STORY BY VOLKER NOTLE | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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In high-school rowing, the gap between the ideal and real is often yawning. The best methods for teaching young athletes to row and preparing them for competition are well-known, but in the real world, coaches sometimes implement programs that go against their better judgment—not because they’re unaware of the physical and mental development of their young charges but because they want them to be as competitive as possible.
Beginners must learn rowing technique and how to contribute to the team. Their bodies must be conditioned so they can compete. They must learn the rules of racing, race preparation and strategy, and such elements of training as proper nutrition and strength-building. Finally, they must manage their time and cope with the demands of travel and the stress of intense training, race preparation, and competition.
All this requires careful step-by-step guidance that takes time—at least a whole year. You begin with training two or three times a week, keeping the sessions short and fun. The goal is to give beginners enough time to feel and master the rowing motion while they improve physically through such exercise as running, cycling, and strength-training. Over time, the amount of training increases slowly and is transferred to the boat.
In frequent short meetings, new rowers receive instruction in rules, strategy, and other basics of the sport. Periodic competitive workouts enable coaches to monitor their development and identify areas to focus on in the next training period.
That’s the ideal; the reality is usually different. Coaches are constrained by the schedule of the school year, the competitions that coincide with it, and of course the weather, which is influenced by the seasons. In addition, students have commitments to participate in other sports or extracurricular activities.
Many coaches are doing a good job under the circumstances—as evidenced by the high rate of participation in high-school rowing and the success of some of the outstanding programs. Nevertheless, the technique and performance of many scholastic rowers leave much to be desired, and there are still too many promising rowers who leave our sport after high school because they find it too intense and not enough fun.
What can be done to fix the situation?
First, coaches should plan for the long term. Develop a multi-year plan with your student rowers. Define success at the outset as improving technique and fitness, with concern about winning coming later. Racing is motivating, of course, as long as it’s appropriate to the developmental level of your young rowers and pits them against teams of similar speed. Obviously, teams should race at the local level initially before participating in regional, statewide, and national contests.
Second, teach proper skill development. To succeed at higher levels, rowers must master technique, be physically fit, and understand the rules and tactics of the sport. At the beginning of an athlete’s career, each of these areas must be taught independently. Before novice rowers can perform heavy training loads in a boat, they must be able to row well technically. Therefore, initial training must take place outside the boat, and rules and tactics can be introduced gradually depending on the particular circumstances of each young rower. At the end of the process, rowers can continue their development in all aspects in the boat.
Third, as much as possible, make it fun. This can be achieved by building the training load slowly, connecting it with awareness of progress, varying the workouts regularly, and imparting a sense of achievement through competition.
Building a high-school program takes a lot of patience and smart planning, but when done right, it pays off. Imagine the excitement when student-athletes enter their senior year confident that they’re proficient rowers who will perform well in their crew, physically prepared to row at any intensity in the boat and race at the highest level.
They have been in the program for several years, have used their off seasons out of the boat to get physically fit, have improved their ergometer scores steadily, and know the level of racing they’ll be doing at the end of the season. Such a group of athletes can look forward with enthusiasm to the final eight weeks of intense training and racing.
By this time, these rowers have developed the commitment to showing up early in the morning to row and the mental toughness and organizational skills to keep a training session productive if one of their teammates misses a practice. They also can deal with such disruptions as heavy schoolwork and bad weather.
The goals in the final weeks of the season are to refine rowing technique and increase training intensity while decreasing training duration to build momentum for the peak of the season. This requires full concentration during each training session so that every minute counts.
While long low-intensity workouts are featured at the beginning of this phase, over time the two or three intense workouts a week become shorter and harder. Low-intensity training sessions at the beginning of the season are used toward the end of the season exclusively for recovery At the same time, high-intensity training sessions need to achieve competition and even top speed, and thus become shorter and shorter.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT), with intervals typically lasting one minute or less at absolute peak performance, is popular and useful, but significant recovery must be allowed, and focusing on optimal rowing technique is essential to achieving the expected benefits.