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.