Balance is Beautiful

By Connor Walters

Rio de Janeiro. BRAZIL. USA W4X. Bow, Grace LATZ, Tracy EISSER, Megan KALMOE, and Adrienne MARTELLI, 2016 Olympic Rowing Regatta. Lagoa Stadium, Copacabana. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

The novices mingle with one another, anxiously standing around until the coach emerges from the depths of the boathouse. “Line yourselves up, tallest to shortest,” she says.

There’s some jostling as the sorting begins. Those of comparable height stand back-to-back, stretching out their necks, asking a third person to determine who is taller. Quickly, the line forms and the coach walks slowly alongside, announcing, “Port! Starboard! Port! Starboard!” A few at the tail end of the line, shorter in stature than the rest, don’t receive either designation.

“Can you be loud?” the coach asks. They nod their heads. “Great. You will be our coxswains.”

From there, the journey begins for many rowers. They learn to row a side, perhaps switching over, or back-and-forth in the weeks and months ahead.

In the United States, it’s not uncommon for the beginner to be introduced to the sport through sweep rowing. It’s a matter of efficiency. With a large enough crowd, it makes more sense to put rowers on the water in a sweep boat, like an eight, to teach them the fundamentals. Two-dozen rowers spread out over three shells are far more manageable to coach than 12 doubles or six quads.

Plus, there’s the notion shared by many that the eight is king—the biggest and fastest boat on the water. It’s the signature event at most championship races, from the junior to the international level.

But balance is beautiful. And at some point in that rower’s career, whether he is still competitive or well past his prime, he may look to learn that other rowing type: sculling.

Although not too different from sweep rowing, sculling provides its own challenges and unique demands for the rower. For someone who has never rowed with two oars before, there’s some getting used to the new stroke, not to mention most small boats lack a coxswain.

However, sculling presents a sort of freedom for the rower. Taking out a single, in particular, allows one to be completely in control of one’s speed, progress, and destination. Learning to row by sculling first, many say, might be the ideal way to teach the sport to newcomers. Switching from sweep rowing to sculling doesn’t need to be intimidating. The rower can teach himself more than he probably is aware of. The first step is to just get in the boat.

Know Before You Row

By most accounts, the best way to start sculling is to hop in the boat and go. However, experts offer some useful advice about how to prepare and what to expect. Like trying anything new for the first time, it’s good to remember that it will take some time and focus. Mistakes are to be expected.

“I think the hardest leap for adults is their brain,” says Matt Lehrer, Community Rowing, Inc.’s director of coaching. “They’re not as willing to take the risks that kids are. You have to be able to get out of your own way. You may fall in the water. If you’re a kid, that’s OK.”

To that end, 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s single Gevvie Stone recommends a controlled flip test.

“Once you’ve flipped you realize that it’s not the end of the world and you won’t die and it’s not that big of a deal, unless the temperatures are very cold,” she says. “I think it’s important to flip in order to feel comfortable with it, but in general, don’t let go of your oar handles.”

Judith Vogel, head coach of the high-performance group at Riverside Boat Club, also says rowers should be aware that there is a risk of losing fitness if they only spend time trying to learn sculling. She works with a lot of athletes who recently graduated from college and have varying sculling experience, so she suggests using the erg and cross-training to maintain fitness for those who need to grow their skills.

“As that skill develops and comfort in the single develops, then more and more of their training moves from the erg into the boat,” she says.

Additionally, Vogel says some sweep rowers may be used to loading their bodies up laterally, instead of down the middle. To help recognize and adjust that issue, she uses weight lifting and strength exercises. For example, front squats help her see power differences in the way the athlete’s legs drive the weight up. “You can make corrections on land that you can’t see on the water,” she says.

Scott Roop, the 1981 world champion in the lightweight single, coached Andrew Campbell and Josh Konieczny to a fifth-place finish in the lightweight double at the Rio Olympics. Much of learning to scull, he says, comes simply with getting in the boat and working out the mechanics.

“You just have to start doing it, putting in the time,” he says. “There’s some patience involved and not getting necessarily a great outcome right away, but just a steady attention to try to get better all the time. It’s as simple as that.”

A Novice Again

Although the mechanics of the sculling stroke are not radically different from a sweep stroke, sculling novices should nevertheless prepare to tackle the differences. For some, particularly those who have spent most of their time in big boats, the lack of stability can make sculling tricky at first.

This is where rowing the pair is advantageous for someone scaling down in boat size, while the double also can serve as an intermediary step before the single.

“I went from big boats and trained a lot in a pair,” Roop says of his time rowing in Long Beach during the 1970s. “A pair is similar to sculling in terms of the way the power is applied.”

Michelle Guerette, the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the single and two-time world bronze medalist, says that a double is helpful for more than just its stable platform.

“I think the double is a phenomenal boat in general,” she says. “For someone who’s beginning or trying to change over, you have someone to follow, you’re not as worried about set. You work on finding that base for what you want to do.”

Guerette learned to scull in 2003 following her time at Harvard. She recalls taking way longer to finish practice than the experienced scullers when they were all out in singles, but then periodically having the opportunity to row with one in a double. “It was amazing to finally get in on time,” she jokes, “but it was so instructive.”

Rowers will need to adapt to keeping the body centralized in the shell—another critical difference in sculling. Guerette talks about pushing her single off the dock but having a coach hold the stern while she practiced moving all the way out to the catch. The more stable platform helped her realize how far she was able to reach and feel what it means to balance in that position. Harvard’s Charley Butt, who coached Guerette in the mid 2000s, also had her row a wide-based shell as another means of teaching that feeling.

“He really wanted me to practice getting comfortable at the catch and getting the timing right without worrying about speed of the boat,” Guerette says. “It was fantastic. Whatever your experience level…I would hop in and play around with their super stable platform.”

Hanging out at the catch the first few times can be nerve-wracking. Getting there can be a little complicated, too. With one oar per hand, the recovery takes some additional thought if the boat is to remain balanced.

“Technically, I think one of the biggest things is getting the hand order correct, so left in front of right instead of on top,” Vogel says. “That creates a stable platform and utilizes the right spacing in the riggers. Athletes who take time to develop hand sequencing on the recovery and drive, it helps them in other technical aspects of the stroke.”

The left-over-right teaching method is common, but Vogel’s justification is that a slight built-in spacing in the rigger allows for only minor variation in hand heights without offsetting the shell. As a result, the hull remains more stable and the right hand does not have to lift up as much at the catch.

Stone says one of the major differences between sweep rowing and sculling is how the rower squares and feathers the blades. “Sculling you kind of roll the handle out in your fingers,” she says. “Sweep, it’s a big clunk of the wrist.” A drill that one coach used to help master the motions was alternating which hand squared and which hand feathered.

Some of the recovery can be taught on land, Guerette says. By simply sitting on an erg and practicing moving the hands out wide while sliding on the seat, she could better understand what her approach to the catch was supposed to look and feel like.

If it all sounds conceptual, remember Roop’s words about just shoving off the dock and giving it a try.

Staying the Course

In addition to learning the nuances of the new stroke, a sculling novice also will need to learn how to juggle a lot of thinking. Focusing on technique, steering, and race plans, when applicable, are critical elements to sculling. Fortunately, the pros say there’s no reason to fear.

Rowers have a variety of tools at their disposal to help teach themselves when a coach is either not available or working with other athletes.

Stone has coached athletes through Harvard’s summer rowing camp. To help athletes learn how to apply differential pressure, they play “fetch.”

“You’ve got to play around with it to find the balance because you’re facing backwards,” she says. “It’s easier to say, ‘Go pull harder with your right hand and see what happens.’ It’s hard to maneuver to get a tennis ball and get close enough, so it teaches a lot of basic skills.”

That’s coming from someone who has spent plenty of time maneuvering on the winding Charles River and has won the championship single at the prestigious Head of the Charles three years in a row.

Another inexpensive teaching tool, according to Vogel, is a drinking straw. The rower attaches it to the hull of the stern to watch pressure through the drive. Water surges through the straw, showing the rower how long the pressure is sustained through the drive and where it begins to decline.

In focusing on the catch, she points out the difference between large sweep and small sculling boats. “In big boats, athletes hit the catch hard and don’t take time to build the stroke throughout the entire drive,” she says. “There are some pretty inexpensive tools that athletes of any skill level can use to get feedback on how they’re progressing.”

Similarly, Guerette talks about a homemade device that reminded her to keep her elbows up at the release. In attaching a modified coat hanger behind her back, her elbows had to touch it if she were going to finish the stroke properly.

“It’s literally a physical target so you’re using all of your senses,” she says, noting that an athlete could construct something similar for other parts of the stroke. “Get a little bit creative. It was nice having something physical there to point out where these new targets were.”

So making small improvements while learning to scull involves being disciplined and finding ways to hold one’s self accountable every time. That said, the new sculler can gain a lot by practicing with more skilled, faster rowers.

Speaking about preparing the lightweight men’s double for Rio, Roop says some things are better coached through experience, rather than words.

“You have to be in there to learn about it,” he says. “There’s some things you communicate to guys and you communicate your experiences, but some of it you have to go out there and get pushed around by people a little bit.”

The important lesson is that other rowers have a lot to teach a new sculler. Guerette says watching video of a German quad helped her understand the correct body and oar positions. She watched the footage over and over, studying it. It’s another way to use the senses.

Still, if the new sculler is going out to race, that’s a lot to think about without a coxswain there to offer reminders. Across the board, these experts said that figuring out how to balance these was a matter of practice.

Guerette says at the start of her race in Beijing she was thinking about technique. “That’s sort of the way to stay calm and focused,” she says. “You’ve got adrenaline. You’re not going to be way out there, paddling, when they say ‘go.’”

On a buoyed course, Guerette advises to watch the horizon, but not to focus on anything too closely. Some new scullers may choose or be required to wear mirrors to see behind them, depending on the rules of the river, but Stone says that, for her, feeling comfortable turning around to look is an important skill, especially on a busy river.

With all of this to consider, a new sculler should realize that the brain will be working out as much as the body, if not more.

Stop Reading and Start Sculling

Is there more than can be said about making the jump into a sculling boat? Sure. But it’s probably best to start practicing the skills and drills that will help piece the puzzle together. Find a coach. Find a team. Find someone who will not only provide feedback, but also company.

“Finding a good group of people to row with can be really helpful, whether you have racing aspirations or are just trying to get better,” Vogel says. “It can get lonely in a single. It’s hard to train in a bubble.”

Lehrer runs Community Rowing’s Institute for Rowing Leadership, where he helps train the next generation of coaches. Some of the rules that apply to new coaches can apply to new scullers, too.

“The big thing is understanding what’s possible and not having a restrictive frame,” he says. “It’s about expanding your knowledge. If your frame is really small then you’re not aware that there’s stuff you don’t know.”

Perhaps the best advice of all is to enjoy rowing for rowing’s sake. “Any time I do it, I enjoy it,” Roop says. “It’s just nice to be out on the water. It’s a nice way to relax and escape the stresses of life for a while.”