The Catch: Why I coach it the way I do

A guest post from Walter Martindale
Walter’s coaching services can be hired from the Rowing Coach & Remote Coaching on the Rowperfect UK shop.

This might fit into the “Too Long Didn’t Read” category for some, but there’s a lot of information about the dynamics of a rowing/sculling stroke that can inform coaches and participants/athletes on how to “time” the catch…

How many times have you heard, “The catch is the hardest part of the stroke to learn.”

It can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that it’s going to be difficult to learn or to teach/coach the catch, guess what…

If, on the other hand, you credit the athlete(s) you coach with some ability, and if you have a reasonably straightforward approach to the catch, it’s not that difficult to learn/coach. When you see the sorts of skills exhibited by young people riding their bicycles up and down walls, skateboarding around urban obstacles, or doing just about anything that’s fun – these are usually really complex skills, we must be able to help a person learn how to put an oar into water. It’s not like you only get one attempt to do it – every time a person goes down a rowing course they have between 150 and 250 “trials” depending on how hard/fast they’re going and on weather conditions. Surely rowers aren’t that un-coordinated? Or – are we all really that hopeless as coaches?

A reasonably straightforward approach to the catch, from a coaching perspective, demands a bit of knowledge about the interactions between the boat, the crew, and the water. You don’t need to be a nautical engineer specializing in fluid dynamics, but we can learn some basics from the “dynamics” (the physics) of the stroke – in plain language, without the equations.

I don’t recall ever meeting a person who wanted to row “badly”. I don’t recall meeting a coach who didn’t care if the people he or she coached row well or not, but we all have someone in our past who just never quite got it. I blame myself for not having the skills to help that rower/sculler figure it out, in those cases. (Not everyone gets it… Not everyone cares enough to do the deliberate practice, but for those who do, there ARE tools we coaches can provide to help figure it out.)

Generally speaking, the catch shouldn’t be that hard to coach/teach. In this post I’ll describe many of the things I’ve used to help people learn the catch (and to coach the catch). I owe these “drills” to coaches who helped me learn to row and scull, to a number of other coaches I’ve observed at work. The short list of these, in no particular order, is – of those who coached me – Mel LaForme, Boris Klavora, R.N. (Dick) McClure. Those whom I’ve observed and whose brains I’ve picked include (again, no particular order, and unfortunately the list isn’t complete), Al Morrow, Drew Harrison, Volker Nolte, Mike Spracklen, Richard (Dick) Tonks, David Thompson, and Steve Gunn. I also owe some of my method to D. Gordon E. Robertson, whose biomechanics training at UBC made me question conventional “knowledge” regarding how things work. Evidence-based coaching will win out. I’ve “picked” brains of coaches whenever I could even if I was supposed to be teaching them. Tim Richardson of Tauranga said “It’s all in the feet, boys.” at a competition at Wivenhoe and a year or so later I “got” it.

I also owe some of the way I coach the catch to my re-working information from my master’s research data (and a bunch of the reading I’ve done before the master’s and since), and a lot of cold wet winter days in Invercargill, thinking about what it meant.

Conventional wisdom in most sports is often not wise. When I was at university, we had a visiting lecture from some biomechanics researchers who studied the badminton smash shot, taking what really happens in international competitive badminton and comparing it with textbook (from before the 1970s) teaching. Conventional teaching had nothing at all resembling what really happened. When I was training in judo (I have a “shodan” or first level black belt) my “sempai” or senior training guide made it clear that judo champions’ techniques in competition bore almost no resemblance to the basic forms that were taught in beginner’s sessions. Why would it be any different in rowing – is conventional wisdom “the goods” or does it need a hard look by researchers?

Getting the Catch Right

First – and this works at all levels, you need to follow the KISS principle. (Keep it Simple) What follows may not seem that simple, but it’s almost all based on straightforward Newtonian dynamics, sans equations.

Second – Whether you buy it personally or not – ask the athlete if he/she “thinks of the catch as more the start of the drive, or more the last thing you do on the recovery.” Rationale: If the former, you may notice that the athlete starts pushing the foot-stretcher and pulling the handle while the blade is still in the air. If the latter, it’s more likely that the athlete will have the blade(s) at least entering the water before starting to attempt to crush the foot-stretcher. In my opinion – in our Newtonian action-reaction-based sport – if a crew weighing up to 7 times as much as a boat pushes on the foot stretchers with the blades in the air, it can’t be good. The NET velocity of the crew/boat movement system may not be affected significantly, but it just doesn’t make sense (to me) to waste length like that, or to shove a boat aft without the blades in the water to prevent it from actually moving (relatively) aft.

If you push the foot stretcher while the blade is still in the air, the blade starts travelling to the stern and “misses” water before entering. I think this is folly.

Third – after the above brief discussion – suggest that the crew wants their blades to start entering the water at (not before or after) the point of farthest “reach” in the catch position.

Fourth – a couple of drills to accomplish a very good catch movement and timing.

A drill: “Throw the handle away”

– gravity makes a very good catch. (Boris Klavora showed us this in 1981 when he started coaching at UBC/VRC before UBC split from VRC.) If you JUST drop the blade, you get the wrong impression that the blade entry is a square/straight up and down movement. It’s not – the blade path is curved. If you toss the handle away a short distance with the blade squared (obviously do this in a double or a four or bigger – singles and pairs maybe not), the blade will follow a curved “bow-ward and down” path. The bottom edge will hit the water – and that’s as far as you’re interested because the blade will then flop onto its back because you’re not holding the handle. *Caution: A few friends have told beginners “throw the handle away” without making sure it’s only a little “throw”, only to have the rower launch the handle so hard that the blade swung all the way around (feathered, skimming the water) to hit the tip of the oar THROUGH the side of the boat. Please make sure that the “throw” is between 6 inches and a foot (15-30 cm).

Then – after getting the blade to follow that “down and bow-ward” path, watch the handle movements after letting it go – the handle will make an “away and up” sort of movement until contact with the water (and then it will flip because the blade falls on its back).

Then – stay in contact with the handle when you throw it away, so you can FEEL as well as SEE the “away and up” movement. Watch the blade while you do this – so you can get the feel for the handle on the “trials” where the blade does what you want. (If the blade stops and drops, you’ve done it wrong and don’t want to reward yourself for that “feel.)
Then – keep enough control of the handle so that when it is thrown away, you can let the blade take the curved path to the water BUT you keep it from flopping onto its back – entering all the way to where about 30 cm of the shaft makes a splash in the water. In the static “figuring it out” stage, you want the splash on both sides of the shaft to be about the same bow-ward and stern-ward (Mel LaForme showed me this when I was learning to scull – he’d been the V8+ coach at UBC in my first season and eventually won a gold medal at the 1985 Worlds, M4X).

Then – after you’ve got a bit of a feel for having the blade enter, start tapping the boat around in a circle using that one blade with the “a little bit of a throw-away-type-motion” so the blade first contacts the water with the down-forward (forward is toward the bow) movement and is then “pulled” to help the boat move in a circle. (PLEASE make sure you’re in a low-traffic area and not going to get in anybody’s way – bodies and bowballs don’t mix very well.) This part of the drill can be all you need to do if – when you watch a person tapping the boat to turn around – you see that he or she already does a good entry when tapping the boat around. One long-ago camp at Ruataniwha, Steve Gunn and I were in a boat trying to get a young man to stop missing water – we reached the end of the course, and when turning around, he was tapping the boat around with PERFECT entries. We stopped him and let him know that he already knew how to do a perfect catch when he was tapping the boat around to change direction, got him to pay attention to the blade/hand action when tapping around, and said something along the lines of “If you can make the blade do THAT when you’re at full reach in a complete stroke, you’ll have a really good catch..” – He started sculling again and in LESS THAN 10 strokes, he was catching with the blade entry (and timing) we had been trying to achieve.

If the person is able to apply this “sort of thrown away” movement to the blade at full reach, you’re a long way towards getting it sorted out. At this point you need to let the person know that the desired movement has been achieved. They then go on their own for a while and make that movement their own: I say “Make this movement part of you.” (it’s called deliberate practice by the motor learning crowd), and check in on them after a few training sessions.

Fifth – and this long-winded part is “evidence-based” – At the 1997 (I think) Rowing Canada National Coaches conference, Peggy McBride, then at the Australian Institute for Sport, reported on her pre-1996 research about forces in rowing, and concluded the presentation with (and I’m paraphrasing): ‘We’ve pretty much figured out what’s going on in the drive, and future increases in boat speed are going to come from a better understanding of the recovery and transition to drive’. That stuck with me because I’d been coaching catch timing ever since I started coaching.

Timing: Forget about “seat-blade” timing. The seat doesn’t have nerves and you can’t easily tell when the wheels stop turning as your cue to put the blades in. I was told that I had a pretty good catch when I was sculling (LONG ago) and while I learned it with seat-blade timing (via Mel, Dick M, and later, Boris). Then, at a competition site (Lake Wivenhoe, Australia, as part of the U23 Kiwi squad in the inter-state competitions, 1998) Tim Richardson (Tauranga) said “It’s all in the feet, boys.” I didn’t get it then, but I managed to figure it out later.

About the same time, I was re-working the kinematic data from my master’s thesis on energy interchanges in sculling to see if I could get something useful for coaching out of it. I took the velocities of the body segment centres of mass of one of the scullers, the velocity of the boat, and averaged them. Add up all the velocities of all the body segments of the sculler, and divide by the number of segments, and you get the velocity of the mass centre of the sculler. Add (and average) this with the boat, and you get the velocity of the mass of the “system”. Plot these, and plot the velocity of the boat.

You get the velocity of the boat “checking” after the catch, and peaking during the recovery – that’s been in coaching manuals since the late 1970s, including the Canadian Level 1 Rowing manual from those days, and a bunch of other sources.

You get the velocity of the sculler doing the opposite. The sculler (because he/she is pushing on the foot plate) accelerates during the drive and slows down during the recovery.

You also get the boat following along in the “middle” of these two velocity curves – the boat, the sculler, and the “system” are all at the same speed at the catch and the release, but the rest of the time the boat and sculler interact to provide the velocity of the “system”, which increases during the drive, and decreases during the recovery.

“So what?” Well. Here’s another thought/evidence experiment… If you are rowing, and finish a stroke, you take the blades out of the water and… what happens? If you sit there at the “release” with the blades feathered and off the water, balanced, your boat will continue to glide until it runs out of momentum. How does it run out of momentum? The water… Your boat is pushing water out of the way and making waves – both take energy. The boat also drags a layer of water along with it – that takes more energy. So your boat eventually stops.

If you move your handles “away”, swing “forward”, and start sliding, your boat actually speeds up, overcoming the drag (viscous, form, and wave drag) while the centre of mass of the boat/crew/oars slows down (remember, with the oars out of the water, there’s no propulsion). But the body of the rower is still moving in the same direction as the boat – not “forward” in a rowing sense, but “forward” in a “towards the finish line sense” – and the boat is going faster than the crew.

Most of us have been taught/coached to control our slides by resisting – pushing on the foot stretcher to slow ourselves down – to “get our weight onto our feet”. But research in Australia in the late 1990s (Richard Smith) and others (more recently the BAT Logic foot-stretcher makers – you can see these force curves on their website) shows that for MOST of the recovery, the majority of the force on the foot stretcher is a “pull” – you pull the boat underneath you with your feet. If you’re sitting still on the water, and move from the release to the catch, the centre of mass of you and the boat pretty much stays in the same place, but the boat moves bow-ward about 6-7 times as much as you move sternward, depending on how much each weighs. In the dynamic situation when the boat is moving, the crew mass/momentum is MUCH greater than the boat’s, and when the crew moves “its” feet toward the catch position, the boat (and oars and cox if applicable) move toward the crew, while the crew slows down a little.

So… If you’re thinking of yourself sliding your body towards the “frontstops”, you’re then having to think about stopping the mass of your abdomen, torso, head, shoulders, arms from moving sternward – even though you’re not really moving sternward, the mindset of sliding toward frontstops is a mindset of “I have to stop sliding my body.” The result of that is you may end up using a lot of muscular effort to make that “stop”, and you may end up “lunging” because you think that you’re stopping your body.

In reality, you’re not sliding sternwards – the boat is sliding bow-wards under you. You have control over this with your feet (Thanks, Tim R.). You have nerves in your ankles, knees, hips, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin that tell you when you’re reaching full compression (that moment when your feet stop moving towards your hips and start moving away from your hips). There are no nerves in your wheels….

From a coaching perspective – armed with the above info, this post is aimed at: Get your upper body “set” fairly early in the recovery (that’s conventional, but remember you’re using that swing-over to pull the boat); pay attention to bringing your feet towards you (that’s less conventional); allow the boat to carry the oars around to the catch, using your hands to keep the blade off the water and prepare for entry; anticipate the moment when your feet are going to change from “moving toward you” to “moving away from you”; put the squared blade into the water with that sort-of-tossed-away-equal-splash-on-both-sides-of-the-shaft movement that you learned earlier, at the moment your feet are not moving relative to your hips; hang on to the handles, and push the foot stretchers.

Do this, and you’ll probably have a well-timed, dynamic catch. Scullers who have changed to thinking about the timing linked to their feet have reported to me that it feels smoother, more connected at the catch. I’ve observed people getting rid of their little “lunge” at the catch when placing the blades, and getting what I consider a very well-timed catch. A Junior National crew coach at one of my former postings tried this the day after I gave a presentation about this information to the coaching staff – he reported that he could tell by watching when they were thinking about bringing their feet toward them and timing entry for the “fully compressed” moment, and he observed that their splits (SpeedCoach XL4) were TWO SECONDS faster when they were thinking this way. When they lapsed back to “sliding toward the stern” (which they were used to from their previous years of training) they slowed back down those two seconds.

Whew. That was longer than I first intended. A lot of blabbering about the catch, and it was written over several weeks so it will require some editing for continuity, but if you believe it’s possible to learn a well-timed, dynamic catch, and that it’s not as difficult as some people make it out to be, you’re more than half-way there…

2 thoughts on “The Catch: Why I coach it the way I do

  1. John the Rower says:

    Becky was right that it’s too long with too much anecdotal support presumably to provide credibility.
    It is, however, good to see some points being aired for general consumption. In particular the drawing of the boat beneath the body on the recovery and the placement being timed at the end of that movement rather than the beginning of the stroke.
    There was a lack of useful exercises to enhance understanding and I can’t accept the “throw away style” of preparation for the entry into the water.
    I shall endeavour to contribute a shorter variation for consideration which will introduce an alternative and simpler picture for your edification.

  2. Walter Martindale says:

    Becky didn’t suggest it was too long. I did. The throw-away drill is something that one does maybe once or twice to get a feel for an unrestrained and quick blade entry at full reach. JtR, you may not like it, but I have about 30 years of using it to good effect – admittedly not up to the standard of a peer-reviewed research paper – to support it. YMMV, I think, is attached to any coaching method.

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