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.

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.

‘All Eight’ Rowing – throwing away the training wheels.

A question for any coaches reading this.  Do your crews spend most of their time during8550138898_fe77423817_b outings rowing with all blades or do they spend much of every outing with at least two blades balancing the boat?  Particularly for those of us who spend most of our time training eights, is going ‘all eight’ something you do most of the time or is it the exception rather than the rule?

In my experience, the answer to this question reflects a tension in coaching between perfecting the technique of individual crew members and getting the crew rowing together as a competitive boat.  Beginners of course will spend most of their time with the boat being balanced by two or more of the crew.  However, in some cases (college rowing for example) where you have to fast-track your beginners into competition, even crews with very limited experience have to address the challenge of rowing ‘all eight’.

When coaching crew members as individuals, you need a controlled environment where they can concentrate on the basics.  A rowing tank is ideal for some of this work, but a rowing tank is only an imperfect simulation of a real boat. On the water, you’ll usually want to control the boat by having some of the rowers acting as ‘stabilizers’.  But how long should you leave these stabilizers on?  To put it another way, how soon is too soon to move to working “all eight” for the majority of the training and consigning the stabilizers to a few minutes of the warm-up?

In this post I’m arguing that adopting “all eight” as the standard for outings sooner rather than later is a better approach in training than keeping the crew working in fours or sixes while you iron out individual issues of technique.  There are two fundamental reason for this:

1) Many problems with technique only show up when working in an unstabilized boat

2) Much of any rower’s learning has less to do with listening to the coach and more to do with building unconscious reflex responses to the boat

Let me say again, just for clarity, that I am not disputing the importance of using a stabilized boat for basic training. What I’m arguing is that coaches should get their crew to tackle the challenge of rowing without stabilizers as early as possible and thereafter use the stabilized boat as the exception rather than the rule for training outings.

Thinking back to my own time as a novice rower, I can remember quite clearly the anxiety I felt when any crew I was in was asked to make the switch from rowing in sixes to rowing all eight.  The sudden lurch as the stabilizing blades were lifted off the water to join in the rowing was in all senses a ‘big thing’ and because it kept happening in outing after outing as our coach kept switching back and forth between rowing in eights, sixes and fours it remained a ‘big thing’ for longer than I think was necessary.  If our coach(es) had made us stick with the unstabilized boat once we had started rowing all eight we would (I think) have progressed faster.  Part of the problem was probably lack of a reliable and easily understood coaching technique for balancing the boat, which in those days was taught as a matter of hand and blade co-ordination rather than primarily to do with stabilised and controlled movement of body weight.  The wider appreciation of ‘core stability’ as an essential part of rowing training in recent years has clarified the nature of the challenge a crew faces in balancing a boat and (where it is used) has greatly shortened the time taken to achieve this.  For those who are interested there is a blog post devoted to this topic here: (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat).

Once coach and crew have a good grasp of what must be done to balance the boat, the crew need to make the technique an unconscious reflex rather than a deliberate action, because only as an unconscious reflex is it available as a platform for the rest of their rowing technique.  Like everyone else, rowers can only focus on a limited number of tasks at one time and if they have to focus on balancing the boat, then less of their attention is available to devote to other aspects of their rowing such as speed and power. In my view the best way to turn balance from deliberate technique to automatic reflex is relentless repetition – which is why I would argue that working all eight should be the rule for the vast majority of a crew’s time on the water.  The simple fact is that in competition they will have to row all eight so they need to build that basic competency as fast as possible. However elegantly they can execute drills and exercises while the boat is being balanced for them, that isn’t what is going to be asked of them in competition.

So what problems should a coach expect to face in moving up to an unstabilized boat sooner rather than later?  I divide these into three groups:

1) Defensive rowing.  I’ve mentioned unconscious reflexes as part of the learning process rowers go through.  Unfortunately, some rowers have unconscious reflexes which are very unhelpful.  They give rise to what I call ‘defensive rowing’, an unconscious response to rowing in an unstable boat.  Typically rowers suffering from this problem may be able to row with perfectly acceptable technique while the boat is being held stable by other crew members. However, when the stabilizers are removed they typically shorten their stroke, lean away from their rigger and pull each stroke down into their laps.  This of course increases the instability of the boat and (particularly in novice boats) can set up a vicious circle in which the boat quicky becomes  too unstable for most of the crew to row effectively.  Because the defensive rower may be unaware of what they are doing differently in the unstable boat, this can be hard error to fix.  First you have to improve the stability of the boat without going back to rowing in sixes.  I do this by getting the crew to focus on keeping their upper bodies completely still after they leave backstops and resisting the temptation to reach for extra length at frontstops.  Secondly you have to get the defensive rower(s) to ‘trust the boat’ – to visualise the stable boat in their imaginations and to believe it will remain stable if they continue to row correctly.  That way we set up a virtuous circle in which correct technique is rewarded with an increasingly stable boat.  Easier said than done, but it certainly can be done.

2) Inaccurate rowing.  One of the greatest challenges for the novice rower is to be both relaxed and accurate in their rowing. In particular, we really do need accuracy in the height at which each rower finishes their stroke ( the Reference Point) regardless of how lightly or firmly the crew is rowing. This is very easy to miss while rowing in a stabilized boat and rowers are often caught by surprise by the importance of accuracy when rowing all eight.  Again the blog referred to earlier (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat) gives more detail.

3) Mistimed rowing.  Most rowers appreciate the importance of catching with stroke. Sadly, many miss the importance of staying with stroke through the rest of the drive, the finish and the recovery.  Good timing requires that each rower’s head and hands move in time with stroke’s head and hands.  Again this is easy to miss in a stabilized boat and crews who don’t realise its importance tend to struggle with stability.

Clearly, coaches have some challenges to face in getting crews to row confidently and consistently with all blades, but in my view it is where the real training starts. Working in fours and sixes is the rowing equivalent of cycling with training wheels – which is not something you will see competent cyclists doing very often.

 

 

 

 

Eyes in the Boat

Eyes in the Boat

I was recently asked to write an article for a new rowing magazine* (Row360 – Row-360.com). The subject of the article was a new coaching aid developed in Australia called Sibi http://yepp.com.au/sibi At its heart, Sibi is an array of rigger mounted high speed (100 frames / second) video cameras which monitor rowers and their blades during an outing. The hardware is backed up by some very clever software which allows coaches capture, edit and manage the images they need from this array without spending hours on a PC.  It tied in very well with my last blog post on the use of smartphones in coaching (Regattas and telephones – are you making best use of them?) although mainly to show how much more we will be able to do with purpose-built video systems rather than general purpose smartphones.

Here’s the full version of the article:

Eyes in the Boat – An Australian Innovation

If there is one technology which has enhanced the coach’s life over the last few years it is digital photography.  Whether as video or stills, digital photography has allowed coaches to hold up a mirror to their crews and say “THAT’S what I’m talking about”.  From smartphones to Go-Pro cameras to professional video equipment, there’s a price point for every club and every crew.

This year, an Australian company called YePP has taken the next logical step and is marketing a product designed specifically for rowing (called the sibisystem – sibi is short for “see it believe it” yepp.com.au/sibi ) which allows coaches to capture each individual crew member, simultaneously, at 100 frames/sec, during a session, from multiple, dual-lens cameras mounted on the boat.  Given the sheer amount of video ‘footage’ their system can create, they have wisely added comprehensive video editing and analysis software as part of their product.  So now, in addition to capturing the coach’s eye view from the bank or launch, coaches can record much more detailed close-up, stroke-by-stroke video of each rower’s performance.

Controlled via an sibicleansmallintuitive iPhone app, training requirements are minimal and crucially a recording can be triggered after an event occurs (catching a crab for example) allowing the coach to collect video from before, during and after the event from all cameras simultaneously with a single ‘trigger’.

When I first heard about it, I must admit I thought this was probably an “elite squad only” product, but in fact schools have been among the first users – and potentially in any rowing club which doesn’t have enough coaches to go round or where coaches also have to cox their crews (my least favourite coaching option) this product could be a real game-changer.  While the coach can continue to provide real-time feedback, YePP’s sibisystem provides indisputable objective evidence as to how the rowers and blades were working during  a session – both in terms of individual technique and their timing with the rest of the crew.

The user’s view

For those of you who are interested in the technical details of the cameras there’s a webpage here: yepp.com.au/sibi/camera.  However, I was more interested in discovering what the coaches and rowers who had used the system thought of it.  I was able to speak to two users on YePP’s Early Adopter Programme from Melbourne Girls Grammar, namely Christian Neeson, Director of Physical Performance and Health, and Lachlan Beckett, Head of Rowing.  Melbourne Girls Grammar have a history of innovation in rowing, having put the first girls crews out on the Yarra River as early as 1905.  Not surprisingly therefore, they were among the first to use video recording as a routine part of their coaching repertoire and as early as 2010 were experimenting with GoPro cameras attached to boats, blades and coxes heads.  While they got lots of useful footage from the cameras, coaches also discovered the practical limitations of the technology and the hours of time it took to review and edit the material placed real constraints on how often cameras could be used.

Working with YePP allowed them to make a major step forward in their coaching.  In Christian Neeson’s opinion “the ease with which we can ‘time-travel’ through the record of an outing makes a real difference and as a bonus we’ve also saved on the costs of having people following the boats with cameras”.  With 120 athletes to look after, he now has an archive of individual recordings for much of the squad which can be reviewed with coaches, parents and the athletes themselves.

sibiappgood

As Head of Rowing, Lachlan Beckett is responsible for a team of 36 coaches and uses the sibisystem to track the progress of individual coach’s training plans.  He also feels it has changed the way they coach. “Traditionally, coaches would spend time during an outing sorting out issues of technique with individual rowers.  This would occasionally lead to rowers feeling ‘picked on’ or neglected – which is certainly not what you want in a school environment.  YePP has allowed each rower access to an entirely objective record of their own performance, annotated if necessary by both their coach and themselves, which they can own and which can form the basis of a more obviously equitable teaching environment. So they’re happier, more proficient technically as rowers and more competitive as a result.”

SibiSystem  – Overview

Unlike general purpose video products, the Sibisystem has been designed for rowers and no-one else.  The cameras are not just waterproof, they are designed for simple attachment to racing boats and their two lenses capture synchronised video of both rower and blade.  With up to eight synchronised cameras (16 views) per boat coaches can capture up to 200×15 second sequences at 100 frames/second during an outing, triggered from an iPhone app.

The hardware is controlled by an integrated suite of software designed around coaches and rowers. Video archives can be maintained for each individual rower and annotated by both coach and rower.  Recordings can be compared to show progress over time. The system is self-contained and needs no additional IT infrastructure other than in Internet link. The current version of the product is based on five years of research and development and additional features are in the product pipeline for future release.

YePP have a team in place to support both the ongoing development of the product and the successful deployment in clubs around the world. With the financial capabilities of most rowing clubs in mind, they have designed a purchase plan based on a small up-front payment followed by an ongoing monthly fee.  For this each customer gets 8 dual-lens Cameras, 4 Bridges, 1 Hub, accessories and 98 User licences.  The fee includes all upgrades and new releases.

Is it for you?

My guess is that the coaches who will make best use of YePP’s sibisystem are probably (like Melbourne Girls Grammar) already routinely using video and photography as part of their coaching toolkit.  They will most appreciate the step up in capability that it provides and their rowers will gain the greatest competitive advantage from it.  And to rowing clubs and coaches out there who aren’t using video yet, the message is “look out”, because coaching is changing – and YePP’s sibisystem is setting a new benchmark for the coach/rower relationship.

Full product descriptions and technical details are available on the company website at http://yepp.com.au/ .

*This is a longer version of the article published in the September/October 2014 edition of Row360.

That’s enough, coach…

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

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

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

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

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

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.