“Never Satisfied.” – Digital Communication for the Student Athlete

Division I lightweight rowing occupies a unique, niche community within collegiate athletics. With only 15 varsity programs in the United States, recruiting spots are few and fiercely contested. This paired with the weight limits imposed on athletes combine to create an intensely competitive field with gold through bronze at the National Championship often separated by no more than 1 second over the 2,000-meter race.

National Championships are contested in racing shells manned by 8 rowers and 1 coxswain. The devil is in the details and to inch your bow out front, communication between your crew must be flawless. One way inter-crew communication is facilitated is through the coxswain. Because the rowers sit backward in the shell, they rely on the coxswain to give them verbal cues about the status of the race. The coxswain tells them how many strokes-per-minute they are taking, how far they are into the race, and where they are relative to the other crews.

On the rower side of the equation, nonverbal communication through boat-feel and rhythm decides the winner of the day. Each stroke starts at “the catch” with the shins perpendicular to the water, the shoulders rotated over the hips, and the arms stretched straight out in front. While the legs generate the majority of the power by forcing down the knees, the athletes swing from the hips and throw the weight of the torso back against the oar. Finally, facilitated by the momentum of the leg drive and back swing, the athletes finish with a strong arm draw, rotate the blade 90 degrees to exit the water, and begin the recovery sequence back to the catch. This motion is repeated upwards of 250 times in a single race and the 62-foot-long, 21-inch-wide racing shells are wholly unforgiving of any shift in balance or lag in synchronicity.

My name is John Maloney and I am a lightweight rower at Columbia University. I am going into my senior season and during my time at Columbia we have won two silver medals at the Eastern Sprints Championships, made two appearances at the Henley Royal Regatta, and won Columbia’s first National Championship in program history last spring. One of our mantras as a team is “Never Satisfied.” This means that we take pride in our work but are never satisfied with the way things are; there is always room for improvement. In my experience, communication off the water is just as important a factor of success as communication on the water and as a team, this is perhaps the area in which we have the most potential to grow.

Rowing is a sport defined by the dedication it requires from those who wish to excel at it. To stay ahead of the competition, we practice up to 5 hours a day, six days a week from September through July. In addition to my role as an athlete, I am a full-time student, a resident advisor, a member of the student staff selection committee, and VP Communications here at Sizung. I can assure you that my teammates’ lives are no less busy than mine and with 40-some schedules to coordinate, we are in constant communication about practice times, race schedules, and the various other administrative tasks required by the university.


Here is a look at how digital communication currently functions at Columbia Lightweight Rowing:

  1. We have a program wide email list-serve that is used for formal communications like updates from the athletics administration.

  2. The team has a Facebook page where the coaching staff posts information pertinent to the whole team like practice plans, forms that need to be filled out, and articles on weight management.

  3. Beyond that, there is a team wide GroupMe that consists of only the rowers. This is where people post questions and concerns they have which are either resolved by the other rowers or relayed to the coaches by the team captains.

  4. A Messenger group exists for each individual boat and their respective coaches. Here, coaches can post information that is only relevant to that boat like private practices, race times, and equipment issues.

  5. Each boat also has a Messenger group without their coaches so they can talk about making weight, race plans, and feedback from practice.

If you weren’t keeping track, this system demands that each rower manage at least 5 conversations taking place across 4 applications (not to mention the endless number of individual texts, class specific group-messages, and the like). Communicating this way is confusing and wastes time that none of us can afford to waste.  

As it is now, our conversations are isolated. To separate conversations by their intended audience we have to utilize multiple independent applications, each designed for a certain type of correspondence. Email for formal large groups, GroupMe for large groups in real-time, Messenger for smaller groups, and so on. Traveling in New York City is complicated and messages like “the bus is on 116, not 120” are a daily occurrence. But do you post that on the Facebook group? The GroupMe? Maybe an email blast or just text a coxswain and tell them to let everyone know? It should come as no surprise that when last-minute location or time changes occur, it is inevitable that someone won’t see the message and we’ll be behind schedule before the day even starts. We need a system that allows us to have multiple conversations with multiple combinations of people all on one application. Chasing notifications across the digital universe creates far too much potential for error.

Our contexts are also fragmented. Within each application, every conversation is presented as a single, exhaustive strand of text. Say in August we had a discussion about the sports nutrition resources available on campus. If in December I want to go back and find that information I have to scroll through 5 months of activity to find that string of text. I am not going to scroll through 5 months of activity to find that string of text so inevitably, I will have to ask my coach to send it again. Both his and my time are now wasted. We need a system that allows us to compartmentalize sub-conversations as separate from, but still intimately related to the larger thread.

Finally, our conversations are un-prioritized. In a group of 40 college athletes, there is a lot of talking just for the sake of talking that isn’t actually relevant to anything. This is all well and good (I’m not saying we can’t have fun) but it becomes a problem when a message that says, “Coach said to fill out the USRowing waiver by the end of the day or you can’t race tomorrow” is lost in a sea of, “Lol look at this meme”. As it is now, it does not matter how important a message or conversation is, whatever happened most recently is displayed as the first thing on the screen and it is up to us to sift through that information to pick out the important bits. We need a system that understands that some messages are more important than others and presents them as such.

The technology being developed at Sizung is solving these problems. Sizung places each user at the center of their respective “Galaxy” which is then broken into areas of focus. For example, my Galaxy would consist of an area for school, an area for work, an area for rowing, ex. Within each area, conversations are organized as trees with large, general conversations at the top and smaller, sub-conversations displayed as branches. A tree structure like this solves two of my team’s current problems:

Isolation. A tree configuration allows us to have our team wide, rower only, and boat specific conversations all in one place. The team wide conversation would be at the top of the tree and each specialized conversation would branch off as a child conversation. There is no need to switch back and forth between applications. All the relevant information is right in front of you and easily navigable.

Fragmentation. A tree configuration also allows us to further break down our child conversations into areas of focus. For example, with the team conversation on top and our boat-specific conversation displayed as a child conversation, we could then further segment our boat-specific conversation into “sports nutrition resources”, “race plan development”, ex. There would no longer be any need to scroll through months of activity to find a certain thread of text. I could simply find the branch labeled “sports nutrition resources” and save my coach the hassle of re-sending it all.

Another feature of Sizung that is currently unavailable to my team is the ability to recognize the relative importance of content and prioritize it accordingly. Using artificial intelligence in the form of machine learning, Sizung can observe my behavior and learn what information matters most to me. In this way, when I log onto the application, the activity most relevant to my current focus is displayed first even if it is not the most recent. The memes will be waiting for me to scroll through when I’m ready but first, I need to fill out that USRowing waiver.

The way in which my team currently communicates is fine but we didn’t win a National Championship by settling for fine. We are “Never Satisfied.” Every second spent switching back and forth between applications, every minute spent waiting for the rower who missed the bus update, and every hour spent finding and re-sending buried content is valuable practice time we are wasting. Sizung has the ability to provide us with the competitive edge we are forever in search of because a team that is better connected is more efficient, more productive, and at the end of the day, faster.

by John Maloney

Dan Marmar