Jürgen Grobler, in conversation

Britain's greatest coach speaks to Martin Cross after a controversial departure from British Rowing, ten months shy of the Olympic Games

10 minute read
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Interview Martin Cross
Published 12.03.21

In an exclusive broadcast by the Rowers Conference organised by Ludum, Jürgen Grobler, who is one of the most successful Olympic coaches of all-time, spoke to World Rowing commentator Martin Cross. Coming six months after his retirement in August last year, Jürgen openly discusses his coaching philosophy, career highlights and selection decisions. It is a fascinating insight into his 50 years of coaching at the highest level.

What are your feelings surrounding your decision to stop being British chief coach? Just how difficult was it for you dealing with your own feelings? 

Everybody knows 2020 was meant to be the Olympic year, which I think is the highlight for every coach, for every athlete. But then from the end of March 2020 we had to go into lockdown. That was a totally new situation. We had just finished our Olympic selection, or nearly finished it, and we felt quite confident that what we had done was good. Then came the decision from the IOC that the Olympic Games were delayed. Okay. That was of course, for all of us, not easy. Especially in my case, being a little bit older – although never too old. 

I had already made up my mind that Tokyo would be my last Olympics, so there were a lot of things going through my mind. British Rowing were not waiting. They said, ‘we want to start on 2024, as a priority for British Rowing.’ “Okay,” I said, “I can’t commit for four years.” And so, having made my decision earlier, I knew the job would be unfinished. We had made good progress, men and women, we had used the time through the lockdown very well, I think. And it was difficult, but we had some outstanding performances on the men’s and women’s sides, despite the challenges. The different set ups everybody had in their homes: an erg in the kitchen, or close to the bed, in the bedroom. Sometimes just to be able to move through their rooms, they would have to put the erg on the bed. And I must say, that was a challenging time for the managers. Together with the coaches, and with the scientists, we really did a good job. But as I said, I couldn’t quite commit for four years, that was the priority for British Rowing.“

How frustrated were you that you had to step out then, given that you’d selected some crews, and given that you were so close to the athletes? What was the level of frustration that you felt?

I always said I couldn’t commit for four years. And so far, it is an unfinished job. Nobody can see what’s coming up. The situation at the beginning of the pandemic was… yeah, ‘nobody knows’. And even now it’s still a scary situation. Of course, we can see the progress we’re making worldwide, not just the big progress we’re making in Britain, but also in other countries. We need all the other countries. It is promising. And I know at the moment there is discussion again about the Games in 2021. But I would always say, and I said to the athletes, the Olympics should be on. This generation have been trying now for five years, for that highlight in their life, we should do everything, or the IOC should do everything, to make it happen. And I think all the sports now see it is possible. But maybe not in the same format. That’s how I see it.

I know Tom George broke the British indoor record. He dipped below five minutes 40 for 2k on the ergometer. Then Moe did as well. You must have been so pleased to see your athletes putting in some fantastic scores in preparation for the Olympics.

No, they had a really, really good attitude, I think. Both before and after the decision was made about the Olympics. We had been holding ourselves as a team, as a whole GB team, men and women together. We had every week, contact with each other, with everybody in the team. So yeah, I think it was a challenging time, and I think that’s something you can’t measure, but I had a good feeling for all our athletes.

What reaction did you get from the athletes? And have you had any contact with them since leaving? I know that you left quite suddenly. How much of a shock was that to your athletes, and how did they react? And have you seen them since or talked to them since?

Yes, the first thing I did, we had a video conference to tell them I’m stepping down. Okay, that was very emotional for me especially, because I think I’m a team player, but also for the athletes. I must say I had very, very good feedback from a lot of athletes. From athletes there on the team now, or on the borderline to the team, but also from the athletes from the past. It was fantastic. I must say, I didn’t expect that, but this was mentally tough.

Have you seen them since? Do they still phone you and ask you for advice?

We still have contact. I’ve been to Caversham in the autumn. I’ve been talking one to one, or in groups. Of course, I wish them all the best, as my team. And yeah, there is still some contact more privately. I’m not undermining the coaches now. If people ask me, of course I will give my best advice, I always do. Not undermining, but yeah, I have some contact.

Jürgen, you more than anyone know that small margins make a difference in the sport of rowing. And given your history of winning gold when it matters at the Olympic Games, do you think that the British team have a good a chance without you of winning gold medals in Tokyo in 2021?

I assume of course, why not? No question. Everybody can be replaced. Okay, it is always more difficult to replace them just before the finish line, with 500 meters to go. But I think they have had all my meetings and education, and I tried always to instill that in my coaches. They can transition to keep that winning edge. Of course, we had a more challenging Olympic preparation over the last four years or three years after we lost some big athletes, very successful athletes, very promising athletes for the future, but that is normal. That’s for every nation sometimes the same. But we’re on a very good trajectory, now with 10 crews qualified for Tokyo. Especially the women, after they had such a bad world championship in 2018, coming back and qualifying six crews in 2019. That was great. I think we made good progress. Even throughout lockdown and knowing that always hits some people mentally more than others. But I think as a team, yeah, we did a good job. And so far, I’m very positive.

Which boat do you think has the best chance of winning another gold in Tokyo?

Okay, I still think we have a good chance in the men’s eight. Their result is always how I judged myself. Everybody can do it once, but to do it again? That was my point. I always think we underperformed in 2019. Not that the other crews were bad, I think there were top times being achieved there. But I think we didn’t quite get it right from the heat to the final.

Did you blame yourself for that?

I think so, yes. 


I was so sure we would win it. Normally I am never like that. I always say the last stroke counts. But with all the other things around, and the pressure to qualify, and everything being so tight. I was maybe not quite hard enough. The guys trained, but maybe I gave too much away. I allowed myself to think it’s already done. It was not done. It is never, ever done. So that was where I see a little bit, I was not sharp enough. It is not that the guys didn’t train hard or whatever, but you know what I mean? You must always every day wake yourself up, and wake the guys up, and say right, come on, that wasn’t good enough.

So, are the British with all those young guys that you have brought into the team with the old veteran Moe Sbihi, good enough to win a gold medal in Tokyo?

I think that was our aim. Nothing has changed. Of course, nobody can predict what will happen. The Germans had a clean run through. But we’ve been in the process of building that eight over years. We had changes every time, but we now have a good final lineup. Six guys have been with us for a longer time, two came in new. I looked always to strengthen that boat in different places. So I think it can be done. That doesn’t mean we should win it, but we will give better than our final in Linz. There’s no misunderstanding, that was a fantastic race from the Germans, from the Dutch, no question. But we were, right from the beginning, not in the race, and that’s not us.

Jürgen, none of the crews are actually selected yet. And British Rowing have developed a new selection system. They have done away, as you know, with chief coaches, so your role, and Paul Thompson’s role have gone. And they have created this new panel in charge of selection with the director of performance and the squads, or the sweep coach or the sculling coach, and an athlete representative, or somebody who’s independent. Can I ask you what you think of that system, whether you think that will work? And what was wrong with the old system?

Okay, I can only talk about what we had in the past, and that was, from my point of view, successful. It was not a one-man show of Jürgen Grobler or whatever. I think it was always teamwork, discussing every athlete and every selection with every coach. Also, the top athletes were involved when we made decisions, I think especially between 2013 and 2016. When we were always changing between the four and eight, but with a good reason. So, in one way, it was already discussed with the athletes. In 2013 we’d been gold medalists in the four in 2012, we only lost one athlete from that crew. It would have been easy to fill that one spot and carry on. But there was an interest in trying something new. Of course, it was an interest for me too, as I got older I thought, okay, maybe it’s also time now to coach the eight. The biggest boat is more work, more athletes. And the next year, we did it. We made good progress in that year, 2013. Now we take the four out again, or build a new four, and develop the eight. So, I coached together with the eight. And so far that was successful. I’m always open for new things.

Why do you think they’ve created this new system? Do you have any idea?

I don’t know. If coaches are now selecting their own crew, okay, I don’t know how that works. And yeah, I don’t know where all the expertise is coming from, but I’m open for new things. Maybe I’m being too critical because I have grown up in a system we developed over the years that has been successful. And I think everyone was integrated in the process.

The new performance director, Brendan Purcell, is coming from the sport of triathlon. Originally, I think he’s a kayaker. How difficult do you think it is for someone who is not familiar with the sport of rowing to come in, to run the squad system, and run a rowing system? Do you think you need to have specialist knowledge or not for that?

I think it can work. Of course, you see it in other situations. If you take a government, people do different jobs, they might be minister for sport one year and next time they’re the defense minister or whatever. This is strong, good leadership. But I think it always depends who you have in the group around you. Some expertise in there would be always good. 

Maybe it was a slightly an unfair question. I think one of the things watching sport from the outside is, with UK sport now, there seems to be more a focus on the athletes’ experience, and care for the athletes, rather than performance. Do you think that’s something that was lacking in the way that Caversham was run? And do you think that needed to change? Or how do you see the way that UK Sport is now approaching funding?

Okay. I’m sure the funding is always based on performance, I think. That’s what I’ve learnt in the system, where every person should be treated the same. The whole system was working for the sport as well. I think it should be, always in good partnership, a good combination. Of course, I always try and challenge the athlete. I like athletes, they challenge me as a coach. They are well educated. You can’t just dictate, say jump up and down. They are the most important part in the whole process. How I see it they can only give you feedback when they do the training. You can write everything down, but they have to do it. And so far, that strong partnership is important. But I think what I have learned is always, if you have well educated coaches, and we made good progress in Britain, we should trust the coaches. And of course, there’s some imbalance in some other sports, where maybe they are going too far in how they treat the athletes. But I think, and of course there will be always, sometimes, conflict, no question. But that’s in every other process as well. But I think in the past we managed that quite well.

Have you ever lost sleep over a selection decision? Or have you always been content with the decisions you’ve made?

I always said that is the most demanding time, at that time I have no sleep. I have such big respect for every athlete, they put their life on hold, they spend every day training. Sometimes the selection is close, but always it is either in or out. At the end of the day, it comes to the chief coach to say, “Okay, you’re in, you’re out.” And it is not just black and white. It’s a lot easier if you’re a swimming chief coach, you can measure exactly. Like if you hit the other end first, after 50 meter, you’re in. But our sport is a lot more complex. It’s not just on the ergo. I wouldn’t select just by the ergo. It’s technique, it’s personality. I’ve learned to take the blend. And, Martin, you know them very well: Greg Searle was very physical, one of the strongest British athletes and his brother Jonny was exactly the opposite – he was the crew maker. He had the feel for the boat. His mental strength was enormous. He could mobilize something that you didn’t see in training. You learn a lot as a coach. And, yeah, that’s when you build a boat. But, of course, you have to have in principle a guideline for every athlete – what they have to do first to be in the group for selection.

Photo Grobler speaks to his athletes on training camp

Before we move on to talk about some of the crews that you’ve coached and the great athletes, a lot of people think you’re still a young man. You still look very young and you still have possibilities ahead of you. Are you open to offers from the world for you to come and help their programs? I’m thinking particularly of one of the great rowers that you coached, Steve Redgrave. I’m sure that Steve must have been on the phone to you and said, “Jürgen, we could do with your support in China”.

I must say, Martin, at first it was quite good. Even with a lockdown, to come down from 50 years of non-stop frontline coaching in the driving seat. The break was quite good. But now I’m full of energy sitting here and still in a lockdown. And, of course, a lot of things are going through my head. If I were coaching: how would I handle the situation we are in now? How to teach the athletes not to lose their confidence? How to compensate for no time in the boat. With more ergo time? Or some other training method? You can’t just copy what you did before.

Some elements do stay the same. But I think in this situation you have to be more flexible and that can be very positive. So, all those things are going through my head. So far, of course, with the lockdown there’s nearly no planes in the air. And I can’t commit for four years for somebody in a top position, but I still want to do something. I can still coach a crew and help somebody.

Jürgen, we’re going to talk about your career. We have been already today. I just wonder, you’ve got fantastic stories to tell. Have you ever thought of putting that all together in a book or something like that?

Martin, what I just said I haven’t finished totally. And it would be always something missing. So, at the moment, I would say no, but never say never.

One of the guys at Molesey that I row with, asked what have you learnt from the mistakes or errors that you made during your long coaching career?

Of course, I’m sure there were mistakes. But my aim was always the Olympics. Just like the athletes I saw the Olympics as a highlight. That is every athlete’s highlight. Yes, if you miss the world championships, okay, you can do it next year. But if you miss four years, that’s hard. So far, I can say I won gold most times. Every time I was in charge of a crew I made everything right. The bronze medal in ’72 was when I was very young and still learning.  ’72, in the single, that was fantastic. Of course, every result is fantastic because you have different athletes. In 1980, the bronze medal alongside with the gold medal in the cox pair. That was very special for that athlete and that was great. Big respect to him, it is not disappointment. 

As I said, it is so small things. We didn’t get it right at the world championships in 2019, between the heat and the final. We didn’t get it right in 2000 in Lucerne. With that four they were going to the Olympic Games under big, big pressure. But I think we discussed it beforehand that we go to Lucerne and if the conditions are right, we want to do a new record. So, we did Henley [Royal Regatta] and we were really pushing on. But I over did it. We won the Lucerne semi-final and there was nothing left in the final. So, we came fifth. There was big pressure, you know the last race before the Olympics. And that was a very special Olympics. Steve Redgrave going for the fifth gold. Matthew Pinsent going for the third gold. And then the other two, they looked at me and said okay, we go for our first.

There was all that pressure. And then coming to Australia, our boat wasn’t there. So, we trained in a different boat in our preparation camp. Then, okay, we used new blades. Yeah, that’s the pressure. But at the end of the day, we never lost focus. They believed in what we were doing. We had the confidence of what we were doing. We know what we did before. 

In Lucerne, where I made the mistake, we didn’t get it right. But I was honest enough to the athletes. I ran to the landing stage to say, “Guys, it’s my mistake. I know why we lost”. 

But that’s how I work. I can be critical to myself and that’s maybe the message for coaches, not delegate always. Of course, as coach, you have to be clear if the athlete wins it’s their fault. If they lose it’s the coach’s fault. That’s fine. That’s great, the athlete is the number one person. It’s not do it for my personal ego. I have a job to do. I want to help young people, but I have to also be honest if I make a mistake. Not say, okay, I’m fine it is them mentally not good or whatever, that’s yeah, I don’t like that.

You have talked about Steve Redgrave’s fifth Olympic gold medal and the pressure, the special pressure. When I think of that race and the Italians, do you think your crew won that race by enough? Or do you think they should have won by more?

Okay. It is all about winning and I think we had that race well under control. Of course, there were problems. We went to the course at 4 in the morning because of Tim Foster’s back. He needed enough warmup for his back problems so, the whole crew had been there very early. Okay, it was a lot of pressure. Will his back be good enough to hold up? Steve with all his problems, it had been ’97 to 2000 with his diabetes, then an injury, then with some small things. We managed that very well, but there was a big, big pressure. Steve actually did survive after he said in 1996, you will never see me in a boat anymore.

But the biggest thing was, and I know this from ’92 with Matthew. From when we identified Steve’s colitis, and we couldn’t race in Lucerne. We couldn’t train. We had to listen to the medics to make the right decision and building things up. Matthew was in the same situation. He asked: ‘Hey, coach, what’s going on? What are we doing? Where’s plan B?’ And that’s absolutely fair from an athlete. The athlete should ask questions. Of course, then you have to answer quickly and not take sides or say without Steve it is not possible. There are all those situations to manage. Like in 2015 when Andy Hodge was not in the team. He won the world championships the year before. He won the previous two Olympics and won the eight in ’13. The 2014 coxless four win that was a good win. Maybe over three seconds, a comfortable win in Amsterdam. And then he was ill. Didn’t row in 2015. It took a long time to bring him back, to give him his confidence back. But then, as a coach, yes, he is a good athlete, but still he had to race for his seat. He didn’t get a gift because he did something well in the past. It was the same for Constantine Louloudis, very talented athlete. But he had to fight and maybe he did more seat races than other people, to justify it to everybody in the team: Yes, this is honest, I’m in.

You mentioned Steve Redgrave and his illness problems. I know he wrote that on maybe one or two occasions he went to you. And said, “You need to drop me from the crew. I’m not in shape”. How close did you come to thinking that you would have to drop Steve from that four and find somebody to replace him?

Okay, in one way, as a coach, you have to be as a good athlete, never ever give up. And so far I didn’t give up on him. An athlete doesn’t lose“

everything overnight. You have to have confidence and give people time. It is a very fine line. Okay, he was maybe not top on the page in every performance parameter. But he was a tower in that boat at the end of the day, with all his experience. How he approached things. It’s exactly what he said. Yes, he questioned his own place when we ran “the coxless five” – when we said it was between Tim Foster and Ed Coode, and we should have a fair trial. Tim served that project so well. And he served in 1999 when he said, “Okay, if you’re not putting me in the four, I don’t know if I want to row in that eight.” So, we had a good gentlemen’s agreement that if he helped me with the eight, he would get his trial in the four. Of course, when Steve came in, he didn’t feel well in January and was really struggling, he said you should question my place in the boat. But maybe I knew Steve so well by then, after 10 years being with him every day. He thought, okay, come on, let’s go, he picked himself up. Sure, he didn’t come first in the trials that year, but he wasn’t out of them either. So, I just say, end of the day, he really won his medal. He wasn’t gifted that place in the boat. He won the medal.

Later on in your coaching career, you had the pair of Andy Hodge and Pete Reed. And for three years, you battled against the New Zealanders. Why did you keep them so long in the pair before changing to the four? 

Okay, was the same thing. They wanted to give it a go. It was an opportunity to try something different and it made them ready for the next job. I was fine with them racing the pair after they won all the national trials. I always ask the winning pair, the winning single, what they want. They have the right to put their hand up and say, “Okay, can we try racing as a pair?” Then I discuss it with them, give them good advice. Ask what is good for them? And what is good for British Rowing? So, at the time they said okay we’re confident. Let’s do it. But no question with that New Zealand pair, they were an outstanding pair. We were also an outstanding pair but they were always that little bit better. In the summer before the Olympics we didn’t do so bad and we were very close. 

Yeah. Well, one of the things about you, Jürgen, is that you instill tremendous confidence in your athletes that they can win an Olympic gold medal when it matters, even if the results haven’t gone their way before. What is it about you as a coach that you’re able to do that? What magic formula do you have as a coach that makes that gold medal success happen?

Okay. Of course, athletes over the years came to trust me. And that’s great. But they have to do it, not me. I never say you must win, because that really will not help. I always allow, in the run up, for them to make mistakes and say that’s okay. But we address the mistakes in a very critical way. We rework things so we don’t carry on making mistakes. If it’s a mistake in the system or our training, then, of course, that’s down to me. If it is a technical mistake or whatever then of course we have to work on that as well. So, there’s always a combination. Training, I would always say is a key thing. If you take the races in 2012, I think in Munich I think that was the first time we raced the Australians. I think we were well prepared, but I think we were mentally not prepared. If you looked at the race, if I remember right, just our skills, we lost everything. We were just too fiddly, high in rate, no efficiency. Big fight, big heart from the guys all the way through. We’d been dropped already from the start, so if you put the big effort in, to get level around 1000 meter, that takes a lot of energy. And so physically strong guys rating so high – even for the strongest horse it will not be efficient. Having the right ratio between weight and distance per stroke, I think was absolutely not right.

That’s not what we trained. Mentally they want to do it very well, and you see it very often, of people being over motivated and things going wrong. And so far we didn’t get that totally right, and that’s something we analysed afterwards. Again, together, not looking at it all negatively, because there was a lot of good elements I could see we could repair in the last seven weeks, or eight weeks, to the Olympics.

And again, I remember seeing you in 2016 with the British eight, who had not performed very well in the world cups, and it was at the Poznan world cup, and you had the eight on the bank there and you were talking to the guys. You had to turn round the performance of that eight again, didn’t you, to win in Rio?

Yeah. You know what I have said, especially at the last Olympiad from 2013 to ’16. We always made changes to the crew to develop more athletes, motivate more athletes. Making the next step really was always in our mind, but I was always hoping also with the sculling to win more, better coloured medals than in 2012. We changed every year between prioritising the four and the eight as the top boat. To qualify we went with the eight as the first boat and the four as the second boat. And then coming to the end of the four years it was already discussed with the athletes, especially with the key athletes, that they would go into the four again. So, of course, we had to change the crew order of the eight. And then Poznan, I think we tried something with Andy Hodge after he hadn’t rowed for a year, and he had to come back mentally again. He was a top stroke man all those years, he was not in his stroke anymore. He finished the world championships in Amsterdam with a top result, stroking that boat fantastic. Being a year out and coming back, we tried him in the six seat. Didn’t quite work. So we had to try again to find a set-up, integrating the new athletes, and we took a little bit of time. Poznan was a breakthrough. We had a good race against the Germans there that was very important. We learned where we had our weakness.

One of the things about your program was that every Olympiad you made the program tougher. Or you increase the volume. I mean, how close did you get to the maximum volume, or intensity, that an athlete can take? How close were you to that?

We are learning all the time what humans can do. But it is not all just about volume. Otherwise you could say a normal day has 24 hours, 12 hours daytime and 12 hours night time, let’s fill it totally with training. I think it still has to be a good balance. I think you have to make sure that it’s a good amount of specific training from time to time, sometimes maybe a little bit more on the erg, sometimes more on the water, depending on condition. There also has to be a good amount of weight training. I believe in weight training to really develop the local muscle groups better. And also trying to always be more athletic. If you look at who we attract, it’s often big guys, maybe they’re a little bit clumsy, they’re the ones who didn’t fit in a football team or whatever. So, we do a lot of things there; learning more skills, learning more about their body, how they move their body. I think that’s quite important. So we do a lot of cross training. Then once you have all of that in place it’s about quality. I grew up in the time when rowing changed mainly from interval training to endurance training. In the [Karl] Adam’s time it was more interval training… When I first arrived in the UK, I know Steve’s training before with Mike Spracklen, it was tough. I had never seen that before. I remember Steve [Redgrave] saying before we went to the first regatta in ’91 at Essen, “Jürgen, we have a regatta this weekend. We haven’t done any pieces at all!” I had to say, “It’s all right Steve, don’t worry.” 

So I think from growing up in that time I learned a lot about how that works and having the right combination between endurance training and a lot of elements of interval training. So it becomes a question of how you attribute the time. You have to have a good balance. That’s what I have done for 50 years and nobody has told me any better. Of course, you can do something for a year okay. But I’m very proud to have athletes who have had such long careers. One athlete I worked with for four Olympiads and he won four Olympic gold medals, and I had three athletes winning three Olympic gold medals, and many, many athletes winning at least two. They could maintain the training load and still succeed and keep going faster over quite a long time.

It must have been hard to see athletes that weren’t able to cope with the training load and broke down. I know one of the camps that is so tough is the Sierra Nevada camp, people talk about it as legendary, it’s so tough and so hard. Why do you make those camps as hard as you do?

Okay, that is a very special camp. I think Sierra Nevada is a cross camp, it’s mainly an indoor camp. And it is high altitude. It’s at 2,300 meters elevation. So it’s a mega challenge anyway. I think for a high-performance sport environment, we don’t go totally over the“ top, but the altitude puts a big demand on the body. That’s really very tough. But I think that’s a camp every top athlete should experience sometimes. Training in a natural environment, not in an altitude chamber or whatever to find out a little bit more about themselves, and about pacing things right. Some of them, we have to hold them back because when you go up there, at first you might feel very good, very strong, and then… 14 days is long, or 16 days. So, I think we try, or I try still, to steer people away from breaking down. That would not be good coaching. Also, for me to learn to handle athletes so they can finish a camp, successfully, without having a break in the middle because they break down. If that happens that’s just sh*t coaching from my point of view. Sorry to say that word. Though you learn a lot as a coach watching the athletes. It doesn’t matter if their score is a little bit different, what is important is that they finish the camp and how they cope and manage it, the situation and the environment.

Yeah. One of the questions Jonny Searle wanted me to ask you was, what do we think the principles of a good rowing stroke are and have you developed a different understanding of that over your career?

Okay. I think what I have learned, and there is a lot of scientific work behind it, I think you need to allow for acceleration, which means you have to have a certain length of stroke to accelerate the boat. You don’t want to have what I see as product of the old interval training in the past, where the strokes were enormously hard and short. In Karl Adam’s time, in the eight if you’re going under six minutes you were already a good eight. It was a little more short and choppy, because the physical side, maximum power was a key thing. But especially someone like Johnny [Searle] knows for himself, he wouldn’t have survived in that. He applied his stroke very efficiently. So I would always say a stroke has to have good length, and now we can measure those lengths. We get a lot of data from different ways from all different athletes, with all different physical capacities. And you would see, sometimes, it was not the one who was our biggest ergo being most efficient in the boat, because they just didn’t find the connection for the stroke.

So I think how you place your blade on the front end, picking up the flying wheel, that’s a very crucial thing. You have to be sensitive. It’s not just hacking the blade in and bringing it very hard down. Changing direction on the front end, vertical then horizontal and locking the blade in the water, I think is a very crucial thing. If you get that right, without overworking, without shaking yourself. Just very intelligent, very sensitive and still powerful, that’s from my point of view the key. And then if you have the right sequence between legs, body, arms to accelerate the boat. I think that that’s a stroke I would always teach, but that pickup is crucial.

Photo Grobler’s eight wins gold in Rio

Jürgen, who was the best technical rower that you ever coached in the British team that modelled that stroke the best?

I think that most of them came very close to it. But I would say Tom James was a very sensitive athlete. He could really translate his power. And I wouldn’t say it was low power. He was quite good physically, maybe not the top, but he was physically good. Tim Foster was one as well, where he could really feel the boat on that front end, and time it right. But all the other athletes, otherwise they wouldn’t win, have been close to it, and I’m sure, I don’t know, we didn’t have biomechanics in Jonny’s time, but I’m sure he did it well, maybe you as well, otherwise you wouldn’t be so successful. No, of course, Martin if I think of that race, the pairs race in Hazewinkel against the massive, big Pimenovs. Or maybe in your four you see Dr. Richard Budgett was a good compromise between how you applied the stroke. 

Jürgen, do you have a formula for an eight? I’m thinking of 2000 meter, 2k ergo scores. What ergo score average does an eight need to have to win the gold medal in the Olympics?

I’m sure you have to average under 5.50, but again, it can be compensated, you might have people in that eight that have other skills. I think if you look to the performance side, there’s always fitness, but it’s not just ergo scores, it’s about skills, technique, personality. So I would say under 5.50, as an average, you can still have one or two maybe at 5.53 or 5.54 or whatever.

I’ve kind of got this image where sometimes the German eight would sort of put their training camp on Instagram and they’d be rowing in pairs or they’d be rowing in the eight during the winter. And your guys would be training on the ergometer in the Sierra Nevada. Why do you put so much stress on the ergometer training?

I think that for a team, it’s the best individual training. I can see people, how they cope with the training load. In the eight, of course you can measure the biomechanics, but I think the erg is very personal training. And I think for a period of time, having very personal training, where they learn a lot about themselves, in that environment, I see that as time well spent. I think I can always say in all those years, it didn’t work against us. We’re not overdoing it, but having a block of very personal, individual training, where you can’t hide away, the computer is always there.

There’ve been some developments in rowing technique recently. You think about the Australian team, coached by Ian Wright, and the way they change, the pause at the finish and the high rating style. What do you think of those developments? What do you make of them?

Okay. I know Mike Spracklen did for a while a very different style. Leaning back very far. And of course we discussed it. I discussed it with the athletes and I think I wasn’t confident putting a lot of weight in the bow, if you lean so far back, and then there is the long way you have to go to come forward. Though of course they did it very well in their time. And then we saw some people in the juniors copied that as well in Britain at that time. I always think there’s the same thing as we had in the beginning in 2017, we saw crews rowing extremely high rate. I take the Australian four, the New Zealand single, with the new world best time. At the end of the day, you don’t see them anymore. So I think, you have to have the wide range, you should use your upper body. I always think on the way forward, the boat picks up speed. If you stop here, you have more resistance on the boat because you’re pushing a little bit the bow down. I always think that it’s best not having that up and down. But also you don’t want what I have seen in the past with some coaches, especially in preparations for Henley, where they’re just rushing their hands out, I wouldn’t do that. Just should all be in harmony.

Yeah. I’d like to ask you, you’ve coached all kinds of athletes over the years. Some fantastic athletes. If I asked you who was the most challenging athlete that you had to coach, gave you the most difficult job? And why?

Oh, okay. That was a good question, Martin. I think I must say, especially with changing sides, it was James Cracknell. Fantastic athlete, fantastic personality, but it was not easy sometimes. He always had new ideas about doing this or doing that, but that’s not totally negative. I think for a good coach, you don’t want four or eight athletes all the same. The key thing is to bring it all together. That’s what I’ve always learned, if you have a good football team, you don’t want to have 11 Beckhams or Ronaldos. They are all very important and they all have their strengths, in all different areas sometimes. Someone might motivate a crew very well. Even if they’re not the strongest, but they have that feeling. And so far, I see that a good mix is as important. It’s not just muscles. It’s a combination of different things.

I learned a lot, in 1991, with the eight. That was a big learning curve for me. We won bronze. Even the boat driver had to jump in sometimes. You remember? We had so many different people in that eight, and it worked well. Sport has taught me a lot of things are possible and that’s what you have to find out as a coach.

Jürgen, this might be too difficult for you to answer, but I’m imagining a dream four, of all the fours that you’ve coached, and who you would have in your dream four. One that you’d take to your desert island and say, “This would be my all-time dream four”. Can you start to construct such a boat?

That’s always a good question from journalists. I think we won five Olympic games in the four – so far. The next one is coming. I think every four had its time. I think it wouldn’t be fair. They all won it, you know, Martin. It’s very difficult. Why? Because nobody is perfect. And each, in their time, was the right combination, physically, technically, mentally to take on the world and bring it to a good end. That’s what I would say.

You’ve talked about some of the principles behind your training program, but can you explain your approach to training physiology. What do you believe have been the most crucial areas for the development of your athletes?

I think strength. Our sport is a strength endurance sport. That’s how I would put it in a box. Strength and endurance are not always easy to train together, because if you train endurance, you have more lean muscles. And you don’t want a big muscular profile either because that would interfere with the bloodstream. So it’s bringing in the right balance between strength and endurance. From my point of view, that’s very important. And with endurance training, if you’re not doing it, other people will do it. That’s why I always say to the athletes it’s fundamental. No question. Because our race“ time is still above five minutes. Okay, the eight is becoming more and more of a sprint now, but that’s still in the endurance category in comparison to some other sports. And then we must always see the non-physical demand on the body our sport has.

Photo Grobler at British Rowing’s Caversham facility

Yeah. With the ergometer, this is another question from somebody who’s sent it in, with the rowing ergometer, he’s saying he’s seen pictures of athletes at Caversham and they draw the handle right up to their, almost to their throat. And his question is why do you allow them to do that from something that’s so different in the boat?

Okay. Normally we didn’t allow it. But it’s very difficult sometimes to change a habit, I would say. But that’s not what we are teaching. I think the handle should be drawn to where you would scull. Not pulling it over your head. I know we have even some top athletes looking not very good. 

Oh, that’s interesting. That’s interesting. One of the things, Jürgen, is how you have worked or not worked with sports psychologists. I get the view that you prefer to work closely with your athletes yourself rather than have the sport psychologist, the athlete, and then you. Is that a correct view?

No. Principally, I would say it’s not a one man show, it’s not my show. Okay, with 50 years I have a lot of experience. I have a good education, a scientific education. I worked with a lot of scientists. But it’s not just me. We are a team. The team makes those performances from athletes and athletes must have the chance to contact all those different people. Sometimes I will discuss things with a psychologist, it is how they’ve been educated, so I will ask a specific question I want the answer to. And sometimes there may be a conflict. I don’t need all this goal setting or whatever. It might be for other coaches more helpful. But I’m not in principle against any scientists or psychologists. You see it in all different sports, a good psychologist with the skills you need for your sport is, in modern day training, very useful to have on your side.

You’ve been to so many Olympics and world championships, I’m thinking of crews that you’ve looked at that you go, “Wow, that’s amazing”. Or crews that you like to watch when you go to the world championships, you see so many crews rowing up and down, who strikes you? Not British crews.

If I think recently, I think who has really impressed me is the Dutch men’s quad. How they apply the stroke, how efficient they are, it’s just really, really nice to watch from my point of view. How they pick the water. That’s definitely a boat that looks to me very good. In the past I have always been impressed with the American women’s eight. Very solid girls, very well drilled. And of course, Murray and Bond in the New Zealand pair. But also, our women’s pair, Glover and Stanning. I think they were also not maybe physically the strongest girls, but very skillful, especially Helen, how she set up her stroke was nice to watch. I’m sure there’s a lot more.

Who do you admire as a coach?

I’ve been around a long time and a lot of coaches have disappeared, but I think I still have a big respect for Dick Tonks. I have listened to him at the coaches’ conference. He is in a lot of ways maybe different to me. And that’s good. There’s not just one way. His success and how he always did it with different athletes, that was something. I didn’t see him so much on the coach side, but Thor Nilsen, I listen to him, what he has learnt. I learned also from Mike Spracklen. That was quite interesting for me, and he had a different approach sometimes, but what he did with a different nation again was very successful. 

This interview transcript was shared with the permission of Ludum. Ludum is a training management and performance analysis tool for sports coaches and training groups. To learn more head to ludum.com.

Watch the full interview here.

Thank you to Ludum for allowing us to run this edited transcript of the broadcast.