Deciding to coach the ultimate team sport has been one of the best decisions Rachel Benders made in her life.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Benders had an ongoing curiosity about rowing but never really had the chance to give it a try until her freshman year of college.
When searching for a college, Benders’ priority was finding one with a rowing team. She ended up attending Washington College in Chestertown Maryland, where she majored in economics and rowed for the first time.
Shifting her interests from theater to rowing, along with transitioning from high school to college, gave Benders the feeling of being a true beginner at something for a second time.
“It made me feel the excitement of learning something new all over again,” said Benders.
Although Benders started rowing when she 18, she still managed to excel at the sport. Learning a whole new set of skills and using completely different muscles was a challenge that she enjoyed. After only one year in the program, Benders became a captain of her rowing team for the following three years. Her senior year was one of the best years the program ever had as they won their conference and went to nationals. She was also named MVP that year.
“Just being part of the team was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life,” said Benders.
Midway through her senior year, Benders wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do after college. This continued until her rowing coach recommended she consider coaching as a job, since she was so good at it.
“I thought the opportunity at NSU was alluring because NSU had just won the national championship at the time, but I was still reluctant because Florida was so far from home,” said Benders.
But a week later, Benders packed her belongings and moved to Florida to become the graduate assistant for the rowing program at NSU.
“I didn’t feel that this job was a change of plans for me because I really had no plan; I knew that I needed additional schooling after my bachelor’s, and this job was perfect to go along with that,” she said.
Benders’ love for the water is clear; her main childhood sport was swimming, and her first experience with coaching was teaching children to swim.
“I do not remember how I learned to swim, so it was a little challenging for me teaching 4-year-olds how to swim,” said Benders.
To Benders, the true meaning of coaching goes beyond guidance.
“Athletes are always doing things right because they’re doing it exactly how you, as the coach, are telling them to do it,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s up to the coach to adjust how they’re doing it because small implications do make a difference.”
In every sport, the athletes work with their team in a different way, but it’s the synchronization that makes rowing so unique, said Benders.
“It relies heavily on synchronized motion. Just the fact that you have to do it exactly as the people ahead of you and the people behind you are in order to move that boat is intriguing,” she said. “Although it’s a challenge to think that you don’t have a star player, everyone works just as hard, and it’s their team work that makes us win.”
In rowing, athletes not only train with each other as a team but also train against their team members to maintain the competitiveness. For Benders, this creates the nice balance between competition and hard work.
“We don’t have ball hogs; it’s all about teamwork and competitiveness. You learn so much about yourself. I like to say that we’re, literally, on the same boat,” said Benders.
Benders’ relationship with her athletes is built on communication; the fact that she graduated only two years ago makes her job that much easier.
“I feel like they can come to me for anything and not just the sport,” Benders said. “I prioritize professionalism, but at the same time, I’m unapologetically me, and I’m not ashamed of the things I like; I think they like that about me.”
After two years of coaching, Benders realized that there’s so much more to learn.
“People usually laugh at the phrase, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know,’ but it’s absolutely true,” said Benders.
One piece of advice that Benders carries with her is one that her former coach gave her: “They don’t know that you don’t know.”
“It might sound dishonest, but it helps me as a beginner coach, and this way, they can trust me because I’ll always work twice as hard to find the answers to their questions,” said Benders.
The future remains unclear for Benders as she’s not certain what the next step in her career will be. The ideal career for her would combine increasing access to rowing, promoting diversity, helping minorities continue their education beyond high school and marketing. Whatever it is, she is certain that her current job is preparing her for it; her experiences are building on each other.
“[What] I want to do probably won’t be the next job I have; I probably don’t realize that it exists. It’s out there; I just don’t know what it’s called, and I’m not prepared for it because I need these experiences,” said Benders.
Being part of a sport means committing to something and not feeling that it’s depriving you from anything else, but motivation is still needed.
“Going fast motivates me, and I try to use consistent, daily goals for improvement to motivate the athletes, but it can be a challenge because everyone is different,” said Benders.
Benders believes that one shouldn’t do something that’s not fulfilling. She also doesn’t believe in luck ― we make our own luck by working hard.
“All the hard work we put in is worth it in the end. None of the pain and soreness matter; even when we lose, we take into account those 10 or so seconds when we were winning,” said Benders.
Photo Credit: CREDIT: COURTESY OF E. CANAL