May 17, 2021

Letting People Fail with Coach Craig White, Head Rowing Coach at Newark a Prep school

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #40

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Coach Craig White, Head Rowing Coach at St. Benedict’s Prep School. Coach Craig White is the Founder and Head Coach of the rowing team St. Benedict’s Prep School in Newark, New Jersey, where he also serves as a math teacher and Dean of Freshman Level. For Coach White, every day spent with his rowing team has been an adventure, and he’s always working to build a better tomorrow for his team.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Coach White sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci and talked about everything from the importance of letting your people fail and make mistakes to what it means to be a truly great coach and mentor.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Coach White shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “There’s something captivating about purpose.”
  • “It’s easy to fail when you know the person teaching you is supporting you.”
  • “Coaching centers on honesty and being forthright.”


Sam: What made you want to become a high school teacher and coach? 

Craig: I think it was more of life happening. It was one of those things where you just do stuff and then you just find yourself not doing work. But it doesn’t feel like working, captivated by what you do. I joke to people sometimes about coaching, I haven’t worked the last decade. It’s being able to watch kids grow, be a part of their family’s lives from the time that I have them while they’re in high school. It’s fascinating work. It’s really powerful work and you get to build relationships with parents and kids that you have forever. You’re able to watch kids grow up and go to college and, and come back. I’m only 34 years old and to be able to see that and appreciate it even now is really powerful. That’s what the award is for me. 

Sam: There’s a direct line to the work you do and the work that talent leaders do in any size company, all over the globe every day as a manager, your job is to coach, develop, get the most out of people. As someone who works with young people every day, from 14 to 17, 18 year old, they’re the future of our workforce. When it comes to working with young people, what is your philosophy? What is your philosophy around coaching, mentorship, getting the most out of the kids to play for you every day?

Craig: I would say that even now I’m still figuring out every year. I do everything that I can to learn more and to improve my craft as an educator because ultimately that’s what coaching is. You’re teaching someone how to do something that they don’t know how to do Or that they’re not very good at, or they are good at, and they’re trying to elevate themselves to a higher level of excellence and or to maintain it. That requires effective communication. It requires the ability to inspire, to be able to point people in the right direction to have difficult conversations. I say the most of it, it really just centers on honesty and being forthright. I think very often the way we communicate nowadays, we either don’t communicate at all or we have a habit of avoiding difficult conversations. I guess that being genuine and valuing that kind of spirit in communicating with young people is something that they don’t get a lot of even from the people who carried them for nine months or they sleep under the same roof with a lot of people and find it difficult having honest conversations even within their family. That’s where it starts. That’s where the trust isn’t as initially built. That trust, that’s the bedrock of how any relationship is formed and how people choose to grow together. That’s one thing that just to start with, I can go on.

Sam: Yeah. I mean, can you keep going? Anything else comes to mind? 

Craig: Trust is huge. I would say trust is, is the first piece. I’d say the next thing is just clear, clear standards and expectations. I think particularly with the young people and the families that I work with uh, who know to stop speaking in code or black and brown. I don’t even know where to put the blame and I won’t, but a lot of the way we talk about African-American and Latinex or Latino kids we have a tendency of coddling and crippling in my opinion. These young people, one of the tenants of the high school I work at, and one of my own beliefs that you should never really do something for a kid that they can do for themselves. I’m not a very patient person at times and I’m working on that even now. I’m getting better at it but it’s difficult to watch someone screw up when you know it’s probably not going to end well. To have the capacity to sit back and watch someone make a mistake and then want to meet them where they are and like have that teachable moment and say, okay, how do we get here? and have them move on. I guess the next piece is where the communication comes in. After having those common standards, being able to communicate effectively and consistently and come back to say, well, this didn’t end, this ended poorly because we didn’t meet this standard or we didn’t do this basic thing that we said we were gonna do. That could be anything from showing up on time, having the right clothes to taking the correct steps in the warmup or taking care of your academic business, or communicating effectively with your parents, but when I’m supposed to get picked up that kind of stuff is just basic.

I have adults that I work with who struggle with that stuff who are three, four times the age of the kids that I work with. It’s powerful to not just let these kids make those mistakes and ignore it because I feel like that happens a lot. Especially with black and brown kids. I got, well, that’s just them, you know, they suck or they’re stupid or they fail, or that’s why we need to lower the bar and have a nice little expectation to select for, for us and for me. My program is like, hell, no. The bar is up here and it will stay up here and you will figure out how to get yourself from where you are to that standard. If you fail today, it’s fine, we failed. I’m going to tell you too and you’re not going to like it, how I’m going to tell you that you failed. And then you’re going to try again tomorrow and we’re going to be here and we’re not going to push you away. We’re not going to tell you to go away. I think that’s the difference because these kids instinctively know, and that goes back to that first component of trust. It’s easy to fail and an environment where you know that the person who’s teaching you or the person who’s supposed to be your leader is going to be there for you the next day to help you figure it out, not to berate you or belittle you or to diminish your expectations or over what you believe you’re capable of.

But to chart a very clear path forward is exactly what you need to do, when you need to do it, how to do it and if you can meet this really difficult, but yet achievable standard or standards, then you’re going to put yourself in a position to experience excellence and success. For whatever reason, I think people struggle to have those conversations, particularly with young people of color and to stick it through with them while they’re figuring it out. 

Sam: How do you get them to trust you? Any observations, advice on tackling that challenge? 

Craig: I’d say the first thing is you gotta show up consistently, even when these kids fail. I think that goes back to the dismissiveness that I alluded to earlier. It’s so easy to watch them fail and make mistakes and say, Oh, you can’t do this and then completely and utterly write someone off after one interaction. It’s like any human being who’s ever done anything, stop and think back how many times you failed at something. If your number isn’t over a hundred, then you must be Jesus Christ or some savior that I don’t know about because anyone that I’ve ever known has failed and I guess we do a very good job of communicating to the kids that it’s okay. One that it’s okay as you have a willingness and desire to improve. We don’t just tolerate poor attitudes and a lack of focus. Where does the trust come from? Again, we’re honest. I make a point to be honest and, and be in a position to say things that people probably aren’t willing to say about where this path leads. If a kid comes to me and they say they want one thing, but they’re doing another.

For instance, I want to have this conversation with some of the freshmen in the fall. I sat them down and said, where do you want to be in four years? Some of them tell me, well, no one’s ever asked me this question before, but that gets to the heart of what I mean. It’s not that their parents are bad people. Their parents were fantastic people, but guess what? They were working 18 hours a day as cops, nurses, teachers, themselves you name it. I guess that’s just the nature of work in our country to a certain extent. A lot of those meaningful conversations typically happen with coaches or at least they’re supposed to be happening with coaches or teachers who are helping to guide these young people towards a better path. When you ask those questions, it’s also an indication that you can get to them. To be completely honest. I’m not just caring about the fact that you can carry a football, it’s what you are trying to do with your life because these kids are human beings too. They may not be talking about it, but those questions are definitely floating around in their mind. And if they don’t have anyone. Who’s who’s having those conversations with them. They either are asking themselves, does no one care? You’re looking around for guidance. That’s one of the tenants of what you’re doing with 1Huddle. Giving people access to the ability to be able to say, how am I going to change my circumstances? Is there a path that I can choose to be able to grow and have a different outcome.

Sam: You add the extra complexity of the fact that you then are in a team sport. You’re trying to get everybody to then literally row in the same direction. How do you make that happen as you build trust at an individual level with all of your players? How do you make team happen? 

Craig: I think there’s, there’s something incredibly captivating about purpose and knowing that you have one. That’s one of the most wonderful things about crew is I would argue more so than any other sport. Your purpose is clear and it is magnified to a monumental level because when you fail, literally everyone fails like your personal perfection and excellence and attempts, and attention to detail and your presence and your timeliness, just everything about how you approach your performance directly. In some cases, either to great benefit or great demise impacts everyone else. It’s one of the things we say all the time. You can be a LeBron James, you can be a Kobe, you can be a Tom Brady, and everyone else on the team can kind of have an average day. Mamba can just drop 50 and we wouldn’t, or Tom Brady can just be Tom Brady and we win and you can be mediocre and still put the ring off and, and you can go to the parties and, and, and basking in the glory. It does not happen with rowing. It’s impossible and I think that’s one of the things that the kids love because it’s such an easy and simple way for them to gauge their value. Not just like personal value, but also to others.

One of the best things is watching the kids understand. When the kids find a way to eventually figure out how to commit themselves to training. When the kids really commit to understanding that if I put the work in and if I put it in the volume if I pay attention to my, my, my technical focuses and I improve, that makes everyone faster. And when that clicks, you get like an exponential benefit because then the kids want to improve even more because that’s where the selflessness from the first time kicks in, and the accountability kicks in because it’s like, I’m doing this for me, but I’m really doing this so that the people that I care about and the people that are also working on my behalf can also benefit. That is a huge benefit to the sport and particularly to our community because I think it’s, you know, that’s one of the things that people stereotype.  All they do is kill each other, they can’t work together for anything. You wouldn’t know if you don’t see it and that’s part of another one of those sprinkles on top of the ice cream for doing the work. Whenever we watch those kids launch, when we see them go out there and they’re competing with the best high school programs on the East coast and holding their own, it’s a testament to that. Those stereotypes are crap, t’s just complete BS so it’s meaningful. It’s really meaningful to watch and grow.

Sam: You were a college athlete. You could have probably gone and taught and coached anywhere. Why Newark? 

Craig: I was born here, I was raised here. Literally, every school that I’ve attended outside of college my entire life has been in Newark. I don’t know what it is but there’s something special about this place. I’m not tooting my own horn, but there’s a lot of brilliant, beautiful, talented, captivating people that are here. I don’t know why it happens. I don’t particularly care, but Newark is just a really special place. I would argue that it’s probably the most diverse city in the Northeast. It’s close to everything and you know why here because it’s home. I said to myself in college, when I graduated and I was like, all right when I retire, I’m gonna go back to Benedict’s and I’ll start our program there and when I’m sixty or something I’ll retire there and just coach into my Twitter life and that didn’t exactly happen in the order that I thought it was going to. My dad contracted lung cancer in 2011. I got the call from my mom and I was working and living in DC at the time, trying to get my feet under me in 2009, 2010, 2011. Uh, and make it on my own in DC, and when I got that call, what would you say to that? It’s just, I’m coming home. I don’t know how I’m going to help, but I’m going to help. When I got the call the headmasters at the school basically were like, well, if you’re coming home, you should come back and teach. I needed a job and it sounded like a good idea. It was perfect with respect to me being able to support my family and being able to do some good work. I thought it would be a couple of years and now it’s been 10. Life happens that way sometimes. Like I said before, coaching is not work. It never has been if it was,  I wouldn’t care about it as much as I do. It’s too much fun.

Sam: What do you have in mind for the next 10? What goals? Any projects? What things are you going to make happen in the years ahead that you have in mind? 

Craig: It started small. It was, it was really about at the beginning, it was really about being able to give them what I know. All of the values that I got out of the sport in college, to be able to give that back to the kids at my old high school. I think last year was just one hell of a year, you know, 2020 will live in infamy,  forever for all time. On the racial side of 2020, everything that happened last year and still continues to happen to this day. You get sick and tired of watching it happen. I’m 34 years old and my mom still calls me at odd hours and I can hear the anxiety in her voice and she’s asking me if I’m okay. It’s literally to the point where I shared my location with my mother on my iPhone, so she can always see where I am at all times, just so she can stop asking. As a black mother, I’m literally never going to be able to take that away from her.

She’s always going to be worried about whether or not I’m safe. To be completely honest, it’s very aggravating and I guess the work now is, is focused on, does my mom have to worry less about me because of the fact that I was able to open doors for myself and the fact that people helped me along the way. The fact that I got a fantastic education. That value shouldn’t just be limited to the 60 kids that I coach at St.Benedict’s prep and moreover, there’s a massive need for the work that we’re doing. Within the rowing community because there aren’t enough programs that look like ours. I would argue that they’re probably less than five in America in 2020, which is insane to be able to say that. I started a nonprofit with the help of some very trusted colleagues, new friends that we’ve made called brick city Rome and we’re going to bring this to the city and we’re going to do this for Newark so that any kid, from any middle school, any high school in the city, any adult. Who’s ever seen the sport and said, yeah, I want to do that but you it doesn’t exist in Newark, that is going to have access to it. Having access to the support also means having access to everything that I talked about earlier. The values, the, the trust, the community, The sense of just purpose that comes from being able to be a part of something that’s special. I think it’s going to do fantastic things to put Newark on the map with respect to being able to host events here. All those traveling dollars to local businesses and vendors, and more over than anything, just to, to have another Jewel within our city, a boat house. That’s going to captivate people’s imaginations and really, like I said earlier, kinda show these young people that they can do whatever they want, if they just put in the work and, and adhere to a standard and show up every day and not make excuses and not let people call them or tell them that they can’t, so that they can have access to the same opportunities that kids all across the country have access to and that’s the dream. That’s the plan for the next three to five years. We’re going to get it done.

Sam: You’re going to get it done. I believe you. I’m going to give you one, one final question. We get a lot of younger listeners actually, who are younger employees or that are again, trying to skill up, trying to move up. Younger managers are trying to work their way through a lot of the things we all felt as coaches in our first year, you know, screwed up a lot early on. I’d love for you to take a second to kind of speak directly to young people who are again, trying to stay motivated through it all. 

Craig: The most important thing you can possess is just your passion and persistence. The root of that is a desire and deep desire to always want to be better. If you are done growing and you have all the answers, then what else are you alive for? Every day we make choices with what we do with our time. We make choices with who we invest that time in and what we invest that time in. The best thing to do with that time and the best choices to make are to make ourselves better and to find more areas for growth and be better at communicating, being reliable, having higher levels of kind of accountability, having more skills, making yourself more marketable, and adding value. I think that’s where all the games are. All those hidden games are wrapped up in just our individual desires to grow. I think when, when we tap into that, time and pressure. You’ll get there eventually. You’ll make a way for yourself and for other people.

Topics Discussed: Coaching, Leadership, Rowing, Athlete, Student-Athletes, Mentoring, Mentorship, Newark, City of Newark

Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle