Coaching “the Recovery” – by Howard Aiken

(This is the fourth in a series of coaching notes and is probably best read with the preceding “Coaching the Finish”. The techniques described apply primarily to rowing rather than sculling and to bigger boats rather than small ones).

The Recovery should be easy, surely? We’ve done the hard work on the drive.  We’ve got the spoon out of the water at the finish and we’re on our way back to the catch.  What is there to coach on the recovery?

Well here’s the thing.  While it might take a trained eye to spot if your catch, drive or finish is good, anyone can judge the quality of a crew from their recovery.  Good crews make it look easy.  All the spoons leave the water together and move through the air at the same height and speed until they enter the water together at their next catch.  Meanwhile their boat stays perfectly level, moving forward as if on rails.

No-so-good crews can’t do this. Their boat is off-balance and during the recovery with one side of the boat higher than the other – or one side’s blades may even be dragging across the water to the catch.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the “hierarchy of needs” within a boat, namely Timing, Balance and Power – in that order, with timing being the fundamental requirement, balance being built on good timing and power being useful only if the other two are in place.  Clearly there is no power component to the recovery, so it is mainly about timing and balance.

First, however, let’s look at the sequence of movements which make up the recovery:


Figure 1 Stick diagram showing the rowing recovery sequence

The recovery begins as the spoon is lifted from the water at the Finish (1).  Before the body moves, the hands push away horizontally until the arms are fully extended at “Hands away”.  The hands then pull the body over (2), the trunk pivoting at the hip while the slide remains at backstops. Only once the forward reach with the arms and the forward lean with the body are established, should the slide begin to move toward frontstops.  As the slide moves, the upper body and arms should be perfectly still, the head high, the core active, the legs flexing at the knees and hips until the body arrives at frontstops and the spoon is dropped into the water at the catch (3).

Rowers sometimes need reminding that the catch should be a single contact between the squared blade and the water.  Any contact between blade and water between the finish and the catch is bad, because the drag caused by a blade in or on the water is hundreds of times higher than the drag of the blade in air.  Rowers should hate the sound of blades dragging on the water, because that sound is the sound of energy and speed bleeding from the boat.  In a well-rowed boat, the recovery phase of the stroke should be silent except for the sound of the moving slides and the water flowing around the hull.

Timing the recovery for most rowers is less about when it starts than how fast it moves.  Novice rowers particularly tend to rush the recovery, lunging forward into frontstops in their haste to get on with the next stroke.  Part of the problem is that novice rowers frequently lack the fine control in their knee flexor muscles required to deliver a smooth recovery.  Untrained or weak knee flexors tend to produce an uncontrolled twitch rather than a smooth contraction, so it can be surprisingly difficult for novice rowers to slow their progress up the slide.  Many coaches will be familiar with the fact that it is often the weakest rower who is fastest on the recovery and so either catches early or is obliged to wait at frontstops for the rest of the crew to catch up.

Different coaches will sometimes say apparently contradictory things about slide speed on the recovery.  As a rower I have been coached (by different coaches and at different times) to decelerate into frontstops in order to avoid checking the forward motion of the boat and to accelerate into frontstops to raise the bows slightly for the next stroke.  My own view is that the greater contribution to boat speed is the deceleration into front stops.  The reasons for this are unambiguous but perhaps not explained to rowers as often or as clearly as thy should be.  During the recovery, the crew – who collectively weigh much more than the boat they are rowing, are moving in the opposite direction to the boat.  If they hit frontstops hard, their collective inertia results in sharp deceleration of the boat.  This can be seen in a sudden dip of the stern into the water, or in coxed boats, the involuntary pitching forward of the cox’s head and upper body.  We call this error “stern check” and there is an interesting coaching trick for monitoring it here .

A useful cue for both rowers and coaches working on slide speed is the sound of the wheels on the runners during the recovery.  If the rowers are accelerating into frontstops the wheels will sound a rising note.  If they are decelerating, the wheels will sound a falling note – and if you can get the crew to produce that falling note you will get a gentler arrival at frontstops and less stern-check.

I’ve never coached acceleration into frontstops myself, but it is not quite as contradictory as it might seem.  From my experience as a rower, the coach was not asking us to crash into frontstops.  What he was asking for was a slight acceleration right at the end of the recovery and immediately before the catch.  Understanding the reasons for this requires a short digression into very basic Newtonian mechanics.

At the end of the drive phase the crew are at backstops and moving at the same speed as their boat.  As they begin the recovery, moving in the opposite direction to the boat, some of their kinetic energy is transferred from their bodies to the boat.  As a result, the boat accelerates after the spoons leave the water (you can also think of this as the rowers pulling the boat forward toward their bodies with their feet).  So the theory behind the deliberate acceleration into frontstops over the last few centimetres of the recovery is to accelerate the boat slightly before the catch.  And the catch must go in milliseconds after that acceleration to keep the boat moving.

Whether it works in terms of producing additional boat speed I can’t say – which is why I don’t coach this technique myself, but evidently some coaches believe it does.

The last thing to say about timing is that the slide is only part of the story.   In a good crew, not just the slides, but the hands and the heads will all be moving together, all following the rower in the stroke seat.  This does not happen by accident, the crew have to work at it quite deliberately.  And as no two occupants of the stroke seat will move in exactly the same way, the crew must adapt their timing every time the occupant of the stroke seat changes.

Balance in the recovery is one of the most challenging aspects of rowing for many average club or college rowers but at the same time is the most obvious characteristic of a competent crew. In normal rowing a crew should be spending two or three times longer on the recovery than on   the drive and there is a vast difference in efficiency between a boat which, on each recovery, drags half its blades across the water and the efficiency of a boat which is balanced, with all its blades moving at the same height above the water.

The most important point to make about balance in the recovery is that it originates in the drive and finish of the previous stroke. Balance is set up during the drive and inherited by the recovery.  If the boat was balanced at the finish of the previous stroke, that balance must be maintained during the recovery and into the catch.  If the boat was off balance at the finish of the previous stroke, the boat must be rebalanced during the recovery – a more difficult task.

Maintaining balance is all about minimizing unwanted upper body movement – particularly sideways (lateral) movement.  This is best achieved by using “core stability”, activating the muscles of the trunk by sitting up tall and pulling the stomach in slightly. The upper body position we need can be described as eyes front, heads up, shoulders down and chests out.  This needs to be maintained throughout the stroke, not just on the recovery.

As with slide speed, coaches differ in their views on sideways movement.  My preference is to coach crews to keep their weight on the centreline of the boat throughout the stroke.  Seen from in front or behind, their heads should remain in line while their arms follow the arc of the blade’s handle. Other coaches will have the heads following the same arc as the arms, so that at frontstops the bowside and strokeside heads form two distinct rows.  I’ve even seen rowers who have evidently been coached to lean toward the rigger during the drive and then return to the centreline on the recovery, producing a rather odd rotary motion.  All of these can work, but keeping heads in the midline is simplest, particularly if crew members differ in height or weight. Also, the more asymmetric the technique, the greater the obstacles faced by rowers changing from one side of the boat to the other, something I feel strongly that all rowers (and particularly young rowers) should do regularly.

Recovering balance on the recovery can be challenging, which is why in a previous blog I emphasised the importance of keeping the boat balanced at the finish.  If the boat is badly off balance at the finish, a novice crew stands very little chance of correcting it on the recovery.  However, a slight imbalance can be corrected during the recovery if the crew has good core stability.  This can be augmented if required (and if the crew has been coached in the technique) by the use of foot pressure.  This works exactly as one might expect, with a dab of pressure on the rising side of the boat serving to stop it from rising too far.  This is however a fairly advanced technique and in practice limited to fine-tuning the balance, not correcting gross errors.

In conclusion, the recovery is the phase of the rowing stroke which tells the world about the technical capabilities of your crew. A crew which can maintain the balance of their boat during  the recovery with all their blades in the air, has the best possible platform for the efficient translation of power into speed.  A crew which is unbalanced – or worse, drags blades across the water, are going to be handicapped by a less stable and less efficient boat.


Coaching “the Finish” – by Howard Aiken

(This is the third in a series of coaching notes and is probably best read with the preceding “Coaching the Drive”).

The Finish, like the catch, is a transition phase in the stroke cycle, this time from water to air, and like the catch, the quality of a rower’s finish is heavily dependent on the preceding phase of the stroke.  For the sake of brevity, most of the advice in this blog is aimed at rowers rather than scullers and at big boats rather than small ones.  However, the general principles apply to all boats.

Key attributes of a good finish:

  1. It doesn’t start until the drive is complete.  One of the common finish errors is to extract the blade from the water before the drive phase of the stroke is finished.  The finish, like the catch, should be rowed as part of the recovery, not as part of the drive.  The finish is not an opportunity to add more boat speed.  You are at the wrong end of the stroke for more power to have any beneficial effect so any attempt to accelerate the boat with the arms during the finish probably does more harm than good.  A good finish is about conserving the boat speed you have and precision is much more important than power.  An easy diagnostic indicator is splash at the finish.  A good finish is nearly splashless, leaving only a swirling puddle in the water.
  2. It should be nearly frictionless.  A modern rowing blade is a carefully balanced piece of technology.  Downward pressure on the end of the handle with a single finger is enough to lift a squared blade from the water. If it needs more pressure than that, it is either partly feathered (not vertical in the water) or submerged too deep.
  3. It should be quick.  The boat is moving at the end of the drive and the blade is still in the water.  It has to be raised out of the water quickly to avoid having it dragged by the forward motion of the boat, which will reduce your boat speed.
  4. It should be precise.  In a crew boat, the height at which the crew finishes each stroke dictates how level the boat is.  The finish needs to be at precisely the right height, every time.
  5. It should merge seamlessly into the recovery phase of the stroke.  The normal stroke cycle is a continuous flowing motion and there should be no pause or hesitation at the finish during normal rowing.  Some coaches do teach a pause just after the blade leaves the water, partly (I believe) to slow down the recovery, but this is taught as a drill, not as a technique to be used in normal rowing.

Let’s take look at the above attributes in more detail.

Finishing at the end of the drive.  In simple terms, boat speed is a function of the force applied during the drive and the length of that drive in the water. To maximise the length of the drive in the water, the finish must be delayed until the drive is complete, when the rower is at backstops and the hands have stopped moving toward the bow of the boat. Only at that point should the hands start moving downward to extract the blade from the water.  In practice of course, no rower is going to produce a perfect right-angle at the finish and their hands will actually move through a curve, but the essential part is that it should not shorten the drive and should lift the blade from the water without creating splash or wash.   Many rowers seem blissfully unaware of the amount of splash they create at the finish, particularly during a race, but once they have been coached to be aware of it and reduce it, their finish technique improves rapidly, with more energy being converted into boat speed and less lost in throwing water into the air.

This stick diagram illustrates (in red) the movement we are looking for:


Figure 1 Diagram to show “tap-down” movement at the finish.

Keeping the finish frictionless and quick.  A square extraction meets virtually no resistance from the water and is therefore ‘light’, exerting only minimal downforce on the rigger. However, many experienced rowers get lazy with the “tap-down” –  the downward movement shown in Figure 1 above.  Instead, at the end of the drive, they leave the blade in the water and let the motion of the boat feather the blade.  Some will even let the spoon drag across the puddle. Perhaps this feels easier to the rower because the motion of the boat is doing the work, but precisely because of that fact, feathering in the water is a drag on the boat and decreases boat speed. If all crew members are doing the same the cumulative drag can be significant. If only part of the crew is doing it, it will unbalance the boat.  This type of finish is significantly heavier than a square finish and puts more downward pressure on the rigger. Coaching rowers out of this error can be challenging, not least because from the rower’s point of view, a clean, square tap-down feels like more work than just letting the boat pull the blade out. A couple of approaches which have worked for me include:

  • Intermittent square blade rowing. During normal rowing, ask the rower who is feathering in the water to row a few strokes with a square blade. With less weight on their rigger at each extraction, her/his side of the boat will rise.  This works well with more experienced crews who will have been compensating for the heavier extraction to keep the boat level.
  • “Showing the cox the spoon”. This feathered-blade rowing exercise keeps the blade square until the spoon is completely out of the water.  This tends to work best with beginners.

Finishing at a consistent height

Coaching rowers to finish their stroke at the correct height is a key challenge in the combination of awesome power with precise balance that good rowing requires.  There is no substitute for getting rowers to know their ‘reference point’.  The reference point is not a fixed point but varies with the height of the rower, the seat, the rigger and the weight of the crew.   It is the point on the rower’s body where the handle of the blade would come to rest at the end of the stroke if the rower simply let the squared bade float on the water at the end of the drive rather than lifting it out of the water.  For the average rower that point will be somewhere on the lower half of their ribcage. Shorter rowers will find the point higher on their bodies and taller rowers will find it lower.  Because of the variables mentioned above, the reference point can only be considered fixed for the duration of an outing (assuming the rower doesn’t change seats) and unless the same crew rows the same boat in the same seats with the same rigger heights it should be checked for every crew member on every outing.

If rowers know their reference points and pull through to them consistently the crew will be a big step closer to rowing a level, balanced boat.

Merging the finish into the recovery phase of the stroke

The finish and the recovery are phases of the stroke cycle during which the hands are moving in opposite directions, but how the two are joined together is important.  I ask rowers to focus on the semi-circular shape of the stroke between the finish and the recovery as illustrated above, encouraging them to make a clear downward movement with the outside hand and to push the handle away on the recovery a few centimetres closer to (and parallel with) the side of the boat.  I generally coach rowers to move their hands away at the same speed as they took the stroke, but there is no consensus on this and other coaches will differ. What I do insist on is that the hands never stop moving.

A good finish is undramatic, splashless and relatively quiet.  It should leave a distinct pattern of deep eddies in the water – a ‘puddle’ which remains visible for several seconds after the boat has passed. It should not disturb the balance of the boat or check its forward motion.  In short, a good finish is a good start for the next stroke.

Coaching the Drive – by Howard Aiken

(This is the second in a series of coaching notes. You may find it helpful to read it with the preceding “Coaching the Catch”).

The “Drive” is the ‘working’ phase of the rowing stroke. If we consider the four phases of the stroke (catch, drive, finish, recovery), the drive differs from the others in that it is as much about power as technique.  The drive is the application of force to the handle of the blade to lever the boat past the spoon.  That said, the quality of a good drive in the boat depends on how it begins at the catch and ends at the finish, and there are several different opinions as to what should happen in between.

  1. The muscles powering the drive

The most important point to be made about the drive concerns the fundamental sources of its power.  These are your leg muscles, the same muscles you would use for jumping.  This is important, because rowers tend to be more aware of “effort” than “output” and so tend to see the power available from legs, body and arms as more evenly matched than they actually are.

Your leg muscles contain a high proportion of fast “twitch” fibres which can deliver the rapid acceleration required for running and jumping.  The simple fact that your leg muscles can be used to jump off the ground means that they are, on their own, able to accelerate however many tens of kilos your body weighs to over 9.8 metres per second per second (the acceleration due to gravity) – and they can do that even if you aren’t a trained athlete.

This is a huge amount of power and more to the point it is an amount of power that your back and arm muscles are completely incapable of delivering.  You could test this for yourself, although I would not recommend it, by attempting to “jump” your whole body into the air from a pull-up or by using your back muscles.  Arm muscles are fast, but lack the power of the legs.  Your back muscles are very strong but contain far fewer fast fibres and more slow fibres suited to maintaining body posture.

Leg power is therefore the foundation of a good drive.  There may be different opinions on how we build on that foundation, but all coaches will agree that without the legs there is no drive.

For those interested in the anatomical detail, there is a useful summary of the muscles used in jumping here:

When we jump, knee extension and hip extension occur simultaneously. We unbend (extend) knee and hip joints at the same time to launch ourselves into the air.  Similarly in rowing, the drive involves forcefully straightening the knees and opening the angle between the thighs and the trunk.  However, in rowing, while we are using mostly the same muscles, we differ in the sequence in which they are used.

The difference can perhaps be summed up best in the following diagrams, showing how both the knee angle (K) and the hip angle (H) open during the stroke:

Figure 1. Catch Position

In the catch position (Figure 1) the rower is compressed into frontstops with the legs flexed at the knees and the body flexed at the hips.  We have acute angles at both the knee (K) and hips (H) while the arms are at their longest (A).  In a normally rigged boat, the rower’s heels will be raised off the footplate to maximise the length of the stroke and the pressure on the footplate at the start of the drive will applied through the balls of the feet.

Figure 2. Drive Position

During the drive the rower executes a sequence of movements.  First, the knees extend, opening the angles at the knee (K1) and hip (H1). The arms remain extended, so their angle at the elbow (A) remains unchanged.  As the knees extend the heels come down onto the footplate to support the drive.

Figure 3. Finish Position

Next the rower leans back, opening the hip angle further (H2).  Lastly, the arms are used, drawing the stroke through to the chest and closing the angle at the elbow (A2).  At the finish position the knees are fully extended and hips partly extended (at full extension the rower would be lying down in the boat).

The sequence ‘legs, body, arms’ is fundamental, but there are different schools of thought as to how soon during the drive the body should be used.  I favour late use of the body, mainly because it helps rowers to focus their effort on maximising use of the legs and therefore of the exceptional power they provide to the stroke.

  1. Common errors during the drive

2.1 Early use of the back. A common novice error (particularly with older novices) is to combine the use of the legs and body, swinging the upper body back as soon as the catch is taken. This error synchronises the knee extension to the hip extension, very much as they synchronise when we jump.  The knees take longer to extend and the force applied to the blade – particularly in the early part of the drive – is therefore reduced.  Sometimes, when you ask such rowers to stop using their bodies and arms and row ‘legs only’, rather than driving the slide to backstops position, their leg drive stops after just a few centimetres at the point when they would start using their backs – showing that they are not making full use of their legs.

In my view, if as a coach you can get rowers to focus on delivering the full power of their legs for the full length of the slide you have a good basis on which to build a powerful stroke.

A rower’s back needs to be strong enough to transmit this power from the legs to the arms.  This is not always the case with younger rowers who sometimes have a tendency during the drive to let the legs push the slide back faster than their upper bodies.  Their hip angle tends not to open as the knee angle opens (an error we call “bum-shoving” in the UK).

This situation becomes reversed with older rowers, ex-rugby players and others whose upper-body strength is proportionally greater than that of their legs. They will tend to use their backs early in the stroke and will under-use their legs. That is not to say that they don’t get to backstops, but they lose the legs-body-arms sequence and use their backs rather than their legs as the main driver of their stroke.

2.2 Early use of the arms is another novice error. Novice rowers often focus on the movement of the blade rather than the movement of their bodies and in their anxiety to move the blade at the catch they use their arms to pull on it rather than pushing with their legs.  As was pointed out earlier, the arms can deliver only a fraction of the power available from the legs, so it is important to encourage these rowers to apply pressure on the footplate as the best way to move the boat.

While the arms are fully extended during most of the drive they are working under tension and their muscle strength is not a factor in the power of the first part of the stroke.  I often tell rowers to imagine their outside arm (the arm connecting the shoulder to the end of the handle) as a rope with a hook on the end.  Its muscles are not used until the legs and body have done most of the work.  Early use of the arms will actually reduce the amount of power applied to the handle in the first part of the stroke because the amount of weight (or pull) which can be supported by the flexed arm is limited by the strength of the flexing muscles – mainly the biceps, whereas the amount of weight which can be supported by the extended arm is limited by its tensile strength, which is far greater.

  1. Blade depth

While there is at least a partial consensus on the good and bad technique in terms of body position (more on this later) there are a variety of views on the most efficient use of the blade. My personal preference as a coach of club and college rowers, is to encourage them to use the carefully engineered buoyancy of the blade as their guide to blade depth during the drive.  In other words, I coach my rowers to let the squared blade float in the water at its ‘natural’ depth. Other coaches argue that more efficient transmission of force to the water is achieved by planting the spoon deeper so that its top edge is 4 to 5 centimetres below the surface during the drive.  This may well be effective for elite scullers, but I think the video evidence from our best rowers shows that they work with the buoyancy of the blade to set the correct depth.  Watch this video for example from 3:09 to 3:19 (unfortunately the IOC only allow us to watch this on YouTube).

  1. Washing out”

At the end of the drive as the rowers lean back and use the power of their arms to bring the handle toward their body, some rowers to pull the handle down into their laps or sometimes even to their upper thighs.  This has the effect of bringing the spoon up out of the water before the stroke is finished, producing a telltale “wash” of agitated water on the surface rather than a deep “puddle” of swirling water at the finish.  It also has the effect of lowering their rigger, upsetting the balance of the boat.  I will cover the finish in more detail in another blog, but for the purposes of coaching a good drive, the way to avoid this error is to ensure that the spoon remains floating at its designed depth until the handle is almost at the rower’s chest at which point the outside hand taps down to extract the blade cleanly (with a minimum of splash) from the water.

  1. Variations in drive technique

A comprehensive survey of the various techniques taught for the drive is beyond the scope of this blog, but luckily, for those who are interested, there are some useful summaries available online. This paper by Theo Körner:

dates from the early 1990’s and compares what were then known as the GDR (East German) and the Adam (West German) style.  The Adam style dates from the 1960s and encourages rowers to use their backs earlier than we would today.  The GDR style is much closer to modern techniques and emphasises an early leg drive followed by later use of the back.

Another paper by Dr. Valery Kleshnev on the biomechanics of rowing outlines two further variations, the Rosenberg style (from the USA) and the Grinko style (from the former USSR)

see his figure 11 on page 16 reproduced here:

Kleshnev analyses these four styles in terms of their relative emphasis on leg or trunk musculature and their tendency toward simultaneous or consequent timing.  He then shows typical power curves for each style – his figure 12 page 16 reproduced here:

He makes the following point which I find interesting: “Styles with the trunk emphasis (Rosenberg and DDR styles) produce more power because of better use of big muscle groups as the gluteus and longissimus muscles. However, these muscles are congenitally slow because they are intended to maintain body posture”

I don’t know how Kleshnev measured the different contributions of legs, arms and trunk but the overall shape of the Grinko style curve (d) in the figure above is closest to my view of the ideal for a well-trained rower.  Peak power is delivered early by the legs, with the trunk and arms becoming effective later in the drive.

The shaping of the power curve is of course best rehearsed on a rowing machine where the rower gets immediate visual feedback on its shape.

While as I have said, the drive phase of the rowing stroke is more about power than technique, it is not without its subtleties and coaches continue to experiment in pursuit of more efficiently applied effort and greater boat speed.

Are you concentrating? (Then we’ll begin). By Howard Aiken

525528_10150745894279500_555109499_9114315_349868421_n-300x200I occasionally have to remind my students that while rowing is not an intellectual sport, it does make quite extraordinary demands on their powers of concentration.  Very few beginners are in the habit (before they learn to row) of concentrating single-mindedly on how they are moving for an hour or more at a time.  The level of concentration required is probably the second-biggest challenge that novice rowers face when stepping up from beginner status to rowing in competitive boats – the first challenge of course, being the required level of fitness.

The special requirement for concentration derives from rowing’s status as the ultimate team sport. In this respect it has similarities with, for example, a corps de ballet – where the movements of each member of the corps have to reflect the movements of the leader.  In rowing, of course the range of movements required is much more limited, but on the other hand unlike a corps de ballet, a crew have to deal with the rapidly changing requirements of wind, water and potentially a race, rather than the fixed choreography of a staged performance.

There is a hierarchy of requirements which rowers have to concentrate on:

  1. Timing – the pre-requisite for almost every other aspect of rowing
  2. Balance – dependent on good timing but a pre-requisite for the efficient deployment of power
  3. Power – the final component of a competitive crew, but very little use without balance and timing

This hierarchy is quite real.  You can imagine an elite crew rowing and then take away their power, and you would still have a crew rowing well, but lightly. Take away both power and balance and they will still be moving the boat – but less efficiently. Take away their timing however and you really don’t have a crew.  You have two, four or eight individuals in a boat, working against each other as much as they are working together.  Anyone who has coached beginners in rowing will be able to visualize exactly what I mean.

Starting with the timing then, concentration on moving with the rower in the stroke seat is fundamental to rowing.  However, stroke does more than just set the rate.  Stroke also sets the ratio (the proportion of the stroke cycle spent on the drive phase versus the recovery phase), the hand heights and speeds, when to feather and square, when to catch and when to finish. Concentrating on moving with stroke throughout the full cycle from catch to finish and back again will require the full attention of any novice rower.

Balance similarly requires careful concentration.  There are dozens of sources of imbalance in the boat and a number of them will affect most crews at some point. Working together to diagnose causes of poor balance, to correct them and to maintain the correction requires the concentration of the whole crew.

Of the three elements in the rower’s hierarchy of needs, only power does not of itself require careful concentration. But it is entirely dependent on the other two elements in the hierarchy and so the thoughtful application of power consistent with timing and balance, will always beat the application of power without such consideration.

Teaching crews to concentrate, not just occasionally but for the duration of an outing, is one of the key challenges in coaching.  Learning to concentrate and to concentrate consistently on the right things is at the heart of becoming a good rower.

Oars – They’re not sticks, they’re springs – by Howard Aiken

Most club rowers, quite rightly, will work with whatever equipment they are given, so we sometimes miss the subtleties of design in that equipment.  Take a modern sweep-oar for example. It is actually a highly-engineered precision instrument designed maximise the efficient transfer of mechanical energy from rower to boat, so to get the best out of them it helps if you understand its characteristics.bendy

In mechanical terms, each oar or blade on a moving boat is a second class lever with the fulcrum (centre of rotation) near the tip of the spoon.  However, while it is correctly described as a lever, a blade is not rigid. It is designed with a carefully calculated degree of flexibility.

From the rower’s point of view the importance of this flexibility is its relationship to the effort (energy) the rower is applying to the blade.  At the start of a stroke (the catch) the blade is subject to a bending force as the rower pulls the handle toward the bows.  The spoon remains almost stationary in the water, moving the boat forward by means of the force which is transferred to the boat at the pin.  As the blade bends it is in effect storing energy which will be released again as the blade unbends.  So the important question is – when does the blade unbend? There are only two options:

Option 1. The blade unbends as the spoon lifts out of the water.  In this situation the rower is pulling hard on the blade as her outside hand moves downward to extract the blade.  There is still pressure on the front face of the spoon as it leaves the water.  At its worst this is referred to as “washing out”, where the spoon doesn’t actually stay in the water for the full length of the drive phase but moves up and out of the water, creating a telltale “wash” of foam as it leaves the surface, rather than the puddle we should expect. In less severe cases it still produces a splash at the extraction – a sure sign that energy is being wasted in throwing water into the air rather than moving the boat.

Option 2. The blade unbends in the water.  In this situation the rower has slightly eased off the pressure on the handle at the finish.  As the blade unbends, the energy stored within it is transferred to the boat as forward motion. There will be little or no splash at the end of the stroke as the blade is extracted from the water because there is no pressure left on the front of the spoon to throw water into the air.

In practice there is only a small fraction of a second’s difference between option 1 and option 2, but that small fraction of a second can deliver a significant improvement in efficiency. Leaving the spoon in the river for that extra moment allows the rower to convert the energy stored in the blade into additional forward motion.  Over the duration of a race, that additional motion could be the difference between winning and losing.  In my experience, once rowers learn to think of the blade as a spring rather than a stick and to look critically at their extraction technique for signs of splash or wash, they can significantly improve the efficiency of their stroke, getting a little more boat speed for a little less effort by making better use of the flexibility that the designers of modern blades have gone to so much trouble to provide.

Incidentally, all of the above also applies to sculling, although being shorter in length, most sculling blades will not bend as visibly as a sweep blade during the stroke.

Recruiting for the new season

As the northern hemisphere club regatta season enters its final stages, it may be a good time to think about how your club is going to handle the challenge of recruiting new talent for next season.  Clubs have to deal with the inevitable fact that rowers sometimes have to move on, either because of their job, their education or their family commitments. Without some kind of recruitment strategy, a club must rely on rowers moving into their area to replace those who leave.  This may or may not maintain their membership numbers, but it will very rarely result in like-for-like replacements. Clubs differ widely in their approach to recruitment and the mix of members they have.  In this blog I’m going to look at some of the options available to a typical club with limited resources.

Here in the UK, recent emphasis has been to build on the legacy of the 2012 Olympics.  Following the success of GB Rowing at the Olympics (and indeed since then) public interest in rowing has been high, with long waiting lists for beginner’s courses.  The Olympic legacy emphasized the widening of participation in sports and I’m sure that many UK rowing clubs have taken full advantage of the opportunity to grow their membership significantly.  However, some clubs may also want to improve their recruitment of potential elite athletes.  This is a different challenge and requires selective recruitment.

The best starting point in my view is other local sports clubs, on the basis that if you want to find young, ‘sporty’ people, that is where they are most likely to be. However, your approach to these clubs has to be carefully planned and followed through if good relationships are to be established and maintained.  Firstly, think carefully about the kind of athlete you are looking for as potential rowers.  While almost anyone can learn to row, it is undoubtedly easier for some than others.

Sports which emphasise upper body strength (rugby for example) may not be the best place to start. In my experience as a coach, rugby players often find it difficult to deliver leg strength during a rowing stroke and tend to make too much use of their backs and arms. Sports which build cardiovascular performance (cycling, running, swimming) may be a better match.  Sports which focus on balance and posture (gymnastics, dance and riding) are also a good match.  Netball and basketball players have the height which translates into long levers for rowing. Members of sailing clubs, windsurfing clubs and scuba-diving clubs bring boatmanship and water sense. That’s not to say that there isn’t a young bowls player somewhere with the makings of an elite rower, but the odds are probably against it.

Building informal links with local sports clubs is a good thing to do anyway. You may find that some of your rowers are also members of these other clubs and can make introductions.  An invitation to a “Rowing Club Open Day” will probably work better than “we want to poach your best athletes for our club” but feel free to think ‘outside the box’.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Build a list of whatever you think are the appropriate sports clubs in your area.
  2. Visit them, see what they do, invite them to visit you.
  3. Be friendly and welcoming to members of other clubs when you meet them. No-one is going to want to join a club full of people who treat them with indifference.
  4. Play to your strengths. If your clubhouse is your best feature, show it off.  If your people are the best thing about your club, make them your ambassadors.
  5. Make it easy for potential recruits to join. Don’t demand hundreds of pounds for a full year’s membership.  Offer them a low-cost / short-term introductory membership while they learn to row.
  6. Treat newly recruited beginners with respect – ideally as a squad with their own coach(es) cox(es) and a predictable schedule of outings.
  7. Make sure the new recruits learn to row as quickly as possible – if they aren’t taught to row, they will probably leave.
  8. Once they can row as competent novices, encourage them to move up to higher squads as soon as they can keep up with the intensity of training in that squad.
  9. Make sure that the higher squads provide an inclusive, supportive environment for aspiring rowers.

If your local university has a rowing club, graduates who stay local may be looking for somewhere to row.  Advertise your club to them.  If your local university doesn’t have a rowing club, think about offering a student discount.

Once you start thinking about it, opportunities for recruitment are not hard to find.  Remember though that recruitment is a process, not an event.  Success isn’t just about getting new athletes signed up, it’s about nurturing and growing their potential – probably over several seasons, so that you as a club and they as individuals can row to success.

Can your rowing club plan its way to success? By Howard Aiken

T2M4In a recent article on the German national rowing squad I reviewed the formidable level of planning which they bring to the consistent development and deployment in international competition of cohorts of elite rowers.  In this article I want to address the question of whether planning for success is a realistic ambition at club level.  In other words, can an “ordinary” rowing club set out a strategic goal such as “One of our crews will compete as finalists in The Remenham Challenge Cup within 5 years” and put in place the activity and resources required to achieve it?

Most clubs it needs hardly be said, do not work this way.  Most clubs manage their performance year to year accepting that some years will be good and some will be bad because “that’s just the way things are”.  But is it really just the way things are, or is it just what happens if you fail to plan ahead?

The components of success.

The German model highlights three key requirements for consistently producing internationally competitive rowers: 1. Nation-wide recruitment 2. Cultivation of young athletes and 3. Rigorous selection over several years. From the point of view of the typical club there are five fundamental and interconnected resources which underpin success:

a) Equipment – Good equipment (mainly boats and blades) is a requirement as much for the motivation of athletes as for any objective performance improvements which the equipment brings. Equipment is actually one of the easier aspects of planning for success. Equipment may be more or less expensive but in the end it is “just” about raising and spending money.

b) Athletes – the club must recruit and retain a squad of athletes collectively capable and motivated enough to achieve the strategic goal. It is worth noting that within the strategic 5-year timeframe, the athletes who will achieve the goal may not be members of the club at the time the goal is set. Most clubs have an effective ‘catchment area’ from which they recruit their members so their opportunities for recruitment are local rather than national. However, an inclusive recruitment policy which seeks to create a regular intake of talent at junior level is a good start. Once each new cohort of juniors is “on board”, training, selection and competition becomes the natural routine of club life. It is a hard fact however, that juniors tend to go away to university at almost exactly the point at which you want to get them into the senior squads, and they don’t always come back, so recruitment has to be at all levels.

c) Coaching – as with the athletes, the club must recruit and retain coaches capable of achieving the strategic goal. Again, the coach or coaches who achieve the goal may not be part of the club on the date the goal is set. It can be hard to admit, but if years of trying have so far been unrewarded by success at national or international levels, then at the very least your coaching skills probably need revision and updating. High performance coaching is a specialist and multifaceted skill, combining knowledge of a range of disciplines encompassing physiology, psychology, sports science and project management.

d) Facilities –The basic facilities, i.e. the clubhouse, the quality of the available river or lake for training on – are the most important. But there are also training facilities, transport facilities, coaching facilities (e.g. training camps) all of which can add to the ability of the club to attract and retain talent.

e) Funding– last on the list, but a required enabler for at least three of the other four components.

The Action Plan

First, you have to know your strategic goal in detail.  If your club sets its sights on winning a particular national or international event, you need to know that event, the course, the times of the last few winning crews, who was in those crews and what their performances were.  If attaining your strategic goal is going to require that you have a boat full of Olympic rowers, then you either have to step up to the training, selection and funding implications of that or (perhaps more prudently) pick a more attainable goal.

Secondly, when you’ve decided on your goal as a club, you have to go public with it.  Every member of the club needs to know what their club is planning to do, even if they aren’t going to be directly involved. It is said that when he was in charge of the Apollo moon landing programme, Werner von Braun gave every single member of his team a picture of the moon to keep on their desks.  Likewise, every member of your club needs to know what the club is planning to do because that goal is going to be the priority informing every major decision the club makes for the next few years.

Thirdly, know your Critical Success Factors – the essential skills and assets you absolutely cannot do without if you are going to get to your strategic goal.  A new boat is probably not at the top of this list but if it is going to be a requirement in a couple of years time you may need a funding plan to meet that cost.  More likely in the short term you are going to need to improve your coaching staff through training or recruitment and to improve your recruitment of potential athletes.  A typical rower’s career at the intensive level of training required at senior level may span less than five years so you may need to think about how best to recruit and retain promising 20 – 22 year olds. The full list of Critical Success Factors will be different for every club and should be worked out and agreed by those responsible for the strategic direction of the club.  It will probably be no more than five or six items long – more than that and you have probably failed to get to the root causes of some of the issues standing between the club and its goal.

Fourthly, agree and document a project plan for the club which will secure your Critical Success Factors within a realistic timeframe and ensure that the required skills, people and resources are in place to give you your best chance of achieving your goal.  Again the shorter and more concise this project plan is the more likely it is to work.  The plan must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limited) and it must be a working document reviewed and updated regularly by the club committee or appropriate sub-committee.  Always be aware that a plan which doesn’t actually require that anything changes from the way things are done today is a plan which will continue to deliver today’s results.

That said, never lose sight of the fact that a rowing club is different things to different people.  A strategic plan to win silverware at whatever event you are targeting has the potential to create tensions and disagreements between the rowers and coaches who are directly involved in the pursuit of the strategic goal and the rest of the club membership who are supporting the effort through their subscriptions, fund-raising and recruitment work.  No club can afford to neglect or otherwise alienate the bulk of their membership.  The search for success is going to be challenging, but the clubs who take on and succeed in that search are the clubs with their names on the silverware.