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 (,

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.


6 thoughts on “It’s the Coach’s Fault

    • Google’s translation “More or less all found themselves having to choose a side to row”. I have no problem with rowers choosing one side over the other, provided that their coach has taught them to row on both sides. What I am objecting to is coaches who believe that learning to row on just one side is a good idea. A rower trained only on one side of the boat is not in a position to make a choice for themselves. The coach has made the choice for them.

  1. What a lovely post! I’m president of the WA Rowing Club and many (many) of our club members join us after rowing at school/varsity/internationally/interstate. So many times I’ve had an “experienced” athlete turn up and say “oh I’ve only ever rowed strokeside.” How sad to believe a rower must be only one thing.

    So many have also never had the opportunity to row a single.

    I do understand why it doesn’t happen though. It is so much easier to put someone in a boat and side they are familiar with rather than challenge an athlete to try something new. This morning I coaxed beginners through their first outing in a coxless double scull. It was both time consuming and draining – although I guess rewarding to teach new athletes who haven’t been asked from their earliest rowing days “what side to you row”.

    WARC has instituted a value to focus equally on sculling and sweeping to make the rowing careers of athletes as flexible and interesting as possible – and to find the best crew combinations. It’s often a shock to the system for athletes usually coming from institutions where the rowing isn’t the goal – rather, the winning is.

    I’m proud to give athletes the opportunity to try all boat classes, but do understand the reasons coaches so often ask “what side do you row” because pandering to such preferences does make the coaching experience that little less difficult.

  2. Pingback: It’s the Coach’s Fault (you can’t row bow side) | Rowperfect

  3. Fully agree. And dare I add the compatibility of both sweeping and sculling? It is great when they can row both sides and scull as well! Yes, ok, they may have a preference, but having the ability to be so adaptable is a good thing.

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