Coaching crews for competition – Part 2

Crews who are new to racing face a novel set of challenges in addition to those related to fitness and rowing technique. Crew rowing requires a particular form of mental discipline which keeps the crew working as a cohesive unit regardless of the psychological pressures of competition.  It is a common experience for novice crews in their first few races to ‘come apart’ under pressure.  The excitement of the event drives concentration, technique and co-ordination out of their minds and they are left as a group of individuals all ‘pulling hard’.  This is invariably a fast route to failure as a competitive crew.

Coaching concentration, technique and co-ordination is what coaches do most of the time. Getting a crew to execute the required concentration, technique and co-ordination in competition requires first of all actual experience of the pressures and excitement of competition.  The nearest parallel I can think of is in the performing arts. A musician trained to a high level of technical perfection without being exposed to the pressures of playing a live concert may be an artist, but they are not a performer: and only actual performance in front of an audience can give them that experience.

In exactly the same way, a crew training for competition needs – in additional to good coaching – actual experience of competition.  Only the tension and excitement of competing against other crews can provide the “stress-test” which will enable them to learn the grace under pressure required to compete effectively.

It would be wonderful if there was a coaching technique we could use on every outing to simulate competition, but there is no substitute for the real thing.

Coaching crews for competition – Part 1

Rowing is for everyone – and some rowers can be perfectly happy rowing purely for their own recreational pleasure.  For the majority of rowers however, at least part of their motivation derives from an ambition to compete (and even to win) against other crews from other clubs.  The winter Head Racing season and the summer Regatta season exist to provide club rowers with the opportunity to build their skills and fitness and to test them against their peers. This blog is not aiming to be a comprehensive guide to competitive preparation – it is more of a list of the points crews and coaches need to address if they plan to compete effectively.

From the coach’s point of view, learning to row and learning to race are two different things.  In simple terms the heart of the difference lies in the contrast between coaching individual rowers and coaching crews (sometimes – perhaps confusingly – referred to as ‘boats’) collectively.  Training for competition involves coaching a crew through all phases of the race from before the start to after the finish.  This training will involve deploying the rowing techniques they have learned so as to deliver the best boat speed for the duration of the race.  While strength and fitness are fundamental components of their collective performance, the essence of rowing is that strength and fitness on their own are never enough.  If they were, rowing would be a much simpler and predictable sport.  The ability to maintain good individual and collective rowing technique under the physical and psychological pressure of competition is above all what differentiates winning from losing performance.

No crew is going to be perfect, either in its technical capabilities or fitness, so the coach’s job is always to make the best of the crews, boats and training facilities available to create a winning combination.  My own view is that coaching crews for competition should be centred on training crews at ‘race pace’.  There is a place for low-rate exercises when training crews on individual aspects of technique, but a crew – particularly an inexperienced crew – is unlikely to be comfortable at race pace if they only ever row at that pace during competitions.  Extended work at race pace in training prepares the crew for the different ‘feel’ of both boat and blade at speed.  It also provides a vital part of their fitness training.  Coxes also benefit, because a boat moving at race pace is a very different challenge.  Things happen far more quickly and if the cox is new to race pace they are likely to make mistakes.

Coaching crews for competition will include:

  1. Land training
  2. Erg performance monitoring
  3. Start sequences
  4. Pre- competition
  5. Crew / seat selection

Land training.

Land training is an ongoing progrramme for competitive rowers.  It starts at the beginning of the season and continues throughout the season although at least in the UK, when long spring and summer evenings make weeknights available for water training, it may taper off slightly. It should include at a minimum:

  • Sprint ergs up to 2k metres
  • Endurance ergs – at least up to 2 x 30 minutes (BR recommends no more than 30 minutes uninterrupted rowing on the erg)
  • Circuit training – including light weights and core stability training
  • Weight training (free weights, not machines)

Optionally:

  • Running (3km – 5km)
  • Cycling (5km to 10km)
  • Swimming
  • Other aerobic cross-training

Erg performance monitoring

The ergometer, as its name implies is primarily a measuring machine.  It can provide a very accurate measurement of an athlete’s power output over a range of distances and speeds. Most coaches use the 2k test as the main metric, but 1k and 500m sprint tests may also be useful.

Start sequences

Over any distance up to 2km, a crew’s performance over the first 250 – 500 metres will be a significant factor in their final position.  While it is not possible to win a race with a good start, it is certainly possible to lose a race with a poor start.  Start sequences are first of all a way of avoiding a poor start by providing a pre-planned sequence of strokes designed to get a boat up to race speed as quickly as possible.  I have heard coaches recommend everything from full slide, firm pressure strokes to half-slide half pressure strokes to start a boat moving – there is no agreed ‘best’ start sequence.  For most club crews a start sequence has to provide the ‘low gears’ required to accelerate a boat quickly and their most important contribution is to keep the crew rowing together.  In most cases, the difference between a good start and a poor start is simply that in a good start every crew member gets to take all the planned strokes, whereas in a poor start, strokes get missed.

Pre-competition preparation

Competitions differ in the distances over which they are rowed, the nature of the race against other crews (bumping races, head races, side-by-side races), the start (rolling, stake boat, pole and line).  All of these differences should be reflected in the training plan for the crew. Race tactics appropriate to a bumping race are going to be wrong for a head race, a rolling start is obviously different from a standing start – and why do so many coaches entirely forget to coach coxes and crews on the intricacies of  reversing accurately and quickly onto a stake boat?

As far as time allows, the training plan before a race should familiarise the crew with every aspect of it, including the start, the race tactics, the distance and the speed at which that distance should be covered.  Ideally, every race should be raced to a plan rather than conducted as an experiment.

Crew / seat selection

Not every coach will have the luxury of being able to select a crew of his or her choice from a wide pool of potential crew members.  Where this is possible, accurately measured seat-racing tests can provide a useful indicator of boat performance.  However, it is not simply a matter of choosing the strongest or even the tallest.  Technical ability and competitive temperament – the ability to maintain performance under psychological and physical stress – are also important.  Even experienced coaches will disagree over details of crew selection and it remains as much an art as a science, but getting a crew to work well together is crucial and takes time.  It is their collective performance as a crew which matters.

Incidentally, in coxed boats, the choice of cox is as important as the choice of rowers as the cox will be responsible (with the rower in the stroke seat) for executing the race plan and is a vital part of the crew.

Novice Rowing Errors – “The Fist of Hur”

For some reason, a significant proportion of college rowers seem to have learned their rowing technique from the movie “Ben Hur” .  In this clip, you can see why this might be a problem:

From a host of other possible issues I want to focus on what I have called ‘The Fist of Hur’. While I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the scene, the movie presents us with galley-slaves “rowing” with oars of such size and weight that they could have been carved from tree-trunks.  Just to move these oars at all needs enormous strength and a vice-like clenched-fist grip – in short, The Fist of Hur!

A brief experiment will tell you that clenching your fist tightens your wrist joint and the tighter you clench the more rigid the wrist becomes.   Tension and rigidity can also be caused by nervousness, but whatever the cause, they are a real obstacle to the smooth, responsive and accurate movement required in rowing.

Unlike the oars shown in Ben-Hur, modern rowing blades are high-tech precision-engineered instruments.  They are a careful balance of  lightness and strength, crafted to enter and leave the water during the stroke with a minimum of effort. In rowing as in many other sports, relaxation is fundamental to successful learning and one of the most important changes any coach can bring to a new rower is the relaxation of the clenched fist.

Very occasionally a rower will look at me as if I’m crazy when I ask them to unclench their fists and just hook their fingers over the blade handle.  They are fighting to control the blade in their clenched fists and can’t even imagine that they can control the blade with relaxed hands.  I sometimes get these rowers to row with just the finger and thumb of their outside hand encircling the end of the handle.  This brings home to them how to work with the equipment rather than fighting against it.

If practising in the boat is too challenging,  relaxed hands can be coached on the erg (rowing machine) where rowers can learn that holding the handle with the last two joints of the fingers is entirely adequate even for firm pressure rowing.

You can try the hand position as follows: 1) make a ‘thumbs-up’ sign 2) extend and spread the fingers into a ‘hook’ 3) turn the hand palm downward – and there you have the ‘relaxed hands’ position.

In coaching circles, rowing with the blade clenched in your fists has traditionally been called ‘blacksmithing’.  This is in fact a bit of an insult to all those blacksmiths who do extraordinarily precise work which does not involve bashing large pieces of iron with massive hammers: