Powerful Words Create Performances in the Olympics…and in Your Cycling Class

Note: this article first appeared after the 2012 Olympics. I am reposting it now with the winter Olympics upon us. Thank you Bill Roach for a wonderful reminder of the power of coaching! 

Don’t think your words are truly powerful? Think again. You, the indoor cycling coach, have an amazing opportunity to empower your students through your choice of words and how you wield them. The coxswain of the U.S. gold medal–winning Women’s Olympic Rowing Team is 5′ 3″ and 106 pounds. She doesn’t paddle but her carefully chosen words make the boat go faster. You can learn from her how to take your cycling students to new heights of performance.

Mary Whipple uses her voice, her passion, and her commitment to make the crew of her eight-oared boat go faster. As reported in the New York Times, “During workouts, she cannot keep up with (her teammates) strength or stamina. During races, when rowers exhaust every muscle and struggle to breathe as their lungs cry out for oxygen, she is not called upon to lift a finger.”

And yet she is indispensable. Under her leadership her boat won gold in London and has not lost since 2006.

The coxswain is like a coach in the boat, steering, executing race strategy, keeping rowers synchronized, and motivating them with powerful words. Sound familiar, cycling instructors?

Mary Whipple does this better than anyone else because of her ability to relate to her rowers. She shows up even when her rowers are training without a coxswain. She works out with the team, lifting weights or running. And she talks to her rowers as teammates, not as their boss. Here is a lesson for the cycling instructors whose main tool is yelling, “Go harder!”

Another lesson is that she strikes a balance between working out with her rowers and guiding them. She works with them enough to form a bond, but when her voice is needed more than her muscle then that is what she does. This is similar to the balance we must find as instructors.

“She had the ability to get eight strong women all working together,” a former teammate told the New York Times. “When you lock into that, the power is something you can’t even quantify.”

Mary’s most special gift is her ability to find the precise words to say at exactly the right time to make the boat go faster. But it isn’t something that just comes to her naturally. She works at it.

She has learned about her rowers and knows exactly how to motivate them. She listens to audiotapes of herself to work on making her voice more commanding. She visualizes what she will say in a race, over and over, until she gets it just right. Before every competition, she gathers her rowers into a quiet, dark room and they all close their eyes. Then she talks them through the race. It is said to be such a powerful experience that people are crying at the end.

Isn’t that the kind of thing we want to do as cycling instructors? Don’t we want those skills? The good news is that they can be developed if we work on them.

“I may be 5-3, but my team makes me feel like I’m 10 feet tall, and it’s a beautiful relationship,” she told the New York Times. “My teammates rely on me to lead and unite them with my words, and I love that my words make the boat go fast.”

My words make the boat go fast.” Isn’t that what we are all about?

Need examples of creative ways to empower your students? That is one of the greatest benefits of the Indoor Cycling Association. Members can peruse the articles in the Coaching and Cueing department of ICA topics for creative, empowering, and inspiring ways to say almost anything in your indoor cycling classes.


  1. Jennifer, thanks for remembering this article. It was one that I particularly enjoyed writing. I thought the comparisons were very, very powerful.

    1. I loved it back then and had it in the back of my mind as the Olympics were approaching.

      However, I have one question….


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