Care for the Novice Cox

At most rowing clubs, coxes are in short supply.  This being the case, whenever someone new joins the coxing rota or even when a rower agrees to take on coxing duties, club members would do well to bear in mind that they are dealing with a valuable resource and reward them accordingly.  If most clubs held on to more of the people who have ‘tried out’ the coxing seats they would have more coxes available then they do.  So why do so many new coxes not last long?

Sadly, part of the reason may be that novice coxes don’t always get the attention from coaches that they deserve.  One aspect of this is the tendency to put novice coxes with novice rowers. While I can see why this would happen, it really is like putting a novice rider on an unbroken pony – albeit a rather slow one.  The more inexperienced a crew is, the less likely they are to row consistently and a crew which rows inconsistently will be harder to steer.  Add to this the problems which beginners have manoeuvring a boat safely when spinning or landing and you can appreciate what a challenge we present new coxes with and why so many of them get discouraged and leave as a result.

I would suggest that it would be a good idea to provide newly recruited coxes with a mix of boats to cox, some beginner/novice boats certainly, but also some more capable intermediate boats which will provide a more rewarding experience from the cox’s seat.  I’m NOT suggesting that new coxes should be asked to cox high-speed pieces, but if a more experienced crew is rowing a ‘technical’ outing, a new cox can learn what their exercises and drills look like when they are executed correctly.  They are then in a much better position to help the novices and in the end the whole club benefits.

Another idea worth trying is the ‘cox squad’.  How many clubs, before travelling to row in a regatta on someone else’s river, get their coxes together as a squad for a briefing on the rules of navigation and safety applicable to the venue?  A simple way of passing valuable information from experienced coxes who have rowed that particular river before to those who will be seeing it for the first time – and again the whole club benefits.

Rowers also have a role in making a new cox feel welcome and valued.  It really isn’t hard to understand that without the cox the outing doesn’t happen.  Help make their experience a positive one, one they will want to come back to.  Welcome them as part of your crew and help make every new cox into a good cox and an asset to your boat and your club.

Lastly, considering the safety of the crew and the care of the boat, it is the skills of the cox, not of the crew, which determines the river / weather conditions in which you can run a safe outing. No matter how good the crew is, don’t put a novice cox on the water when the conditions (stream, visibility, traffic) make the risks unacceptable.

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The Crab Conundrum

For many rowers in their first couple of competitive seasons, “catching a crab” is the biggest fear in the boat. After a while, as your most recent crab recedes into history and becomes a distant memory, rowers tend to stop worrying about it – until suddenly one day for no obvious reason, it strikes again.  Crabs are rare among senior rowers, but not unknown. They happen during the Oxford / Cambridge boat race, at national championships and at Henley.  So here’s the conondrum, why does this novice error occasionally strike even very experienced crews? And what should coaches do about it?

This video – big thanks to WA Rowing Club, Perth – shows an experienced crew catching a crab (crab at 1:42 NSFW – loud music):

 

There are actually two types of crab.  The ‘common’ crab happens during the power phase of the stroke when the rower is unable to extract the blade from the water.  The speed of the boat pushes the handle of the stuck blade into the rowers body.  If they are lucky it simply knocks them flat and passes over their heads.  If they are unlucky, the handle can lift the rower out of his or her shoes and eject them over the side of the boat.  The other type of crab (as shown in the video) happens during the recovery when the blades are, or should be, in the air. If the leading edge of a blade catches the water at the wrong angle, the blade enters the water, the suddenly increased drag stops the forward motion of the spoon and again the movement of the boat brings the handle towards the bow, striking the rower’s body with the effect described above. From the coach’s point of view it is important to know which type of crab a rower has caught as the remedies differ.

The cause of the common crab is usually that the blade is not square in the water, either because the catch was not square or because the rower was feathering the blade underwater. Both of these novice errors can be fixed quickly and simply if timely action is taken by the coach. Unfortunately, a common response from novice rowers trying to avoid catching a crab is to pull their finishes lower into their laps in the belief that this will help get their blade out of the water. What this actually does is to lower their rigger toward the water at the extraction, giving them less space to ‘tap down’ into – so the problem of getting the blade out of the water actually gets worse. Pulling the finish higher, so raising the rigger and creating more room for the tap down is actually the more effective response.

A crab on the recovery is often caused either by over-feathering or (particularly with novices) by failure to keep the knees down during the first part of the recovery.  If the knees come up early, the hands have to rise to get over them – and if the hands rise then the spoon has to drop toward the water. Again both these errors are relatively easy to fix by appropriate coaching if they are spotted in time.

Some coaches train crews to row their recoveries with blades very close to the water. Personally I’m not sure that this offers a real performance advantage, but it does increase the risk of a crab if the boat hits rough water or the wake of another boat.  I coach crews to use the same hand height  on the recovery whether they are using square or feathered blades.  This gives the boat a margin of safety should the conditions require it.

For most rowers, catching a crab is not a predictable occurrence.  It happens suddenly and unexpectedly and even the rower concerned my not be sure at which stage of the stroke the crab happened.  Without video evidence, diagnosis and specific remedial coaching can be difficult.  In these situations it is important not to exaggerate the problem in the rower’s mind.  A rower who is concentrating on not catching a crab  is probably not rowing at their best and the more the coach focuses on the crab the more pressure the rower is under. That pressure is more likely to lead to further errors and you risk creating a vicious circle. No-one catches a crab deliberately and I believe that the most common cause is a lapse of concentration – possibly elsewhere in the boat.

With senior crews I simply ignore the occasional crab.  If it isn’t due to basic errors of technique then you do more good by sticking with the training plan for the outing rather than chasing what can be a very elusive error.  Particularly in the run-up to a competition, good crew morale and the achievement of the right balance of attention and relaxation is more important.

It IS important always to check the rigging after a crab – particularly if it happened while the boat was moving fast.  A crabbed blade can bend rigging out of shape. If the crew are sharing boats it is also worth checking that someone else hasn’t changed rigger heights, spans or blade pitches – again possibly on a different seat.

Provided that the problem isn’t in the equipment or the technique you have taught, I think catching a random crab remains one of rowing’s ‘black swan events’.  Bad luck if it happens to you, good luck if it takes out the competition.  As a coach, you just have to live with it.

Know your Centre of Rotation.

Luckily, just beside my rowing club, a road bridge crosses the river.  One can stand on that bridge and watch boats pass underneath.  I actually advise our beginners to do this, because rowing as seen from the rower’s point of view and rowing as seen from a bridge above the river differ in several key respects.

From the rower’s point of view, the catch is taken behind his or her seat i.e. with the spoon toward the bows of the boat while they are at frontstops. During the power phase of the stroke, the spoon moves past the rower toward the stern until the rower reaches the finish and the blade is extracted at the end of the stroke.  If you ask most rowers to pinpoint the blade’s centre of rotation, the point around which they are working to apply force to the blade they will probably point to the pin. (The pin, in case some readers don’t know, is the vertical post at the end of the rigger on which the swivel turns).

From the bridge, the view is rather different.  It is a view dominated by the motion of the boat as it comes towards us.  Looking down, we can see that as the blades enter the water at the catch they appear to ‘lock’, remaining stationary in the water as the boat continues past them. The angle between blade and boat changes with the forward motion of the boat and as it does so the spoon makes a small movement outward, away from the boat so that the tip of the spoon is furthest from the boat as the blade passes through the 90 degree right angle. Once that point is passed, the tip of the spoon moves back toward the boat as it moves on, before the blades are extracted from the water. There are some good diagrams to show this movement here: www.concept2.co.uk/blade-path .

The first 20 seconds of this video clip (the 2014 Boat Race seen from Hammersmith Bridge) also illustrate the movement:

Video credit to Pier Paolo Ciarravano at http://www.larmor.com/

Which brings me to the point of this blog. To the rower, the centre of rotation appears to be the pin at the end of the rigger. From the rower’s point of view it may therefore seem sensible to bury not just the spoon but a couple of feet of the loom in the water during the power phase of the stroke, because if the pin is the centre of rotation then all that additional surface area in the water is helping to transmit the rower’s awesome power to the water and hence increasing the speed of the boat. In reality, the centre of rotation is close to the tip of the spoon and every part of the blade inboard of that point is moving in the same direction as the boat. Spoon and loom are therefore subject to the very considerable ‘drag’ of the water which has to be pushed out of the way to allow for that motion.

As its name implies, ‘drag’ is THE big negative of the sport of rowing. It is the water’s resistance to the movement of a solid body and most boat designers spend most of their time trying to minimise it, because it is the single biggest energy drain on a boat in motion. Designers measure the ‘wetted area’ of a hull because they know that the more surface area they have in the water the more drag they have on the boat.  I apply the same logic in coaching rowers.  Having too much blade in the water – whatever else it may do – creates significant drag.

Rowers need to understand that their centre of rotation is out beyond the pin, at the tip of the blade.  When they understand that, they can understand how to use the blade efficiently.  I ask them to respect the designers who have crafted their blades to float with the top edge of the spoon at the surface of the water and the loom out of the water and I run drills to get rowers to treat the catch as part of the recovery rather than part of the stroke – dropping the blade onto the water and feeling its bouyancy rather than rowing it forcefully into the water and burying it.

There is of course another school of thought which recommends ‘rowing deep’ with the spoon and much of the loom in the water (there is a discussion here for example:  groups.google.com/forum/rec.sport.rowing) and certainly if you watch elite scullers, most use more blade in the water than I am recommending here. Does this change my view?  No, it doesn’t and for the following reason.  Elite scullers have to use equipment which complies with the same rules as the rest of us.  However, they are applying far greater force in the water with that equipment than even a good club or university rower.  That amount of energy applied to a sculling blade at normal depth would disrupt the ‘normal’ hydrodynamics of the spoon – they would in effect lose their grip on the water during the power phase of the stroke.  They therefore have to row deeper to enable the blade to deliver their much greater power to the water.  The trade-off in terms of increased drag is one they are happy to accept as they are still moving the boat faster than they would do at the shallower depth.

The temptation to row ‘like an elite rower’ is understandable, but unless you’re also going to train like an elite rower, it is about as productive as strapping on an 80 pound backpack for a hiking weekend so that you can march ‘like a Marine’ (http://www.royalmarines.uk/carrying-a-heavy-bergen).

A favour requested

To those of you interested enough to read this blog – I have a new website for rowers and coaches under development at CrossedBlades.com.   I would be very grateful if you would join me in the development process by taking part in a very brief (2 minute) survey on our Facebook page at: http://bit.ly/1vCBO3A .

Thanks and best wishes,

HowardtheCoach

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