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Olympic coaching success for Durham University Sport programme graduate.

(28 February 2017)

James Harris is a High Performance Coach with the GB Rowing Team and studied the BA Sport programme (now Sport, Exercise, and Physical Activity) at Durham, graduating in 2007. He has been a High Performance Coach since 2014, working with the women’s senior squad. 

James coached the GB W8+ who went from strength to strength during the Rio Olympiad. Having placed 4th and 6th at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships, the 2015-16 season proved to be decidedly more imposing. The self-named ‘Sassy’ crew won silver at the second and third 2016 World Cup events, and were a force to be reckoned with during the Olympic Regatta, taking home an outstanding silver medal – the first ever Olympic medal for a GB women’s eight.

David Eccles, Professor of Sport at Durham University, spoke to James recently about his experiences of coaching and his time studying at Durham.

Path to Olympic success

“After graduating from Durham I took some time out to do some voluntary work in a number of different fields and to further my own rowing. Following this, I decided that I wanted to get involved in sports coaching and spent some time applying and being rejected from a number of multi-sport participation coaching opportunities. Fortunately in 2008 I got a job working for British Rowing as a community coach, working with 4 different clubs in the North West with the aim of increasing the coaching capacity and subsequently participation within these clubs. Although I enjoyed the role, it became apparent that I was potentially more suited and subsequently more driven by high performance coaching, even if I hadn’t really done any yet! So after being in the role for 12months I decided to change role and work for the Talent ID programme that the GB Rowing Team run. This allowed me to identify talented young athletes with the potential of being future Olympians. The highlight of this role was coaching Kat Copeland who gained selection for London 2012 and went on to win a Gold Medal.

“In 2013 I earned a promotion to the senior team to work as a High Performance Coach with the Women’s team. My role throughout has been to work with the Women’s 8, and although it had its ups and downs over the three years that I’ve currently been involved. Coaching the W8 to a Silver medal in Rio has to be a career highlight and a potential spring board for Women’s rowing into the future.”

Developing communications skills

“I believe that coaching is all about interacting with people. Yes, there needs to be a level of knowledge and experience in order to build trust with the people around you, which I definitely felt I gained through my Sport degree at Durham. But the key to me is the skills that I gained from interacting with people through the degree programme. A key skill is communication; you have to be able to communicate with individuals who are in a significantly stressed pressured environment to coach at a high level. And through different workshops, and seminars and group tasks it definitely built the ability to have challenging discussions and debate which are fundamental to communication.

“The best aspect of being a sport undergrad was being able to balance study with sport and seeing how it could be applied in many areas of sport such as science, politics and coaching.”

Do things that make a difference

“My main tips to current students would be to find the library and use it in your first year; be curious with your learning. There are plenty of experienced knowledgeable people out there and the more you develop a level of curiosity the more possibilities and answers will open up to you. Try to do things that make a difference, don’t conform to meeting others expectations, challenge the level that you can achieve.

“The balance between study, college life and sport is a great mix to give a level of interaction that allows us as Durham students to sample the many challenges that will be put in front of us over the coming years.”

For further information on the BA Sport degree at Durham University see

To find out more about the GB Rowing Team see 

Follow Professor David Eccles on Twitter @DavidWEccles