Bench Coaching: paddlers coaching paddlers from their seat on the boat

We’ve all had bench coaching and most of us have done bench coaching. So why do we need to stop it and how, as coaches, can we stop it? But when we aim to build a positive culture on our teams or in our clubs what we really need to ask ourselves is; why is this behavior present in the first place?

Managing and using the opportunity such as bench coaching can build team and club culture while leaving it to work itself out can cause tension and division amongst paddlers.

Team culture lives and breeds itself in the “unspoken behaviors”, not in the written word of the operations manual.

This summer I coached a club that was focused on member growth. As such, they ran programs where new paddlers were sprinkled in on crews where half the paddlers had years of experience and a few with international experience.

Now, us coaches like this scenario as it gets the new paddlers up to speed so much quicker when they have a strong visual to follow. But for return paddlers this can be very frustrating as they clank paddles. This scenario is the breeding ground for bench coaching!

Most teams and clubs will go through the process of rebuilding at some point whether it is for blending crews for a national event or adding paddlers onto an existing team. But, how we handle this blending dictates whether we foster healthy culture or create division. Bench coaching can create division when it not addressed and managed by coaches.


We want new paddlers to come back!! Being on a boat where you are the minority can create a sense of exclusiveness when you know you are not blending in. When experienced paddlers offer constructive criticism, without being asked, it can create feelings of inadequacy in a new paddler. To be welcoming and inviting new paddlers have to feel they are being given the right to learn and the environment where it is safe to do so! Taking direction from a coach is expected. Taking direction from paddlers can feel like;

  1. They are being judged
  2. They are being a nuisance
  3. They are not welcome
  4. They can become overwhelmed
  5. They can feel intimidated 


By shifting perception and focus we can change responses. Challenges like bench coaching can be character building for teams and training sessions offer the opportunity to build resilience in the face of adversity.

For example, a new perception can;

  • Shift experienced paddler energy from outward frustration to using the inward resources and confront situations with an open mind.
  • Challenge can be viewed as a way to achieve goals even in adversity.
  • Give the new paddler a chance to focus on building their own skills without feeling responsible for another paddler.
  • Allows the coach the space to hold paddlers whole and resourceful where they get time to allow for self correction.


Sometimes coaches aren’t equipped to deal with it and don’t have the tools to manage it. They may not know the clubs value system and how to apply it in tangible ways. Setting up practice sessions with behavior expectations is the tangible way that can have a huge impact when it is done with care and consideration of all paddlers.


I find the best way to avoid the drama is to face it head on by giving experienced paddlers that validation of being challenged. Talk to them about it. Let them know you are aware. 

  1. For starters, coaches have to call it out. Coaches play a role in building culture and bench coaching is something that needs to be addressed. Left unattended it drives new paddlers away and can create tension amongst paddlers if they stay.
  2. Remind the experienced or return paddlers that they too were once in their seat and to approach new paddlers with the same consideration they once had! 
  3. If experienced paddlers haven’t been a newbie lately, coaches should suggest they spare on another team where you don’t know their stroke. This helps bring some understanding back to their home team.
  4. Let experienced paddlers know that you see the paddling issues and are not turning a blind eye but allowing space for all people to adjust. 
  5. Let new paddlers know they have the right to be here as much as the experienced paddlers and that messing up is how we all learn.
  6. Let returning paddlers know that you will do your best to work with new paddlers and appreciate their patience as you do this. Then make the commitment and time to help new paddlers during training.
  7. Let all paddlers know that you are the coach and that it’s your job to correct paddlers asking them to refrain for coaching and new paddlers to ask the coach questions rather than the paddlers.


Here are a few tools you can give your experienced paddlers to work on during practices where they be challenged!  

For example: 

Lack of room for a full stroke due to new paddlers not hinging – In the stroke I coach we have a very focused exit. Focusing on pushing off the back of the stroke can help paddlers focus on what they have control over and how to find power when they may not have room to extend to their catch.

Lack of room for a full stroke due to new paddlers going too far back – We also have a core drill where we sit straight up and use the full core to find power in the pull phase. Paddlers can do this if they have no reach when the paddler in front of them is going too far back.

Lack of timing of the new paddlers – I also like to put my experienced paddlers in the pacing seats on the boat such as bench 1, bench 4 to pace for the engine room and bench 7 to pace for the back of the boat. This way the experienced paddlers can create timing for the whole boat.

Bottom line –The job  of all paddlers is to adjust to any circumstances and still find a way to deliver stroke power. We can choose to see this type of training session as an opportunity to practice a race situation. We have all been in races when we make huge errors under stress and “lost a few strokes” in a heat causing timing issues! If we can adjust quickly we can help the team meet its end goal. 

I am hosting a LIVE program for coaches in September. If you would like more information or be part of this live training, email me to reserve your spot. [email protected]

If you would like more information on this subject I have a FREE webinar that addresses a few ideas on how teams and clubs can begin setting up the environments to foster healthy cultures within a competitive setting!

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