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:

finish

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.

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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.