Moving Away From 2K Erg Test Times Toward Competency-Based Feedback

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There is no doubt that a rower’s 2k test is an important metric that drives assessment, selection, and potential college opportunities. Rowing machine performance is an essential part of our rowing world and there isn’t going to be a move away from it anytime soon. An athlete’s personal best on a 2k test is a grade of sorts similar to getting an A in an academic class. 

I wanted to write this article to share my experience with some professional development in relation to competency-based feedback training that I started this past August. A cohort of faculty led by my colleague Jane Beckwith from both the upper school, middle school, and branch heads was engaged in work with Eric Hudson and the Global Online Academy. For an interesting and more detailed look at competency-based learning and the reasons for it, this excellent blog provides more background on this framework for student growth.

While my experiences in this area at this time are limited to the classroom, the methodology that I am learning about is applicable across domains and disciplines. 

When an athlete rows a personal best, or targets for performance are set by a coaching staff there is a great deal that goes into achieving that goal. However, one of the main ideas of competency-based feedback is that it’s not really about the grade or erg score at all. Feedback in an effective form is a conversation around student work/performance and the processes involved in achieving that goal.

An important aspect of competency feedback is the task of creating a rubric that provides descriptions of “I can” statements as general categories in the rubric. The “I can” statements are processes that a student or athlete can achieve in a general area of their process in a class or in the athletic field. 

For example, an “I can” statement could be something like this for a diet and nutrition competency. 

I can modify my diet by consuming foods and drink that help to maximize my performance.

Or, under a different heading such as time management, another “I can” statement might look like this.

“I can manage my time effectively to balance, academic, athletic (training) while maintaining healthy sleep and stress management levels”.

My first competency-based rubric was in the field of computer science. The rubric I wrote was for an introduction to programming class using the coding language Python. Therefore, one of the competency categories was design planning and the “I can” statement read like this:

Design Planning: I can design my program using tools such as flow diagram(s)/pseudocode, pre-planning brainstorming, and feedback before I write code to help me understand how my script or program will work.”

The goal was to teach my students that prior to creating their programs they should have done a certain amount of planning, diagrams, brainstorming, prototyping (sketching), and receiving feedback from other students (empathy) before they actually perform any coding.

The next step is to decide what a student can do if they are achieving a certain level of this core competency. As a result, each major category is broken up into four levels. These levels start at a beginning level and then at each successive level the ability level of the student increases until they reach a level of mastery at the fourth level. 

Therefore:

Beginning (Novice) << Developing (JV)  << Applying (Varsity) << Extending (Olympic)

I initially found the process of identifying sub-competencies to be incredibly hard for a couple of reasons.

  1. This was the first time that I had written a competency rubric.
  2. I had to really think about my discipline very deeply and break it down into the competencies that a student needed to demonstrate at a particular level of mastery.
  3. It was very challenging to articulate those levels of mastery in a way that would be clear to my students. 

You can view my intro to programming rubric at the following link to get a sense of the final version that I arrived at. 

When I presented this to my students, I gave them the opportunity to ask questions or make comments on the rubric. As this was my first go at this, I kept a lot of the control to myself. However, it is also a great idea for the students to contribute in some manner to the rubric. This is called “co-creating” and is a great way to get buy-in from the students and establish understanding in the classroom environment and create conversation about the process in a particular project. 

By the end of the semester when the students turned in their work, I was very impressed with the standard of their projects. I can’t report student grades in a public format, but let’s just say that there was a huge amount of data in the form of well-developed dice games that suggest that this approach was a successful one.

So How Does This Apply To Coaching/Athletes or Team Culture?

Student-athletes live in a world where they sometimes can wrap their identity around their 2K score, or academically speaking, their grades in school, SAT, ACT, etc.

I believe it is healthy for all of us to move away from scores and grades even if they are necessary on some level and to move toward effective processes and practice that ultimately are a means to this end. Competency-based feedback ecosystems within learning communities can accomplish this shift in focus.

This new framework around competency-based learning has important implications for how we teach and coach. If we move away from the A or the erg time and focus on the processes that allow these performance levels to happen, I believe that outcomes would improve simply because the focus is placed on the competencies needed to make this happen.

An effective learning environment should have an ecosystem of feedback. This feedback can be athlete to coach/teacher, coach/teacher to athlete/student, and/or athlete/student to athlete/student. The more directions that feedback can flow the better.

For example, if a coach takes the time to identify what mastery looks like in the following areas, they can provide an experience for their athletes that provides the opportunity for deeper learning. 

Sleep: I can manage my workload, training plan in order to get sufficient rest each day.

Diet: I can modify my diet and consume foods and drink that help to maximize my performance.

Mindset: I can develop my mindset to maximize performance.

Teamwork: I can support and empathize with my teammates in a way to maximize the culture and success of my team.

Technique: I can develop a technical model (in the boat) that maximizes my performance.

Strength: I can train effectively to develop core and body strength to support maximize my performance or technique.

Physiology: I can train appropriately to improve my energy systems to maximize performance.

Environment: I can choose who I spend time with or control my environment to realize the potential of my training plan or team culture.

The focus moves away from the scoreboard and toward the various different elements that integrate in a holistic manner in order to achieve peak performance. Your personal coaching philosophy might involve some of these or might emphasize some different areas depending on what the goal might be.

The point is that if you work through this process and create something like a competency-based rubric approach to a team environment or any learning environment your ability to provide feedback becomes much more powerful.

It is hard work to identify how an athlete or student is behaving at each level. However, if you watch your athletes or students then you can start to notice which athletes are for example supporting their teammates at a level of mastery and those that are at a developing level. This in turn can help you develop the various sub-levels of each core competency and articulate that vision to your athletes.

It was such a helpful exercise for me personally to really dig into what a computer science student earning an A could do upon leaving my class. This process also allowed me to construct learning experiences that allowed the competency levels that I had identified to improve. 

I provide a starting template in a Google Sheets format that provides a place to begin to explore what you wish to see in your athletes. You could of course modify it to apply to just yourself personally or colleagues on your coaching staff. Remember, the more people in your team that can contribute the more buy-in you will get in general. 

In conclusion, there is a lot of work that goes into making a competency-based rubric. It can be frustrating at times. However, if you are able to see the process through, your level of feedback will improve and I am confident that the performance of your student-athletes and environment/ecosystem will improve as well. 

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