rowed at Michigan together.

    So we began what would become a collaboration. We learned from her and she learned from us as we navigated how to build a fast American women’s double. While managing two athletes is very different from managing a full basketball roster, the elements of building a culture in which the athletes have the ability to engage in the process, provide feedback, and take ownership is the same. The atmosphere is fun, but accompanied by a high level of effort and hard work. 

    We were no longer left to fend for ourselves because our team had grown to three. Trust and accountability was woven throughout the threads of this collaborative process.

    It was sometime early last year after the Rio Olympics that I began calling our pursuit, “The Women’s Double Project.” Early on, we learned that if we were going to do something different, we had to go about things differently, revolutionarily even. 

    Last month we won our sixth consecutive U.S. National Team Trials, securing our spots to compete at the upcoming 2018 World Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. This summer we leaned into our unique coaching strategy that we discovered over the past few years.


    Having moved back into collegiate coaching as the head coach of the University of San Diego Women’s Rowing Team last year, Sarah was unable to join us for travel to this summer’s World Cup and World Championships. Knowing that we wanted to hold on to the magic that we had found, we turned to Kate Bertko, another former teammate and Olympian who had recently retired from competition and was coaching at the collegiate level, to help us on the project.

    Our team grew from three to four and with it, an expansion to our arsenal of experience and passion for the women’s double.

    Since 2008, at least one of the four of us have been a member of the U.S. women’s double and/or lightweight women’s double. This wasn’t accidental. Ellen and I sought out the best scullers and students of the sport who also understood the nuance between creating a new path toward success versus stepping onto an already paved path. There was no playbook for what we were doing, so we needed pioneers and trailblazers. We needed collaborators.

    We have yet to achieve King James status in our sport, but I like to think that we’re onto something by breaking from the more traditional coaching mold in rowing.

    No one coaching structure is perfect, but that’s exactly my argument. Whether it’s coaching, mentorship, or a professional working relationship, collaboration is key. Collaboration requires an understanding that both parties are benefitting from working together toward a shared goal and effectively, mutual benefit.

    Athlete or coach, employee or boss, mentee or mentor, you each must be willing to contribute to the process from start to finish, holding each other accountable throughout.

    Tagged: Finding a Mentor


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