“What kind of exercise can I use to help stay relaxed when stroking (quads and eights)”
Stroking a boat is a big responsibility and comes with its own set of pressures (outside of the rowing stroke itself) As stroke, you are required to be physically, technically and also mentally strong.
Stroke doesn’t have to be physically the biggest / strongest in the crew but does need to be aerobically fit in order to maintain required rates during training and racing. Crew seating is based on a variety of factors and power is only one of these. We often seen the bigger individuals in the middle seats of the boat (engine room) providing the power and the smaller and often more technical people at either end.
In order to maintain a smooth stroke (particularly at the catch and finish) it can help if you avoid trying to exert 100% power all of the time (working at 100% can only last so long before you begin to tire, and if this happens, the rest of the rowing stroke will come undone) Stroke needs to carefully pace their effort in accordance with their own ability and that of the crew.
Take setting the rhythm as your primary job and let the bigger guys in the middle of the boat provide the grunt through the water.
It is important for a stroke to have a fluid action which is easy to follow.
Stroke needs to be technically “clean” with a smooth change of direction at both the finish and the catch and have a good sense of feel / rhythm while maintaining a long consistent stroke when under pressure, particularly at higher rates. Try cut out any additional movements which are taking up energy, such as tugging the finish or dipping your hands at the catch.
Confidence is a key requirement for a stroke. They need to accept the role the responsibility and be willing to step up to the challenge on race day. In a race situation, the stroke needs to have an awareness of what’s going on around them, particularly in coxless boats, and be in a position to communicate (with the cox / crew) with the execution (or changing) of the race plan when required.
As for exercises to practice, you should consult with your coach to discuss any specific concerns you may have and areas where you feel improvement can be made. In a crew boat the rhythm is everybody’s responsibility. The coach will appreciate any feedback.
From you own point of view, you will need to accept the position mentally and understand the challenges that go with it and build up a mental plan to deal with these challenges.
Technically, make sure your hands are moving quickly and smoothly away from the finish and that you follow this with an early square over in preparation for the change of direction at the catch. Good preparation on the slide will give you less to do at the top of the slide and hopefully ensure a well timed catch. A well timed catch will make the job of stroking a boat easier. If the stroke is slow into the water then the boat will feel heavy and the crew will have difficulty in hitting required rates. Early preparation on the slide for the change of direction at the catch (slowing into frontstops), and an early square over will help with timing at the catch.
Many strokes complain about feeling rushed up the slide and this can be solved by working on the timing on the slide, particularly through the middle of the boat. Pausing at different points on the slide can prove a useful exercise to teach crewmembers control on the recovery, which is vital for a smooth change of direction at the catch. A good seven man who also stays long in the water and relaxed on the slide is also important to provide back up to the stroke.