John Withers didn’t set out to coach a girls’ rowing team, but like a lot of parents who show an interest in their child’s sport, he was pulled into a vortex. “I went to see my daughter row and the minute someone heard I knew a bit about the sport, I was suddenly no longer on the sidelines, but in the centre of it all,” he explains with a laugh.
It’s not that Withers minds. He’s been coaching teams from Hobart’s Fahan School for girls for the past four years, from the Under 13s to the Under 15s, and says it’s been a good test of his leadership skills. “Some of the girls are quite competitive, but it’s all about enjoying the rowing. It’s important that I can balance that – working and training hard while also having fun. You have to adjust your leadership style to motivate and get the best out of the group. I try to make it about the girls and not about me.”
“You have to adjust your leadership style to motivate and get the best out of the group. I try to make it about the girls and not about me.”
As assistant director of HR operations and strategy at Tasmania’s Department of Justice in Hobart, and an IML board member, he’s well versed in coaching people to reach their potential. Withers also learned a lot about leadership during his 25 years in the regular Australian Army (he’s still in the Reserve), including command positions in the Special Air Service Regiment. “I learned how to row in the army,” says Withers. “I was press-ganged [into it]. I’d never rowed before, but I went to the Royal Military College [Duntroon] when I was 18 and was told that I was going to row.”
Withers is still rowing today, taking to the Derwent River in his free time. He’s vice-president of Hobart’s Sandy Bay Rowing Club and also president of the Fahan School Rowing Committee.
Of course, for two mornings a week, from September to March, he’s also sitting in a speedboat alongside the Fahan School junior girls’ crew. “I’m beside them giving tips,” he says. “I spend most of the time coaching technique. I don’t get overly stressed about making them super-fit.”
“We’re on the water from 5.45am to 7.30am,” he says. “It’s not that we like to torture ourselves, but it’s generally the time when we have better water – and it’s a beautiful time of the day.”
Rowing, he says, is a great lesson in teamwork. “In sports such as soccer, people may go on and off the field. In rowing, you’re absolutely reliant on each other at all times. You’ve got to be working as one.”