August 9th, 2019


The Catch [rowing]

Here I am, back to rowing in the 1x again. But this time, it's different, in several complex ways. I think that's okay, but it may be helpful to just lay things out here as a sanity check, given how Crew Politics are always an inherent part of Crew. I don't want to be in the 1x solely for selfish reasons. I want to be in the 1x for my team. This is not paradoxical; the 1x is where I can feel every single thing that I am doing incorrectly and can work on fixing those things. And then I can take those feelings with me when I go into other boats to row with other people. I can also set an example for others to aspire to. (not that I'm All That; just that I'm willing to be brave and keep doing the work no matter what, with no laurels-resting, because hey, what laurels?)

In the past, members of this club have sent boats to one of the premiere fall races in our sport, the Head of the Charles. I want to continue facilitating this for our club, so I sent out a message to our members that if anyone wants to race at the Head of the Charles, they should send a message directly to our Head Coach, as our Head Coach is the person who should be deciding what boats and events to enter. We also briefly discussed this point at a Coaches Meeting, where I also talked a bit about my personal history rowing at the Charles and getting destroyed in the 1x.* At the meeting I mentioned that even though I don't expect to finish or place very well, I do still like to go and race.

After all that, a couple of my teammates did get in touch with me to try and use me as a sounding board for what to say to our Head Coach. In cases like this, I remain neutral, deflect, and redirect to our Head Coach. Just tell him you want to race. That's all you need to do. There's no more surefire way to create chaos and bad headspaces than to encourage athletes to think they can have any kind of say in these decisions, when a rowing program is run in a non-autonomous fashion by a head coach.**

So then I also sent in my own message to our Head Coach, saying that it would be an honor to have an opportunity to represent our club at the Head of the Charles. Intentionally open-ended.

Next thing I know, our Head Coach tells me he's put in an entry in the Women's 30+ single for me. That's never a guarantee, due to the lottery system for entries, but very well then. I must trust our Head Coach to make decisions that are best for our Club's athletes and Club as a whole, for myself, included. can probably reach the logical conclusion that I wouldn't be blogging this if I hadn't gotten the entry. We just found out on Wednesday.

What that means is it's time to buckle down and focus my training efforts between now and then. In some of our chit-chat, I've mentioned to our Head Coach that although I've been rowing in the 1x for quite a long time by now, I haven't really had all that much coaching in the 1x. So now's the time. I must do it to live up to the honor for our Club, a high standard. For me this is psychologically different from just doing it for myself, where if my rowing is inadequate, in the back of my mind I know I'm the only one who suffers the repercussions, a soft sigh of disappointment. It really DOES make a huge difference for me to have other people outside myself setting high expectations and standards. I know this as a teacher.

This week, when the weather has cooperated, we've been relegated to steady-state pieces, to aid in our recovery from sprint racing at Henley and work on the transition into the longer-distance head racing season. We got rained out and blown off the water yesterday morning, but the sky this morning was clear and the water was calm. Okay, Coach says, go get in the 1x. Get launched as quickly as possible, ahead of the other boats going out, and row at a steady-state pace as far as you can make it, ideally all the way to the Menands bridge (6 km upriver). While rowing, I should keep working on making sure I am pulling in high all the way to the finish so my blades come out square and the boat is stable and set on the recovery.

The funny thing about rowing is that in many ways, I've been working on the exact same damn technical points for most of the 20+ years of my rowing career, and I'll probably keep working on them for however many more decades I can continue rowing. I have a bad tendency to wash out early. This has plagued me for forever, whether sweep rowing or sculling. So okay, fine, I'll buckle down and work on it as best I know how.

It was just one other 2x and me out ahead for the row up to the bridge. The 2x started out after me, then gradually overtook me, stopped for a minute while I got back out ahead, then caught up and passed me again. When we reached the bridge, A commented from the 2x, "When's the last time you made it this far up?"

Early summer. Most of the time we stop about 1 km short of there because we're doing pieces and people need to rest or catch up or regroup/etc. I've only occasionally been out in the 1x, because much of the focus during the sprint racing season has been on bigger boats - doubles and quads.

After I'd turned around and was rowing my way back down towards the boathouse, Coach catches up with me, has me weigh enough (stop) and check my mark at the release, with my blades buried. No, really buried, no paint showing. Get it right. That's where we discover that, as I'd thought, my oarlocks were too high. With my blades actually completely buried at the release position, the oar handles are coming in mid-boob, not at the bottom of my ribcage, where they should be. Regardless, Coach says to keep working on pulling in high, then speeds off in the safety launch to work with other athletes again.

Eventually he returns, and has me weigh enough again. This time, he wants me to work on something different, at the front end of the stroke (the catch). He points out that I have another pernicious bad habit that is costing me a huge amount of speed and wasting energy: I tend to come up to the catch and let my legs come to a stop, then try to lunge forward with my shoulders. These actions all cause the boat to slow down or stop, a net effect rowers call "check." It is this characteristic which often manifests and makes me a non-ideal stroke seat in an 8+ (or other boat, for that matter).

I've known that I've been doing these things and causing considerable check for myself for a long time. The effect is often most acutely felt in the 1x. I can tell because any time I have a loose water bottle in the bottom of the boat, it slams towards the stern of the boat every time I come up to the catch, in a way that is both embarrassingly loud and aggravating.

On a theoretical level, I have long understood perfectly well that this kind of check is a problem for boat speed and efficiency. It represents a substantial amount of wasted energy. When one's body weight is moving towards the stern of the boat on the recovery, that's a whole lot of mass moving in complete opposition to the direction you are trying to propel the boat. At its worst, check brings the boat to a dead stop every stroke, instead of allowing the boat to continue to flow forward.

But how to fix it? It's one thing to know the theory, but sometimes it's a completely different thing to actually know how to stop the issue and row better, and feel the difference. I've had a couple of other extremely proficient scullers try to help me with this particular issue in the past, talking about things like what I should feel in my feet as I come up the slide on the recovery. But I haven't been able to really feel the difference, which I need to be able to do to actually make the change and get it to stick. Coach tried to help me work on it during winter training this year, but at that time the thing he was trying to convey just wasn't getting through to me. Yet.

This time, he asked me to try to do something different. At first I really couldn't quite understand what kind of drill or experiment he was asking me to do. Eventually I figured out that he wanted me to just come up to the catch, without actually taking a stroke, but then return on the slide as if I was taking the stroke, while thinking about keeping my legs moving in a continuous manner without stopping. Basically, completely subtract out the power application part of the stroke and just focus on the continuous leg movement.

It took some trial and error, but then I had one of those magical moments where I Got It. And Coach confirmed. He generally isn't big on positive feedback, but this time he confirmed that I'd made the change he was asking me to make. And I could finally and immediately FEEL the improvement in what I should be doing instead of what I had been doing.

It was one of those transformative technical changes where I am left thinking, ahh. I have more potential for even more speed than I thought I had. If I can systematically fix this aspect of my catches, I can put more of my power and energy towards actually making the boat go faster.

This is what it feels like to have been on a plateau, a very long, bleak personal plateau, but to discover that yes, it's still possible to get off the plateau.

As if I wasn't already addicted to rowing.

*Not literally destroyed, nor utterly humiliated, which are both things that CAN and do very much happen at the Charles, even to very experienced crews. Even the US National Team sometimes hits the bridges. I do expect myself to row and race well, I just don't expect to finish especially well.

**Note there are alternative program structures, such as at Berkeley or with the Arizona Outlaws, where the expectations are very clear that individual rowers are all free to make their own individual decisions about race entries. This particular alternative program structure is also perfectly fine, and is how I got to race at the Charles last time - I just entered myself in, once it became apparent that the other people I could ask to row with me weren't going to be able to make the commitment.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.