Ratio Shift

Caution! This post contains copious quantities of rowing jargon and terminology. If you’re not already a rower, the following material may be virtually incomprehensible.

As I may have mentioned on an earlier occasion, I row sweep boats. I row with a club in which the boat lineups are assembled by coaches based on the members who have signed up to row that day. Except for boats training for an upcoming race, the lineups are never the same from day-to-day. On the one hand, this means that you get to row with most of the other members of the club (although mixed gender boats aren’t as frequently launched as are single-sex lineups), but on the other hand it means that the quality of rowers you’re boated with can vary considerably –to put it mildly.

Our club is a mix of (mostly) masters rowers (folks from their thirties into their sixties) and –in summer– college kids home on summer break. Many of the masters rowers aren’t fit and aren’t focused: they learned to row late in life & they’re still learning (but verrrry slowly). The college rowers are fit, but some have fairly raw rowing skills. Others are damn good and well-coached: by and large, they’re a pleasure to row with.

Among the masters men, by far and away the most serious deficiency is lack of slide control on the recovery. This results in timing problems at the catch and “stern check,” as the sternward movement of their (often excessive) body weight counteracts boat momentum with every stroke. This phenomenon has several potential root causes, which vary from rower to rower:

♦ A “hitch” at the finish of the stroke (the hands stop close to the body once the blade has concluded its path through the water and has been extracted). This pause delays the rower getting his hands away from his body and establishing forward body angle before starting back up the slide to full leg compression for the next stroke. Because of that brief pause at the finish, these rowers are always lagging behind and rushing to catch up to stroke seat.

♦ Rowers with “slow hands” at the catch are often “rowing it in” –starting the leg drive before the blade is in the water– shortening the effective stroke through the water and resulting in a too-early finish. Their recovery timing is therefore out of sync, and they’re moving back up the slide to the catch position too soon relative to the rest of the rowers in the boat.

♦ Too little flexibility in the waist and torso (caused by a big gut or lower back problems) results in a short stroke through the water, a too-early finish, and a consequently too-early recovery back up the slide. When rowers exhibiting this symptom arrive at full compression before the stroke seat, they tend to “hang” at the catch –pause briefly before dropping the oar blade into the water– or row it in.

♦ Some rowers are too weak to drive the blade through the water from catch to finish as quickly as others in the boat. They finish too late and try to compensate by rushing back to the catch position for the next stroke.

♦ All of the above.

So, what can a coach do to correct these problems? Certain drills can help, but only if the rowers are explicitly told why they’re doing them: otherwise, rowers often will just consider the drill to be a warmup exercise and won’t think to connect the activity repeated during the drill with the ‘regular’ rowing they do later in the practice session. Here are some drills that address particular technical defects:

♣ An arms-only rowing drill can address the pause-at-the finish, as long as the emphasis is on a measured, continuous motion around the back end of the stroke and the rowers aren’t allowed to get caught up in a frantic, quick chopchopchop when rowing arms-only. This is where the cox has to know the plan and control the boat on behalf of the coach. Emphasis should be on a slow, continuous pull through the water followed by a slightly swift(er) motion to move the hands away from the body once the short, arms-only stoke has been completed.

♣ Following the arms-only drill, a hands-and-body drill –with or without a pause on every stroke– can focus the rowers’ conscious attention on the importance of getting the hands away from the body at the finish and establishing forward body angle prior to taking the stroke. Again, the drill should proceed at a relatively low stroke rating, so that the rowers can concentrate on getting their torsos to the proper body position in time with the rest of the boat.

♣ Another way to emphasize the hands-away motion is with a “cut-the-cake” drill. Cut-the-cake can really challenge rowers, because this drill doesn’t repeat the usual rowing motion but instead adds an extra iteration of the key component being reinforced: the hands-away motion that precedes any body movement in preparing for the rowing stroke. To cut-the-cake, rowers sit at the release. At the cox’n’s command, they move their hands away to full arm extension and then, without pausing, return their hands to the release position and take a complete stroke: moving hands away; angling their torsos forward to the bodies-over position; moving (slowly)up the slide to full compression; dropping the blade in the water, and taking a single stroke before pausing again at the release. The cut-the-cake drill adds two hands-away motions into each stroke and, in theory, builds a “muscle memory” of that motion that rowers will subconsciously repeat during normal rowing.

♣ To get rowers accustomed to the combination of calm recovery on the slide and quick catches, a half-slide rowing drill can be the next step. The overall stroke rate has to be carefully monitored by the cox and controlled when necessary, but since many rowers speed up their slides mainly in the second half of their motion down the track, the half-slide drill can reinforce the idea of quick hands at the catch and measured cadence during the recovery. In this drill, the rowers don’t roll all the way up the slide to full leg compression before taking the catch, but instead travel only half of the distance they ordinarily would. With less distance to travel, there is also less time (perhaps as much as a full second less) to prepare the hands and body to take the next stroke. This puts a premium on getting the hands away and the correct forward body angle as soon as possible: exactly what is needed for rowers who may be a bit slow in this phase of the rowing stroke. Constant exhortation by the cox to quickly raise hands into the catch will reinforce the upward hooking motion of the oar handle that initiates each stroke by dropping the blade into the water.

♣ The pause-at-the-gunwale drill also stresses forward body angle and quick catches, and has the added advantage of rewarding movement in unison while penalizing a crew’s lack of synchronization.

By this time, the rowers have progressed through a series of drills that have been designed to emphasize and reinforce the crucial preparatory phases of the rowing stroke: hands away, bodies forward, controlled movement up the slide to the catch. In theory, when the crew now begins rowing full, continuous strokes, many of their prior defects will have been corrected through repetitive motion. In practice, it doesn’t always work out that way. Some people just never learn. That’s when it’s time to invoke sharia law. If only the Prophet (PBUH) had been an oarsman.

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