The racing start is one of those aspects of rowing on which there are almost as many opinions as there are rowers. The question of how to cover the first 200 metres of a race can produce answers which are not just different, but contradictory. One of my first coaches (a Nat Champs gold medallist – so I think she knew what she was talking about) insisted that the fastest starts she ever rowed were “full power, full length” from the go. Some college crews I have coached in the past, have devised ‘start sequences’ of knitting pattern complexity. My current coach has an exactly opposite view and teaches a very simple, shortened stroke sequence, and this is in fact what I teach the crews I now coach.
So what is the best advice for rowers and coaches looking for the most effective start?
First and foremost, the fact that there are so many conflicting opinions on the best start is quite possibly an indication that there isn’t one, because if one particular sequence was clearly better than the others, we’d all be using it. Secondly, don’t get the search for the right start out of proportion. Even the best start won’t win the race for you, although a bad start can certainly lose one.
My personal view is that an effective start sequence has three distinct functions:
- To provide a reliable and predictable series of strokes with which to accelerate the boat rapidly
- To minimise the risk of crew errors
- To set the boat up for race pace at the planned stroke rate
In terms of reliability and predictability, the start sequence is the only part of the race which is entirely under the crew’s control. If the crew has been well trained, they know exactly what to do and what to expect during their start. Because they know exactly what is going to happen, the crew don’t have to follow stroke, they can row ‘with’ stroke. This can be a difficult distinction to convey, but what I mean is that (for example) if the crew know how fast the rate is going to build and have rowed it repeatedly together, then the rower in the stroke seat doesn’t actually have to lead and the rest of the crew doesn’t have to follow. They all execute the same sequence together. This gets the boat moving as a tightly co-ordinated unit, which is the ideal we are always striving for in crew boat racing.
Crew errors are of course the major hazard during a race. If crews could always race without making errors, then the strongest, fittest crews would always win. The fact that they don’t is due to the errors all crews make in turning the energy they apply during a race into sustained boat speed. Here again, a well-rehearsed start sequence is an excellent way to reduce the risk of errors early in the race. I coach my crews to treat the start sequence as a technical exercise rather than a brute force powerfest. In coxed boats, this has the interesting consequence of reducing the noise level so often associated with starts, because the cox’s role is now to keep the crew calm while prompting them through the precise execution of the sequence. They have to prevent the crew from ‘boiling over’ in the excitement of the moment. This of course only applies for a few strokes while the crew accelerates the boat efficiently to race pace. At that point coxes revert to their usual role of ‘motivating’ the crew loudly.
It almost goes without saying that the start sequence should be consistent with the race plan. The start sequence for a sprint race should build from a standing start to a stroke rate and boat speed appropriate to a sprint. The start sequence for a head race should build from (usually) a rolling start to a speed appropriate to the longer distance.
In simple terms, the real difference between a good start and a bad start, is that during a good start the whole crew is able to take every stroke together, whereas during a bad start, one or more members of the crew misses or mis-times a stroke. I personally feel that this is a strong argument in favour of simple start sequences. Others would of course argue otherwise.
To summarise then, best practice in racing starts is to:
- Keep it simple
- Practice it as a crew until you can deliver it reliably without errors
- Make sure it fits seamlessly into the race plan
A good start is above all a morale-booster for the crew. If they can take half a length out of the opposition while they do it, so much the better – but the minimum it should achieve is a smoothly synchronised, error-free acceleration to race pace.