The Fast Lane

By Bill Manning | Photos Peter Spurrier

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is undefeated, optimism reigns, and the possibilities, naturally, are endless. A sea of fresh, eager faces has come out for the team and stand in front of you. Your job, Coach, is to get them up to speed in a few short months (weeks?) before racing begins. “Where to begin?” you ask yourself, and the panic starts to set in. Not to worry. Below are 10 tips on how best to get your novices up to speed. Think of it not a precise prescription of exactly what to do, but rather a blueprint to optimize your chance of success.

Begin with a clear idea of your desired rowing stroke. Know what you want to teach. Ideally, you’ve thought about this before the first day, but if not then do so now. The model may be perfectly clear: Do what the varsity coach wants. If it’s not that simple, consider a few possibilities—fast or slow hands away; straight or bent inside arm—and pick a stroke that you believe works and that you can teach. You don’t need to, nor can you, ascertain the absolute best way to move a boat. However, a solid understanding of what you want to teach is vital. Only with a clear picture of the rowing stroke in your head can you hope to teach it to others.

Communicate the vision. Once you establish for yourself what you want your rowers to do, your next step is to tirelessly and creatively communicate this to them. Make sure they know what you’re trying to teach. Explanation must come first. Show them the stroke: Use video, demonstrate the stroke yourself, use more advanced crews at your boathouse as example, or supply written descriptions. It is far easier to imitate than to create. Previously, we placed a large poster of an oarsman on the door to the locker room. Every day, the athletes would look at it and, we hoped, internalize what they saw. Do whatever it takes to communicate your message and do not stop communicating it because there will never be full understanding in the novice year. At the same time, explain the simple but not always initially evident physics of the sport. Namely, the oar is a lever used to move the boat past the blade. Moving the boat past the blade is the objective. Understanding this is the gateway to proper rowing and sculling. Repeatedly emphasize it.

Bring the lessons into the boat. Now comes the fun part: teaching them how to row. With young and/or new rowers, emphasize only a few basic concepts. Keep it simple. Tackle one aspect of the stroke at a time—they can’t focus on improving their catch and their finish simultaneously—but cycle through the various elements rather than sticking with one until it’s perfect. When progress is made, teach them to feel the difference. I suggest focusing on only three things: proper use of the hands; good connection resulting from good posture; and what I call “place/push,” placing the blade securely in the water before attempting to drive the boat using the legs. Succeed in teaching these three elements of the stroke and you will produce a good rowing novice crew.

Switch it up. Have everyone row both sides early on. Doing so makes it easier for you to schedule practices and set lineups—the less time you spend on these tasks, the more you have to actually teach. Another often-overlooked advantage of this is that it tells you whether someone is better on one side than the other. It can also further stimulate learning. Additionally, it seems reasonable to think that it’s healthier, especially with younger, growing athletes. Even after they have established their preferred side, it is still good to occasionally have athletes switch and row their “opposite” side. This helps ensure that you have the absolute best rowers in the boat, not just the top ports and the top starboards.

Apply power. Power is more fundamental to rowing than skill. Rowing is a power-endurance sport. Teach power right from the beginning. One college freshman coach boasted to us, “I’m not letting them row hard until they row well.” That was an easy win for us. Novices will never row perfectly so you’d better teach them to row powerfully. When former U.S. Olympic coach Hartmut Buschbacher arrived in the United States from his native Germany, his English was limited. Tellingly, among the first English words he learned were “More Power!” They stayed his favorites for his whole career with the U.S. squad. These should be among your most effective verbal coaching tools too.

Teach power by insisting upon it and rewarding it. Rate cap everything. Discourage the typical novice behavior of flying up and down the tracks with seemingly equal effort in both directions. Force them to apply power to the drive in order to move the boat and achieve their numbers on the erg. This has the added benefit of encouraging them to row longer too. Regarding the numbers, try using watts rather than 500-meter splits. Watts are easily understood—more is better—and they are easier to compare. The difference between 1:59 and 1:57 splits doesn’t seem as significant as the gap between 203 and 218 watts. Pay attention to drag factor too. Make drag heavier to help novices feel the resistance and thus get hold of the work more readily. Don’t go overboard with this and do everything with the damper set at 10, but trust that a little extra drag will speed their learning and won’t hurt them. Rowing by fours and sixes in the eight has the same effect on the water.

Identify the racers. Find the novices who want to pull. Wanting to pull has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with attitude. Prioritize coaching those athletes who thrive on competition and physical effort. In the long run, they will almost always out-perform those with better skill but who shy away from competition. Some will have the competitive instinct right from the start, but all can develop it further. You will need to coach some novices to embrace the physical challenge of rowing hard if you want to go fast and win. Teach novices to accept, if not embrace, the physical discomfort that accompanies some training and all good racing.

Reward effort and reward winners. “It pays to be a winner” works for the Navy SEALs and it can work for you too. As an example, one of my favorite early-season practices was to have two eights race each other by pairs and then by fours. Begin with stern pairs racing each other and from there expand outward until each pair has raced all of the pairs in the other boat. This way, you isolate small numbers of athletes, give them a stable platform with heavier resistance, and turn them lose to compete. It also allows you to establish a rank order of the pairs and, importantly, then you can reward the winners.

“Rowing doesn’t need to be fun to be fun.”

Olympic and world champion Jake Wetzel is credited with saying “Rowing doesn’t need to be fun to be fun.”

Build fitness. While fitness will grow on the water, it is initially best developed outside the boat. Discover it, measure it, and build it on land. The erg is the obvious tool for this, but not necessarily the best one to begin with. Unless closely supervised, it is not good for novices. Use running, stairs/hills/stadiums, and body-weight exercises as fitness activities. Introduce supervised erg training gradually. Test early and regularly—at least weekly. We used to test college novices every Friday with a two-mile run, jumpies, pull-ups, and sit-ups. This way, we discovered who had fitness and strength. Looks can deceive, but the stopwatch and numbers never lie. This also allowed the athletes and coaches to see progress. We always searched for the novice who was starting at a low level but improving and had the potential to surpass others. Rowing attracts plenty of people at all levels with little or no formal competitive athletic experience. Michelle Guerette’s experience playing high school tennis didn’t predict her eventual Olympic silver in the women’s single, but her testing fall of freshman year hinted at it. Regular testing also creates the opportunity to recognize and celebrate performers—an invaluable retention tool.

Maintain numbers. The temptation is often to focus exclusively on the novices with the greatest potential as defined by their physical stature, fitness, strength, and/or skill acquisition. Be careful here. Strive to maintain a relatively large number of athletes. For one reason, some of the most promising ones will break your heart and quit. Also, healthy numbers allow you to do more; you can more consistently get boats on the water, you can boat even crews, and you can give novices time to develop. When the bottom end of the squad disappoints and you just want to cut them, instead put them in the bow pair, have them set up the boat, and focus your coaching on those in the stern. Equally important, larger numbers give the better novices a feeling of, well, actually being better than others and having potential for the sport. We tend to continue with what we’re good at. Let your good athletes experience being better than their peers and they will more likely stick with it. Cut the lower tier athletes and the best ones will not see that they’re in fact good and thus they may easily grow tired of being worse than the varsity and no better than anyone else. That’s not fun.

Keep it fun, but not frivolous. Canadian Olympian champion Jake Wetzel once remarked, “Rowing doesn’t need to be fun to be fun.” Build a culture of hard work, teamwork, and high expectations. This will both attract and retain the right people and also ensure that you’re preparing the full squad for challenging competition. People may not live up to your expectations, but they will always live down to them. Coach to the middle and top end of the squad, not the lowest common denominator. As you do this, make sure everyone experiences improvement. It is the best way to get most athletes hooked on the sport. Race results are the ideal way of doing this, but find ways for them to feel progress before they race. To be honest, racing may not provide clear evidence of improvement if you lose or if it doesn’t occur soon enough.

Set short, medium, and long-term goals, both for individuals and for the team. Most importantly, celebrate the successful achievement of any goal. Too many coaches focus exclusively on the championship at the end of the season and mistakenly minimize regular season events. Make all races meaningful and novices will be less stressed and more excited to get out there and mix it up. Praise and positive encouragement are the drugs all novices (and most of the rest of us) respond to. Be realistic with your expectations. Respect your athletes, and respect their time, energy, and health.

10 Connect rowing to the rest of their lives. Rowing is hard work. This is part of the appeal. However, as a coach, look for ways to make doing the rowing easier. Minimize conflicts. Make your practice schedule fit the athletes’ other commitments and priorities. Know what’s going on in school and at home. Coaching college kids? Don’t schedule an erg test the morning after the freshman formal. Coaching high school students? Best not to plan on racing the same morning as the SAT/ACT tests. Want to row double sessions? How’s that going to work with the car pools?

All too often, coaches expect a level of dedication that far exceeds the rewards novices have received from the sport. The rewards will come with time. As they do, your athletes will be ready to step up and give more of themselves to the team and the sport. Be patient or you risk losing promising athletes.

It is an honor and a privilege to coach novices. You’re entrusted with introducing new athletes to our sport and your team. The success of both depends upon the job you do. Since you’re starting from the beginning, it is also the most difficult coaching assignment and as such the rewards for you are significant. You can measure your success in race results, in retention, in eventual varsity success, in the number of happy smiles, and, possibly, in introducing the next Michelle Guerette or Jake Wetzel to our sport. Have fun!

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