STORY BY VOLKER NOLTE | PHOTO COURTESY WORLD ROWING
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Drills are an excellent way to learn a specific part of the rowing stroke without the coach having to intervene or explain much. Ideally, the exercises are chosen to emphasize or even overemphasize the intended movement. In order for the exercise to be effective, rowers should be compelled to perform the technique correctly without coaches telling them how explicitly.
Rowing on the square is one such exercise, as rowers must coordinate force, hand movement, and balance on the release in a way that leads to extracting the blade from the water properly. By letting rowers figure out the best way to propel the boat and move their hands to disturb its motion least, they develop a sense of what a well-executed release feels like when rowing on the feather. No wonder this exercise is used so widely.
Another exercise that fosters proper technique is rowing with your feet out of the shoes. This exercise was made popular by Australian coach Marty Aiken, who led Swiss brothers Markus and Michael Gier to the Olympic gold medal in the men’s lightweight double sculls at the 1996 Atlanta Games. That crew was known for its excellent technical skills, and Aiken pointed out in his speeches repeatedly that he used the feet-out drill frequently. In fact, he credited the drill for making a significant impact on his team’s technical abilities. While many athletes have difficulty executing the drill properly at low boat speed, the Gier brothers were able to row flawlessly with their feet out of their shoes at race pace.
Although rowing immediately with your feet out of the shoes at high stroke rates is not recommended, this exercise has tremendous benefits and should be used specifically to improve fine-motor skills in sculling. Coaches should introduce the exercise by having rowers start slowly and with minimal effort. Rowers will learn quickly not to lean back too far, to hold pressure on the blades until released, and to extract the blades cleanly. Any error in these elements will cause rowers to lose contact with their footstretchers, leading to uncertainty and an interruption in flow.
Coaches don’t need to say or do much by way of correction. The settings of the exercise provide the challenge, and rowers learn on their own which movements help set up the boat and maintain balance. Some rowers, however, tend not to lean back at all or even “fall over the handles”—that is, they keep their shoulders in front of their hips, which makes the exercise easier to perform but of course teaches incorrect technique. In this case, it’s imperative for the coach to intervene.
The virtue of this exercise is that it gives athletes excellent feedback; they clearly see improvement in their technique when their movement produces solid strokes with good propulsion, clean finishes, and stable balance through proper use of power on the footstretcher, as well as correct body swing and bladework. This drill can be practiced to perfection, as demonstrated by the Swiss double at racing speed.
While the less secure contact of the feet with the footstretcher requires more precise execution of the rowing stroke and increases the sense of the forces transmitted through the feet—thus improving technique when the feet are strapped back in—coaches should be careful not to reinforce incorrect technique. Because the feet are outside the shoes, coaches sometimes use the exercise to illustrate that during recovery rowers don’t need to pull on the footstretcher. This is incorrect, of course, and can give rowers a false impression.
It’s impossible mechanically to move from the finish position to the catch position without pulling on the footstretcher. Rowers can experience this by removing their shoes completely from the footstretcher and placing their feet on nothing more than the flat plate. Result: Rowers lose contact with the plate completely the moment they cease applying pressure on the blade. This can lead to outright disaster, especially if the boat is going fast—not to mention the impossibility of initiating the recovery. Therefore, this exercise should be undertaken with extreme caution and under only safe conditions.
Rowing with the feet out of the shoes and the shoes on the footstretcher enables rowers still to pull with their feet by digging their heels into the back of the shoes. This does not diminish the effectiveness of the exercise; to the contrary, it allows rowers to experience the above benefits while teaching them also to pull sensitively on the footstretcher. Coaches must emphasize this feedback so the exercise can have its full magical effect.