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.

Advertisements

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

Google+

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.

It’s the Coach’s Fault

This post may prove controversial, but I’m going to post it anyway because I genuinely think it is important.

I regularly coach squads of adult beginners in sweep-oar rowing.  From their very first session in the rowing tank I insist that they change seats regularly to ensure that they row on ‘both sides of the boat’.  I also insist that, for them, the correct answer to the question ‘Which side of the boat do you row?’ is ‘Both’.  For this I must thank the coaches who taught ME to row, through whom I learned that to be the best rower I could be, I should aim to be able to row in any seat in any boat, whether sweep oar or sculling.  No beginner ever leaves one of my courses saddled with the impression that he or she can only row on one side.

By way of contrast, I meet and coach many novice rowers who, while they may have been rowing for only a couple of seasons, have apparently always rowed as ‘stroke-side’ or ‘bow-side’ and are convinced that they can’t row on the other side.  Many of these ‘one-side only’ rowers identify themselves as ‘bow-siders’ or ‘stroke-siders’ with a kind of pride which goes way beyond any idea of ‘preference’.  It is not that they simply ‘prefer’ to row one side or the other.  They are bow-siders or stroke-siders in the same way that they are male or female and suggesting that they change sides for an outing is actually offensive to them.

It really isn’t their fault.  I blame lazy coaches whose lives are made easier if rowers are always on the same side (or even in the same seat!).  Coaches save themselves some work if they only have to teach rowers to row on one side and so they go on producing generation after generation of one-armed rowers.

Let me be clear.  Human beings are not perfectly symmetrical and we all differ in the degree and orientation of our asymmetry.  So it is perfectly natural that when it comes to rowing, many of us will have a preference for one side of the boat or the other.  A preference is not a problem. Convincing perfectly healthy athletes that they can ONLY row on one side IS a problem.  These rowers are in effect being ‘disabled’ by poor coaching.  I put the word ‘disabled’ in inverted commas here because I’m using it as the opposite to ‘enabled’, but coaches and rowers alike should be aware that years of rowing on only one side carries real risks of exacerbating an existing asymmetry, with adverse consequences for the rower (http://bit.ly/1ibjVkR, http://bit.ly/1lxnFAZ).

Of course most coaches aren’t doing this deliberately.  They are doing it because no-one is complaining about it.  By the time the rower is suffering the consequences of always rowing on the same side the coach who caused the problem is long gone.  Well, in my view, the time has come to complain.  Coaches need to put their rowers’ long term health before their inclination to take the shortest route to seat allocation.  They need to take pride in producing capable, adaptable rowers able to perform well on either side. Sweep-oar rowers need to start taking responsibility for their own health and actively volunteering to change sides regularly.  If, in your regular competition boat, you always row on one side, use every oportunity to establish yourself in the coach’s mind as “useful in any seat”.  It won’t take long.  Most of the rest of the crew will stick with their ‘favourite’ side and your coach will be grateful for someone willing to be flexible when substitutions have to be made due to absences or injury.

Sadly, there are rowers out there for whom this advice may already be too late. They are already convinced that they simply can’t row on the other side of the boat.  Never have, never will.  For the rest, the most difficult part of this proposal is getting ill-advised (i.e. badly-coached) rowers to let go of the idea that identifying themselves as exclusively bow-side or stroke-side is some kind of badge of elite specialist status. Have a preference by all means, but appreciate that to be the best rower you can be, you should be able to row well in any seat.

And if your coach actively opposes your aim to be the best you can be (surely a vanishingly small probability), find yourself a new coach.

Coaching Crews for Competition – “Rowing the Rate”

Modern technology has given the solo sculler access to detailed performance information whether rowing on the river or on the erg.   He or she can see stroke by stroke feedback on split times, stroke rate and power output.

Crew-boat rowers face a much greater contrast between their indoor training and their outings.  On the erg, they can get detailed data on their performance.  On the river, unless they are in the stroke seat, the only feedback they get is from the ‘feel’ of the boat and from the coach.  On the erg, the focus is primarily on the ‘split’ the rower can sustain.  On the river, the focus is on rowing together, as a crew, following stroke.  In simple terms, their indoor training emphasises ‘rowing the split’ and their river training emphasises ‘rowing the rate’.

A good competitive crew will be expected to sustain a stroke rate above about 34spm, so it is important to get them used to rowing at higher rates as the regatta season approaches. As a coach, I try to prepare rowers training for competition to deliver stroke rates on the ergs which are similar to or higher than they will deliver on the water.  If they have trained effectively during the winter to build heart-lung capacity and muscle strength, then the emphasis on rowing the rate will help to build confidence in the crew that whatever rate the cox/stroke/coach asks for, they will be able to deliver.

An incidental benefit of the higher-rate work is that rowers start using higher rates on their 2k tests and this generally results in an improved time.

SAFETY NOTE:  High rate rowing is intensive exercise and will stress the rower’s physiology.  It should not be attempted by untrained beginners and even trained, fit rowers should prepare for these sessions with a thorough warm-up (at least 10 minutes continuous aerobic exercise). Commercial sports drinks rather than water are recommended for hydration and blood sugar maintenance during these sessions.  Rowers with known medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or asthma should take advice from a medically qualified professional before undertaking high rate training.

High rate training sessions are intended to prepare a crew for competition and should explicitly relate to the tactical plan which the coach is working to.  My tactical plan emphasises high rate starts with reduced stroke length. These are in effect the ‘low gears’ of the boat, used to accelerate rapidly from a standing start.  The high rate training sessions aim to build confidence in the crew that they can sustain high rate work over longer distances than would actually be required in competition.  The programme is progressive, starting with free-rate 100m pieces and building up over a few sessions to extended fixed-rate pieces of up to 750 metres rowed first individually and then synchronised as a crew.  For example:

Session 1.  4 x 100m free rate followed by 4 x 1 minute free rate

Session 2.  3 x 250m free rate followed by 3 x 250m rowed following stroke @ 38 spm

Session 3.  4 x 500m @ 40 spm

Session 4.  4 x 500m @ 40 spm following stroke

Session 5. 4 x 750m @ 40 spm

Session 6. 4 x 750m @ 40spm following stroke

Each session should take no more than 60 minutes but note that this does NOT include warm-up time (at least 10 minutes).

Even experienced rowers can be surprised to discover that they can sustain 40spm for 750m when they focus on rowing the rate rather than rowing the split, and this is an enormous boost to their confidence on the start line.

These indoor training sessions should then be reflected in the outdoor training on the water.  As the regatta season approaches, more of each outing should be allocated to higher rate work.  Initially, the emphasis should be on getting the crew used to working with different slide lengths while keeping the boat moving at constant speed.  So for example, after warming up, the crew should be taken through repeated cycles of slide reductions (from full slide to 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 slide) and slide builds (from 1/4 slide through 1/2, 3/4 to full slide again).  

It is important to ensure that every member of the crew knows exactly what is needed when asked for each different slide length so for what it’s worth, here are the definitions I use:

3/4 slide:  Heels are kept down as the rower moves toward frontstops, shortening the stroke.

1/2 slide:   The move toward frontstops is halted when the knees make a  right-angle (90 degrees)

1/4 slide:   The move toward frontstops is halted after body-lean, just as the knees begin to rise.

A key coaching point is that if the slide has moved at all, the catch is taken with the legs, not the arms or body. Building the crew’s ability to work precisely at shorter length and high rates is critical to delivering a reliable fast start and a good start can be worth half a length over a less prepared crew.

No crew is likely to need the full repertoire of stroke lengths in competition – it is the coach’s job to select the best start sequence for his or her crew.  But knowing that the crew can work effectively at any stroke length gives the crew confidence and gives the coach a wide range of options to choose from.

Once the crew is confident with the chosen start sequence, work can begin on building the stroke rate, with the aim always of maximising acceleration off the start and sustained boat speed over the length of the course.  Most crews will probably see their stroke rate drop by 10 – 15% as they ‘change up’ from the short strokes at the start to full length for the main part of the course, so if the aim is to sustain (say) 36spm along the course, they will need to reach 40 to 42 spm off the start.

This is where the high-rate work on the rowing machine can be invaluable in shortening the learning curve on the water and a crew who know they have a reliable fast start have a valuable psychological advantage in any contest.

Safety Notes for Coxes

Every stretch of water we row on is different and every stretch of water will vary with the seasons. Some stretches can vary enormously in level and speed from day to day or even hour to hour and a competent rower, coach or cox will be able to evaluate the risks presented by a stretch of water they row on regularly without too much difficulty.  The cox is the ‘brains’ of the boat and is in charge of the boat and its crew for the duration of the outing.

The particular skills we expect of coxes start with the basic appreciation of the risks presented by water and weather conditions which would be expected of any competent rowing club member. However, the coxwain has a unique role in a crew boat and being only as competent as the rowers in the boat is really not setting the bar high enough in terms of what coaches, rowers and clubs should expect. The bottom line is that during any outing in a coxed boat, it is the cox’s boat and the cox has the final decision on where it goes and what it does.  The cox outranks both coach and crew and needs the skill and judgement to justify that authority.  It is therefore a good idea for clubs to arrange suitable training for coxes at least annually to ensure that they are equipped to take on their responsibilities.

To begin with, the cox has to be the one who avoids problems by planning ahead.  The outing begins when he or she calls ‘hands on’ before having the boat lifted from its rack and it is the cox’s responsibility to ensure that crew, boat, blades, cox-box, life-jacket and any other equipment is got safely from land to water and back again. While the rest of the crew may legitimately be pre-occupied with the technicalities of rowing and co-ordination, a good cox must always be thinking at least one step ahead.  A good cox will check there is space on the landing stage before getting the crew to lift the boat.  They will check that the boat is in working order before putting it onto the water and that the crew is ready to row before pushing off.

During the outing, the cox is responsible for the safety of the crew and the care of the boat. They have to think ahead of their current position on the water both to navigate and avoid hazards.  They must know the rules of navigation for the stretch of water they are on – and these may change with water levels, time of day or local events organised by other river users. The cox has to ensure that there is enough clear water  to overtake as required during drills or pieces on crowded stretches. Where a river or lake is shared with other users, these may present a variety of fixed and/or moving hazards which also have to be avoided. This may sound complicated, but most coxes manage to keep their crews safe on their local river or lake.  Familiar hazards are easier to deal with – although there can be a downside in that even large red ‘Danger’ signs seem to become just part of the scenery if they are always there.

The greatest challenges coxes face are away from their home stretch when competing at regattas or head races hosted by other clubs. At these events there really is no safe alternative to doing the homework. Coxes must learn the local navigation rules and read the instructions to competitors which should be supplied by the organizers.   On tidal stretches, rules can be particularly complicated with circulation patterns varying according to the time of day.  With start times  always subject to change, to navigate these stretches safely a cox will need a watch and possibly a set of notes.

Experienced coxes are a valuable resource at any rowing club.  It would surely be a good idea for more clubs to organise their coxes together to allow for the regular formal or informal transfer  of accumulated knowledge from older to younger coxes. Instead most coxes need be motivated to do their own research and learning. Google Maps is really useful for researching an unfamiliar river and in the UK the Environment Agency provides online reports on river levels here ( http://bit.ly/1fVouB9 ).  If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the local rowing club or the event organizers for clarification of any questions regarding unfamiliar venues.

First time in a boat – Coaching a first sculling session

My first water session for scullers tends to be very different from the first water session for rowers. Whereas the rower will have spent some time on the rowing machine and in a rowing tank to get used to the basic stroke sequence and body posture of rowing, the first – time sculler gets none of this preparation.  The reason for this is that in a single scull, learning to balance the boat (i.e. learning how to avoid capsizing) is such an overwhelming priority that everything else has to wait until this basic skill has been addressed.

The key message in the first and subsequent sculling sessions is: ‘keep your hands at the same height’.

In sequence, the techniques I coach are:

  1. Getting into the scull
  2. Sitting the scull level
  3. Body posture and core stability
  4. Slowly raising and lowering each hand to see the scull’s response
  5. Confidence-building exercises based on (3)
  6. Arms-only strokes (very light pressure)
  7. Spinning the scull (backing down / pulling on, first on one side then alternately).

This is usually quite enough for a first session of 60 – 90 minutes – possibly shorter for juniors.  The level of concentration required to stay upright in a single scull is a surprise to many new scullers and can be quite tiring. The good news is that confidence rises quickly as the sculler gets used to the feel of the boat and learns appropriate responses to it’s movements.

One of the most important lessons is to move SLOWLY, especially when the unexpected happens.  Rapid instinctive responses which are entirely appropriate on dry land are usually the quickest route to a capsize on the water.  In my view, a good coach will focus on building ‘attentive confidence’ first and range of movement second.