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:


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.

Coaching the Drive – by Howard Aiken

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

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

  1. The muscles powering the drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1. Catch Position

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

Figure 2. Drive Position

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

Figure 3. Finish Position

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

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

  1. Common errors during the drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Blade depth

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

  1. Washing out”

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

  1. Variations in drive technique

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

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

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

see his figure 11 on page 16 reproduced here:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Coach as Engineer

An analogy I sometimes use with my crews is that training them is like building an engine.  I usually mention this when crew members are getting their priorities wrong and attempting to apply power before they have the precision and balance required to handle it.  The engine analogy brings with it useful concepts such as efficiency and smoothness. Like most analogies it shouldn’t be pushed beyond its limits, but within those limits it can be useful.

An engineer building an engine knows that power is last thing to apply to his construction. First the moving parts have to be assembled so that they all move within finely controlled tolerances and exactly in time with each other. Only then is it able to withstand the strain of having power applied to it. Similarly, rowers, or rather their boats, have a heirarchy of needs.  First is timing, then balance and lastly, power. Getting these out of order is only ever going to be destructive – fortunately not as spectacularly destructive as it can be with a real engine but I’m sure many coaches have seen crews (particularly novice crews) ‘come apart’ as they attempt to apply more power than they can actually handle.

In an engine, force has to be carefully controlled in both its magnitude and direction, and forces acting in the wrong direction are very bad news and must be eliminated.  Similarly with rowing, the very worst fault a boat can suffer from is excessive force acting in the wrong direction.  Rowers who pull hard into their laps or who throw their body weight sideways during the stroke are exerting forces which absolutely must be corrected before there is any chance of creating an efficient engine.  An inefficient crew, however hard they work, never achieve the boat speed their efforts should produce because too much of their energy goes into producing a rolling, splashy, jerky movement of the boat.  Many novice rowers completely fail to understand the importance of their body weight and how it moves.   The engine analogy can be helpful in explaining to them that they need to be aware of the precision required in all of their movements if they are going to be part of an efficient crew.

As a coach riding the towpath I spend most of my time watching and listening to these rowing ‘engines’.  I run them first of all at low revs, maybe on just two or four of their eight cylinders, checking for instability and noise. When the engine seems to be running smoothly, I run them at gradually higher revs and higher power.

The engine analogy is of course incomplete in that a crew is much more than an engine.  They are also the ‘suspension’ of the boat, keeping it level, and the gearbox of the boat with a set of ‘gears’ ranging from full slide to hands-only. To all of these abilities they also bring (if you are lucky) intelligence and an ability to learn, so that they get better and better at fulfilling all of these roles as they gain more experience.

It is an immensely rewarding experience to see a crew gradually come together as a single working unit like a good engine, responsive and powerful yet also smooth and quiet.  To be part of such a crew is to experience rowing at its very best and a feeling of shared achievement which few other sports can offer.

‘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: (

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 ( 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.





Four rules for winter vacation training

With the winter vacation approaching for many college and school rowers in the northern hemisphere, I thought it might be useful to put together some guidelines for rowers who want to come back from the vacation fit rather than fat.

Rule 1.  Frequency beats intensity. Given that this is a rower’s blog, I put this rule as #1 because if you take only this one rule away from this blog it will have been worthwhile. Your current body shape and level of fitness is primarily the outcome of just two factors: 1) your genetic inheritance from your parents and 2) your lifestyle.  In the context of this blog your ‘lifestyle’ is your day-to-day activity pattern. If you have an active lifestyle your body shape will tend to show firmer muscle tone and better posture and your cardio-vascular system will tend to have an increased capacity for carrying oxygen. The reverse will be true if you have a sedentary lifestyle.  To be effective in terms of competitive performance, training must be part of your lifestyle. That means quite simply it should be something you do most days. If necessary, keep a diary and schedule regular times in it for your training. If your training is important to you then it will take priority over other activities and your friends and family will respect and adapt to your schedule. You can of course compensate to some extent for less frequent training by increasing the intensity of exercise when you do train, but to be a competitive rower even at club level you really have to be training most days, because it is the things you do most days that your body adapts to.

Rule 2.  Know your training programme.  Which specific exercises should you be doing and how should you be doing them? While it is true that to some extent all physical activity is ‘exercise’, not all exercise is training. Think for a moment about the metabolic requirements of a 100m sprint as compared to a 10k run. The 100m sprint requires a (primarily) anaerobic burst of energy and the metabolisation of nutrients already present in the muscles and bloodstream – not least because there simply isn’t time to transport them from elsewhere in the body. The 10k run on the other hand is an aerobic exercise which depends on the mobilization of the body’s carbohydrate and fat stores over an extended period of time. Unsurprisingly therefore, sprint training and endurance training are not the same and do not produce the same results. Rowers of course need both types of training and need to be aware of how much of each they are doing.  So a clear itemised programme which delivers a mix of aerobic and (some) anaerobic training, and a sufficient variety of exercises to stop you from getting bored is essential. In addition to training their metabolic systems, rowers also need to build muscular strength. More rowing is the best way to do this, but time spent on the ergometer comes a close second. In my opinion weight training comes third and training with heavy weights should only be done after an induction course with a competent instructor. After all, a training programme which puts an athlete out of action through injury is a waste of time and effort.

Rule 3.  Know your performance numbers.  Measure your performance every time you train and keep a careful record with dates and times. This is easiest to do on the erg, but can also be done for runs (when you know the distance or always run the same distance) and weight training. It is less easy on the river – an uncontrolled environment which is unlikely to be the same session to session – or when doing things like circuit training, so don’t get obsessive about this, but it is very motivating to see your performance improving over time.

Rule 4.  Aim for regular, incremental improvement.  If you are training regularly and effectively then this WILL happen.  As a coach I would much rather see regular incremental performance improvements – even small improvements, than inconsistent training delivering irregular highs and lows.

Finally, a hint. Do your first training session on the first day of your vacation. It gets you and the people around you used to your training schedule as quickly as possible and once it becomes part of your routine it becomes much easier to maintain. “Start as you mean to go on” is good advice on many levels.

Happy holidays.