BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
Good morning, Dr. Rowing,
I’m writing with a question that, when it popped into my head, took me by surprise. After nearly 35 years of rowing, it is one that I hadn’t considered until now. It’s about an odd thing with positive numbers. Ever since I started rowing, coaches have always listed stroke ratings in even-number increments. As I said, I never gave it a thought all these years and wondered if you could explain the reason?
When I was a younger rower, even-number rating seemed to be natural for me. As a stroke (my usual seat), coxswains and boat mates praised me for being able to hit stroke rates precisely. As I’ve gotten older, it has become harder to hit even-number rates. My natural ratings seem to be odd-number ones. It becomes frustrating when trying to follow the stroke rates of a coach’s workout. My body just prefers odd-number ratings.
Is there a bias in rowing against odd numbers? Is it because the stroke seat is an even-numbered seat (two, four, or eight)? Or is it some deeper conspiracy against odd numbers? I’d really like to know. If I could just stop worrying about hitting even-numbered rates during my workouts and focus on my fitness and imperfect stroke (yes, after 35 years I’m still learning to row well), I’d be so much happier.
Matt, you are far too modest about your rowing abilities. Surely, anyone who was a world champion in the lightweight four (in 1993) and a national-team athlete for two more years before heading to medical school does not need to be so self-deprecating.
But to your question. I’m going to skip over the sentence “As I’ve gotten older, it has become harder to hit even-number rates.” Several retorts suggest themselves. “Well, duh!” And “Don’t tell me that you get more tired in your 50s than you did in your 20s?” Why even the great British oarsman James Cracknell, who rowed to victory with Cambridge in the 4.2-mile Boat Race at age 46 in 2019, was heard to admit that it is harder to do at his age. “I am seven years older than one of the guy’s dads,” he pointed out, adding that he was too tired to celebrate their win.
The world does indeed skew towards even numbers. As I type this very column in Microsoft Word, I have a choice of font sizes, the vast majority being even numbers–although weirdly, there is the option of 7.5. You’ve probably heard the old saw about two eyes, two ears, one mouth. Better to see and hear than to shoot your mouth off, right? There is symmetry in even numbers.
Some interesting research has been done on odd/even numbers. When 185 people from different countries, cultures, and religions were asked what their favorite number was from one to 10, 49 percent chose seven, 24 percent said three, 19 percent selected one, and only eight percent picked another number. So, it’s not like people are prejudiced against odd numbers.
But in another revealing study, when two random numbers were flashed onto a computer screen and the subject was asked to press a button only when both numbers were either odd or even, it took 20 percent longer for the subject to press when the numbers were odd. The conclusion: It takes our brains longer to process odd numbers. Even numbers require less thinking. And that’s probably a good thing when asked to hit a certain rating.
Other people in the psychology of numbers have postulated that even numbers feel more homey and friendly than odd numbers. Even numbers are used extensively when seeking scrutiny and attention is not the objective. The corollary to this is that when you want to hyper-focus on a number and need to choose one that demands attention, try using an odd number.
If you have a child nearby, ask her to count by two’s, starting with two. Easy, right? Now how about starting with one? At some point it gets more awkward; the numbers don’t just roll off the tongue. It seems to take more concentration when dealing with odd numbers.
I do like your theory that it has something to do with the stroke seat being an even number–at least here in the English-speaking world. In many European countries, the stroke is one and the bow is eight. That sounds weird or downright wrong, doesn’t it?
Can you imagine a coxswain calling a settle and then saying, “Still too high. Take it down three!” Of course not. Some of this may just be an ingrained habit, but I also imagine that if a call came to “Take it up three,” everyone in the boat would think, “Why three? We must be in trouble.”
My conclusion is that the coaches who designed your workouts did not want you to fixate on the number; they used even ratings as a guide, and not a commandment. Do you have perfectionist qualities, Matt? Are you even perhaps a touch obsessive? Chill. Come over to the warm and fuzzy even side.