Jim Flood

How We Should Be Teaching Beginners to Row

by Jim Flood

Jim Flood is a British Rowing Coach Educator. He believes a more participant focussed approach with novices is essential to ensure they stick with the sport long term.

I visit a lot of rowing clubs where I see Learn to Row courses in progress – and I do not see a great deal of evidence to suggest that the courses are ‘participant focused’ in the sense in which it is taught in the British Rowing Level 2 Coaching course.

My view is that a poor learning experience is being provided and therefore reduces the number of people who could go on to make a contribution as long term club members.

The Uncertain Learning Environment 

Lets begin by examining the ‘uncertain learning environment’.  This is the part of the learning environment in which the learners face uncertainty and a loss of control.

the challenge for the coach is to convince the participants that following their advice will lead to success

My first experience of teaching and coaching was as a swimming and diving coach.  In both of these sports there is an uncertain environment: in learning to swim it is the feeling of being immersed in water with no points of solid contact – and in the case of diving it is the experience of free falling.

In both cases the challenge for the coach is to convince the participants that following their advice will lead to success – but for participants to remember the advice when panic of the unknown sets in is extremely difficult.

Until the 1960s, the way that coaches dealt with the problem of panic when participants were immersed in water or free falling through the air, was to rehearse the necessary movements on land so that they would become ‘second nature’.  And, of course, it was considered vital to teach the correct technique in order to prevent ‘bad habits’ from developing.

It was usual to see swimming lessons starting on land with participants standing on the side of the swimming pool rehearsing arm breaststroke movements. There were two serious problems with this approach, one was that the muscles used to replicate the swimming movement in air, are quite different to the muscles used when following the same movement in the water. Also in water the breaststroke movement tended to immerse the head – amplifying the uncertainty and panic. Quite simply, the rehearsal of the swimming stroke on land was counterproductive and delayed the process of learning to swim.

I believe that there is a similar problem in the teaching of rowing. However, before I leave swimming and diving, I want to outline the changes in coaching methods that took place.

There were two significant developments: one was to teach an understanding of buoyancy (Archimedes principle) by feeling the floating effect when lifting the feet off the bottom of the pool whilst keeping the head as close to the surface as possible; the second was to try to propel the body forward by reaching and pulling. This provided a safe and controlled introduction to the ‘uncertain environment’ of the water. With diving the important understanding was that the body follows the head – so trainees wore old clothing to protect their bodies against the painful effect of not entering the water head first.  In summary, the key changes were:

  1. Teaching an understanding of the mechanics of the process
  2. Ignoring ‘correct technique’ in favour of what gave the participants success and confidence.

As a swimming coach, I found no problem in getting participants to progress from a confidence-building ‘doggy paddle’ to effective technique.

And so to the teaching of rowing, which, I will argue is still largely stuck in the 60s and suffering the same consequences of slow progress and high failure rates.

Most ‘Learn to Row’ courses start with a first session on an ergometer, a bank tub or rowing tank– which in my opinion is the equivalent of the land training of swimming.  True it teaches a sequence and a technique – but in a situation totally removed from the situation that participants soon find themselves in, which is an unstable boat which makes it almost impossible to apply any lessons learned – and leads in many cases to a sense of failure.

The unstable boat is the uncertain learning environment which, because of a sense of panic and fear, destroys any confidence that has been previously established. Sadly, most participants, and especially women, locate the source of failure in themselves rather than in the person who is managing the experience!

So how, in my view, can coaches best manage an induction to the uncertain learning environment of the unstable boat? Well, it’s based on the strategies previously mentioned.

  1. Teaching an understanding of the mechanics of the process
  2. Ignoring ‘correct technique’ in favour of what gives the participants success and confidence.

In addition, it is about expectation management: the message to participants needs to be ‘There will be a tendency for the boat to rock from side to side but we will keep you safe by teaching why it happens – and how to control it’.

Learning to keep the boat level 

The procedure I recommend with beginners is to have reasonably experienced rowers at Bow and 2 in order to maintain control of the boat.  Another recommendation is to explain the importance of rotating the blade slightly so that the water runs underneath the blade – and not over the top of it.

Once the participants are safely in the boat and sitting comfortably with blades on the water, try asking them to work out, for a few minutes, what will cause the boat to roll from side to side. This might appear to be an extreme approach – but managing a learning experience so that the participants work out cause and effect themselves, is a very effective learning experience.  In both the coaching of tennis and football these days, participants are likely to be asked to work out how to do something (e.g. get a ball over the net or dribble past another player) rather than simply given instructions. Rowing is behind the curve on this approach which is referred to as Problem Based Learning*.

Key point:

The effect of different hand heights on stroke side and bow side quickly creates an uncertain learning environment – and one to be avoided at all times by all participants maintaining a hand height that keeps the boat level.

Progression to the next stage of coping with uncertainty

The next step can be to move the spoons of the blades backwards and forwards over the water by swinging from the hips and drawing the hands into the body– and to do it together keeping the boat level.  This is best done by starting with pairs only, then fours, sixes, then all eight.  A key point here is learning to move together.

When this exercise can be done confidently, try starting at front stops with a square blade, drawing it through the water, still using only arms and body, and rolling the blade out on to the feather, still in contact with the water at the end of the stroke. Again, this can be done sequentially in pairs, fours, sixes and all eight.

Rolling the spoon on to the surface of the water, rather than ‘tapping out’ vertically, might seem like heresy but in fact it is how most experienced rowers extract the blade from the water – so rolling the blade on to the surface of the water makes for an easier transition to rowing with blades off the water. There is nothing new about teaching participants to row with their blades on the water – it is how we introduce participants to rowing in a single scull, so why not use it for sweep oar rowing?

Establishing the body swing with only  ‘arms and body’ rowing is an excellent preparation for good blade control and posture. It can be followed with gradual slide progression to introduce the use of the legs.  I find that once the rowers achieve good control at ¾ slide, and are moving the boat, the blades begin to clear the water – enough to allow blades to square easily – but close enough to the water to discourage violent upward movements of the hands at the catch.

Key learning points:

As the body swings back and the hands draw the blade handle to the body, the hands stay at the same height.  This needs the shoulder to be relaxed to allow the shoulder joint to rotate. Also the head stays vertical.

With all the hand heights at the same level, the blades will act in a similar way to a tightrope walker’s pole, and the boat will be easy to balance by squeezing down on one side of the seat or the other. If  the shoulders are moved the boat rolls too quickly to be easily corrected.

Even one rower changing her or his hands will effectively ‘break’ the tightrope walker’s pole effect and the action will lever the rigger upwards (or downwards) causing the boat to roll.

Stable Boats

Many clubs have invested in stable boats, both for ‘Learn to Row’ courses and recreational rowing.  Whilst these considerably reduce the uncertain environment by providing a more stable platform, in my experience they do not make it much easier for rowers when the transition is made to club racing boats.  I would use them – but with the same procedures that I advocate above.

Participant Focused Coaching

This is the official policy of both UK Coaching (https://www.ukcoaching.org/) and British Rowing.  The broad aim is to make coaching less didactic and more interactive. It requires the coach to involve participants in their own learning and to discuss their needs. Above all it requires the coach to provide a safe and enjoyable experience that removes the ‘stumbling blocks’ that lead to failure and frustration. That does not mean removing challenges but giving participants the ‘tools’ and techniques to manage them.

* Problem Based Learning (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem-based_learning)

For more information on coaching the balance, have a look at: https://www.rowperfect.co.uk/product/balance-by-jim-flood-ebook-2/

For more analysis of rolling the blades out of the water at the finish, have a look at: https://www.rowperfect.co.uk/product/why-slow-the-boat-jim-flood/

To read more about coaching beginners have a look at: https://www.rowperfect.co.uk/product/a-manifesto-to-improve-club-rowing-for-beginners/

The diagrams in this article are screen grabs of accurate three-dimensional models produced using Google Sketchup.

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