Coaching the Drive – by Howard Aiken

(This is the second in a series of coaching notes. You may find it helpful to read it with the preceding “Coaching the Catch”).

The “Drive” is the ‘working’ phase of the rowing stroke. If we consider the four phases of the stroke (catch, drive, finish, recovery), the drive differs from the others in that it is as much about power as technique.  The drive is the application of force to the handle of the blade to lever the boat past the spoon.  That said, the quality of a good drive in the boat depends on how it begins at the catch and ends at the finish, and there are several different opinions as to what should happen in between.

  1. The muscles powering the drive

The most important point to be made about the drive concerns the fundamental sources of its power.  These are your leg muscles, the same muscles you would use for jumping.  This is important, because rowers tend to be more aware of “effort” than “output” and so tend to see the power available from legs, body and arms as more evenly matched than they actually are.

Your leg muscles contain a high proportion of fast “twitch” fibres which can deliver the rapid acceleration required for running and jumping.  The simple fact that your leg muscles can be used to jump off the ground means that they are, on their own, able to accelerate however many tens of kilos your body weighs to over 9.8 metres per second per second (the acceleration due to gravity) – and they can do that even if you aren’t a trained athlete.

This is a huge amount of power and more to the point it is an amount of power that your back and arm muscles are completely incapable of delivering.  You could test this for yourself, although I would not recommend it, by attempting to “jump” your whole body into the air from a pull-up or by using your back muscles.  Arm muscles are fast, but lack the power of the legs.  Your back muscles are very strong but contain far fewer fast fibres and more slow fibres suited to maintaining body posture.

Leg power is therefore the foundation of a good drive.  There may be different opinions on how we build on that foundation, but all coaches will agree that without the legs there is no drive.

For those interested in the anatomical detail, there is a useful summary of the muscles used in jumping here:

https://www.reference.com/science/muscles-used-jumping-607a6a7a73ad634c#

When we jump, knee extension and hip extension occur simultaneously. We unbend (extend) knee and hip joints at the same time to launch ourselves into the air.  Similarly in rowing, the drive involves forcefully straightening the knees and opening the angle between the thighs and the trunk.  However, in rowing, while we are using mostly the same muscles, we differ in the sequence in which they are used.

The difference can perhaps be summed up best in the following diagrams, showing how both the knee angle (K) and the hip angle (H) open during the stroke:

Figure 1. Catch Position

In the catch position (Figure 1) the rower is compressed into frontstops with the legs flexed at the knees and the body flexed at the hips.  We have acute angles at both the knee (K) and hips (H) while the arms are at their longest (A).  In a normally rigged boat, the rower’s heels will be raised off the footplate to maximise the length of the stroke and the pressure on the footplate at the start of the drive will applied through the balls of the feet.

Figure 2. Drive Position

During the drive the rower executes a sequence of movements.  First, the knees extend, opening the angles at the knee (K1) and hip (H1). The arms remain extended, so their angle at the elbow (A) remains unchanged.  As the knees extend the heels come down onto the footplate to support the drive.

Figure 3. Finish Position

Next the rower leans back, opening the hip angle further (H2).  Lastly, the arms are used, drawing the stroke through to the chest and closing the angle at the elbow (A2).  At the finish position the knees are fully extended and hips partly extended (at full extension the rower would be lying down in the boat).

The sequence ‘legs, body, arms’ is fundamental, but there are different schools of thought as to how soon during the drive the body should be used.  I favour late use of the body, mainly because it helps rowers to focus their effort on maximising use of the legs and therefore of the exceptional power they provide to the stroke.

  1. Common errors during the drive

2.1 Early use of the back. A common novice error (particularly with older novices) is to combine the use of the legs and body, swinging the upper body back as soon as the catch is taken. This error synchronises the knee extension to the hip extension, very much as they synchronise when we jump.  The knees take longer to extend and the force applied to the blade – particularly in the early part of the drive – is therefore reduced.  Sometimes, when you ask such rowers to stop using their bodies and arms and row ‘legs only’, rather than driving the slide to backstops position, their leg drive stops after just a few centimetres at the point when they would start using their backs – showing that they are not making full use of their legs.

In my view, if as a coach you can get rowers to focus on delivering the full power of their legs for the full length of the slide you have a good basis on which to build a powerful stroke.

A rower’s back needs to be strong enough to transmit this power from the legs to the arms.  This is not always the case with younger rowers who sometimes have a tendency during the drive to let the legs push the slide back faster than their upper bodies.  Their hip angle tends not to open as the knee angle opens (an error we call “bum-shoving” in the UK).

This situation becomes reversed with older rowers, ex-rugby players and others whose upper-body strength is proportionally greater than that of their legs. They will tend to use their backs early in the stroke and will under-use their legs. That is not to say that they don’t get to backstops, but they lose the legs-body-arms sequence and use their backs rather than their legs as the main driver of their stroke.

2.2 Early use of the arms is another novice error. Novice rowers often focus on the movement of the blade rather than the movement of their bodies and in their anxiety to move the blade at the catch they use their arms to pull on it rather than pushing with their legs.  As was pointed out earlier, the arms can deliver only a fraction of the power available from the legs, so it is important to encourage these rowers to apply pressure on the footplate as the best way to move the boat.

While the arms are fully extended during most of the drive they are working under tension and their muscle strength is not a factor in the power of the first part of the stroke.  I often tell rowers to imagine their outside arm (the arm connecting the shoulder to the end of the handle) as a rope with a hook on the end.  Its muscles are not used until the legs and body have done most of the work.  Early use of the arms will actually reduce the amount of power applied to the handle in the first part of the stroke because the amount of weight (or pull) which can be supported by the flexed arm is limited by the strength of the flexing muscles – mainly the biceps, whereas the amount of weight which can be supported by the extended arm is limited by its tensile strength, which is far greater.

  1. Blade depth

While there is at least a partial consensus on the good and bad technique in terms of body position (more on this later) there are a variety of views on the most efficient use of the blade. My personal preference as a coach of club and college rowers, is to encourage them to use the carefully engineered buoyancy of the blade as their guide to blade depth during the drive.  In other words, I coach my rowers to let the squared blade float in the water at its ‘natural’ depth. Other coaches argue that more efficient transmission of force to the water is achieved by planting the spoon deeper so that its top edge is 4 to 5 centimetres below the surface during the drive.  This may well be effective for elite scullers, but I think the video evidence from our best rowers shows that they work with the buoyancy of the blade to set the correct depth.  Watch this video for example from 3:09 to 3:19 (unfortunately the IOC only allow us to watch this on YouTube).

  1. Washing out”

At the end of the drive as the rowers lean back and use the power of their arms to bring the handle toward their body, some rowers to pull the handle down into their laps or sometimes even to their upper thighs.  This has the effect of bringing the spoon up out of the water before the stroke is finished, producing a telltale “wash” of agitated water on the surface rather than a deep “puddle” of swirling water at the finish.  It also has the effect of lowering their rigger, upsetting the balance of the boat.  I will cover the finish in more detail in another blog, but for the purposes of coaching a good drive, the way to avoid this error is to ensure that the spoon remains floating at its designed depth until the handle is almost at the rower’s chest at which point the outside hand taps down to extract the blade cleanly (with a minimum of splash) from the water.

  1. Variations in drive technique

A comprehensive survey of the various techniques taught for the drive is beyond the scope of this blog, but luckily, for those who are interested, there are some useful summaries available online. This paper by Theo Körner:

http://www.worldrowing.com/uploads/files/3Chapter2.pdf

dates from the early 1990’s and compares what were then known as the GDR (East German) and the Adam (West German) style.  The Adam style dates from the 1960s and encourages rowers to use their backs earlier than we would today.  The GDR style is much closer to modern techniques and emphasises an early leg drive followed by later use of the back.

Another paper by Dr. Valery Kleshnev on the biomechanics of rowing outlines two further variations, the Rosenberg style (from the USA) and the Grinko style (from the former USSR)

http://www.biorow.com/Papers_files/2006%20Rowing%20Biomechanics.pdf

see his figure 11 on page 16 reproduced here:

Kleshnev analyses these four styles in terms of their relative emphasis on leg or trunk musculature and their tendency toward simultaneous or consequent timing.  He then shows typical power curves for each style – his figure 12 page 16 reproduced here:

He makes the following point which I find interesting: “Styles with the trunk emphasis (Rosenberg and DDR styles) produce more power because of better use of big muscle groups as the gluteus and longissimus muscles. However, these muscles are congenitally slow because they are intended to maintain body posture”

I don’t know how Kleshnev measured the different contributions of legs, arms and trunk but the overall shape of the Grinko style curve (d) in the figure above is closest to my view of the ideal for a well-trained rower.  Peak power is delivered early by the legs, with the trunk and arms becoming effective later in the drive.

The shaping of the power curve is of course best rehearsed on a rowing machine where the rower gets immediate visual feedback on its shape.

While as I have said, the drive phase of the rowing stroke is more about power than technique, it is not without its subtleties and coaches continue to experiment in pursuit of more efficiently applied effort and greater boat speed.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Interview with Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation – by Howard Aiken

Changing a winning team 

Mario Woldt - Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Mario Woldt – Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Life is tough at elite level in any sport, but it is particularly tough at the top of German rowing. In May 2012 at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, the German Women’s Quad (Julia Richter, Carina Baer, Tina Manker and Stephanie Schiller) set a new World Best Time of 6:09.38 in their heat. At the London Olympics just a couple of months later the German Women’s Quad won silver, but Manker and Schiller had been replaced by Britta Oppelt and Annekatrin Thiele.

The idea that you shouldn’t change a winning team is not widely held at the top of German rowing and according to Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation, that isn’t going to change. “Every rower in the national squad knows he or she has to compete for their position in any boat. We won’t even begin deciding on our Olympic crews until we see the results from the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne in 2015.” The German rowing squad has traditionally relied on an established and impressively executed strategy of strength in depth. Whether at Senior, Under-23 or Junior level, the German squad has for decades had a wealth of competitive talent available to it in all the Olympic rowing events. “Obviously our chances will be higher in some events than in others, depending on how other countries perform, but like the US and GB teams we will be competing in all 14 Olympic boat classes.”

It starts with the Juniors…

Underpinning the performance of their senior squad is a fiercely competitive and ambitious cohort of junior rowers. Germany’s junior squad had some truly spectacular successes in 2014. At the World Rowing Junior Championships in Hamburg in August, Germany was the only country to have boats in all 13 finals. At that event they also won more medals than any other country including seven gold medals (in the men’s and women’s eights, men’s and women’s single sculls, men’s four, men’s quadruple sculls and men’s double sculls). A performance like this does not happen by accident, and as Mario Woldt pointed out “What we saw in Hamburg was not new.” Germany’s junior rowers had also won impressively the previous year at Trakai in Lithuania, beating Romania, Italy, Australia and the United States and winning eight medals, including four golds.

With most of their Senior rowers still in their early to mid 20s and their Juniors about 5 years younger, German selectors look likely to have plenty of talent to choose from not just in 2016 but in 2020 also. Woldt is very much aware of the benefits a strong junior squad brings to German rowing. “We have a good age mix across the squad and while our juniors are not yet physically equal to our seniors, they have great potential”.

…and their clubs

The roots of German rowing success can be traced back to their local clubs. “We have a really well-developed club system, so we have a lot of rowers to choose from,” says Woldt. With some 600 clubs and over 82,000 members, the German Rowing Federation supports Touring, Masters, Club, League and High Performance Rowing and unlike some sports, rowing is still growing in Germany. In a virtuous circle of achievement, Germany’s ongoing record of success at national level in rowing has maintained a steady flow of new recruits into the sport at club level. From that pool of talent some 250 – 300 rowers are selected for the national squad. These rowers train with their home clubs for most of the time “But we also bring rowers together at our national training camps before the big Championship events.” The German Rowing Federation also holds several training weekends during the year to evaluate their athletes with the final selection for the World Rowing Junior Championships being made at the German National Championships.

Gold for the big boats

As reigning Olympic gold medallists in the men’s eight, it is not surprising that Mario Woldt describes the German squad as ‘big boat’ specialists and is clear that they fully intend to hold on to their gold medal position in 2016. That said, at the recent World Championships in Amsterdam, the German eight was narrowly beaten by the GB boat. The winning margin was just 0.66 sec and the German boat was gaining in the final 500 metres, but it may yet prove significant that the average age of the rowers in the German boat was almost 2 years younger (24 as compared to 26 in the GB boat).

Mario Woldt can’t yet say who will be in the German Olympic eight, but whoever they are, they’ll be the best his team can produce. With Rio now less than two years away and a cadre of hungry young sweep-oar rowers competing for a place in that eight, expect short odds on another German gold medal in M8+ at Rio.

Adaptive / Para – rowing

Para-rowing (what used to be called Adaptive rowing) is another growth area for the German rowing squad. The 2016 Paralympics will certainly be the biggest yet, 12% bigger in terms of the number of medal events than London 2012, but there will only be four rowing disciplines: Men’s single sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Women’s Single Sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Mixed Double Sculls TA (Trunk and Arms) and Mixed Coxed Four LTA (Legs, Trunk and Arms).  Given the complexities of athlete classification in Para-rowing (the FISA Para-rowing classification application form is a ten-page document on its own) selection is a complex and highly individualised process.

Building para-rowing as a sport is the priority for the German Rowing Federation at present. “We want to promote para-rowing and recruit more para-rowers to the squad which is currently quite small. The rules on who can compete in which boats and with which disabilities are complex but we are actively recruiting more adaptive rowers into the sport and look forward to fielding a very competitive squad”.

Is this a Golden Age for German Rowing?

With its current roster of athletes, German rowing is undoubtedly in as good a shape as ever for the next few years. Looking beyond 2020 however the picture is less certain. While club rowing is still growing in Germany, high performance rowing is expensive and clubs are beginning to find this a problem. At present there is no obvious solution to this cash shortage but unless one is found, the high performance ‘elevator’ which takes promising club rowers up into the national squad will get significantly smaller. In addition, secondary level education reforms in in Germany have resulted in changes to the traditional German school timetable. While the school day used to end in the early afternoon (and so left plenty of time for sports), it is being replaced by a more conventional working day (which does not). Other countries have of course learned to live with this tension between the demands of young people’s sport and schoolwork, but it is a new and unpredictable factor in the future of German sport.

It is possible therefore, that today we are looking at a Golden Age in German high performance rowing, a uniquely favourable alignment of funding, participation, expertise and success. Germany will remain hard to beat in 2016 and 2020, but their established formula for success may prove difficult to sustain into an increasingly competitive future.

This article was first pub lished in the November / December 2014 issue of Row360 Magazine (http://www.row-360.com)

Not just ‘With Stroke’ but ‘Like Stroke’

There is quite a long list of requirements for the rower in the stroke seat and in my view, technical consistency is close to the top of that list.  Those technical rowing skills must be supported by toughness of spirit, grace under pressure, and fully trained fitness.  If you can get those qualities into the stroke seat, it makes coaching the boat much easier, because if you can get the rest of the crew to row not just ‘with stroke’ but ‘like stroke’ you are most of the way to producing a fast, efficient crew.

‘Rowing like stroke’ can be as much a challenge for experienced rowers as it is for beginners. While beginners often lack the co-ordination to follow stroke accurately, experienced rowers sometimes have to overcome years of habit to change the way they row.  To give just one example, if they have the habit of rowing with a significant pause at the finish, it can be surprisingly difficult to get an experienced rower to get their hands away faster on the recovery.

Once you have coached a crew to row like stroke it follows that every time the occupant of the stroke seat changes, the whole crew has to adopt a slightly different style.  The effort, however, is worth it. There is a visible difference between a crew who are only in time at the catch and a crew who are in time throughout the entire stroke cycle.  If they are ‘rowing like stroke’, the hands, heads and slides will all be moving together and as a result the blades remain synchronised throughout the stroke and just as importantly, the movement of the crew’s body weight in the boat is controlled and the balance of the boat is improved.

If at all possible, you should have an alternative stroke person available in your squad in case your first choice stroke is unavailable. This will also give your first choice stroke the opportunity to row in another seat occasionally – ideally on bowside. Given the many benefits of rowing in the stroke seat I’m surprised by how reluctant many rowers are to try for the role, but it is worth the effort of living up to the ideal of coaching rowers to row in any seat.  Every so often you are rewarded by the discovery of  a previously hidden talent – a bonus for the coach, the rower and the boat as a whole.

While it is unlikely that you will find two candidates for the stroke seat who have exactly the same rowing style, it is virtually impossible that you will find two candidates with the same psychological attributes.  The “toughness of spirit” I mentioned earlier becomes more important in more experienced boats where the occupant of the stroke seat needs the ability to push themselves and their crew right to the edge of their capabilities while maintaining the consistency and discipline required to keep the boat working as an effective unit.  The other side of that coin is the “grace under pressure” required to deal with unexpected circumstances (particularly under race conditions) calmly and rationally rather than angrily or aggressively.  It is often the case that the kind of rower who regularly occupies the stroke seat a) has a high opinion of their own rowing and b) tends to hold (and express) strong opinions about the performance of the rest of the crew.  To some extent this is part of stroke’s role, but a certain amount of understanding and empathy is helpful and important too.

Lastly, fitness has to be one of stroke’s key characteristics.  He or she doesn’t have to be the strongest rower in the boat, but if stroke isn’t fit enough to push the performance of the rest of the crew close to their limits then they aren’t getting the best from the boat.

Given all of these requirements and issues it is not surprising that many coaches tend to stick with the same faces at stroke for months or indeed years at a time. However, in my view it is good for all concerned to have the courage to experiment and to try new options.  You have to expect that many of the experiments will fail, but experimenting is at the heart of effective coaching and without it we are limiting our own and our crews’ potential for success.

 

“The Furnace” and why rowers should learn to work there.

3D-Woman-On-FireThis is being written on Hallowe’en – so I thought it might be interesting to focus briefly on the scariest aspect of rowing:

The Furnace?

It was named “The Furnace” by a member of our women’s squad, but it is a place all rowers come to know. It is a description of the physiological and mental stress rowers encounter when working at close to maximum effort for an extended period of time either during a race or during training.  It is hot in The Furnace, there is very little air, and inevitably, you will be in pain.  The Furnace arises from the physiology of exercise beyond the ‘aerobic threshold’ where the muscles are producing lactic acid faster than the rest of the body can metabolize it, so it builds up in the muscles and the bloodstream.  This pain often takes novice rowers by surprise.  Where in other sports the athlete might consider slowing down, in a crew boat they have no option but to continue – locked as they are into the pace set by the rower in the stroke seat – until they cross the finish line.  And that can be very frightening indeed.

From the coach’s point of view, once the technicalities of rowing together have been worked through, The Furnace is the next big challenge.  While very few rowers ever come to love The Furnace, every competitive rower must become familiar with it, must learn to work and think inside it, learn not just to survive it, but to function effectively within it.  It is the coach’s job to ensure that his or her crew is accustomed to The Furnace, to the point where although it remains a challenge, it is no longer a place to be feared and avoided.

The familiarisation programme

The Furnace is never tamed – it exists at least as much (if not more) for elite rowers as it does for ordinary club rowers. Familiarisation involves pushing rowers into race-pace practice pieces over increasing distances to accustom them to the fact that despite feeling that they have to stop or they are going to die, they always survive.  Once each and every crew member has understood that The Furnace is a temporary phenomenon, that the pain, no matter how bad, will go away, then they are ready to compete and win.  Against the temporary pain, you set the permanence of the race result.  The pain is temporary, the result is forever.

Working or just surviving?

A crew who have collectively learned to work in The Furnace has an enormous advantage over a crew who are only aiming to survive it.  If you can retain your ability to think, to respond appropriately to changing situations and to do so as a crew rather than as individuals, you are far more likely to be among the winners than among the losers for at least two reasons. Firstly because if you have been training routinely in The Furnace then you have been training at a higher intensity than many of your competitors, who will visit it only occasionally. Secondly, being thoroughly familiar with the pain of The Furnace allows you to push that pain to the back of your mind – to defer it, if you will, until the race is over, rather than having it fill your mind to the exclusion of almost everything else during the race.  A crew which is focussed on how much pain they are in, on “please-when-is-this-going-to-end?” is in survival mode, unable to respond to new information and unlikely to access the reserves of strength they would need to win.

As with many scary things in life, fear of The Furnace is mainly a fear of the unknown.  Once you know it for what it is (and this is knowledge acquired through physical experience rather than intellectual effort) you can tame that fear, because you will be confident that you can survive it – and grow stronger because you survived.

Image courtesy of hdhqimg.com