The ‘religion’ of rowing has some false doctrines

The ‘religion’ of rowing has some false doctrines

By Norman Hamill



There’s been almost as much debate and division over rowing as there has been over religion. And, you can’t be guaranteed to get to rowing Nirvana by following one particular doctrine or another. Redemption doesn’t come from choosing the right set of rules and rejecting all others. In fact, there’s almost as much danger from virulent fundamentalism in rowing as there is in religion! (Yes, I know that’s overstating it a bit – I’m just trying to make the point!)

So, if no one rowing style represents an unerring pathway to perfection, what can we put our faith in to lead us to rowing ‘heaven’? Fortunately there is an answer to this 64,000 dollar question. It’s by implementing whatever style we choose, really well.

But again, just like it is in churches so it is in rowing clubs. They can both fall prey to cults. They’re both susceptible to myths and false doctrines. Sometimes it seems rowers are so gullible or so desperate, they’re ready to believe anything. One often repeated myth is the one that says coming up the slide quickly stops the boat. It doesn’t. Almost the opposite is the truth. Coming up the slide slowly slows the boat. Or, to put it more accurately, coming up the slide slowly allows more time for the boat to slow down between the strokes.

Of course, that’s a far cry from saying that coming up the slide slowly is a bad thing. It may be a bad thing or it may be a good thing. It depends almost entirely on what rate a crew wants to row at. A strong, skilful and fit crew wanting to race at a high rate of over 40 strokes per minute will have to move up the slide seriously quickly. On the other hand if they want to row at a low rate of say 20 strokes per minute they’ll have to move up the slide seriously slowly.

The point is that the oft repeated mantra about stopping the boat by rushing forward is simply false. But that’s also a far cry from saying there’s no value in teaching crews and particularly novice crews to control their slides. Put 15 year old novices into a boat and it’s almost certain that they’ll swoop forward far too quickly to find a rhythm. Without rhythm and with their limited strength at too high a rate they’ll tire far too quickly. They need to learn to row at a rate they can sustain over a given distance. So there is clearly much value in teaching novice rowers to control their slides. And, if they were allowed to simply swoop forward as fast as they liked they would be unlikely to swing their bodies over properly before starting off up the slide. This would result in them swinging their bodies around as they came up to the catch. As this is the point when boats are at their most unstable, swinging bodies around at front stops is very destructive of balance and timing. Another important point is that anything which causes the boat to ‘bounce’ up and down in the water will rob it of significant speed. This is a good reason why body angles shouldn’t change much, either forwards or backwards, anywhere near front stops.

But the real point is that the smoother, fitter, stronger and more skilful rowers are, then the quicker they can come up the slide without loosing efficiency. As I said earlier, the boat will go faster, not slower, as it has been given less time to slow down between each stroke.

So that’s a good example of a popular myth. Now here’s an example of a terribly common false doctrine. It’s the notion that the hands should be whipped away quickly from the finish immediately the blade has been released from the water. This false doctrine arises directly from the myth that coming up the slide quickly is always a bad thing. The mistaken thinking behind it is that if the hands are whipped away quickly in the first part of the recovery it will allow more time to slow down coming up the slide. So an all-pervasive myth has led us into an all too common false doctrine!

Teaching rowers to speed up their hands after the finish has three most undesirable consequences.

One is that it tends to increase the all too common fault that arises from rowers’ fear of the finish. Less confident rowers are discouraged from drawing their finish out as long as possible by their anxiety to get their hands down and away too quickly. At its worst, people simply abandon their finish altogether. But any loss at the finish leads to a massive loss of efficiency and good balance as the power distribution during the stroke is shortened. Maximum boat acceleration during each stroke depends on the finish being powered out as long as possible.

Secondly, whipping the hands away too quickly causes massive disturbance and vibration in the boat. This is always a bad thing. A symptom of this is a noisy ‘clatter’ from the rigger gate.  This noise is a big giveaway. It isn’t a problem in itself but it is a strong indicator of a rower’s lack of skill. It simply isn’t an accident that the best crews are always the quietest crews apart from that bell note at the catch, of course!

Thirdly, movements in rowing should all be as smooth and continuous as possible. Rowing should be more like dancing than jerky, punchy boxing. The best analogy for the ideal movement of the hands around the turn at the finish is that of a bicycle chain moving around a sprocket. The chain moves into the sprocket and away from the sprocket at the same speed. So it should be with the rowers’ hands at the finish. They should move towards the body and away from the body at the same speed. This makes a massive contribution to that all-important quality of smooth movements in crew rowing. Crew members are much more likely to be able to replicate accurately movements which are smooth, flowing and continuous than they are likely to be able to replicate movements which are uneven, staccato or jerky. The hands should speed up and slow down as little as possible during the stroke and the recovery.

The great ‘god’ above the prophets in rowing was the celebrated coach, Steve Fairbairn. He revolutionised the sport by moving away from the old orthodox emphasis on getting body angles ‘correct’ in favour of a new emphasis on the need for good blade work. “The willowy sway of the hands away,” is a well-known line from one of his poems. It seems to me that, “willowy sway” is an excellent description of the ideal. He didn’t write about the ‘willowy whip’, the ‘sudden surge’ or the ‘desperate dash’ of the hands away.

Of course, having emphasised the dangers of virulent fundamentalism I can hardly go too far in praise of the great Fairbairn.  Even the “god” above the prophets can’t be given infallible status. What do you think?


October 3rd, 2010

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