August Masters Feature
August 07, 2012
As the sprint season winds down and head racing season is still over a month off, I thought it would be a good time to talk about some little things that too often get ignored or just don’t get much focus. Also, as we transition into longer steady state rows, it’s easier to focus on the little things while getting away from thinking just about power and speed (if only for a little while).
Let’s start with the hands. We should be aware of the grip, of course. Make sure it’s not too tight. When the blade is square the wrists are flat, the fingers are hooking the oar, holding on just like you would if you were hanging from a pull-up bar. While you never want to rearrange the grip during the stroke, the hands will shift slightly. Notice where the hands are at the finish of the drive, they should be at a 90-degree angle to the oar. They do not want to be at a 90-degree angle when you get back to the catch. The shift should happen at the release. Let the body push the arms away, allowing the elbows to relax and swing out away from the body while the hands shift on the oar so that the outside heel of the hand is now on the oar. If you are taught arms away, and especially quick arms away, you will most likely be keeping the hand at that 90-degree angle and locking the elbow out. Work on letting the hand shift and keeping the arms relaxed.
By working on that shift with the hands, you should also be focusing on that relaxed grip. If you have a death grip, the hand won’t shift at all and it will also make it difficult to feather without a lot of wrist action. If you have any kind of wrist issues, i.e. tendonitis, look to your release. Try to make the feather a motion away from the body. You don’t want to feather as you finish the drive. You should finish the drive with the blade square and then feather the blade out and over the water, beginning the recovery. Think about rolling the oar out onto the fingers with a little push of the thumb against the end of the oar, a little help with the wrist and a roll out with the fingers.
How often do you think about your belly button when you row? Not much I bet! We try to get people to focus on moving the belly button to bow when they start the drive. John used to coach shoulders to bow, I used to coach hips to bow but invariably people would do either one to an extreme. In reality, we want both hips and shoulders to move to bow, so what’s in between? The belly button. Focus then on belly button to bow. We emphasize level head, level shoulders and when we go belly button to bow, that emphasis tends to keep the head and shoulders from going up and allows people to get a more horizontal drive.
The final area I want to talk about is the elbow – not such a minor area but one that again tends to be overlooked. Do you know where your elbows are at the finish of the drive? Remember that the oars travel in an arc, they don’t just go straight in and out like the erg handle and chain. The elbows want to swing out with the arc of the oars, keeping the elbows 90 degrees behind the oar at the release, and the forearms parallel to the water. If you find the elbows dropping at the release, check to see if you are using a lot of wrist to feather or if you are feathering at the end of the drive instead of making the release the beginning of the recovery.
Now let’s move to the catch - where are your elbows? We want your elbows to be loose so that the wrist to the elbow should be a straight line, the forearm parallel to the water. The elbow to the shoulder is an upward line but I don’t want a straight line from wrist to shoulder. Why does the elbow need to relax? Two main reasons: The first is that we want to catch with the forearm, not the body and if the elbow is loose, we can do that. If the elbow is locked it is much too easy to catch with the body, which lifts the body up and consequently drives the blade deep. The second reason we want to relax the elbow is to engage the lat muscles. If the arms are straight with elbow locked, we connect into the traps and neck area, and again go up instead of horizontal on the drive. If the elbow is relaxed, the lats become engaged. And the lats are a much more powerful group of muscles than the traps. If you’re having trouble picturing this, imagine kids playing tug of war. They hold the rope basically at the height of their low rib, not at their shoulders. They don’t pull with the arms, instead they plant their feet and lean their body weight back against the rope. That’s just what we want to do with the oar.
Everything in rowing is a cycle. If the catch isn’t going well, you often have to look at the recovery. If the recovery isn’t right, look to the release. In the case of the elbows at the catch, go back to the beginning of this article and the hand shifting on the oar. How did we do that? We thought about the body pushing the arms away at the release – that kept the elbows from locking out in the first place. Stay loose, stay relaxed, stay horizontal.
Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Virginia. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.