Coaching the catch in rowing


Coaching “The Catch” a guest post by HowardtheCoach

If you Google the term “catch” you find “intercept and hold (something which has been thrown, propelled, or dropped”) and in rowing “the catch” is precisely about intercepting and holding the moving interface between the boat and the water. It is a simple term for a subtly complex concept, certainly a concept both coaches and rowers can find difficult.

Let’s start with the basics.  In simple terms, the boat is moving, the water is still and the blade is going to provide the connection between the two, with one end still in the water and the other end moving with the boat. The catch puts the spoon in the water, allowing the rower to lever the boat past the spoon.  In engineering terms, that lever is a “second order” lever, with the fulcrum at the tip and the load moving in the same direction as the force applied (as when lifting a load in a wheelbarrow for example).

This diagram may help visualise the stroke from catch (1) to finish (2) as it might be seen by an observer above the boat.  The green arrow marks the direction of movement of the boat.

Rowing plan view of the stroke from catch to finish Figure 1: plan view of the stroke from catch to finish

While it looks simple as a diagram, there are several things that can go wrong with the catch when actually rowing a moving boat.

Catch timing

If we consider the catch position at (1), just before the spoon enters the water, that spoon should be stationary with respect to the boat and therefore moving with respect to the water.  As a result, when it enters the water it will raise a splash from the back face of the spoon – the part facing toward the bow of the boat.  As a novice rower I found this a difficult point of technique to grasp as it seemed to me that backsplash must mean resistance to the forward motion of the boat.  Surely the ideal would be to have no splash at all as the blade enters the water? I remember being baffled by coaches who were with the best of intentions, trying to coach me to raise backsplash at the catch.  This only led to my taking the catch more or less early as I tried to get the blade into the water too far before frontstops, shortening my stroke with adverse effects on my timing, balance and power.

What the coach can see from the bank however, is that novice rowers tend to be late on the catch, with the spoon entering the water only after they have started the power phase of the stroke.  It may feel more comfortable for the rower, but this novice error leaves a significant portion of the stroke in the air before the spoon meets the water, and while in the air the movement of the blade transmits no power to the forward movement of the boat.  What my coaches were trying to get me to do was to ensure that ALL of the power phase of the stroke happened with the spoon in the water.  Their error (in my view) was in trying to coach the backsplash as an objective in itself, rather than coaching the proper cause of the backsplash.

To repeat, a good catch is going to raise backsplash due to the forward motion of the boat.  The rower does not have to add to this any additional forward motion of the spoon. Advice that I have found useful in coaching rowers is “Don’t let your hands change direction before the spoon is in the water”. While this advice clearly doesn’t stand alone, with most rowers it helps to:

  1. Control the placement of the spoon at the furthest point of the frontstops position
  2. Minimise loss of stroke length at the catch and
  3. Trigger the drive phase of the stroke from the placement of the catch rather than vice versa

This “triggering” of the drive by the placement also helps with a second important aspect of the catch – its depth.

Catch depth

If the rower is timing the drive from arrival at frontstops rather than from the placement of the catch, there follows an almost inevitable tendency to row the catch as the first part of the stroke rather than as the last part of the recovery. In other words, the rower starts the power phase of the stroke with the blade in the air and actively rows the spoon into the water. This is going to make for a “heavier” catch with the spoon striking the water with the weight of the rower behind it rather than simply dropping the blade in at frontstops allowing it to fall under its own weight.  When falling under its own weight the spoon tends to find its own depth as it is designed to.  When rowed in, the rower has to set the depth and the simple fact is that some rowers can do this and some can’t.

Many novice rowers will tend to row deep, with the top edge of the spoon several centimetres below the surface.  This is a significant error because as can be seen from figure 1 above, most of the blade inboard from the spoon is moving in the same direction as the boat.  Putting more of it in the water therefore increases drag and slows the boat.  Some rowers have never been taught about the careful management of buoyancy that influences blade design.  A useful drill (in a stationary boat) is to have half of the crew square their blades and let them float.  They will float with the spoon in the water and the loom out of the water.  In the old days some coaches would tie a string or ribbon to the loom just above the spoon and tell the rower to keep it dry while they rowed.  I find it effective to ask rowers to feel the buoyancy of the blade as they drop it in at the catch and try not to disturb that buoyancy as they take the stroke.  This brings us to the last part of coaching the catch, which is the transition to the drive.

Catch position

Technically the catch and the drive are different parts of the stroke cycle but in practice, the purpose of the catch is to prepare for the drive, so the transition from the catch to the drive is an important one.  The key message here is that the force of the early part of the drive is applied entirely by the legs pushing on footplate, not at all by pulling with the arms.  As a coach, I want to see eyes front, heads up, shoulders down and chests out as the drive begins.  If the rower is working correctly, the speed of the slide during the first part of the drive should be the same as the speed of the blade’s handle.

diagram showing correct catch position Figure 2: Stick diagram showing correct catch position

All of these details have to be prepared on the way in to the catch.  The upper body position described above (eyes front, heads up, shoulders down and chests out) is set up not at frontstops but on the preceding recovery phase. If rowing with a feathered blade, the blade has to be squared well before the rower reaches frontstops. The catch should be all the rower is doing at frontstops.  A tiny fraction of a second of complete stillness in the body and legs while the hands allow the blade to drop into the water.  There should be no lurch forward to get extra length (this inevitably drops the rowers outside shoulder as they overreach). No turning of the head to look at the blade. No pulling up of the outside shoulder as the catch is taken, or early use of the back before the legs have delivered most of their drive on the slide.

diagram to show common errors at the catch Figure 3: Stick diagram to show common errors at the catch

However, once the leg-drive is established the catch is over. 

Read the Rowing Stroke Cycle – 6 short articles starting with Posture


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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. David W Harralson

    I agree with everything Howard says, except for squaring up well before reaching the front stops.

    When I started Masters rowing, the coaches tried to make me square up early, but there is something about my coordination that screws up my rowing trying this. I naturally square up as I let the oar start to drop. It also creates a natural bow splash. It also minimizes wind resistance, the blade is the least aerodynamically efficient part of the boat. It is designed to offer maximum resistance when in the water, minimum resistance is when feathered out of the water.

    Imagine my relief the first time I rowed a pair with an ex-world cup medalist and found he squared up the same way. SmartOar data showed we had nearly identical catch, release timing and force curve shape (except he was stronger than I was). And, how many 70+ lightweights can say they saw a split rate of 1:31 in a pair?

    1. Jessica

      That sort of makes sense and might not make a significant difference in a masters race, but I don’t think getting backsplash from the square up is the same thing as getting backsplash from placing a square blade in the water.

      Can you comment on this point, @howard-aiken? Like you did initially, I also struggled to understand how backsplash wasn’t moving the boat in the wrong direction. Your point that backsplash isn’t, itself, the objective was a revelation to me. Now that I think I understand the catch, I’d like to know whether getting backsplash from a late square up like David describes is different than what you wrote about. I’m thinking that if I change to late square ups, I wouldn’t be ready to drive when my blade is in the water, and I would essentially be checking the boat before driving. Can you clear up the confusion? Thank you!

      1. Howard Aiken

        Hello Jessica and thanks for your question.

        Reading David Harralson’s comment that squaring late “creates a natural bow splash” it does rather sound as if he sees bow-splash as an end in itself. As you and I know, it isn’t. When you are rowing correctly bow-splash is a sign that your blade is still being carried forward by the boat and that the drive phase of the stroke, which will move the blade astern, has not yet started. Creating bow-splash from a late squaring of the blade could be right (if the blade is squared at the end of the recovery) or wrong (if the blade is entering the water while the rowers hands are still moving astern). So the answer to your question is that squaring late or early does not in itself define the quality of a rower’s catch. David’s point about wind resistance may be valid, but reducing wind resistance at the expense of a good clean catch is the rowing equivalent of penny-wise, pound-foolish, more likely to reduce boat-speed than increase it.

        As Marcus Joy posted earlier “A late square is the reserve of those who can do it and still get the correct placement.” It certainly makes correct placement more difficult and as a coach, the last thing I want to do is to make good rowing more difficult. I always recommend an early square, which leaves the rower with less to do at frontstops and more time to concentrate on getting the catch just right.

    2. Canvberra Cox

      My observations from many years of coxing are:
      – people who tend to square as they place have a tendency for more catching more crabs or over-squaring and missing the drive
      – squaring early always has a beneficial effect on timing.

      1. Rebecca Caroe

        Thanks for this Canberra Cox. Good observations and also a great suggestion for how to avoid crabs.

  2. Marcus Joy

    A late square is the reserve of those who can do it and still get the correct placement. Most, and I’m talking 99.99 % can’t. So they need to work with the early square for a while longer yet!

  3. graham cawood

    Approach the catch with arms comfortably bent, blade feathered. As your body stops near your knees allow the moving blade to pull your arms straight. As this happens square the blade. The arms will reach full stretch then rebound, and you drop the blade in as this happens. Your body rebounds and work starts – NO pausing.
    You could also try this – layback at the catch. When your body stops at your knees rotate your torso about a point at the base of your ribs. The seat will move nearer to the feet, and the shoulders will move bow-wards to give about 10` layback. Now push away with your legs. When about 3/4 of the leg drive is done pull with the shoulders, elbows moving out to give 90′ between forearms at the finish. LEGS AND ARMS FINISH TOGETHER. Hands immediately push the handles forward, and knees rebound, without being held down. This technique is best at 26+ spm, and 1:1 in:out. Its called the RHECON style.
    Have fun.

  4. Planky

    Having discovered (through slo-mo video) irrefutable evidence that I also start the drive before the blade is at the correct depth, I started taking slo-mo video of crews at head races. I’d like to say that without fail, 100% of rowers make this mistake. Some big, some small. There have been a couple of exceptions who got it smack-on, 100% right. And then I noticed the GBR stickers on their boats. So I concluded “there’s something in this technique malarkey”.

    I’m new to this sport. I’ve been sculling in the single for 10 months and I’ve started to overtake people who could outpace me easily. But, But,,, I know a lot of this is because I have respectable ergo scores and I’m relying on fitness to over-compensate for bad technique. I know this is a dead-end. There’s a limit to how fit I can get. For example, I lined up next to a sculler at a head race and measured myself against him. Tiny bit taller but quite a huge belly and an “I don’t do fitness” aura about him. My fitness was going to win through right? Wrong… He beat me by 45 seconds! I couldn’t get to grips with it. How could somebody that out of shape go so fast? So I now accept that technique counts for a lot. But I don’t have any technique. I’m going to hit my fitness ceiling and those guys who are just currently out of my reach will remain there: just out of reach.

    The result is my concentration on “efficiency” alongside fitness. This is where I need guidance. What practices will return the biggest gains, in order of the results they bring? Say if I’m going to work on 5 things, one after the other (I know it’s a lifetime of practicing everything but stay with the sentiment for the moment), I think the biggest gains will come from getting perfect catches (as in this article, which I have hugely enjoyed and find myself very inspired by – thankyou).

    Is it something like:
    1. Perfect catches
    2. Perfect finishes
    3. Driving at correct blade depth
    4, Perfect drive sequencing
    5. Perfect recovery

    …something like that?

    …and while we’re on the subject of the perfect catch (number 1 on the list): I’ve been practicing (not in races and hard intervals but on steady pieces) holding myself stationary for 1.5 secs at front stops and then dropping the blades in. I use the term “dropping” with some licence there, because at the moment I’m finding I need to “place” the blades at the right depth because I’m just not practiced enough at the subtleties of the dropping motion….

    I’m hoping, as I become mare familiar with the feeling, I can reduce this 1.5 seconds to shorter and shorter times. Is this a good idea?

    Can anybody suggest the top 5 things to concentrate on to increase rowing efficiency.

    Thanks for any suggestions.

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