What Drives Winning – Row the Boat

By Lindsay Scarlatelli

Last week I had the absolute privilege to attend the “What Drives Winning Conference” in St. Louis, Missouri.  It is in its second year and run by Brett Ledbetter and Becky Burleigh (Florida women’s soccer).  It is the first conference, seminar, or clinic that I have attended that discussed zero X’s and O’s.  Instead, the focus of the conference was on the importance of developing your people, specifically our young athletes.  The speakers coach all sorts of sports – football, softball, soccer, rugby, basketball, tennis, and the list goes on.

I thoroughly enjoyed each speaker and thought Brett and Becky did a terrific job.  I was unsure of what to expect, never having been, but the insight shared and transparency displayed by each speaker blew me away.  With that said, I will discuss one speaker in particular – P.J. Fleck, the head coach of the Western Michigan football team.

If you have not heard of P.J. Fleck or his “Row the Boat” mantra, I encourage you to study up on him and what he is doing.  He explained to us that this mantra originated after he lost his second son at birth; it has nothing to do with winning and everything to do with never giving up.  When you row a boat, your back is to the future, which you cannot control or see.  You are rowing in the present, which is the only thing that you can control and have an impact on.  You can either choose to take your oars, put them back in the boat, and stop or put them back in the water and press on.  When you row, you are looking at the past, which is the one thing that you can learn from but you cannot change. There are three parts to “Row the Boat” so here is the breakdown of each part and what it means:

  1. The Oar.  It is the energy that you bring to life, family, team, spiritual life, personal life, social life, it’s the energy. Energy breeds love. If you love something, you are going to put a lot of energy into it. It is the only thing that can move you.
  2. The Boat.  It is the sacrifice.  What are you willing to give up for something that you’ve never had? The more you sacrifice and more you give, the bigger the boat gets and the more people you can put in it and the sturdier the boat gets. You can go through any storms and do a lot more with a sturdy boat.
  3. The Compass.  It is the most important part for young people and it is who you surround yourself with. The direction of where you are actually traveling. You have to be okay with your circle getting smaller as life goes on.

Coach Fleck then touched on other items within their program, such as their “Bronconese” that includes the term “FAMILY” (Forget About Me I Love You), and how important it is to be transparent- display the real “you” to everyone around you, regardless of if you are different.  You influence people through being real.  Young people see the product on TV, the end result, the success, but they don’t see the struggles and are therefore not used to struggles when they encounter them.  He was transparent with his players during his marital struggles and ultimate divorce.  “Part of being real is showing the kids as a coach that you are real.”  His players responded to his realness by forming a prayer group for his marriage.

Another big point Coach Fleck discussed was success and their culture.  A YouTube video was played (“P.J. Fleck Defines Success”) and then he further elaborated.  Year one, hardly any football was taught.  Most of his time and energy went towards discussing what “Row” means to the program and how to live it.  His philosophy is that you have to set your culture and cannot compromise that culture at all in year one, no matter what, or you lose your athletes and those that touch your program going forward.  He ultimately made the culture not adaptable in his first year and he knew that, but he also was up front taking all of the blame knowing this.  

There were other nuggets shared by Coach Fleck, and as previously stated, great information shared by the other speakers at this conference.  For more information or to view videos from last year’s event, please visit whatdriveswinning.com

While I am still putting all my notes together, once complete I will be happy to share them with anyone who wants them.  Email me at SCARLALS@miamioh.edu with “WDWC Notes” in the subject line.

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Lindsay Scarlatelli

Scarlatelli is the current Director of Basketball Operations for Miami (OH) University. Prior to Miami, she spent two years as an assistant coach at Oakland University and Illinois-at Chicago (UIC). She completed her Master's degree from Michigan State University in 2012 and while at MSU, was part of the team's first-ever outright Big Ten Championship in 2011.

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