BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
Summer is here, and we all seem to be getting the Covid pandemic better under control so that learn-to-row programs can get back to introducing new athletes to our sport. Besides masters, young athletes are the largest group of rowing newcomers. While rowing programs for children are very common in Europe, they are somewhat new in North America, which is why it’s easy to understand why clubs want to know how best to teach rowing to this group.
The first question with regard to learn-to-row programs is which boat to use. I suggest starting from a different perspective; the most important issues in my mind are safety and fun! After these two matters are cared for properly, one can begin thinking about best methods. If safety and fun are looked after, many other decisions fall in place.
Safety covers many issues and is beyond the scope of this article. However, in the context of learning, safety is a major consideration when it comes to the type of boats in which we send young athletes out on the water. If the temperature is fine, the water clean enough to swim in, and no dangers are lurking from other users or the waterway itself, one can use any type of boat. If there are any such concerns, boat selection narrows to those that are stable or that require experienced rowers in the boat with beginners. Safety also includes considering whether the young athletes can carry the boat without hurting themselves or damaging the shell.
From the young rowers’ perspective, however, the major consideration is fun. If young learners experience the activity as enjoyable, they are more likely to be motivated to improve and come back. Of course, there is a wide variety of things that individuals consider fun, and learn-to-row instructors need to find out from their young novices what they like to do. While some youngsters may like to repeat one thing, I would argue that most want to be challenged by changing environments and tasks. A varied approach will keep the attention of children and trigger the urge to discover new motions.
This goes hand in hand with how to teach young athletes. Kids are not good at listening to long, drawn-out explanations and detailed corrections. They want to discover their own way of solving challenges. As Pink Floyd declared in “Another Brick in the Wall”: “Teachers leave them kids alone!” The best approach to teaching young rowing students is first to give them a proper image of the motion. This means showing them “good rowing” in a video or an example of an experienced rower on the water, which takes a couple of minutes at most. Then they need a task, such as “Do five strokes without getting stuck,” “Turn your boat around,” or “Row backwards to the dock.” Only when they have a question or when there is imminent danger does the instructor intervene. Otherwise, leave them kids alone!
Of course, the tasks have to become more challenging and need to cover all necessary rowing maneuvers to prepare the young learners to be able to finish a rowing session successfully on their own. Also, instructors have to identify movement errors that could have a significant impact on learning progress and gently correct them. Beginners will most certainly produce poor bladework in their first learning sessions, which is nothing to worry about as long as they hold the oar handle correctly. They will figure out how to square the blade properly with successive trials because they will then realize that they move faster and can extract the blade from the water easier at the end of the drive. If they hold the handle in a vice grip with a bent wrist, however, the instructor needs to interrupt and quickly correct this error before an athlete gets hurt.
Having a novice rower sit in the same seat of an eight all the time, or rowing by fours or sixes in an eight for longer stretches where the inactive athletes get bored, or giving long-winded instructions are examples of how to lose the interest of young learners. Have the new rowers use a single one day, a pair on port side the next session, and then put them on starboard in the eight. This approach will provide variety that is exciting. Each of these boat types has their own advantages. The single is best for showing what the individual rower is doing; the pair introduces steering as well as coordination with another athlete; and the eight provides a more stable platform while teaching teamwork.
Obviously, these are ideal examples that are applicable only under certain circumstances. For instance, one needs to have access to a pair in order to use it, or it must be safe to row in the current environment. Instructors must make good decisions according to the specific situation, but when introducing our sport to young newcomers, most important are safety and fun!