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Going from Winter to Spring Means Staying Safe, Focused, and Motivated

In the St. Joseph’s Prep boathouse in Philadelphia, coach Jim Glavin keeps a dry-erase board where he writes down important information on which he wants his student-athletes to focus.

It always lists the daily workout and his expectations at a given point in the season. But in January, he adds a countdown of the number of weeks before the team gets back on the Schuylkill River and transitions from indoor training to rowing on the water.

“For the month before we go on the water, I’ll start a countdown,” Glavin said. “Last week, I had four weeks to on-the-water. I’ll erase that Sunday and put three, and I’ll keep doing that, so all of our focus internally is on preparing to go outside.”

The countdown is one part of Glavin’s process of preparing his crews for on-the-water training and spring racing – something that begins in late winter at every rowing program on every level across the country.

The process differs from location to location and from level to level. Clubs in cold-weather locations will be just getting on the water and may have to deal with cold, harsh conditions. Clubs in warm-weather areas that have been on the water throughout the winter months will be shifting their focus as well, but without the same atmospheric barriers.

Junior and high school teams will have freshmen who have never rowed before, in addition to upperclassmen who are still developing as young athletes, whereas collegiate and masters athletes may have experienced the transition many times before.

While each situation is different, there are standard safety steps that must be taken to ensure all athletes, regardless of age or experience level, have a smooth and successful transition to competition on the water.

According to Willie Black, USRowing’s education manager and staff liaison to its safety committee, there is a wealth of information, resources and links located in the safety section of the USRowing website. Black listed the following as some of the most important steps and procedures to follow.

  • Make sure there are enough coaching launches for the crews and keep all of the crews in sight. A good rule of thumb, according to Black, Glavin and other coaches, is to have at least one launch for no more than two eights or a group of three or four smaller crews.
  • Ensure that each launch has flotation devices, medical supplies and emergency blankets on board in case an athlete or crew goes into the water.
  • Insist that every coach has a cell phone or other communication device that is readily available, so the coaches can stay in touch in every situation that may arise.
  • Make sure that athletes stay hydrated and have water bottles with them.
  • Make sure that athletes are dress properly, prepared to be in unpleasant conditions, and keep a full change of clothing at the boathouse.
  • Monitor the weather, make the decision to stay off the water when it is too cold or windy, and have a plan in place for any potential emergencies.
  • Instruct the athletes on how to care for their hands, how to deal with blisters and infections, and keeping their oars clean and disinfected to help prevent infection.

“It’s very important to be prepared,” Black said. “All of the coaches need to meet, go over the plan, and make sure they are all on the same page before going on the water.”

Every coach and crew has their own way of focusing on safety and making sure that their safety steps are followed. For Glavin and his athletes, preparation begins early and runs throughout the season.

“One of the first things I do is think about how many coaches we have for the number of boats we’re going to put out and how many launches we have for those coaches,” Glavin said. “A rule of thumb we try to keep to is no more than two eights per coach, no more than three quads or fours, or four doubles. We want to keep it manageable, and we want to keep them in sight of the coach.”

Glavin said his crews are told to stay close to each other, within one boat length.

“When we’re doing long, instructive rowing, (the crews) have to stay within a length of each other, and when they go beyond that, the boat that’s ahead does drills to let the other boat come up,” Glavin said. “That’s the first thing we do.

“The second thing – and we stay on this with the guys – is personable responsibility. We have a meeting at the beginning of each spring where we elect captains. We call it an expectations meeting. We set the expectations for the program for the season. We ask the coaches and the guys what expectations they have of themselves, of each other, and of the program as a whole. We create a list, and we post that.”

Glavin said creating personal responsibility helps keep the athletes focused on dressing properly, staying hydrated, taking care of blisters, and keeping safe.

While different programs use different guidelines to decide when it’s too cold to row, Glavin will not send his crews out if either the air temperature, or the air temperature combined with the wind chill factor, is below freezing.

“We never ‘just go,’” he said. “In fact, I’ve argued that it’s counterproductive to ‘just go.’ We used to talk about how you have to be tough and be able to row in any condition. I think that’s counterproductive. The first two weeks of February, I bet we don’t get more than five practices in on the water, and I’m not reluctant to stay inside. We all rush to get out and when you’re in an eight, where there are six guys rowing or four guys rowing and the others are just sitting there freezing, there is no sense to that. You can do a good erg workout inside.”

That is not the situation in Southern California, where the weather allows for outdoor rowing year-round. Two-time Olympic champion and recently retired national team athlete Susan Francia has been coaching the junior women’s program at San Diego Rowing Club for the past two seasons.

Francia is very experienced in making the switch from winter to spring and racing in both warm and cold environments. She knows that no matter where you are coaching, keeping the athletes focused on the team’s goals is what is most important.

“It’s funny; I had another coach from the east coast reach out to me and ask if I could come motivate the athletes because it’s winter. I said, ‘Come out to San Diego; it’s nice and sunny here.’ She said, ‘I bet you don’t have a problem with motivation there,’” Francia recalled.

But that is not necessarily the case, even in sunny San Diego.

“Whether you’re in cold weather, erging, and it feels like it’s never going to end, or if you’re out rowing and it’s winter, the point is, we’re not in race season,” she said. “Regardless of what your training is, you always have to keep your focus on why we are doing this.”

The goal is being prepared for that first race.

“That first race is not going to be perfect, and it shouldn’t be, because you need to get better through your season and peak for your last race,” Francia said. “Regardless of where you are, that’s what your athletes have to keep in mind. You have a goal, and that’s the big picture and why you’re here in the grind every day.”

For college coaches, getting back on the water can mean practicing patience. College athletes generally know how they have to dress and what is personally required of them. But the racing season comes on fast. Most start at the end of March, and the difference between cold and warm weather climates gives some crews an advantage.

Crews that row in cold-weather locations schedule annual winter training trips to get in some on-the-water rowing and jump start the season. Brown University was in Cocoa Beach, Fla., during the first two weeks of January.

What head coach Paul Cooke finds most challenging about getting back on the water in cold weather is being patient.

“It doesn’t look very good when you first get back on the water,” Cooke said. “Everybody is wearing so much clothing, it’s cold, and they’ve just been rowing on the ergs for four weeks. It just doesn’t look the same as when you were in Florida and everyone was warm.

“I try not to pull my hair out too much the first week or two. You have to be patient. But you have to balance that; you don’t want to be too patient. It just takes more time than I expect. The cold makes it difficult for everyone to relax, and they are less likely to get that feeling of being in the boat and the boat running easily.”

Cooke said he goes over the basics of what to expect, how to dress, how athletes can protect their hands and what to do if there is an emergency. He makes sure his launches are equipped with enough flotation devices for everyone on the water and that the communications gear is functioning.

“It does get to be second nature a little bit too much,” Cooke said. “But, we do go over it and make sure everyone knows what to do in the case of someone going overboard. And we always have coaches and launches within sight of every crew. We pretty much always have visual contact with every boat on the water all the time.”

Winter is an issue for almost every east coast masters rowers, and for Potomac Boat Club’s Nancy Faigen, who was the 2014 Fan’s Choice Masters Coach of the Year, getting back on the water can be a stressful time of year.

“We’re in (Washington) D.C., and you just never know what you’re going to get,” said Faigen. “There are years when the ice clears in February, the weather is pleasant, and there are days you can get out. But most of the time, we sort of are planning on March 1 to get off the ergs and onto the water.

“And we don’t have much time, because the Potomac masters men participate in the San Diego Crew Classic, which is at the end of March, first week of April. So, it’s a month.”

Leading up to getting back on the water, Faigen runs erg workouts where her athletes row at the same rate and do the same type of workout together in order to them thinking as a team rather than individuals doing different workouts.

Faigen said she runs long, base-training workouts with circuit training mixed in.

“It’s all about maintaining good aerobic conditioning,” she said. “The other nice thing about doing indoor workouts as a team is it allows the coach to go around and do one-on-one coaching, which is tough to do on the water.”

For masters rowers, the transition from indoor to outdoor training is something they have probably experienced before. Faigen doesn’t need to focus as much on people dressing properly. But she does pay attention to the condition of the water, making sure it is clear of debris and that the temperature is not below freezing.

She said she worries more about the coxswains because they are not moving, keeping a good ratio of boats to coaches and keeping crews in sight.

“We want to keep the crews safe,” she said. “Safety is a gigantic issue, and the cold is a biggie. We try to be pretty darn careful this time of year, because you don’t want rowers in the water.”

Staying safe is the most important focus, but for Faigen and the athletes, getting on the water and off the erg is welcome.

“Watching them erg is like watching paint dry,” she said. “Everybody wants to get back on the water.”

Written by Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org | Mar 16, 2015

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