Following our posts here and here about the change in date for the UK National Rowing Championships we’ve had a message from Fiona Dennis, the Chair of the Competition Committee for British Rowing which we are seeking her permission to publish.
In the meantime, Richard Philips, Coach at London RC has allowed us to publish his letter to the committee to further stimulate the debate. He also sent us copies of earlier letters dates 2000 and 1998 demonstrating how long the realisation in top clubs has been that the Nat Champs was losing importance and meaning for athletes.
Do you agree with him?
I think that I have attended somewhere between twenty five and thirty National Championships either as a competitor, coach or umpire and thus believe that over the thirty years since I first raced in a single I have gained some insight into the event.
That a review, reorganisation and possible rescheduling was necessary cannot be doubted and I must congratulate the committee for taking the bold move that they have. However I fear that the problems of the National Championships are but a symptom of the relative level to which British Club Rowing has sunk and that the review and its conclusions have not addressed or fully understood the issues and it has overlooked some of the consequences of the change.
1) International Athletes
The revue has noted the absence of any senior international athletes from the event and, by moving the date, they hope to provide a date when the international athletes would be available to compete for their home clubs. A look at the history of the championships and how we reached the current position will show that this could be flawed.
During the early 1980’s some of our International standard crews still competed at the Championships and often final selections were not confirmed until after a winning performance at the event. However by the end of the decade it had become clear that if GB was to hold its head above water on the international stage, its crews would have to be almost full time professionals and on a different level to club rowing.
This state of affairs continued into the 90’s and, at that time, only one club had the financial might to be able to support these new full time athletes. It is at this point that the relative standard of the championships began free fall downwards and by the mid 90’s, with the introduction of lottery funding, the inclusion of lightweights into the Olympic program and the introduction of the World Cup Regattas, the National Championships fell of the radar of any of the potential GB athletes.
The average standard of rowing at club level has not changed significantly, what has changed is the standards required to win at the top level and beyond. To feed what is now one of the World’s most successful and best funded athlete development systems, British International Rowing have focused their resources on a select group of High Performance Centres and schemes such as World Class Start etc. This has left the bulk of the sport out in the cold and has almost completely divorced international athletes from club rowing. The majority of our current senior international rowing team have never been in a “club” as opposed to a “rowing facility” and thus feel no sense of loyalty, other than that with purse strings attached, to any ordinary club.
Whilst a small minority of the senior international athletes, who have genuine club ties, may be interested in helping their home club to win medals at a National Championships, the majority have no such loyalties and are thus unlikely to see anything in it for them.
2) Event Status
What does a win at the National Championships mean? At present, nothing.
There was a time when the results would appear in the National Press.
There was a time when a win in an event would gain you selection for the Home Countries Regatta.
There was a time when a win would get you noticed by the senior team selectors.
There was a time when the entry was such that there were not straight finals, even in junior coxed pairs.
So has the change in date addressed any of these? I accept that it is a case of wait and see. I suspect that the press will continue to ignore rowing unless it involves our Olympians racing athletes of a similar standard.
I cannot see the Home Countries Match moving its date so I do not see how the England Team selection carrot can be used to attract entries.
However stunning a performance might be at the National championships, they have long ceased to have any relevance to the senior team and thus a win even in October will prove little.
It is worth noting that, at one time when lightweight fours, an Olympic Class event, were included in the Home Countries Schedule, the event was well supported at the National Championships. Now that the event has been removed from the Home Countries program, the number of domestic entries has collapsed.
Moving the date alone will not restore the status of the event.. Being the National Champion has to have meaning.
3) The Date
On the negative side there are three issues with the current date.
- a) It does not fit into the program of events that suit our international athletes
- b) It is in the shadow of Henley Royal Regatta.
- c) A win will not open the door to any of the National teams as they have all been selected by this stage
However on the positive side
- a) It is still within the summer period.
- b) There is a full program of 2000m regattas leading up to the event.
- c) Statistically the weather is better and more settled in July than it is in October.
- d) A win in some events will gain a crew selection for the Home Countries Match.
If the event is to be the high point and climax of the season and taken seriously crews will need to train for the event. The available training time in October is limited by the number of daylight hours. Whilst some crews can train after sunset or before sunrise, on rivers where there is enough back ground light (In towns) many will have their “on water training” restricted to weekends. There has been debate regarding the effects the date change will have on events on the same weekend as the new championships but the knock on effects will spread to several weekends prior to the event.
Whilst HRR is the current high point of the season for many club athletes, it does not serve those who wish to compete at club level in singles, doubles and pairs. It completely ignores those who wish to race at lightweight. A lightweight four would have to be exceptional to win the Wyfolds and few club level lightweights are going to even qualify for the small boats events.
Consequently these athletes tend traditionally to look to the national Championships as a more realist high point for their season. Yes they will try to compete at HRR but accept that their season’s efforts will be judged by the results of the National Championships. By moving the national Championships to the start of the season, British Rowing is ignoring the needs of these athletes. To expect them to extend their season, and in the case of lightweights, maintain their racing bodyweight until October is unreasonable.
The point has been made that the event could form the curtain raiser for academic institutions as new date will fall at the beginning of the academic year. There are few coaches that will have the luxury of being able to form their best crews within a week or two of the start of term. With little knowledge of the abilities of their new intake students, they are going to have to base their crews on what they know from the previous year and thus, were they to enter, their crews will be relatively scratch.
It has already been noted that by moving the date and splitting the junior entry there will be a problem with some age groups who will be effectively removed form the system. Too old in July for J17 and, by October, too old for J18, Many of these athletes will, by October, then be in their first year in University and, as an unknown quantity, could will loose out yet again.
Moving the event to October will still not truly fit in with the needs of our International Athletes and the benefits of having the event during July will be lost.
4) Standard of Racing
In moving the date, the committee is seeking to raise the standard of the event by providing the means for our international athletes to be able to compete, for their clubs should they feel they would like too.
However the Head of the River for Fours provides an insight as to the effect of this. International athletes are released to their clubs for this autumnal event and form relatively scratch crews. However these crews turn out to be significantly faster than any purely club based crew, who will have been in a set combination for some weeks prior to the event. The margin in some cases being over one minute. If this is converted to 2000m one would be looking at margins in excess of 100m between the leading crews and the rest of the field. One club/rowing facility/high performance centre, if it bothered to turn up, would dominate the event.
With Colleges and schools fielding scratch and untested crews and with the majority of club athletes not having raced in this type of event for a period of 16 weeks the standard of rowing could well be significantly lower than the current levels.
The clock is ticking as many athletes and coaches will, as the calendar year begins, be making holiday plans. The event committee needs to start selling the new date, and letting people know the new format of events. If you want the event to be the climax of the season, athletes and coaches must have the opportunity to plan ahead.
The Serious semi-professional athletes that you would like competing at the event do not plan their racing calendar from one week to another. Their racing season and training programs are planned months or more in advance. Training months will be split up into hard, medium and easy weeks with the aim of peaking for the main event. The focus of the training will be geared up for the race in question. Training camp venues, for example, are booked sometimes a year ahead.
Insufficient notice has been given of the change to allow annual training programs and racing schedules to be planned ahead.
6) Other Factors
When are club level athletes expected to take a holiday and do the things that normal non-rowing types do?
The increasing number of professional coaches and funded training centres has polarised the sport. An analogy might found in the Scottish football Premier League where there are just two teams that dominate the competition. There is a limit to the number of times you can ask the same club crews to race each other
Just at the same time as the International Athletes began to cease to support the event HRR made a change to their rules that, in the long term, has driven a nail into the coffin of many a smaller rowing club. By allowing clubs to field “B , C, D and even E” crews in the events at HRR, the Stewards have permitted the large rowing facilities to grow at the expense of many of the other clubs. At one time the talent in club level rowing was spread amongst far more clubs than it is now and thus, at a National Championships there was a good base of competitive racing. Many Athletes see little point in travelling halfway across the country to race crews from their own club.
One of the draw backs of the current date is that entries close at a time when may club level coaches and online entry administrators are still at Henley or are returning from that event. They will not all have had ready access to emails and the internet during the week of HRR and thus planning crews and entries for the Champs is difficult. A change in the closing date by just one or two days might enable crews to reform and target the championships.
When I competed in the Home countries match in 1984, it was a full team affair. This meant that each event at the National Championships had a meaningful prize. The event has now been downsized and has become a bit of a lottery.
There are other selectable events. There is now a European Rowing Championships and there are some student level events FISU etc. The British International Office retains tight control on these events and sees them as part of the athlete development pathway. These events tend to be late in the summer (September) and thus the current championship date could be used as a final selection trial for these events.
As a coach at one of the High Performance Rowing Clubs I find myself in a very difficult position. I cannot order or tell my athletes to support an event if they are not interested in it. They are grown adults and thus they need to buy into the new date. If they feel that there is a good reason to attend, then I will endeavour to give them the best chance of winning.
I have in the past put pen to paper on the subject of the standard of the Championships and the general direction of club rowing. I append these as some of the points I raised then are still relevant.
I feel passionately that we should have a National Championships that have meaning and purpose. However changing the date, on its own, will not produce the results required. Only a complete overhaul of the entire regatta calendar from start to finish will achieve the required result.
And from 2000 and 1998 Richard’s earlier letters.
3rd August 98
It is sad that, other than a few individuals, most of the crews that made the weekend of Henley Royal Regatta were absent from the National Championships. This may have been due to this year’s location, too far from most of the top clubs. However, the number of entries and their standard has been dropping over recent years and one needs to look for other reasons for the decline of this event.
With most of the national junior team, the U23 team and the senior team absent, because they have already been selected by the time of the Championships, few winners can claim to be the best in the country. The only team that is dependent on the Nationals is that for the Home countries match. Many clubs and oarsmen put all their efforts into Henley Regatta and find it difficult to raise enthusiasm for a competition, two weeks later. Furthermore, the declining standard has, for many oarsmen, reduced the status of the championships to the level of any of the other multi lane regattas.
If the championships remain on their present date, relative to the FISA calendar, it must be accepted that National Squad crews are unlikely to return. If the status of the Championships is to be raised so that a winner can truly claim to be the best in the country, the date of the event needs to be reviewed. However with the introduction of the World cup regattas there are very few dates which would suit both international and club crews. Given the difficulties in making any changes in the regatta calendar, other alternatives need to be found to revitalise the event
To make the event a truly club championship event, composite crews would need to be excluded and a membership ruling similar to that of Henley Royal Regatta would need to be applied to deter convenience crews from being formed just for the championships. However, by the time Henley is over and the entries close, most club crews know exactly where they stand and, unless they feel they have chance of a place in a final, see little point in entering. Again one solution might be to move the event to a date earlier in the summer, before Henley.
One argument against moving the event forward is that School and college crews would be at a disadvantage as they would in the middle of their exam period. With a few modifications, the National Schools Regatta could become the National Junior Championships, thus getting round this problem.
The Championships where not the only event that suffered from a lack of entries this year. In the Thames Region, open eights events were seldom anything other than straight finals and S1 was not much better. At Henley, including the crews that did not qualify, there were 36 British club eights entered in the Thames Cup and about 45 UK college/ student crews in the Temple. Going by the pre Henley regattas, it is obvious that many of these crews had not made the effort to prove that they were of the standard one would expect of crews competing at Henley.
The decline in the entries and standard of the National Championships may be a symptom of a general fall in the standard of the sport at club level. This should be giving us all cause for concern, as it will have serious long-term effects on the sport.
8th October 2000
Great Britain’s fantastic results at the Olympic regatta go to prove that professionalism pays. Our professional athletes, now that they are lottery funded, are without a doubt amongst the best in the world.
However before we get carried away with the celebrations, I would ask readers to take a sober look at the sport below our top internationals. Whilst one would hope that our National Crews are always the best that can be fielded and that no domestic crew should be able to beat them, it would be a sign of a healthier sport if there were crews who could make them feel uncomfortable from time to time.
The evidence from the last few years is that no crew made up of amateur athletes can hope to challenge or even get near the professionals. The result is that there is no incentive for the top amateurs to continue in the sport when they realise that they have reached a point where the domestic regattas hold no interest for them and they are not prepared to risk careers wives etc by becoming professionals. The almost non-existent domestic entry in events such as the Ladies Plate at Henley bears this out.
There is therefore a large group of highly talented and experienced athletes who, in days of old, might have been challengers for the national team. However this group of athletes are not prepared to make the overwhelming sacrifices that a place in the team now requires. For these athletes there is only one real end goal for their season’s rowing, the club events at Henley Royal Regatta. So dominant has this regatta become, that many crews do little or no racing before and virtually none after. This means that the serious domestic summer racing season now lasts only eight weeks, the months of May and June.
Other than the National Championships there are no domestic Multi-Lane 2000m regattas during the months of July and August. Those in various National teams have the chance to compete in serious crews at properly run regattas commensurate with their expectations and standard. For the serious club oarsmen and women who may wish to challenge for places in a national squad crew the following year, the domestic round of post Henley regattas offer little.
The British International Rowing Office give the impression that the junior and U23 teams can provide the source of all the athletes that they need for a full senior team, without recourse to club based athletes. They should however remember that the current structure is heavily, if not entirely, dependant on the substantial lottery funding. If and or when this supply of money reduces, BIRO will need to take a step back and seek the help of the clubs. Having asset stripped those clubs, upon which they used to depend, to form a fully funded, fully professional national team; they cannot expect much co-operation from them. To put it bluntly, the domestic club structure may now be incapable to rising to the challenge.
Drastic measures are required. Some form of new target needs to given to club athletes to help them to make the jump from, what is on average, a very low standard domestic level, up to World Championship standard. Furthermore, something needs to be done to take the pressure off Henley Royal Regatta.
One the first major problems to be addressed is that, other than at Henley, most of the National team do not race at any regattas within this country, at which domestic crews can have a chance of racing them. Furthermore the World Cup regattas restrict the number of entries per country and only accept crews nominated by BIRO. Even when there is no GB squad crew or only one in an event and there is an opportunity for a club crew to compete, BIRO seem to be frightened by the thought of club crews being given the chance to race their selected crews. Unless an athlete can get some exposure to top class racing, he will never know whether there could be a future for him at the highest levels.
The first major Post Henley Regatta and, what should be the peak of the domestic season, is the National Championships. Two problems exist, the first is that, as things stand at present, entries close two days after Henley and those clubs with crews still racing on the Saturday and Sunday of that regatta find that it is a real pain to get their entries organised and in on time. The second problem is that our international crews are unlikely to race at the National Championships one week after competing at Lucerne. The obvious solution to both these problems would be to move the championships by one week. Unfortunately, I suspect that the people who run the Championships (for their own benefit) would resist any such changes and would, like Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister, do every thing possible to block any progress.
There is a regatta for club athletes to aim for, the Home Countries Match. The inclusion, this year of Belgium into the Home Countries match begs the question as to why, in years when the match is held on a six-lane course, a further country cannot be invited to compete. This event should provide a bridge between the domestic scene and international level rowing and the standard should be just below that required for selection for the full national squad. However to achieve this, the selection procedures, the team format and the management need to be more professional.
In 1986, 1994 and 1999 there were Commonwealth Regattas. The selection and overall standard of crews for this event was much higher than that of a Home Countries match. Without some form of secure funding, which is not likely, this event will only occur on an occasional basis. Could a competition of similar standard be started somewhat closer to home? There is already a competition that acts as an example of what could be done. Those junior rowers, who fail to make the FISA Junior World Championships team, have the Coup to aim for. It should be born in mind that some of Great Britain’s successful senior athletes have come up this way.
A European club level championship would provide a goal for the amateur oarsman and woman, as opposed to the full time professional athletes that now compete at world championship and Olympic level. It would also provide a good stepping stone for those who wish to see how far they can get before they take the leap and give up a career to become professional athletes.
The timing and rules for such a competition would need to be discussed with other European clubs and associations. The basic qualification should be that it would be open to those athletes who had not competed in a world cup or FISA World Championship regatta in the last 12 months.
If these ramblings should strike a cord with anybody else, particularly in our near neighbours over the channel, lets start talking.