Beginner rowing – one club’s experience


Freshmen Rowing is a concept that some universities use as a way of ‘blooding’ new talent who start rowing for the first time.  The experience of running a learn to row course and using it to fund raise and recruit is common to clubs and schools across the rowing world.  But many face issues with integrating beginners into their main programme.  Hear how Duncan Holland saw a Swiss club, Belvoir take on the challenge.  Can you adapt this to your own club situation?

In some previous blog posts I have talked of the difficulties and opportunities of recruiting

Belvoir Freshmen Racing rowing
Belvoir Freshmen Racing

new members for rowing clubs. It is seldom easy, but my current club, Belvoir RC in Zurich, have developed a top class programme. They call it the Freshmen Course and it is aimed at adults, mostly from the two universities in town, who have never rowed before.

The course runs for 8 weeks and is organised in conjunction with the ASVZ, the Zurich students sports union. Participants have to pass an easy ergometer test to get entry to the course and are expected to train 3 times a week for the duration of the programme.

At the end oft he course everyone takes part in a full on head race, the Ellikon-Eglisau, over 11km. This year we had 3 eights of freshmen rowing and all acquitted themselves well. All 3 boats raced over the course at a 28 plus rating and beat a fair number of other crews. Yes the people they beat were mostly Masters of various descriptions, but I still think it was a great performance from 3 crews of brand new rowers, and each crew was mixed men and women as well.

Belvoir freshmen racing

After the celebratory brunch on the day following the race we put the hard question to the assembled group; “How many of you want to carry on with rowing?“ The very gratifying answer was that 15 want to join the racing group, 5 want to row but recreatioally, 1 is off to join a neighbouring club where he has friends and only 4 said, “Thanks, but no thanks.“ An 80% hit rate has got to be success I think.

The course is self funding, the athletes pay and, if they join the club, the cost of the course is put towards their subscription. Almost all of the coaching and organisation for the course is done by active rowers, and they get a thankyou present and dinner in aknowledgement. In fact many of the most active helpers were recent graduates from previous courses.

The Freshmen concept is interesting in the Swiss context because Swiss rowing has no Novice or beginner racing class. To my knowledge no other local club bothers recruiting adults to their racing programme. There is a tendency to look down noses at such recent recruits and to compare them unfavourably with products of junior programmes which are the standard recruiting tool.

Yes, an adult beginner starts behind a well schooled junior, but talent and attitude with some good coaching as a spur allow rapid progress. Just look at the speeds achieved by Dutch university Freshmen crews. American University programmes are also full of what they call “walk ons” and after 4 years the difference between an adult beginner and an experienced beginner is not apparent.

On my first day back in Zurich after the New Year camp I must put my money where my mouth is; I am booked to start the Class of 2014 on their journey from freshmen course member to full fledged racers. Watch this space.

Duncan Holland

Lessons for Rowing Clubs

From this case study, the key lessons are

  1. Mix men and women – it makes it more fun
  2. Recruit for a short term rowing course – anyone can sign up for a short time and then decide long term afterwards
  3. Offset course fees against club membership if they join
  4. Have a plan what to do with the new recruits after the course ends
  5. Set a target (a race in this case) for them to aim for
  6. Thank your volunteers and helpers publicly and have a party at the end for everyone

Can you share your experiences with other club organisers?  Join our Webinar How to Retain Beginners in your Club on June 16/17.  Reserve a ticket to get the recording or to attend the webinar live!


Subscribe to our Newsletter for more information:

Our Rowing Network

Did you like this post? Support this blog and our network by donating

Feel like Rowing again? Visit the Shop at!

Accessories, equipment, boats, clothing

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts

Whether it’s sports, nutrition or equipment, you’ll find what you’re looking for in one of these categories


Everything about rowing – browse through our large archive or search for articles of your choice


Search Blog


Rowing Network

Do you like our posts? Support this blog and our network by donating


Get all latest content and news!