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Coaching was never the plan for Jesse Foglia. Initially the job was just a step towards his ultimate goal: becoming an educator.
“I knew pretty young that I wanted to get into education—I was very determined that I wanted to be a teacher,” Foglia said. “Originally, I thought of coaching as a great way to get a teaching job, showing that I’d worked with that age group of people.”
But all that barking out orders, correcting form, and setting training schedules had an allure of its own. Over 10 years after starting as a coach, Foglia has found his classroom in the boathouse.
He has spent eight years coaching the US Men’s Junior National team, coordinated recruiting for Bates College, and led Columbia’s lightweight men’s team to some of its most successful seasons. Now, in 2016, Foglia brings a fresh perspective and a deep understanding of rowing to Harvard as the new assistant coach for the men’s heavyweight team.
“The longer I coached, the more I realized that I was teaching, but in a different classroom than the traditional setting,” Foglia continued. “And that’s what drew coaching to me. I really loved this opportunity to actually teach people something they wanted to do.”
Foglia’s passion for education, as seen in his early ambition to become a teacher, has played a critical role in his transition into Harvard rowing. In just the month since the start of the season, Foglia has helped the team implement an individualized training program that pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of each rower.
Foglia used a similar method at Columbia. Like every other college program, the Lions employed a smattering of exercises, including minute intervals, 5K races, and the maximum watt test.
Foglia’s innovation was to design a method that compared each rower’s performance to what would be a gold standard. In this way the coach could identify specific areas of improvement and allow athletes to focus on areas of weakness in practice. And the same philosophy has carried over to Harvard.
“We were talking about how to make our training plan more individualized,” heavyweight captain Chase Buchholz said. “Using data to gain insight into individual performance was a novel approach for us, and Jesse was able to create a program that reflects the individual needs of a rower.”
Foglia’s methods have been effective, even so early on in the season. The team performed well at the Head of the Housatonic earlier this month, with boats earning top finishes in all events.
But Foglia attributes the ease of his transition to the receptiveness of his fellow coaches.
“It’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Foglia said. “Head Coach Charley Butt and assistant coach Patrick Lapange—almost from day one they were willing to pass off roles and responsibilities pretty openly and freely.”
Foglia has earned the right to responsibility thanks to an impressive track record. Before coming to Harvard, Foglia spent the past three years turning the Columbia Lions from the unnoticed underdogs, never having won a national championship, to a major player in college rowing. Under his leadership, the Lions earned the IRA National Championship and team points championship in 2014.
Foglia’s coaching career began even before he had graduated from college. In 2015 he spent some time at Fox Chapel High School as the men’s varsity coach.
Four years after that, he graduated from Duquesne University. His major? Education.
“Jesse’s trained as a teacher,” Buchholz said. “He’s a very clear teacher, and that really complements the strengths of our other coaches. We’re have done more work as a team at this point in the fall than I have seen before.”
One of the central challenges of coaching crew is familiar to any teacher—balancing collective success with individual improvement. Just as it’s inappropriate to focus on one person alone, it’s inappropriate to ignore individual differences.
Yet the most public challenge is still to come. Every year the Head of the Charles draws masses of strangers—each excited to watch solid competition and, presumably, each ready to judge any shortcomings.
Already Foglia feels a sense of gravity.
“When you walk into the boathouse here, you realize that you’re a very small piece of something that is incredibly large and historic,” Foglia said. “You feel privileged to just be a small part of it. From my standpoint, coming here there’s definitely a much clearer expectation of excellence.”
Off the water, this fact translates to a high level of team bonding. And as Buchholz made clear, Foglia has become an appreciated part of the program.
“We absolutely love Jesse,” Buchholz said. “We were really pleasantly surprised how seamless Jesse has slotted into our program and adopted our culture.”
—Staff writer Jamie Chen can be reached at email@example.com.
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