Can We Sweep Like Scullers Do?

Hmmmm. I was planning another tiresome polemic on the details of technique to follow my first column (“It All Starts with the Hands”) about the proper position of the hands. I was thinking about “backwhacking” and the other problems that are ahead for the rowing novice (and practiced rower as well) on the erg, for the erg looms ahead of us as the water season closes.

But then both men and women scullers, rowing sweep in so called Great Eights, won the Head of the Charles’ very top event, the Champ 8, for the second year in a row.

(Read more about the Men’s Great 8 and Women’s Great 8)

They won with only a few days practice (said one of the men, “We jumped into the boat on Thursday.”)

What does it mean – the fact that scullers won over the US sweep team, and over the bully boys from Harvard?

I think these wins have profound meaning, not only for the top tier of world rowers (to which all of the Great Eights belong), but to all of us. It all has to do with what I’ll call “boat skills,” or what other older coaches used to call “watermanship.”

“One of the most basic elements of becoming a competent oar – the feeling of  complete ease and familiarity with the boat and the oar.”

It’s one of the most basic elements of becoming a competent oar – the feeling of  complete ease and familiarity with the boat and the oar. Superior boat skills, not strength or fitness won the race.

Does anyone really think these internationals were stronger than the US team or Harvard? They were a lot older, that’s for sure, and as to their state of training and fitness, it can only be said that they had not trained together and surely their fitness was uneven, some of them not even competing on the international circuit.

No, they were not stronger; the reason they won was that they were all scullers and had come up in the sport via that lonely, idiosyncratic and self disciplined route. The key to their success was that each of them has mastered that difficult and demanding splinter of a boat, the single scull.

Notice, too that only two rowers, Gevvie Stone with the women’s “Great Eight” and John Graves with the men’s, were Americans.

In this country we do not approach our sport from a sculling baseline. In fact we do it another way entirely, tossing young rowers into eights immediately, only later, if at all, introducing them to sculling. Many say the way the US approaches rowing – from eights to smaller boats – is completely wrong. Many say it is the reason the US has lost its domination of the eight-oared Olympic sweep event, and with rare exceptions, is not considered a top threat in the small boat Olympic events. But it is a fact that the US boats, by far, more eight-oared crews than any nation on earth.

What does it mean for us masters rowers? We’ve simply got to get back to learning better boat skills.

What can we do now – facing the winter without a boat to float in? 

Considering that most of the people preparing for winter training are sweepers, not scullers, and the tools used will be the gym and the erg, the answer is we’ve got to refine and revise erg workouts to help boat skills. Some ideas:

If your workout facility has mirrors on the walls by the ergs, use them. Remember that the boat you will be rowing in is almost totally unstable. Watch for straying knees, wobbling heads, wandering elbows – all will upset boat set. The seat should be balanced – on both cheeks, the spine straight.

Members of the Wallenda family can walk a tightrope blindfolded over a deep chasm, with only a pole to balance. In the eight-oared shell, each rower has such a pole, yet few use it to balance. Coaches are driven to distraction by crews which skid along with one side down. Rowers, too are frustrated. But almost no one tries to see how to solve the problem with balance. Every erg session should be coached for body balance, level shoulders, contained knees and elbows.

I’ve come to realize that exercising to exhaustion on the erg is only learning to row badly. Consider – if you are so tired that you cannot even perform elements of the well executed stroke, what are you teaching your body? Exhausted, you cannot remain in control and over the center line on the seat. It is better to reduce pressure, regain composure, lower heart rate for as many strokes as it takes. Then up the pressure again.

If you are planning to spend an hour on the erg, be sure that most of that time is spent at “training” pressure – or what one great trainer, Rob Slocum of Occoquan International calls “conversational.” In other words, if you can talk you are “conversational” if not, you are at full pressure. The best proportion seems to be approximately 75% “training” or “conversational” and 15% full. The rest, just going through the motions, or as my Capital Rowing Club coach Guennadi Bratichko nicely puts it, “rinsing.”

It rewards a too long finish, because it is only a wheel. The finish in the boat ends at the tip of the hip. The Erg rewards a windup and bang catch with the back, or “backwhacking” as I call it. Resist it; start with the legs, then add the back. What the erg is good for is training the recovery, and allowing the body weight to slide smoothly and without hesitation into maximum compression – the position I call “the bounce” when legs and back resemble a spring wound to the full and then released.

Many shorter outings, even on the erg, are better than few long and draining sessions. Do not erg longer than you can erg well. Repetition is the core of our sport; the repetition of every movement which creates muscle memory and makes good rowing – or good erging – automatic.

The famed University of Washington coach Frank Cunningham wrote “(Rowers) enter quite without the skills that other athletes bring with them to their sports. I can’t believe that anyone today turns out for a basketball game who hasn’t tossed a basketball through a hoop, or dribbled one on any convenient slab of concrete.” Yet this is what we expect of novice rowers, many of whom have never even stepped into a rowing boat, much less a racing machine hardly wider than their own hips.

Columnist Duncan Spencer, 74, is a former newspaper reporter with The Hill; he has rowed at Yale University, Oxford University, and Capital Rowing Club. He is a former US team member, a Henley gold medalist, three time Head of the Charles winner and an incurable rowing addict.

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