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: