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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3 thoughts on “Trusting the boat

  1. A very interesting observation and commentary. Does the program have 4’s available where you can break the eight down and row in 4’s against each other. Back in the mid 70’s at WPI in Worcester, MA – USA we did not have the luxury of the new Shoenbroad Plastic boats but we had a couple of 4’s and that is a great training approach to get into a smaller boat where you can over come some of the issues highlighted above. Also once I starter sculling at Riverside BC, Cambridge, MA then sitting in an 8 or a 4 was like heaven!
    If you can get your crews into smaller boats then a little instability in an 8 is marginal compared to the the fun in a pair, double scull or even a 4!

    • I entirely agree that working crews in smaller boats is a great way to improve their skills. Sadly, some college clubs don’t have access to smaller boats so the work has to be done in eights. You make the best of what you have…

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