That’s enough, coach…

I learned early in my rowing career that if the coach is still shouting advice on your rowing technique as you paddle toward the start line you’re probably not going to win.  Race day is not the time to be experimenting with changes in technique.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I volunteered to bankride for a men’s eight from my own squad who were competing at a regatta a couple of days later.  At the end of the outing when they asked me for my comments, I simply told them that they were good to go and ready for the regatta.  I genuinely felt that there was almost no useful coaching to be given in terms of improving their rowing, because they were rowing very well indeed. Their starts were consistently good, their timing was good and their balance was better than I’d ever seen it.  Were they rowing perfectly? No. Were they guaranteed to win? No.  But they were rowing well enough and fast enough to give any competitor in their event some very serious competition. We had reached the point where to make changes in pursuit of improved performance was in my view more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.

This particular eight had been rowing together consistently for a few weeks and the benefit of that time on the river together was arguably the biggest contributor to their improved performance.  Like any club crew, they could benefit from even more concentration (it simply isn’t possible to concentrate too hard) and I told them so, but further coaching – seeking to improve their performance by changing how they were rowing, was a bad idea. Just as race day itself is not the time for conducting experiments, the last couple of outings before an event should be about consolidation rather than futher changes.  The coach’s role at that point is like that of a theatre director at dress rehearsals.  He or she is supervising repeated run-throughs of the same performance with the aim of ensuring that everyone knows exactly what to expect and is clear on what is wanted from them.

At these times a coach needs a clear understanding of the difference between ‘coaching’ and ‘finding fault’. Perfect performance is an elusive goal and certainly at club level there will always be individual or collective faults to be corrected.  However, two days before a competition which the crew could win is not the time to be correcting those faults.  If the crew is producing competitive boat speed over the event distance then the primary coaching objective has been achieved.  From that point, through the heats to the final, preparation (equipment maintenance checks), motivation (mental attitude and behaviour) and repetition (during each warm-up for example) are the priorities.  Coaches need to know when enough is enough – when the time has come to deliver the performance rather than striving to improve it further.  When I am with my crews at a competition, once they are on the water I make it a rule to say nothing more than ‘good luck’.  The unaccustomed silence from the towpath seems to help their concentration.

On race day, a well-prepared crew does not need further instruction.  That can wait until after the event, when win or lose, the search for better, faster rowing will resume. And yes – our men’s eight won all their heats and the final.

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On losing

Only someone who has never rowed competitively can avoid knowing how it feels to lose a race.  For the rest of us that knowledge is a regular part of our rowing year.  If we and our crew are doing well then there will also be some wins, but here’s the strange thing: it isn’t the wins (precious and hoarded as they are) that keep us coming back for more.

Winning regularly even at club level requires a real committment to year-round training, a committment which in rowing is going to consume more time and more calories than in many other sports.  Winning even once at national or international level requires greater sacrifices than most rowers would want to bear and I can’t be alone in knowing people who have left rowing not after losing but after winning at national championship level.

“We didn’t win, but we had a good race” is the key here.  A typical regatta is organised as knockout, and many rowers will know the experience of turning up as a competitor at 9am and being a spectator by 10am. Are you happy?  No.  But if you rowed well and the boat went well and you were in touch with the competition from start to finish, you don’t feel bad.  Rowing is a non-contact sport, so there is very little you can do about the performance of other competitors.  You and your crew are racing your own race against your own limitations and you measure yourself as much against your past performance as against the competition.  Rowing well in a crew boat is a challenge in itself and mastering that challenge, together, from start to finish, under the intense mental and physical pressures of competition, is a real achievement.  Every rower knows that and takes real pleasure in it every time it happens – win or lose.

Are you a crew before you get out on the water?

I get to watch many squads of competitive rowers at regattas and other competitions and have concluded that you can tell a great deal about the competitive capabilities of crews long before they reach the start line.  Just watching how a crew carry their boat and put it on the water gives a good (not infallible) guide to their performance in the race.  Watching them manoeuvre their boat on the water gives more clues.  If one crew can spin their boat  while keeping it balanced and the other crew can’t spin their boat without putting at least one set of riggers underwater I know which crew I’d back to win.

Every rower should know that an outing starts when the cox calls “Hands on!” to get the crew to lift the boat off the rack or trestles. From that moment until the boat is back on the rack, they are a crew.  There are crews who will approach the apparently simple task of lifting the boat with their full attention.  They will work together, moving together, and when they lower the boat onto the water bows and stern will touch the water together.  Other crews will lift their boat as if it was luggage and are quite capable of having one end of the boat in the water while the other end is still being held at ‘waists’.  Even if such a crew begins to concentrate on working together once they are in the boat, the crew that began working together at the words ‘”Hands on!” is several minutes ahead of them in the process of establishing the level of shared concentration required to row well and win races.

From the coaching point of view, the challenge is to get your rowers to treat every part of the outing as part of their rowing, deserving the same concentration and attention to detail as a racing start or a balance drill.  This can be a hard message to get across, particularly if the crew has got into bad habits, so to be honest, I simply tell crews that this is how I want it done and I put them right if they do otherwise.  The cox has a key role in helping the crew raise this aspect of their game.  He or she is an important ally in creating and reinforcing awareness that there is a ‘right way’ to lift a boat, to put a boat on the water, to spin a boat at the end of a reach etc.  Good boat handling is more than just getting the boat to the water without breaking it or injuring bystanders (which I think everyone would agree is ‘bad’).

We know good performance when we see it.  It is the crew who lift and move their boat with a minimum of fuss or comment and keep it level through ‘Waists’, ‘Shoulders’ and ‘Heads’. They put it on the water in controlled way, keeping it level because they are moving together.  They will impress the competition (if the competition is watching) before they take a stroke.  They will be ‘in the zone’ and thinking about the race while their less well-drilled opponents are shouting advice to each other and waving to their girlfriends/boyfriends on their way to the water’s edge. Coaching to impress is not the objective – after all, if your competitors know what they are doing, their concentration is in their own boat and they aren’t watching you. The objective – as always – is to row well and win races, and good crew skills in the boathouse and on the landing stage are part of that training.

Some hints and tips:

  • Lifting a boat from rack or trestles:  at ‘hands on’, get the crew to turn their heads to look along the boat rather than across it.
  • Putting a boat on the water:  Get bow and stroke to watch the OTHER end of the boat and lower their end at the same time.
  • Spinning an eight or four: Get the crew to visualise a rail down the centre of the boat at the same hand height at which the boat is balanced and level.  Start from backstops or frontstops as appropriate and have both sides of the boat moving together throughout.  Move the hands backwards and forwards along the imaginary ‘rail’ with NO up and down movement.