Data Driven

By Alan Oldham

The impact of Big Data in the world around us is unmistakable. From the news we read to the ads bombarding us, the analytics of daily life are far from simple. Yet for most of us, having neither the inclination nor the expertise to pull back the curtain, we simply go about our business, aware of these powerful forces in the abstract, but unable to put them to work for ourselves in any practical, meaningful way.

How we interact with technology and the ever-increasing amounts of data available to us isn’t much different in rowing. There is no doubt that advances at the cutting edge of sport science, materials technology, data collection, and manipulation are pushing our sport forward at the international level like never before. But how much are things actually changing for the average club rower, coxswain, or coach?

Impact Factor

As someone who feels he has at least a passing familiarity with our sport’s big innovations and most recent advances—many readers can probably relate—I was admittedly biased as I set out to answer this question. Of course the sport has changed. With all the new monitors, apps, force gauges, and more now available, how could it not? A call to New Zealand quickly disabused me of my assumption.

When I rang Rebecca Caroe, rowing polymath and owner of the rowing company and website rowperfect.co.uk, I asked her about which new technologies were having the biggest impact in our sport. I had anticipated a standard sort of answer that would confirm my initial conclusion. Caroe, after all, as host of the site’s podcast “RowingChat,” has interviewed dozens of experts and innovators in our sport from around the world, and is as up-to-date as it comes in terms of knowing what is out there making a difference in rowing.

“There are two things that are having a really big impact,” she tells me. “One is the ability to speak to each other, to communicate through a lot of different media. The second is using data as an additional layer of both input and output in the coaching process.”

“In terms of collaboration and communication tools, many apps aim to make it easy for people to upload their data with a couple of clicks,” explains Caroe. “That data is all pooled into a single place that makes it easy to share with whoever the coach wants to share it with—the cox, the team, the individual.”

“This collaborative approach to collecting the data and then interpreting it means that the conversation about how to adapt your program going forward is much easier to have.”

So far, so good. But when I ask about new innovative advances such as NK’s EmPower Oarlock, it is clear that she is thinking about trends in change on a far broader scale. “[Things like] the EmPower oarlock are so leading edge that they are having almost no impact across the sport as a whole [yet]. If you are talking adoption curve, it is really exciting for the 1 or 2 percent, for the rowing geeks, but they are in a massive minority.”

Early Adopters

When it comes to early adopters, national teams have always been an obvious starting point. The British company Peach Innovation has been a leader in the field of integrating biomechanical data collection with instrumentation in the boat itself. Peach’s PowerLine Rowing Instrumentation and Telemetry (usually called simply the “Peach system”) became increasingly available for use at the elite level through the 2000s.

The ability to measure everything from the forces applied by individual rowers on oarlocks and foot stretchers to oar angles at the entry and release has made Peach a big a part of the buildup to the last few Olympic Games for many national programs. Yet for all the benefits it brings, it is generally beyond the scope of teams without the budget to support both the system and the biomechanical experts required to sift through millions if not billions of data points and provide something practical and meaningful to coaches and athletes.

I have seen the Peach system in use only a handful of times and have helped install it only once, rigging up a shell with the futuristic-looking instrumentation. After taping and zip-tying the yards and yards of cables running from every oarlock, along each rigger, and down through the boat, the result was an impressive sight.

Jim Dreher and Coleen Fuerst were early adopters of the Peach system in their own coaching as well as research and development at New Hampshire’s Durham Boat Company. They have spent over a decade working with Peach and more recent, less expensive systems and shared some of their thoughts with me about the move toward more and more accessible feedback in our sport.

“Rowing is a full-body sport where you are part of a mechanism,” says Dreher. “It lends itself to analytics.”

“The Japanese were the first [to experiment with biomechanical feedback] back in 1964,” he continues, “but the ones who did a lot work were the East Germans. The Germans still probably have the most sophisticated system, but it is not commercial.”

At the core of those early systems was something called a “data logger,” Dreher explains. “That gives you all the data from the sensors in the boat to be reviewed later. A technician would have to analyze the information, give it to the coach, and the coach would give feedback to the athletes. This is not the most effective system.”

A better way would certainly be in skipping the middlemen to provide feedback directly to athletes in real time, and once again, according to Fuerst, the Germans have been at the leading edge, while this sort of thing wasn’t even on the radar for most North American coaches. “We asked a question to coaches during a presentation at the 2009 Joy of Sculling Coaches’ Conference to see who was familiar with force measurements and only two or three raised their hands,” recalls Fuerst. “I had a picture from around that time from one of the German training centers with a sort of tablet at each stretcher in the boat. They were way, way ahead.”

Innovation Takes Time

Caroe provides a bit of perspective on this discrepancy between the minority of early adopters and the rest of us. “Let’s talk about data as a tool that we are using,” she suggests. “There are a lot of different numbers that you can collect in rowing, but let’s just talk really basic stuff: strokes per minute, 500-meter splits, those two would be level 1. Level 2 might be distance moved per stroke, watts produced, and heart rate.”

“Stroke rate and splits everyone pretty much understands,” she continues, noting that the familiarity is strengthened by exposure to these on the rowing machine. Despite a clear understanding of the measurement, Caroe believes that many people still do not use 500-meter splits in on-water training. “Looking back to the adoption curve, these basic measurements are only now hitting the mass majority.”

“When we talk about distance per stroke, watts, and in many cases heart rate, these are still in the early stages in rowing,” she says. “If you are in a high-performance program, your coach may have you row on the ergometer with watts displayed, but when you look at club programs or high schools, these people have not yet incorporated watts into their practices.”

“Innovation in rowing,” Caroe proposes, “happens very, very slowly, and then happens all at once.” She points to something as simple as electronic amplification systems in the boat. “These took a very long time to get adopted, and even today there are only three international brands that sell these products.”

Empowering the Rower

One of those brands is the American company, Nielsen-Kellerman (or ‘NK’), whose recent work on a more compact, wireless system to collect and present data in real time to rowers in the boat has resulted in the much publicized EmPower oarlock.

“Absolutely it is changing the sport,” says Michael Naughton, vice president of product development at NK. “In the last few years of new technology, what was common was to measure the speed of the boat. That is a result, it is not your effort. In a single you can more closely tie the result with the effort because it is only one person, but what the EmPower oarlock does is to quantify the effort of the individual athlete in any boat. It is tremendous, it is taking the erg and putting it on the water.”

While ergs aren’t exactly about to start floating, the metaphor is apt given the ability to gather potentially more objective data on the factors that contribute to an individual’s performance within a crew.

“Peach broke ground,” Naughton is quick to acknowledge. “They have done a great job in measuring individuals.” A simple, real-time application of that information is what he and NK believe will push the sport forward even more, by putting the power of a system like Peach into the hands of individual club rowers.

One thing Naughton and NK believe will help make the data more accessible is by presenting it in a digital format, as numbers on the monitor are similar to a NK SpeedCoach display—already a familiar sight to rowers around the world—rather than a graph representing the force curve of power application during the stroke.

“This product is not a tool for the biomechanists of the world. They need data to pore over on a computer. We weren’t making a product for three people. We made a product that every junior, master, college rower, and coach can use.”

Athlete Autonomy

Central to NK’s approach with their new oarlock is the idea of putting objective information about the stroke right in front of the athlete for what Naughton calls “next-stroke improvement.”

Such immediate feedback is also a big part of what Dreher and Fuerst are working on with Durham Boat Company’s indoor tank system in particular, where they use a modified version of Peach to provide a similar real-time experience to rowers. “The time has come for force measurement in the tank,” Dreher believes, describing how the global demand for such smart tanks is higher than ever.

“The tank is so good for providing individual biomechanical feedback because you are isolated from many of the environmental factors that affect the stroke,” Fuerst adds “Even the rowers within the same boat influence each other if their timing is a little bit off or one is pulling harder than another.”

Out on the water, Fuerst and Dreher work with other similar systems including Finnish company Quiske’s range of sensors that link to a regular smartphone and Colorado-based SmartOar. They’ve seen first-hand the powerful potential of these feedback technologies for changing how athletes (and coaches) go about the business of producing better boat skills and faster on-water speeds.

“A recent example is a sweep rower who came to us late in the summer,” says Fuerst. “She arrived too late to prepare for any races, but I decided to see how quickly I could bring her along using data analytics.”  With only a basic introductory session or two to a more stable recreational single, the would-be sculler jumped into a racing single and received no on-water coaching.

“She spent a couple of weeks learning the river,” Fuerst says. “Then we put the Peach system in the boat. I coached a few times after she came in from her row as we went over the data from that session and she really got it.”

Building on the positive results of the delayed feedback provided by Peach, Fuerst decided to install the Quiske system on the same single to allow for real-time feedback as well. The novice sculler, who had already demonstrated some incredible advances in a short time began to take the coaching into her own hands once she could see what was happening as she was actually doing it.

“I had her doing short pieces out there and she could see and feel the results of all the little changes she was making to find what worked to move the boat,” says Fuerst. “She was out there playing around with the force curve and I was amazed at how well her curve looked.”

Dreher compares this process of self-discovery by the rower to a scientific experiment. “They are positing a certain theory if I row a certain way, this should happen. They can then prove or disprove it by getting out on the water (or in a tank) and trying it.

“It isn’t quite autonomous coaching yet,” he says. “But certainly this real-time feedback is one step closer. It is still a coach’s tool, but it really helps and it speeds up the learning process. That has always been a problem with traditional coaching. The coach is the interpreter for athletes and with all interpreters there is always some misunderstanding. With the real-time feedback you don’t really need that and that is the beauty of it.”

While such democratization of data may seem like it could diminish the role of the coach, this just isn’t the case says Naughton. “It is a supplemental tool for coaches,” he explains. Ideally, it is a tool that doesn’t require you to do anything that you aren’t already doing in your standard practice. It doesn’t mean that a coach is changing how they coach, but that they can now provide an objective target for the rower to work on.”

In this way, he feels, coaches will find it easier to be more effective and efficient in how they deliver feedback. “As a coach, I can say I want your slip under 10 degrees and as an athlete I can see if I hit it.”

The ultimate impact of these technological advances appears to be in engaging the athletes more and more as partners in their own development. We’ve known for years that learning and skills acquisition for the long term is most effective when someone figures it out for themselves.

I finished up my own research with a visit to Volker Nolte, whose expertise on rowing biomechanics and coaching have been a regular feature in this magazine over the years. I wanted his opinion on the interplay of real-time feedback, the collection of individual athlete data, and the role of coaching.

I ask if the future lies in coaches providing more individualized support to their athletes to reach higher and higher levels of performance. “Yes. Exactly,” he says. Everything from rigging to training plans can be tailored to an athlete’s needs. We just need to make sure we are collecting the right data to inform those coaching decisions.

“With newer technology we will know more,” Nolte says of this and of our tendency as rowers and coaches to push for conformity in the data that each rower produces. “It is more and more the case that variability may be better.” With the advances happening faster and faster around us, there is wisdom in Nolte’s words. We must be aware of the facts and adjust our beliefs accordingly.

Paradigm Shift

When I set out to write this article, I had assumed the answer to my question was that training for most rowers today was already significantly different thanks to all of the advances at the elite end of the spectrum, but now I’m not so sure. What is clear, however, is that a big change is coming to our sport on the broadest scale possible.

It is no longer a question of what that revolutionary change will be, but how soon the technology to enable it will be available at a low enough cost. Whereas many of the advances of the past have been changes to the hardware of our sport, we are just now feeling the rumblings of something far more seismic with far greater implications. It is nothing short of a paradigm shift in the dynamics of power relations, athlete autonomy, and self-directed learning.

Creating an athlete-centered environment, where rowers are engaged as partners in the development process, is something many of the best coaches and teams have always attempted to do. The ability to achieve this more easily, with less experience and on a far grander scale is the essential mechanism for this lasting transformation not just in rowing, but in all sports.