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.

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Eyes in the Boat

Eyes in the Boat

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

Here’s the full version of the article:

Eyes in the Boat – An Australian Innovation

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

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

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

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

The user’s view

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

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

sibiappgood

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

SibiSystem  – Overview

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

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

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

Is it for you?

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

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

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

It’s the Coach’s Fault

This post may prove controversial, but I’m going to post it anyway because I genuinely think it is important.

I regularly coach squads of adult beginners in sweep-oar rowing.  From their very first session in the rowing tank I insist that they change seats regularly to ensure that they row on ‘both sides of the boat’.  I also insist that, for them, the correct answer to the question ‘Which side of the boat do you row?’ is ‘Both’.  For this I must thank the coaches who taught ME to row, through whom I learned that to be the best rower I could be, I should aim to be able to row in any seat in any boat, whether sweep oar or sculling.  No beginner ever leaves one of my courses saddled with the impression that he or she can only row on one side.

By way of contrast, I meet and coach many novice rowers who, while they may have been rowing for only a couple of seasons, have apparently always rowed as ‘stroke-side’ or ‘bow-side’ and are convinced that they can’t row on the other side.  Many of these ‘one-side only’ rowers identify themselves as ‘bow-siders’ or ‘stroke-siders’ with a kind of pride which goes way beyond any idea of ‘preference’.  It is not that they simply ‘prefer’ to row one side or the other.  They are bow-siders or stroke-siders in the same way that they are male or female and suggesting that they change sides for an outing is actually offensive to them.

It really isn’t their fault.  I blame lazy coaches whose lives are made easier if rowers are always on the same side (or even in the same seat!).  Coaches save themselves some work if they only have to teach rowers to row on one side and so they go on producing generation after generation of one-armed rowers.

Let me be clear.  Human beings are not perfectly symmetrical and we all differ in the degree and orientation of our asymmetry.  So it is perfectly natural that when it comes to rowing, many of us will have a preference for one side of the boat or the other.  A preference is not a problem. Convincing perfectly healthy athletes that they can ONLY row on one side IS a problem.  These rowers are in effect being ‘disabled’ by poor coaching.  I put the word ‘disabled’ in inverted commas here because I’m using it as the opposite to ‘enabled’, but coaches and rowers alike should be aware that years of rowing on only one side carries real risks of exacerbating an existing asymmetry, with adverse consequences for the rower (http://bit.ly/1ibjVkR, http://bit.ly/1lxnFAZ).

Of course most coaches aren’t doing this deliberately.  They are doing it because no-one is complaining about it.  By the time the rower is suffering the consequences of always rowing on the same side the coach who caused the problem is long gone.  Well, in my view, the time has come to complain.  Coaches need to put their rowers’ long term health before their inclination to take the shortest route to seat allocation.  They need to take pride in producing capable, adaptable rowers able to perform well on either side. Sweep-oar rowers need to start taking responsibility for their own health and actively volunteering to change sides regularly.  If, in your regular competition boat, you always row on one side, use every oportunity to establish yourself in the coach’s mind as “useful in any seat”.  It won’t take long.  Most of the rest of the crew will stick with their ‘favourite’ side and your coach will be grateful for someone willing to be flexible when substitutions have to be made due to absences or injury.

Sadly, there are rowers out there for whom this advice may already be too late. They are already convinced that they simply can’t row on the other side of the boat.  Never have, never will.  For the rest, the most difficult part of this proposal is getting ill-advised (i.e. badly-coached) rowers to let go of the idea that identifying themselves as exclusively bow-side or stroke-side is some kind of badge of elite specialist status. Have a preference by all means, but appreciate that to be the best rower you can be, you should be able to row well in any seat.

And if your coach actively opposes your aim to be the best you can be (surely a vanishingly small probability), find yourself a new coach.

Coaching the 2k Test

The 2k test is a standard performance metric across the rowing world. While its value is by no means endorsed by all coaches, it is a test likely to be faced by most rowers and so it is worth knowing something of the alternative approaches to getting a good result.

Have a plan

The worst possible approach for individual rowers is simply to get onto the erg and to row as hard and as fast as you can for 2000 metres.  Human physiology evolved to deliver sprint speed over short distances (to escape predators) and slower endurance speed over long distances (for hunting).  Neither of these capabilities is appropriate to the 2k test.  The 2k is in effect a long distance sprint – which is why it can be a painful experience and why a plan is required to execute it effectively.

Warm up first

The 2k test requires that your heart, lungs and muscles are working efficiently from start to finish, so you need to start with your body in an active state as opposed to a resting state. To get your body from ‘resting’ to ‘active’ requires at least 10 minutes of sustained exercise. During these ten minutes, the heart rate accelerates, breathing becomes deeper, blood vessels dilate and muscle temperature rises.  A good warm-up aims to take the body through the transition from resting to active gradually but as quickly as possible.  Proper hydration and food intake the day before your test is also important, but don’t eat in the three hours before the test.

Steady state plan

The simplest type of plan is based on an understanding of the 500m split time you need to deliver in order to achieve your target 2k time.  For example, to achieve a 7 minute 2k time a rower would need to average 1:45/500m.  In simple terms therefore, the rower would get to this split time as soon as possible and stay there for the duration of the test. This would mean that for the first part of the test the rower is working below maximum effort, while for the latter part of the test he or she would be working at or near maximum effort.  This is difficult for inexperienced rowers who find it hard to judge their endurance and test to over-exert themselves in the first half of the test and struggle to maintain performance during the second half.  Experienced rowers who have never used anything other than a steady state plan should at least experiment occasionally with variable state plans in pursuit of their optimum 2k performance.

Variable state plans

These plans attempt to shape the rowers performance so as to deliver different levels of performance during the 2k test which result in the best possible overall time.  The variable plan which I teach divides the 2k distance into 4 x 500m pieces at constant rate.  The first 500m piece is rowed at firm pressure, the second at light pressure,  then at increasing pressure during the third and fourth 500m pieces.  As with the steady state plan, there tends to be a temptation for inexperienced athletes to ‘overdo’ the second 500m sector. However, if this can be avoided, the second sector will take longest and provides recovery time during the test which allows the rower to deliver a much faster third and fourth sector and (ideally) a faster overall time than with a steady state plan.  I have seen rowers take over ten seconds off their 2k time by changing from a steady state to a variable state plan.

Rehearse

Whichever plan you use, performance will improve with practice.  For too many rowers the 2k test is an occasional trial of strength, unrelated to their other training, which they have to survive during winter training. The truth is that the 2k is like any other activity, it can be trained for and with practice, performance will improve.

Coaching use of the 2k

There is absolutely no reason why high-rate 2k pieces should not be a regular part of the training plan.  By building rowers’ familiarity with the exercise, it can be made less intimidating and a more accurate measure of performance.  The 2K test is most useful as a regular, routine component of the training cycle, as familiar to every rower as weight training or gym work.  Rather than making the 2k test into a twice-yearly initiation rite, make it a routine exercise to be practiced like any other.

Clothing and kit

Most clubs will have rules on ‘club colours’ for competitions so this is a short discussion of the clothing and kit a rower will need for training throughout the season.

Winter rowing.  Any crew training reasonably hard will be generating enough heat from the exercise alone to keep them warm in air temperatures down to about zero degrees Centigrade. However, before and after the outing, crews will often be standing around in winter conditions and it is at these times that they need good clothing to keep them comfortable.  Key items which every rower should have available to them include:

  • A hat
  • A water-resistant splash top
  • A lightweight ‘technical top’
  • An ‘all-in-one’ rowing Lycra
  • Lycra leggings and / or
  • Long socks
  • Lightweight sports shoes

Personally I’ve never worn gloves in a boat but opinions differ on this.  Coaches supervising junior crews should be aware that putting young people on the water in winter conditions without adequate clothing could be a prosecutable offence.

Summer rowing should ideally involve discarding all but the rowing Lycra and possibly a hat from this list.  However you may also need:

  • sunscreen
  • insect repellant
  • flip-flops

Winter or summer a rower should also carry a bottle of drinking water (or a sports drink) and a ‘rigger-jigger’ (a spanner 10mm at one end and 13mm at the other).