Masters Feature: Pet Peeves
November 08, 2011
We, my husband John and I, just returned from our annual trek to the Head of the Charles. Most of our time was spent on the shore watching all the different crews rowing by, heading up to the start one way and racing by in the other direction – a lot of different styles, ages and boats to watch.
We, my husband John and I, just returned from our annual trek to the Head of the Charles. Most of our time was spent on the shore watching all the different crews rowing by, heading up to the start one way and racing by in the other direction – a lot of different styles, ages and boats to watch. The more we watch, the more frustrated we get, seeing some of the same things over and over again which we feel quite strongly do nothing to help boat speed and in many cases, hurt it. So allow me to vent some of our pet peeves, and please, if you have any comments, we’d love to hear them.
More often than not, the high school crews would warm up doing square blade rowing drills. From many of the people we’ve talked to who come to Calm Waters, clubs are big into square blade rowing as, so it seems, are the high schools. If you do square blade rowing a lot, all it teaches the rower is how to cut off the finish by dumping the oar down into the lap before they have a chance to pull all the way into the body. Think of it like this – there simply isn’t enough time to bring the hands all the way into the finish and to release the blade square without it getting caught. It takes time for the blade to clear the water and if the blade stays square throughout the release, the bottom edge of the blade is going to catch, unless the hands push down early.
So in order to avoid getting their oars stuck, the only option is to pull down long before the hands reach the end of the drive, making the release the end of the drive and not the beginning of the recovery. If you watch Olympians in slow motion or frame by frame, you will see that while they keep their blades square all the way to the end of the drive, they do allow the blade to start to release from the water gradually. However, long before the blade is fully out of the water, they will feather the top edge of the blade over the water, thereby allowing the blade to cleanly and easily release from the water. They also time their feather so that it becomes the moment at which the hands change direction, becoming the beginning of the recovery and not the end of the drive.
Another issue we have with square blade rowing is that it makes rowers tense. They start to fear the finish, worried that their blade is going to get caught. So they fight the finish, forcing it out with too much effort too early. They’re scared to hang on and keep pressure against the blade all the way through the drive. Not only do they lose part of the drive, they waste energy extracting the blade, energy that could better be used on the drive.
What we coach, is to hang on to the finish. Instead of feathering as you’re driving or pushing the hands down too early and too far to get the blade out fully square, we want you to keep the blade square all the way through the drive, allowing the hands to make a gentle downward motion as the hands approach the body, only allowing the hands to go down far enough to let the top edge of the blade out of the water. By this time, the hands should be all the way to the body and that ends the drive.
Next, the pressure comes off the face of the blade, the hands begin to feather the blade out and over the top of the water. Think of it as slipping the blade out of the water, rather than tugging or forcing. It should be effortless and quiet. To see how this works, sit at the finish of the stroke with the blades squared and buried in the water. Push the hands down far enough to get the shaft out of the water – just the shaft, nothing more. This is how far you’ll want your hands to go down at the end of the drive.
The next part is to feather away, all in one motion. Don’t just feather or just push the hands down. Rather, let the oar roll out onto the fingers as the hands and body start to roll out of bow, thereby making the release the beginning of the recovery and not the end of the drive.
Another similar pet peeve is quick hands away – coaches instructing their rowers to shoot the hands out of bow. When we ask people who come to Calm Waters why they need to do this, they just say it’s what their coaches tell them to do. Nobody yet has given us a reason why it’s a good thing. Like square blade rowing, I find quick hands away encourages people to cut off the finish and it tends to make the arms stiff with locked elbows. They’re so worried about the need to rush the hands out that they forget about the importance of hanging on to the finish and completing the drive. Also, in their rush to get their hands out of bow, nobody concentrates on the body preparation. While many coaches will talk about the importance of early body preparation, the quick hands away supersedes it.
Instead of thinking quick hands, watch the Olympians. They’re rowing at 35, 36, 37 strokes per minute and they make it look easy, not rushed. They don’t have time to be slow with their hands, but notice it’s not just hands out of bow, it’s the entire body. Think body pushing the arms away rather than just arms. This way, the arms stay loose, no locked elbows, the nose and chin and shoulders rolling out of bow. In the amount of time that it takes most people to shoot their hands out of bow, Olympians have managed to get arms and body out of bow, leaving them more time on the slide and leaving the arms loose – very important if you want a good catch.
Next month, our biggest pet peeve, sitting up!
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, Va. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.