Trusting the boat

I was struck recently by the difference stability makes to even some ‘intermediate’ rowers.  I was coaching an eight and had been trying to correct some points of technique with one particular rower.  I wasn’t making much progress until we rowed in sixes (ie with a pair of rowers keeping the boat level) when “miraculously”, the problem went away.  When we went back to rowing “all eight”, the problem came back.

Problems like this clearly stem not from ignorance of correct technique, but from an inability to apply correct technique under the ‘stress’ of an unstable boat.

Some rowers, quite unconciously, adopt what I can only describe as a ‘defensive’ rowing style when confronted with an unstable boat.  They will differ in detail, but this commonly involves leaning away from the water and shortening their stroke – which of course increases the instability of the boat.  The rower and indeed the entire crew, is then caught in a vicious circle in which this unconcious response feeds on itself and makes the boat more and more unstable. The defensive rower is of course unaware that he or she is actually causing the problem they are responding to.  The usually ‘feel’ that they are rowing exactly the same way whether all-eight or in sixes because their change in style is entirely unconcious, and this can make correcting the problem quite challenging.

The solution involves breaking the vicious circle in two places. Firstly, you have to improve the stability of the boat without using two rowers to stabilize it.  Then you have to stop the defensive response to instability.  Both of these changes can be difficult.

Improving the stability of the boat begins with improving the stability of the rowers themselves.  I have written previously about the importance of stillness in rowing (http://bit.ly/1nuV4k5) and stillness is key to this approach.  I get the rowers to focus on keeping their upper bodies perfectly still once they have reached the ‘lean forward’ position on the recovery.  Their progress toward frontstops from then on is just about pulling their feet gently toward their bodies while their arms follow the arc of the blade away.  I place special emphasis on not reaching forward for an extra inch or two of length at frontstops.

The ‘stillness’ of the crew as they move into frontstops helps to stabilize the boat, but that in itself is not enough.  We then have to prevent the defensive response from taking over when the boat does wobble (and I think I can guarantee that it will wobble at some point).  This is where ‘trusting the boat’ is important.  You have to convince the crew that if they trust the boat to remain balanced and row accordingly, then it will remain balanced.  And while it remains balanced, they in turn find it easier to remain ‘still’ on the recovery.  This virtuous circle is the most effective antidote to the vicious circle referred to earlier.

How do you get nervous rowers to ‘trust the boat’? They have to use their imaginations.  They have to remember how stable the boat felt while they were rowing in sixes and imagine that stability will still be there when they row ‘all eight’.  Their internal visualization of a stable boat helps to maintain their correct technique throughout the stroke – and their maintenance of correct technique turns the boat’s imagined stability into reality.

It is one of the most rewarding parts of the coaching experience to see a rower (and a boat) previously struggling with instability, make the transition to stability and to see the increase in confidence which comes with that transition.  It is never of course a 100% and one-time-only transition, but once a crew have grasped the importance of ‘trusting the boat’ they can avoid sliding back into the unhappy situation of forever fighting for control of a boat which seems to fight back.

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It’s the Coach’s Fault

This post may prove controversial, but I’m going to post it anyway because I genuinely think it is important.

I regularly coach squads of adult beginners in sweep-oar rowing.  From their very first session in the rowing tank I insist that they change seats regularly to ensure that they row on ‘both sides of the boat’.  I also insist that, for them, the correct answer to the question ‘Which side of the boat do you row?’ is ‘Both’.  For this I must thank the coaches who taught ME to row, through whom I learned that to be the best rower I could be, I should aim to be able to row in any seat in any boat, whether sweep oar or sculling.  No beginner ever leaves one of my courses saddled with the impression that he or she can only row on one side.

By way of contrast, I meet and coach many novice rowers who, while they may have been rowing for only a couple of seasons, have apparently always rowed as ‘stroke-side’ or ‘bow-side’ and are convinced that they can’t row on the other side.  Many of these ‘one-side only’ rowers identify themselves as ‘bow-siders’ or ‘stroke-siders’ with a kind of pride which goes way beyond any idea of ‘preference’.  It is not that they simply ‘prefer’ to row one side or the other.  They are bow-siders or stroke-siders in the same way that they are male or female and suggesting that they change sides for an outing is actually offensive to them.

It really isn’t their fault.  I blame lazy coaches whose lives are made easier if rowers are always on the same side (or even in the same seat!).  Coaches save themselves some work if they only have to teach rowers to row on one side and so they go on producing generation after generation of one-armed rowers.

Let me be clear.  Human beings are not perfectly symmetrical and we all differ in the degree and orientation of our asymmetry.  So it is perfectly natural that when it comes to rowing, many of us will have a preference for one side of the boat or the other.  A preference is not a problem. Convincing perfectly healthy athletes that they can ONLY row on one side IS a problem.  These rowers are in effect being ‘disabled’ by poor coaching.  I put the word ‘disabled’ in inverted commas here because I’m using it as the opposite to ‘enabled’, but coaches and rowers alike should be aware that years of rowing on only one side carries real risks of exacerbating an existing asymmetry, with adverse consequences for the rower (http://bit.ly/1ibjVkR, http://bit.ly/1lxnFAZ).

Of course most coaches aren’t doing this deliberately.  They are doing it because no-one is complaining about it.  By the time the rower is suffering the consequences of always rowing on the same side the coach who caused the problem is long gone.  Well, in my view, the time has come to complain.  Coaches need to put their rowers’ long term health before their inclination to take the shortest route to seat allocation.  They need to take pride in producing capable, adaptable rowers able to perform well on either side. Sweep-oar rowers need to start taking responsibility for their own health and actively volunteering to change sides regularly.  If, in your regular competition boat, you always row on one side, use every oportunity to establish yourself in the coach’s mind as “useful in any seat”.  It won’t take long.  Most of the rest of the crew will stick with their ‘favourite’ side and your coach will be grateful for someone willing to be flexible when substitutions have to be made due to absences or injury.

Sadly, there are rowers out there for whom this advice may already be too late. They are already convinced that they simply can’t row on the other side of the boat.  Never have, never will.  For the rest, the most difficult part of this proposal is getting ill-advised (i.e. badly-coached) rowers to let go of the idea that identifying themselves as exclusively bow-side or stroke-side is some kind of badge of elite specialist status. Have a preference by all means, but appreciate that to be the best rower you can be, you should be able to row well in any seat.

And if your coach actively opposes your aim to be the best you can be (surely a vanishingly small probability), find yourself a new coach.

After the outing – some thoughts

The inflexible fact that there are only 24 hours in a day and that both rowers and coaches tend to have other demands on their time, tends to limit the time coaches and crews have together before and after outings. Time on the water is so precious that the tendency is generally to get the outing under way as soon as possible and to extend it to as nearly as possible fill the alotted time.  As a result, the time available for post-outing talks tends to be limited.  This is not entirely a bad thing.  Rowers will generally learn more on the water, rowing, than on the landing stage, listening.

Both forms of learning, however, have their place and given that the time available is going to be limited, I thought some aspects of the post-outing debrief deserved a mention.

  1. Know what you want to say and who you want to say it to.  Post-outing comments should reflect the coach’s view of the outing and should be consistent with the coaching given during the outing.  This is an opportunity to reinforce messages, not to introduce new ideas or raise fundamental questions.
  2. Choose your words with care.  Don’t focus entirely on faults.  Keep a sense of proportion and praise individual and/or collective progress as appropriate.
  3. Listen for feedback.  I think it is important that your squad knows that at the very least you are willing to listen to their feedback and even acknowledge good ideas when you hear them.
  4. Always find something good to end the discussion with.  Crew motivation is an important asset and you should always be aiming to increase it rather than diminish it.
  5. If the crew includes a cox, make sure that he or she is included and THANK THEM.

If you get five minutes for a post-outing talk then you are doing better than I usually do, but provided that you keep your words brief, positive and consistent you can make good use of a limited opportunity.

The Preparation Trap

It is a common experience among coaches and rowers that an outing follows a predictable ‘quality curve’ , lowest during the first part of the outing and gradually rising – until toward the end of the outing the crew is (ideally) working together and the boat is moving well. From the crew’s point of view this can be satisfying.

From the coach’s point of view it is often frustrating to see a crew ending an outing at the point you hoped they would start from.  As the demands made on the crew increase with the progress of the training plan, the time taken for the crew to reach the required level of concentration and physical performance during the limited time available for an outing becomes a limiting factor on what they can achieve.  I call this the preparation trap because it holds the crew back from reaching their full potential.

There are both physical and mental obstacles to the quality of a crew’s performance early in an outing.

Physically, the crew have to ‘warm up’, bringing their hearts, lungs and muscles to the level of performance required.  The need for a warm-up will generally be greater for older rowers than for younger ones and ideally, any waiting time before an outing should be invested in warm up exercises, whether on the erg, in the gym or (if and when it is safe to do so) on the landing stage.

Mentally, the crew have to deliver the intense level of concentration required to co-ordinate their movement and effort with the precision required to move the boat in a smooth and balanced way. Concentration is an obstacle for many novice and intermediate crews.  In fact, it could be argued that the real difference between intermediate and elite crews is as much the intensity of their concentration as it is the intensity of their training.

Unfortunately the mental equivalents of the physical warm-up tend not to be widely taught to rowers at club level.  This is sad, because they are not difficult, complicated or scarily ‘alternative’  and they can give a real boost to the crew’s powers of concentration.  Even simple mental visualization of the techniques they will be employing in the boat could greatly reduce the time taken for a crew to reach their optimum performance level. There is some useful information on visualization (also known as ‘Imagery’) here: http://bit.ly/1fMSJJd and here: http://bit.ly/1hhOOUq.

If you want to get more out of your time on the water, both physical and mental warmups are a good idea.

Physical warmup:

5 minutes light erg @ 18spm followed by gentle stretching (hamstrings, then quads, then shoulders).

Mental warmup:

Body – Visualization of upright ”head up, shoulders down, stomach in” posture in the boat, first at hands away, then leaning forward at frontstops, then leaning back at backstops.

Blade – Visualization of correct blade depth with the top edge of the spoon at the surface of the water. Visualization of relaxed grip on blade handle, feathering with the inside hand (for sweep oar rowers), power from the legs via the back and the outside shoulder to the outside hand.

Stroke – Visualization of the correct stroke shape at the outside end of the handle, with the power phase ending at the correct reference height near the chest, the tap down before feathering, the recovery following parallel to the side of the boat to frontstops and the gentle rise to take the catch.

With a little practice, athletes can comfortably combine the physical and mental warmups, e.g. visualizing body posture while on the erg and reviewing blade work and stroke shape while stretching.  The total time taken before the outing could be as little as ten minutes. Both the mental and physical warmups continue in the boat, but the benefit is that the outing now starts from a higher state of preparedness and both physical performance and mental concentration improve faster and earlier.

At most clubs and for most crews, time on the water is a very precious and  limited resource.  A relatively small investment in preparation can help both coach and crew make best use of it.