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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

Taking the brakes off – five ways to speed up your boat

I’ve written previously about the innovative work done by the GB Cyling team on the importance of marginal gains and how this might begin to translate to rowing  (http://bit.ly/1ihUbYO) .  It is as true in rowing as in any other sport that important races are often won or lost by inches, so any legal change which offers even small improvements in performance is worth considering.

In this blog, I’m going to touch on four aspects of rowing technique or crew selection which any crew or coach can check on to make sure that they are getting the best boat speed they can for the effort they are putting in. Perhaps because it is easier to see these issues from outside the boat than inside it, or because crews can sometimes settle into a particular way of rowing to correct some other problem, these training points are by no means confined to beginners or novice boats.

  1. Blade depth.  Some crews aquire the habit of rowing ‘deep’, with both the spoon and a significant part of the loom below the surface of the water.  Each submerged loom creates a ‘bow-wave’ as it moves through the water and the drag caused by the bow wave acts as a brake on the boat. (See http://bit.ly/1huDCF5 for more detail).  The crew are therefore wasting precious energy on  making these waves rather than moving the boat.  Get the crew to understand that a) the blade naturally floats with its upper edge above the water b) they can reduce the depth of the blade during the drive phase if they focus on dropping the blade gently onto the water before they start the stroke c) if they pull through the drive phase with the blade floating at its natural depth the stroke feels much lighter, because the blade is being used more efficiently.
  2. Dragging blades.  Novice crews often aquire the habit of dragging their blades across the surface of the water from the finish back to the catch.  This helps stabilize the boat, reducing the amount of roll, which is reassuring for inexperienced rowers. However, the drag created by eight blades sliding across the water surface, while not as great as the bow-waves referred to above, is still hundreds of times greater than the drag created if they were in the air. [Hint to coaches: My experience is that asking the rower to lower his or her hands on the recovery doesn’t usually work when seeking to correct this error.  Telling them to lift the spoon off the water is far more effective.   As the Americans would say – “Go figure”].
  3. Speed into frontstops.  The dynamics of boat acceleration are complex and it is a fact that as the crew leaves backstops on the recovery, the boat actually accelerates as kinetic energy is transferred from rowers to boat.  However if the rowers hit frontstops hard – rather than decelerating into frontstops – boatspeed is checked, because the rowers (who weigh much more than the boat) are moving in the opposite direction to the boat.  A good cue for rowers is the sound made by the wheels of their seat.  If the sound is a rising note as they move through the recovery then they are accelerating into frontstops.  If the sound is a falling note then they are decelerating into frontstops.  A smooth deceleration into frontstops followed by the smallest instant of stillness as the catch is taken and the drive begins, is the most effective way to conserve boat speed.  This of course is much easier said than done when working at race pace.
  4.  Cox’s weight. I would advise all crews training for competition to train with as much weight in the boat as possible.  If this includes a coxwain who weighs 90 kilos or more then so be it.  For the races themselves, however, minimum weight in the boat has to be the rule.  Racing with a cox who weighs 20 kilos more than the coxes in the other boats cannot in my view be a competitive advantage, no matter how good a cox he or she may be.  Having a choice of competent coxes is of course a luxury unavailable to many crews, but if you do have a choice, use the lightweight cox for competitions.

There is a fifth issue affecting many club boats but which is not an aspect of rowing technique or crew selection – and this is hull blemishes.  I remember when I was being coached in sculling, my coach put a single bungee cord around the hull of my single scull.  I was shocked by force of the braking effect it produced, simply by disrupting the smooth flow of water over the hull.  If there are blemishes which you can feel on a hull when you run your hands along it, get them repaired and smoothed out before the regatta season gets under way.  They are costing you far more boat speed than you imagine.

Taken together, the marginal improvements in performance offered by each of these changes can add up to the difference between winning and losing.  If you want an introduction to the role of marginal gains here is a short video here: http://bit.ly/SrWeQy

 

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?

Boat Types – The Single Scull

I can’t imagine a rowing club without single sculls. If you join a rowing club as a junior (under 18) you will be using these boats almost immediately and generally speaking the most confident single scullers learned as juniors.

singlescullr

As an athlete, the single sculler lives in a slightly different world from the crew rower. Whether in training or competition, they work alone, entirely dependent on their own resources and motivation. Single sculling has a lot in common with solo track events like running and cycling. Of course, most single scullers also happily scull or row in crew boats, but anyone who has sculled in a single knows that it offers a new dimension to the sport.

There are two slightly different styles of sculling, which if you look closely you’ll probably see examples of on a river or lake near you. Scullers who have learned as juniors often worry a lot less about the amount of roll (rotation around the long axis of the boat) they create. They simply absorb the rolling movement with their lower body while their upper body remains stable and gets on with the bladework. They look as as if they have a very sophisticated and responsive suspension system built into their hips – as in fact they do – which absorbs the rolling motion and isolates it from their upper bodies. People who have learned as adults tend to be stiffer and less relaxed about rolling. They use their core muscles to sit the boat level which produces a more elegant stroke – although they rarely look as carefree as the early learners.

As a coach, I personally think that the pursuit of elegance, while a good guide in 99% of rowing and sculling technique, has to take second place to the carefree, instinctive movement of a happy, relaxed single sculler. The amount of energy lost in the slightly untidy rolling motion they produce is tiny and there is a risk that coaching their flexibility out of them could do more harm than good. This can create issues however when a flexible single sculler sits in a double with a more conventional sculler who may not be happy with the same level of instability.

Adaptable as singe scullers often are, matching the sculler to the boat is important and it is a good idea to match the weight classification and rigging setup of the boat to suit the individual sculler as far as one can, even with club boats used by many different scullers.

Boat Types – The Pair

While undoubtedly one of the more demanding boat types, the pair deserves to get more use than it does at most clubs. It is an excellent learning environment for intermediate rowers, although having a change of kit ready is recommended for the first couple of outings.

pair01

The pair can be an unforgiving boat to row, requiring good crew co-ordination from the outset. Its main benefit as a coaching platform is that every move the rowers make is reflected immediately in the performance of the boat. Hand heights, timing, stroke length and quality of bladework all have immediate and very clear effects. If you are new to rowing a pair, just getting the boat well-balanced and moving smoothly will teach you a lot about what you are doing wrong and how well you need to do it to get it right. Getting it right is always a rewarding experience in rowing – it is particularly so in a pair. The benefit to the rower lies in taking the improved technique and performance gained in the pair back to larger crew boats where you can now be a better and more adaptable rower.

Note to coaches: A pair is likely to feel heavy to rowers used to fours and eights, so it is probably a good idea to lower the gearing on the blades. 116cm inboard is a good starting point, but don’t hesitate to give a more inboard leverage if the height / fitness / skill of the crew makes it necessary. It may also be a good idea to move the foot-stretchers further toward the bow than the rower is used to, in order to move more of the work behind the pin.