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.

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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.

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 the 2k Test

The 2k test is a standard performance metric across the rowing world. While its value is by no means endorsed by all coaches, it is a test likely to be faced by most rowers and so it is worth knowing something of the alternative approaches to getting a good result.

Have a plan

The worst possible approach for individual rowers is simply to get onto the erg and to row as hard and as fast as you can for 2000 metres.  Human physiology evolved to deliver sprint speed over short distances (to escape predators) and slower endurance speed over long distances (for hunting).  Neither of these capabilities is appropriate to the 2k test.  The 2k is in effect a long distance sprint – which is why it can be a painful experience and why a plan is required to execute it effectively.

Warm up first

The 2k test requires that your heart, lungs and muscles are working efficiently from start to finish, so you need to start with your body in an active state as opposed to a resting state. To get your body from ‘resting’ to ‘active’ requires at least 10 minutes of sustained exercise. During these ten minutes, the heart rate accelerates, breathing becomes deeper, blood vessels dilate and muscle temperature rises.  A good warm-up aims to take the body through the transition from resting to active gradually but as quickly as possible.  Proper hydration and food intake the day before your test is also important, but don’t eat in the three hours before the test.

Steady state plan

The simplest type of plan is based on an understanding of the 500m split time you need to deliver in order to achieve your target 2k time.  For example, to achieve a 7 minute 2k time a rower would need to average 1:45/500m.  In simple terms therefore, the rower would get to this split time as soon as possible and stay there for the duration of the test. This would mean that for the first part of the test the rower is working below maximum effort, while for the latter part of the test he or she would be working at or near maximum effort.  This is difficult for inexperienced rowers who find it hard to judge their endurance and test to over-exert themselves in the first half of the test and struggle to maintain performance during the second half.  Experienced rowers who have never used anything other than a steady state plan should at least experiment occasionally with variable state plans in pursuit of their optimum 2k performance.

Variable state plans

These plans attempt to shape the rowers performance so as to deliver different levels of performance during the 2k test which result in the best possible overall time.  The variable plan which I teach divides the 2k distance into 4 x 500m pieces at constant rate.  The first 500m piece is rowed at firm pressure, the second at light pressure,  then at increasing pressure during the third and fourth 500m pieces.  As with the steady state plan, there tends to be a temptation for inexperienced athletes to ‘overdo’ the second 500m sector. However, if this can be avoided, the second sector will take longest and provides recovery time during the test which allows the rower to deliver a much faster third and fourth sector and (ideally) a faster overall time than with a steady state plan.  I have seen rowers take over ten seconds off their 2k time by changing from a steady state to a variable state plan.

Rehearse

Whichever plan you use, performance will improve with practice.  For too many rowers the 2k test is an occasional trial of strength, unrelated to their other training, which they have to survive during winter training. The truth is that the 2k is like any other activity, it can be trained for and with practice, performance will improve.

Coaching use of the 2k

There is absolutely no reason why high-rate 2k pieces should not be a regular part of the training plan.  By building rowers’ familiarity with the exercise, it can be made less intimidating and a more accurate measure of performance.  The 2K test is most useful as a regular, routine component of the training cycle, as familiar to every rower as weight training or gym work.  Rather than making the 2k test into a twice-yearly initiation rite, make it a routine exercise to be practiced like any other.

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.

Blade depth

Whether you are sculling or rowing, your blade is your second point of contact with the river (the first of course being the boat). The purpose of this post is to highlight an aspect of blade design which seems to escape many newer rowers and scullers.  If you hold a blade horizontally over the water at about the height of your rigger and then lower it into the water you will notice that it floats.  If you square it, it will float with the top edge of the spoon just above the surface and the loom above the water.  This is not an accident.  Blades are designed to float at the correct rowing depth – the depth at which they are most efficient, supporting the pressure of the stroke in the water while minimising the amount of resistance offered to the forward motion of the boat.

This is important because many rowers develop a habit of burying the spoon and a good part of the loom into the water at every stroke.  This produces a heavy feeling in the drive phase of the stroke which they mistake for the weight of the boat.  Allowing the blade to float at its natural depth during the stroke makes the same stroke much lighter – the difference being the resistance of the ‘bow-wave’ raised by the loom in the water due to the forward movement of the boat.  The difference can be so marked that some rowers feel they are somehow “not working hard enough” when they first make the change to using the blade at the correct depth.  The truth is that they are actually working much more efficiently and more of the effort they are applying is moving the boat because the ‘drag’ exerted by the blade is greatly reduced.

That said, getting a rower to learn how to ‘float’ the blade can be time-consuming if they have developed a habit of ‘pulling deep’.  They have to re-learn taking the catch by letting the blade fall gently onto the water under its own weight and ‘locking’ the blade at the correct depth as they start their drive.  As so often in rowing, this means they have to take a step back to make a bigger step forward.  They need to break the catch into two parts, first feeling the buoyancy of the blade before beginning the drive from the legs.  It only takes a little practice for most rowers to master this technique if they concentrate on it during drills – although it can take longer to break the habit of pulling deep during normal rowing.

One of the benefits for rowers of correcting blade depth is an easier extraction and tap down,  resulting in better balance.  Scullers may not see this benefit if they are pulling deep with both blades and it is very noticeable that many elite scullers bury far more of the blade than good technique would dictate.  It may simply be that the force these scullers are capable applying makes the additional drag less significant, or that a deeper stroke is in less danger of an uncontrolled ‘rip through’ (where the blade loses its hydrodynamic stability in the water) at the pressures they are applying.  Any elite sculling coaches out there care to comment?