Coaching “the Recovery” – by Howard Aiken

(This is the fourth in a series of coaching notes and is probably best read with the preceding “Coaching the Finish”. The techniques described apply primarily to rowing rather than sculling and to bigger boats rather than small ones).

The Recovery should be easy, surely? We’ve done the hard work on the drive.  We’ve got the spoon out of the water at the finish and we’re on our way back to the catch.  What is there to coach on the recovery?

Well here’s the thing.  While it might take a trained eye to spot if your catch, drive or finish is good, anyone can judge the quality of a crew from their recovery.  Good crews make it look easy.  All the spoons leave the water together and move through the air at the same height and speed until they enter the water together at their next catch.  Meanwhile their boat stays perfectly level, moving forward as if on rails.

No-so-good crews can’t do this. Their boat is off-balance and during the recovery with one side of the boat higher than the other – or one side’s blades may even be dragging across the water to the catch.

I’ve referred elsewhere to the “hierarchy of needs” within a boat, namely Timing, Balance and Power – in that order, with timing being the fundamental requirement, balance being built on good timing and power being useful only if the other two are in place.  Clearly there is no power component to the recovery, so it is mainly about timing and balance.

First, however, let’s look at the sequence of movements which make up the recovery:

recovery

Figure 1 Stick diagram showing the rowing recovery sequence

The recovery begins as the spoon is lifted from the water at the Finish (1).  Before the body moves, the hands push away horizontally until the arms are fully extended at “Hands away”.  The hands then pull the body over (2), the trunk pivoting at the hip while the slide remains at backstops. Only once the forward reach with the arms and the forward lean with the body are established, should the slide begin to move toward frontstops.  As the slide moves, the upper body and arms should be perfectly still, the head high, the core active, the legs flexing at the knees and hips until the body arrives at frontstops and the spoon is dropped into the water at the catch (3).

Rowers sometimes need reminding that the catch should be a single contact between the squared blade and the water.  Any contact between blade and water between the finish and the catch is bad, because the drag caused by a blade in or on the water is hundreds of times higher than the drag of the blade in air.  Rowers should hate the sound of blades dragging on the water, because that sound is the sound of energy and speed bleeding from the boat.  In a well-rowed boat, the recovery phase of the stroke should be silent except for the sound of the moving slides and the water flowing around the hull.

Timing the recovery for most rowers is less about when it starts than how fast it moves.  Novice rowers particularly tend to rush the recovery, lunging forward into frontstops in their haste to get on with the next stroke.  Part of the problem is that novice rowers frequently lack the fine control in their knee flexor muscles required to deliver a smooth recovery.  Untrained or weak knee flexors tend to produce an uncontrolled twitch rather than a smooth contraction, so it can be surprisingly difficult for novice rowers to slow their progress up the slide.  Many coaches will be familiar with the fact that it is often the weakest rower who is fastest on the recovery and so either catches early or is obliged to wait at frontstops for the rest of the crew to catch up.

Different coaches will sometimes say apparently contradictory things about slide speed on the recovery.  As a rower I have been coached (by different coaches and at different times) to decelerate into frontstops in order to avoid checking the forward motion of the boat and to accelerate into frontstops to raise the bows slightly for the next stroke.  My own view is that the greater contribution to boat speed is the deceleration into front stops.  The reasons for this are unambiguous but perhaps not explained to rowers as often or as clearly as thy should be.  During the recovery, the crew – who collectively weigh much more than the boat they are rowing, are moving in the opposite direction to the boat.  If they hit frontstops hard, their collective inertia results in sharp deceleration of the boat.  This can be seen in a sudden dip of the stern into the water, or in coxed boats, the involuntary pitching forward of the cox’s head and upper body.  We call this error “stern check” and there is an interesting coaching trick for monitoring it here .

A useful cue for both rowers and coaches working on slide speed is the sound of the wheels on the runners during the recovery.  If the rowers are accelerating into frontstops the wheels will sound a rising note.  If they are decelerating, the wheels will sound a falling note – and if you can get the crew to produce that falling note you will get a gentler arrival at frontstops and less stern-check.

I’ve never coached acceleration into frontstops myself, but it is not quite as contradictory as it might seem.  From my experience as a rower, the coach was not asking us to crash into frontstops.  What he was asking for was a slight acceleration right at the end of the recovery and immediately before the catch.  Understanding the reasons for this requires a short digression into very basic Newtonian mechanics.

At the end of the drive phase the crew are at backstops and moving at the same speed as their boat.  As they begin the recovery, moving in the opposite direction to the boat, some of their kinetic energy is transferred from their bodies to the boat.  As a result, the boat accelerates after the spoons leave the water (you can also think of this as the rowers pulling the boat forward toward their bodies with their feet).  So the theory behind the deliberate acceleration into frontstops over the last few centimetres of the recovery is to accelerate the boat slightly before the catch.  And the catch must go in milliseconds after that acceleration to keep the boat moving.

Whether it works in terms of producing additional boat speed I can’t say – which is why I don’t coach this technique myself, but evidently some coaches believe it does.

The last thing to say about timing is that the slide is only part of the story.   In a good crew, not just the slides, but the hands and the heads will all be moving together, all following the rower in the stroke seat.  This does not happen by accident, the crew have to work at it quite deliberately.  And as no two occupants of the stroke seat will move in exactly the same way, the crew must adapt their timing every time the occupant of the stroke seat changes.

Balance in the recovery is one of the most challenging aspects of rowing for many average club or college rowers but at the same time is the most obvious characteristic of a competent crew. In normal rowing a crew should be spending two or three times longer on the recovery than on   the drive and there is a vast difference in efficiency between a boat which, on each recovery, drags half its blades across the water and the efficiency of a boat which is balanced, with all its blades moving at the same height above the water.

The most important point to make about balance in the recovery is that it originates in the drive and finish of the previous stroke. Balance is set up during the drive and inherited by the recovery.  If the boat was balanced at the finish of the previous stroke, that balance must be maintained during the recovery and into the catch.  If the boat was off balance at the finish of the previous stroke, the boat must be rebalanced during the recovery – a more difficult task.

Maintaining balance is all about minimizing unwanted upper body movement – particularly sideways (lateral) movement.  This is best achieved by using “core stability”, activating the muscles of the trunk by sitting up tall and pulling the stomach in slightly. The upper body position we need can be described as eyes front, heads up, shoulders down and chests out.  This needs to be maintained throughout the stroke, not just on the recovery.

As with slide speed, coaches differ in their views on sideways movement.  My preference is to coach crews to keep their weight on the centreline of the boat throughout the stroke.  Seen from in front or behind, their heads should remain in line while their arms follow the arc of the blade’s handle. Other coaches will have the heads following the same arc as the arms, so that at frontstops the bowside and strokeside heads form two distinct rows.  I’ve even seen rowers who have evidently been coached to lean toward the rigger during the drive and then return to the centreline on the recovery, producing a rather odd rotary motion.  All of these can work, but keeping heads in the midline is simplest, particularly if crew members differ in height or weight. Also, the more asymmetric the technique, the greater the obstacles faced by rowers changing from one side of the boat to the other, something I feel strongly that all rowers (and particularly young rowers) should do regularly.

Recovering balance on the recovery can be challenging, which is why in a previous blog I emphasised the importance of keeping the boat balanced at the finish.  If the boat is badly off balance at the finish, a novice crew stands very little chance of correcting it on the recovery.  However, a slight imbalance can be corrected during the recovery if the crew has good core stability.  This can be augmented if required (and if the crew has been coached in the technique) by the use of foot pressure.  This works exactly as one might expect, with a dab of pressure on the rising side of the boat serving to stop it from rising too far.  This is however a fairly advanced technique and in practice limited to fine-tuning the balance, not correcting gross errors.

In conclusion, the recovery is the phase of the rowing stroke which tells the world about the technical capabilities of your crew. A crew which can maintain the balance of their boat during  the recovery with all their blades in the air, has the best possible platform for the efficient translation of power into speed.  A crew which is unbalanced – or worse, drags blades across the water, are going to be handicapped by a less stable and less efficient boat.

 

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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.

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.

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.

200 years of Bumps Racing, by Howard Aiken

The beginnings.2291291091_c9bf8b877c_o

On a bend in the River Thames in what is now Berkshire stands the old Eton College boathouse. This is not the original boathouse and the building of locks and weirs has radically changed this part of the Thames in the last 200 years, but it was on this stretch of the river that at some point around the turn of the 19th century that the young men of Eton College decided to use their (hired) boats to chase each other in single file with the aim of catching and bumping the boat ahead. These races were not sanctioned by the College authorities, who appeared to regard rowers in much the same way that ‘joyriders’ are regarded today and punished them if they were caught. According to the Eton Rowing Book “It must be remembered that until 1840 boys were not officially allowed on the river, and on several occasions those caught there were flogged”.

The processional race format may have been an evolution of the 18th century tradition of the “Procession of Boats”, originally arranged by Eton boys – again not Eton College – every 4th June (King George III’s birthday) and still held today – although not always on that exact date.

When they began, bumps at Eton were not so much an event as a season. Racing would continue over several weeks until no more bumps were achieved at which point the competing crews were considered to be ranked in order of their performance, which was after all the original point of the races. So although ‘bumps races’ are today associated primarily with Oxford and Cambridge universities, the tradition seems to have begun at Eton and to have been taken up to these universities by Etonian undergraduates. We know that bumps races were established at Oxford by 1815 and at Cambridge by 1827. It is therefore at least 200 years since this form of racing began. And Eton still holds bumping races – now approved by the college authorities – over four evenings in early May every year using coxed fours.

The Sport

As is typical of old British sports, bumps racing takes a simple idea, embellishes it with complicated and apparently arbitrary rules and then limits participation to a group of more or less exclusive clubs. Today at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities there are two bumps events every year, one in winter and one in early summer. In Cambridge they are called ‘Lent Bumps’ and ‘May Bumps’ and in Oxford they are known as ‘Torpids’ and ‘Summer Eights’. In both Oxford and Cambridge, there are also separate Town Bumps races in which local clubs compete. Cambridge’s races are run by the Cambridgeshire Rowing Association (CRA) and are run exclusively in eights and take place over 4 consecutive days in July. Oxford’s City Bumps races, run by the City of Oxford Rowing Club (CORC), are open to all comers and are raced in coxed fours, all races taking place on the same day, usually a Saturday in April. Outside Oxford and Cambridge, bumps races are held at Shrewsbury school (Shrewsbury’s first bumps are thought to have been raced in 1839 – perhaps brought to the school by Oxbridge graduates?) and the United Hospitals Boat Club in London (since 1954).

If you have never seen a bumps race, while rules vary (and this article is not going to document the labyrinthine complexities of the various different sets of rules) the essentials of the format are as follows:

Duration. Bumps racing events vary from one day to four days in duration and in the past took even longer. Depending on the number of entrants, boats will be organised into several ‘Divisions’ for men or women, each of approximately a dozen boats, with boats ranked in descending order of their expected performance – which is usually based on their performance the previous year. Boats in the top divisions will generally be crewed by experienced or even elite rowers. Boats in the lower divisions are rather less experienced and often much less competent. Usually each division will race on each day of the event and and generally the divisions will race in ascending order – so the faster crews will tend to be rowing later in the day. This also allows the boat at the top of each lower division to race as the bottom boat in the division above.

Distance. The course is usually shorter than would be the case for a Head Race – about 1.8km in Oxford and 2.2km in Cambridge for example.

The boats used are usually eights, although in the past boats with anywhere between 2 and 10 blades were used. At Eton, Shrewbury and at City Bumps in Oxford they are now coxed fours. Boats are not modified in any way.

The start involves marshalling the division’s boats in line astern ranked in descending order with the fastest boat at the front and about one and a half boat lengths of clear water between boats. Start positions are marked by a ‘bungline’, a length of rope or chain attached to the bank, the free end of which is handed to the boat’s cox – who must hold onto it until the race starts. Just before the start of the race, the boats are pushed away from the bank by ‘polemen’ so that they are in clear water away from the bank, when the starting gun is fired. All the boats of a division start simultaneously.

The race. Each boat sets off from a standing start in pursuit of the boat in front, with the boat at the head of the division aiming to row the complete length of the course without being bumped. On the towpath alongside each boat an umpire and a bankrider keep pace on bicycles. The umpire’s job is to adjudicate impartially on the bump if or when it happens. The bankrider is a member of the same college or club as the crew he is following and is there to observe fair play in the race and to shout encouragement and tactical information to the crew.

Tactics play a greater role in bumps racing than they would in a head race or a side-by-side race. If the boat ahead can be bumped quickly, the successful pursuers can retire from the race immediately and cannot then be bumped by the boat behind. On the other hand, if a crew burns out after the starting sprint but fails to get the bump, they risk being bumped by the following boat. Crews gaining a bump will start higher in the rankings for the next race, taking the position of the boat they have bumped.

Results are counted not in race times but in bumps and one of the key advantages of the bumps race format is that boats in every division and of widely different abilities will gain bumps. Crews who manage to bump every time they race are traditionally awarded ‘Blades’, decorated with their names and a list of the boats bumped on each day. The boat which ends the competition at the top of the First Division earns the title of “Head of the River”.

Bumps racing puts a premium on a reliable, fast start and the ability to maintain good rowing technique under the stress of a rapidly changing tactical situation. Bumps racing also makes extraordinary demands on the coxwain, who must be simultaneously aware of the situation ahead of and behind his or her boat while steering the best racing line and securing a bump as soon as possible.

Oxford Bumps

The Thames at Oxford follows a meandering course and is constricted by a narrow bend downstream of the city centre called The Gut. While two boats can pass in The Gut if they both stick to their own side of the river, collisions there remain a hazard to the present day. The first recorded bumps race in Oxford was in 1815, when Brasenose beat Jesus and so became the first college to be Head of the River. The event now known as Summer Eights had become an annual contest at Oxford by 1826, with four colleges participating and an agreed set of rules. Each crew started alongside a post in the bank (with an umpire to check that each boat was in place), and a pistol shot signalled the commencement of racing. This event was intended for ‘first’ boats, so ‘second’ boats were given their own event, “Torpids”, in 1838. Initially this was run during Trinity (summer) term alongside Eights. Bunglines and the ‘three gun’ system (guns fired at 5 minutes before the start, 1 minute before the start, and at the start) both still in use today, were introduced in 1840. Outrigged boats came into general use in Oxford in 1845. Until this time the boats used were usually ‘whalers’ somewhat similar to the boats still used in coastal rowing. Torpids was moved to Hilary (spring) term in 1852.

Cambridge Bumps

If the Thames at Oxford was less than ideal for rowing, the Cam at Cambridge was worse. In the 18th century it was little more than a stream, choked with vegetation and sometimes dry in summer. It was only made navigable in about 1800 when it was dredged, widened and furnished with locks to allow coal barges to reach the backs of the colleges (coal-yards in those days rather than the well-kept lawns we see now). As elsewhere, rowing at Cambridge evolved from the hiring and racing of boats of various configurations from local boat-yards. Bumping races have been held on the River Cam since 1827 following the formation of Cambridge University Boat Club during the 1826/27 academic year. The first official races were held on February 26th 1827 and thereafter “for three days every week through Lent term and throughout the Easter term of that academic year”. The rowers were not college crews but informal groups of friends, usually named after their boat, and boats were crewed by between six and ten rowers. By 1834 there were 19 boats taking part in two divisions. Later that year the first of several changes to the hydrography of the river Cam was made with two locks being removed and a new one installed at Jesus Green. This required that the course of the race be modified and in order to formalise agreement on the new course a set of rules for Bumps was agreed in 1835. In 1846 another change was forced by the building of a railway bridge across the Cam, the piers of which were too close together to allow boats to be rowed through.

The University Boat Race started in 1829 and as this grew in importance the better Cambridge oarsmen were withdrawn from Lent Bumps. As a result, Lent and May bumps, while originally a continuous series of races, became in effect two separate events, a fact formalised by the complete separation of Lents and Mays in 1887.

Shrewbury Bumps

The first clear record of bumps racing at Shrewbury School dates from 1854, although as at Eton, boys had been rowing boats hired (against the wishes of the school authorities) from local boatmen for at least a couple of decades previously. The clear similarities between bumps racing at Shrewsbury and Oxbridge are probably not a coincidence, but as to who or what the link was, we can only speculate. The first School Regatta possibly took place in 1839 when an eight crewed by a mixture of pupils and rowers from the town club was bumped by a four crewed by two pupils and two old boys from the school. Bumping races (or “Bumpers” as they are known at Shrewsbury) were first held as an official school event in 1867 and they are still an intramural 4-day event at the school, generally taking place during the last week of the summer term. The boats used are coxed fours and there are three divisions. Each house has a crew for each division, so there are up to 13 crews/boats racing in each division. Since 2009, girls have competed and are currently working their way up the divisions.

Bizarre footnote or eccentric export?

In the early 1800s when bumps racing began, the boats were sturdy, clinker-built wooden vessels, well able to withstand impact with another boat or the bank. Bumps racing today using thousands of pounds worth of precision-moulded and very fragile composite shells can be an eye-wateringly expensive spectacle. For this reason, bumps racing in its original form seems destined to remain a bizarre footnote in the wider story of world rowing, but it’s slightly tamer version, ‘non–contact’ bumps (as at Shrewbury School’s “Bumpers” or Oxford City Bumps for example), has perhaps a wider appeal and could yet make an exciting addition to the rowing calendar in more clubs, particularly those obliged to row on narrow rivers or canals. The format has been adopted for example for “Orca Bumping”, an annual rowing race over 3km on the Merwede Canal in Utrecht in the Netherlands. So you never know, after 200 years, bumps racing could still, eventually, go global.

Sincere thanks are due to Anu Dhudia for his “History of Oxford Rowing”, to George Gilbert for “The Bumps” and the school archivists at both Eton College (Miss Eleanor Cracknell) and Shrewsbury School (Dr R Brooke-Smith) for their invaluable help with this article, which was originally published in Issue 4 of Row360 Magazine.

‘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.