Nikola Bralic is a man of many things, but arrogance is not one of them. Steadfast in his beliefs and confident in his abilities as a coach, the Croatian successfully guided Valent & Martin Sinkovic to their second consecutive world title in the men’s double. Perhaps then, you could let him off the hook for a little self indulgence. His pedigree is unparalleled, his formula effective and aesthetically beautiful. But Bralic, who was named the world’s best coach in 2015 by World Rowing, sees his achievements as stimulus for further improvement. “In such a competitive sport, resting on your laurels can lead to frustration and defeat,” explains Bralic. “I see my achievements as encouragement to become even better at my work”.
Bralic originally rowed at Gusar Split Boat Club, before moving to Zagreb to study
at the university. It was there that he gradually found that coaching was a discipline he preferred. “I learned the theory and basics of how to be a coach at university, but as we all know, practical work is where we really learn the most,” says Bralic, speaking to me after returning from a long training camp in Italy. “During my career I have worked with all generations of rowers; from 12 year old beginners to the elite rowers. In a way, as I have coached them I have also been learning from them”. When asked about influential people who have shaped his methods, he mentions the obvious candidates; Harry Mahon, Robin Williams, Thor Nilsen. Tellingly though, he cites his own mistakes as the most important factor in developing his understanding of the sport. More than most, Bralic appreciates the cost of defeat.
“I see my achievements as encouragement to become even better at my work”.
Of course, it is difficult to speak about the Croatian without making mention of his finest work; the legendary Sinkovic brothers. Their iconic rise to the summit of international rowing is charted in boat club folklore, and Bralic recognised their potential from an early age. “Both Martin and Valent started rowing as very young boys in my club, and as soon as they had finished with their junior rowing, I started working with them on a daily basis,” he remembers. “I immediately knew these guys were special, and we did everything possible to ensure they maximise their potential”. Bralic first got to try Valent & Martin together at U23 level, where they showed incredible speed to win the BM4x two years on the trot. Having spent all year in the quad in the lead up to the 2012 Olympic Games, the brothers jumped in the double for the European Championships on the stunning waters of Varese. It was there, amidst the beauty of the Italian countryside, that they decimated the field to take the gold ahead of a home nation who had recently been anointed Olympic silver medallists.
Despite this, Bralic kept the quad which had won silver in London together for another season. In hindsight, it was a wise decision as they won everything in sight; a particularly satisfying achievement in light of their result in 2012. Bralic puts London down to a combination of unfortunate circumstances. Before the race, the course had been experiencing strong tailwinds; records were falling left, right and centre across the field. Bralic adjusted the crews gearing to adapt to the conditions, but the move backfired and the Croatians were left in the wake of a powerful German outfit. “I accept responsibility for misjudging the weather, but I have stood by my coaching and racing philosophy,” explains Bralic candidly. “I do not want to undermine the performance of Germany or Australia but we did not row our best race – to win Olympic gold, you need to do just that”.
Despite the heartache of London, Bralic pushed on with his projects. After an injury to Damir Martin forced the hand of the Croatian coach, he put Valent & Martin together in the double. “I felt they had an amazing basic speed from day one,” says the 64 year old. “Their speed steadily progressed from session to session as they were coming together as a crew. Fairly soon, I realized that speed at some lower stroke rates suggested they should, at racing speed, be very close to six minutes if we achieve the level of technical perfection needed to row double that fast. That is really where I put all my focus”. For Bralic, the balance of a crew is absolutely crucial – they must be well rehearsed in all aspects of rowing. His formula is threefold and, to the naked eye, simple.
- To row with technically and rhythmically optimised strokes.
- To be in peak physical condition, in terms of endurance, strength, agility and flexibility
- To be psychologically prepared to handle stressful situations with unswerving focus and mental stability
As he explains, it takes years to fulfil these criteria. “It may sound very simple, but to achieve this vision, one must have superior physical capabilities and mental toughness to be persistent and stable during the most demanding sections of races. During practices, we always start with simple tasks and go forwards to the more difficult exercises. We always try to simulate situations that the guys might encounter during a race so they can draw from past experiences”. Bralic operates on the plateau that technique holds all; his philosophy is a beautifully dynamic one, creating decadence on the surface of the water. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Martin & Valent haven’t got that explosive burst of power that typifies Croatian sculling though. Their speed out of the start is a product of years of practice. “The guys have brought all their physical and mental capabilities to an optimal level,” explains Bralic. “Their technique is where they are the best by far in my opinion. I am very happy that, after many years, coaches are realising that the true potential for making their crews faster lies in technical development and individual approach towards reaching each rowers optimum, rather than simple erg scores, size and strength”.
“We did not row our best race – to win Olympic gold, you need to do just that”.
It was this formula which led the Sinkovic’s to becoming the fastest double ever. “Of course, for a sub-six minute race, we needed great competition, a fast course and favourable weather conditions. We were fortunate that all of these contributing factors came together in Amsterdam”. For Bralic, working with athletes such as Martin & Valent is not only rewarding but also a constant challenge; the continuing drive for perfection is what keeps Bralic and his team motivated. “Despite the fact that Valent and Martin are among the best rowers in the world at the moment, their status and achievements is exactly what makes them very coachable and an enjoyable crew to work with. They have unparalleled focus and commitment towards improvements in all aspects of our hard and difficult sport” explains their coach. High praise indeed, but the team that Bralic has put together is enviable and near insurmountable.
With Rio around the corner, Bralic would be lying if he didn’t think his crew had a pretty good chance of winning gold. Their performances over the past two years have been close to flawless, but Bralic knows that there is still work to be done. “As a team we understand that to achieve this, we must keep improving – the world will not wait for us”.
Bralic calls it an honour and a privilege to work with Valent & Martin. I have a funny feeling that the sentiment is mutual.