As any coach knows, the first stroke any crew of new rowers makes is usually a ‘how-not-to-row’ comedy of bad timing and chaotic stroke shapes. With time and patience we get beyond this, to the point where the crew is competent and strokes are being taken together – most of the time. This is a triumph in itself and both coach and rowers deserve credit for that achievement. This post is about moving on to the next level. In simple terms it is the difference between rowing ‘with’ stroke and rowing LIKE stroke.
A good novice crew, seen from the bank, will have their blades more or less synchronised. However, if you watch the crew’s heads and upper bodies you will often notice that they are all moving slightly differently. The reason for this is that novice rowers tend to take their timing cues from blades rather than bodies. If they can catch and finish together they feel they are doing well. The next phase of their development involves re-focussing the crew’s attention away from the blades and inside the boat.
While the mis-timing of movement is easiest to see in the upper body, the coaching approach I take starts with the hands. Usually the person in the stroke seat will reflect the coach’s view of the ‘preferred’ technique and they will have been chosen for their ability to maintain a steady stroke at any given rate. They will vary in how they deliver a stroke. To give a simple example, some will have ‘fast hands’ at the finish of the stroke, extracting the blade and accelerating it rapidly away on the recovery. Others will move the hands more slowly after the extraction, accelerating later as they move up the slide to frontstops. Neither of these is inherently wrong, reflecting (as they do) different coaching preferences. The coaching task is therefore to get the preferred technique adopted by the rest of the crew and the easiest place to start is the hands.
In small boats with two or four crew this is relatively easy, as the whole crew can see stroke’s hands. Given that most of the variation between crew members occurs on the recovery, I find it easiest to start the synchonisation at backstops. When they start synchronising their hand speeds through the entirety of the stroke rather than just at the catch and finish, the improvement in overall co-ordination can be remarkable.
In eights the challenge is greater because the bow four are too far away to see stroke’s hands for themselves. I usually advise them to take their timing from hands as far down the boat as they can see. The crucial point is that they start taking their timing from hands rather than blades. This is what I call ‘locking hands’. If the hands are moving together then the blades will follow. It is a curious fact of rowing life that the reverse does not apply.
Once you have the hands moving together, I find that getting heads and slides to move together is much easier. This is where video recording of the crew very helpful and if you have access to a rowing tank it can make the task of coaching an eight through the process of ‘locking hands’ and subsequently ‘locking heads’ much easier.
As coaches it is important to realise that asking crew members to maintain the ‘lock hands, lock heads’ level of co-ordination in their movement is to ask for a very significant step up in the level of concentration and control being demanded from them. We should also be aware that every time we change the person in the stroke seat, every member of the crew has to change the way they row to match the new stroke. It would be nice to think that once this technique has been mastered by a crew, we only have to coach the person in the stroke seat. Somehow it never quite works like that.