Executive Function and Why Do Coaches Need To Understand it? (Part 4) -Task Initiation and Organization for Coaches and Athletes

Executive Function and Why Do Coaches Need To Understand it? (Part 4) -Task Initiation and Organization for Coaches and Athletes


Image Attribution: OpenAI. (2023). ChatGPT (September 25 Version) [Large language model]. https://chat.openai.com

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Rowing, a sport of endurance, power, and synchronization, requires a keen sense of physicality and an indomitable mental framework. Central to this framework is the concept of executive function, a collection of cognitive skills paramount for success in athletics and life. Among these, task initiation and organization stand as pivotal.

executive function - task initiation take action to get started on tasks

Task Initiation: The Starting Line of Success

Rowers must understand task initiation to start and complete tasks effectively and efficiently. Task initiation is the ability to begin a task and to sustain effort toward its completion. In the context of rowing, it means the ability to start a workout, practice, or race with focus and motivation and to persist in completing it.

1. The Rower's Challenge: Overcoming Procrastination

Task initiation is important for rowers because it allows them to overcome procrastination and to avoid getting bogged down in irrelevant tasks or distractions. For example, if a rower feels unmotivated to start a workout, understanding task initiation allows them to set a goal, plan, and take the necessary steps to begin the workout.

There is a force that resists task initiation, and we could just call that the “obstacle” for this article. In this case, the “obstacle” should be considered a resistive force with negative associations. In most cases with procrastination, this is very typical.

2. Breaking it Down: The Power of Small Steps

Task initiation is an essential discipline. The hardest aspect of this is just taking that first step. It’s the same idea when I don’t feel like training on the rower at the end of the day. However, sometimes I have to tell myself I’ll just row for ten minutes and have no agenda. What usually happens is that about five to six minutes of rowing, I am in the flow of things, and I end up rowing for forty minutes. I advise taking the first step, which the others usually follow. The strategy here is to focus on the positive aspects of the point at which the task is complete. 

There have been occasions when I have been dreading having a conversation because I know the discussion will be difficult to navigate, and no one immediately enjoys being held accountable. It’s been helpful to remember something I learned from a guest speaker at school one year and say to myself, 

“What would a very brave or courageous person do in this situation?”

…and just do that thing despite the resistance or obstacle being present, have that conversation, start that 2k, etc., for five minutes (I know 2k lasts longer than 5 minutes for most people), but you get the point. We often just need to be brave for five minutes to get the ball rolling. The point is to break tasks into smaller chunks and row “one stroke at a time.”

We tend to build up conversations or tasks in our minds, but it typically turns out OK when we do them. We just need to lean into the emotional aspects of these types of crucial conversations.

3. A Culture of Discipline: Training the Team

It is important to know that parts of the brain involved in executive function are still growing and developing into our mid-20s. For this reason, if you have a boathouse full of athletes, unless you teach them and scaffold their learning around how you want the team to function, don’t be surprised that the culture doesn’t form how you want it to. Even those athletes who have been voted team captains or have some kind of leadership role will need constant training, discussion, and feedback about how they complete tasks or the example they set for the rest of the team.

For example, if I want something done at practice, I make sure that this is explicitly noted in the practice plan in a pre-section of the plan. Tasks include getting oars down to the dock or supervising equipment setup. Teach your athletes how to rig boats. There are wonderful lessons in physics and mathematics that provide potential for them to understand how and why rigging changes are made. 

Actively displaying my metacognition and speaking out loud my thought processes helps those around me, such as assistant coaches and my athletes, understand why I am doing something or how I am problem-solving a particular rigging issue. You don’t want to overshare certain thinking and/or filters to keep things professional, but you get the idea. If you are a head coach, your experience level is likely years ahead of those around you. A leader works with those around them to make them better than if the leader wasn’t around. 

Task initiation is also important for athletes to understand because they must manage their school load outside practice time. Teach them how the pieces fit together so that they understand how their system works toward performance. The various parts of the system wheel include management of diet (when to eat, how to hydrate at school), management of stress, and starting homework, working consistently over a period of time on a large paper so that the work doesn’t pile up, switching off phones later in the evening so that adequate rest. The algorithm has many parts (probably more listed than I have here), but all of these parts come together in an organic whole, correlating to performance over time and certainly on race day. 

I have been successful as a coach because I developed the ability to keep important things on the table and understand how they all fit together.  Likewise, as an athlete, I knew I needed to get schoolwork done or papers written so that I had time to train. A lot of time is needed to train with the volume level necessary to perform at the highest levels. 

In summary, rowers and rowing coaches must understand task initiation to start and complete tasks effectively and efficiently. Task initiation is important because it allows rowers to overcome procrastination, manage their time and resources effectively, set a goal, plan and take the necessary steps to begin the workout, practice, or race, and avoid distractions. Understanding task initiation helps rowers to stay focused, motivated, and productive and achieve their performance objectives.

college recruitment

Organization: Setting the Course

While task initiation is about the burst of energy at the starting line, organization is the plotted course, ensuring that energy is directed efficiently and effectively.

1. The Rower's Toolkit: Time, Equipment, and Mindset

Rowers must be organized to manage their time and resources effectively, stay on top of their training and competition schedule, and achieve their performance objectives. Being organized means having a clear understanding of what needs to be done and when and being able to manage tasks and responsibilities efficiently.

Being organized is especially important for rowers because they often have to balance multiple demands such as training, competing, school or work, and personal life. By being organized, rowers can prioritize their tasks and responsibilities, ensuring they can meet their training and competition schedule and avoid feeling overwhelmed. You are probably noticing some overlap with the task initiation section that precedes this section.

The organization also helps rowers to stay on top of their equipment and gear. Rowing requires specialized equipment, and rowers must keep track of it and ensure it is in good condition and ready for use.

In addition, being organized also helps rowers stay on top of their nutrition, hydration, rest, and recovery. Rowing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, and staying organized helps rowers get the proper nutrition, hydration, rest, and recovery they need to perform at their best.

I was working with an athlete this past summer and had scheduled several long steady-state rowers around 80 minutes in length (4 x 20 minutes UT2), for example. However, the athlete was having trouble completing the training. The biggest issue was they were busy and not planning the food intake carefully, as I read in the training notes the athlete had left on the post-row comments. The problem wasn’t that the athlete couldn’t steady state for 80 minutes. It was that they couldn’t PREPARE for a steady state. I am always looking for the upstream impacts of the problems’ symptoms. As a result, the conversation and preparation focus on planning the day with the training for that day in consideration. I am pleased to say that the training became much more consistent after this feedback and organization. Hopefully, this “teachable moment” will advance to other aspects of the athlete’s life. 

The long-term goal should be to help each athlete in our care monitor their behavior and actions so that they can self-regulate effectively.

Pre-Competition Planner Worksheet

I have created a pre-competition planner that allows athletes to map out and plan their approach to a competitive race. This planner allows them to map out the 72 hours before a race regarding logistical things to plan for and manage their own metacognitive space. I think the holistic development of an athlete must provide structure, so this tool might prove helpful. 

2. Recruitment and Growth: Nurturing the Next Generation

Another resource I have created is a college recruitment planner that would probably be most helpful to high school sophomores who are looking for colleges and universities that they 

1) Might want to further their academic careers 

2) Row competitively at the level. 

In that order, please. 

The worksheet provides rowers with helpful resources to support the college recruitment process. Teaching high schoolers how to plan and organize themselves should initially involve scaffolding material to help them in that process. As time progresses, the scaffolding becomes less and less so that the goal of being a self-sufficient adult is attained.  

The second part of the worksheet is a self-reflection, a metacognitive exercise helping a student-athletes recognize the strengths they might bring to a college-level team. The idea is that the students can plan and do something before a college coach asks them questions about why they would like to be a team member. 

The final part of the worksheet is a table where student-athletes can map out and tabulate/create notes on what schools they are looking at and characterize them as “Stretch,” “Match,” or “Safety” for tracking and making goals. 

Regarding coaching, it’s always good to have a plan. A long-range plan, and then a more detailed plan each week of the season. There are many ways that coaches can organize their approach to managing their teams (trip sheets for races on the road), technical benchmarking for rowers and coxswains, equipment, or the professional development of their assistant coaches.

In summary, rowers and coaches must be organized to manage their time and resources effectively, stay on top of their training and competition schedule, achieve their performance objectives, and ensure they get the proper nutrition, hydration, rest, and recovery they need to perform at their best. Being organized also helps to stay on top of their equipment and gear and to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the sport.


Athletic coaches play a vital role in the development of their athletes, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Executive function is a set of cognitive skills essential for success in athletics and life. Coaches who understand the importance of executive function can help their athletes develop these skills and reach their full potential. By helping athletes develop their executive function, coaches can help them perform their best, cope with stress and anxiety, and succeed in all aspects of their lives.

This article concludes the four-part series on the role of executive function in rowing for both coaches and athletes. There are likely other examples of executive functioning that I have not written about. However, if we combine the cognitive and emotional aspects of teaching or coaching a sport such as rowing, we set ourselves on a course for the best performance in the boat, on the erg, or in life in general.


Attribution: Elements of this series were inspired and informed by professional development offered by The Center For Transformative Teaching and Learning and the “The Placemat” – MBE Strategies For Teaching and Learning. For more information on the CTTL, please visit this link.


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