Craig came to HRR with three junior quads and a double, and we caught up with him in the café after his busy week in which his top crew went out of the competition on Saturday to Windsor Boys School.
What is your background in the sport?
I was a cox at high school and at Syracuse University and then the Undine Barge Club. 20 years ago I started helping to coach at my high school and doing some juniors in the summer. Some of the kids had aspirations towards the Junior World Rowing Championships and since then around 7 times I’ve coached singles and doubles to the Junior Worlds. 10 years ago I became head coach at Malvern Prep which is a small (for the USA) sculling programme in Pennsylvania. The USA doesn’t stress sculling.
What are the aims of the School’s rowing programme?
For our athletes the opportunity to become very good scullers “as the English know” if you start them sculling they have a great opportunities to make college (university) boats. Our boys train hard 6 days per week for the whole year. It freezes from December to February and so we are inside in a tank sculling then from the end of February to July we are out on the river.
In winter we do long races, the Head of the Charles, Head of the Skuykill, the Philadelphia Scholastic City Championships, and Stotesbury Regatta which is the largest regattas in North America with 6000 children competing. Then there are the Scholastic Nationals and the US Youth National Championships.
In spring we race in quads. Do singles in autumn and summer in order to make the quad go fast you have to be able to move a single. The difference in US mindset is the strongest kid will make it go fast.
What do you look for in a young athlete?
For the past 14 years I have been looking for children willing to make a commitment. Few are athletic when they start but they become athletic. Rowing isn’t for everyone. We don’t cut kids we allow them to cut themselves. If you are not willing to come to all the practices it becomes clear to the individual and they drop out.
What is your international involvement?
We run a Junior International camp for 8, 4+ and 4- and small boats are open to trials. You have to make a minimum speed standard. Camp coaches have identification camps and about 15 events around the country where they look for talent. From the group they invite 30 to the final camp.
New this year is a 4- camp for development athletes. They have to have 2 years of eligibility remaining for junior international. These juniors will go to Beijing this summer. To be successful at junior level you have to have one boat in development for experience at that level who can race the following year.
Selection regattas are in Canada and Mexico, the CanAmMex Regatta whose venue rotates. The winner of the youth national champs in 8 and quads can go to these events.
US lags the rest of the world in its starting age we begin at age 14 or 15 and there are few opportunities to learn younger. In Italy, UK and Germany they start recreational sculling at 9 or 10 years. In the main, children start in 9th grade (14 years) and are encouraged to sweep before sculling. In my opinion, this hinders the development in their boat moving skills.
What are your favourite skills drills?
Skill drills – once you are proficient in a single try these to improve your speeds.
[note in brackets I have used the UK phraseology to describe each drill]
1. Half slide end pause (single strokes to half slide)
2. Top of slide drills (quarter slide push from catch, half slide push)
3. Pseudo release drill (legs and arms straight at quarter slide drive to finish keeping arms straight and using the body)
4. Blades flat up to the catch and take the stroke with blades flat. Develops hand heights and horizontal draw. Do in pairs.
The pseudo release drill is so important because kids are timid with their swing. The skill set in sculling is more advanced than sweep. When you have mastered these drills they get success in sculling with pressure. We may not have the athletic erg scores at Malvern but we are very proud of how they row. I believe in good technique.
I believe that 20 minutes of drills before every workout is imperative. We develop skills for a short amount of time but this is overlooked by many. Teaching athletes what they need to know in order to win at international level takes 6 years. For an athlete with talent to become a good international athlete; most need improved skills.
We know you as a Dreher scull user – why do you choose Dreher oars?
I chose Drehers because they make the best balanced oar available on the market today. The company gives me the great personal service that we need when we buy.
We have tried every type of scull and found that the Drehers are very comfortable and I find their sculls have good stiffness that is maintained year on year. This is because they are made in an autoclave with heat and pressure – the only sculls that are. We buy 30 pairs of sculls each year.
Coming to Henley Royal Regatta, I chose the Big Blade spoon for my quads – this is what they use at home. But you lent us Apex spoon sculls for the double and I was really impressed with them for the stronger athletes. I will consider getting them next season to augment our stock.
What advice do you have for coaches?
Stick with what you know; if you want to learn how to coach sculling take your time and do your diligence and understand the technique fully. Many programmes do many things. My advice is to do half the things very well and stay at it.
How do coaches develop their skills in USA?
US Rowing has a mentoring programme for coaches to meet more accomplished coaches. It takes initiative from young coaches to reach out. Sweep programmes produce most coaches. There is a dearth of sculling coaches. Except for the national team, there are no full time paid sculling coaches who can coach across the country.
How does sculling compare to sweep in US?
There needs to be an expansion of sculling education in US. The quality of coaches we need to give scullers a clear track from school to U23 to elite level competitions.
I think you can’t convert a sweep rower to a sculler once he’s developed as a sweep rower. It takes 6 years to reach international standard and if someone’s done sweep for part of that time and then switches to sculling there’s a need for extra years of practice before he’s ready for international competition in sculling. A junior in my programme will scull for 4 years and then at College will probably be in a sweep crew. If he wants to represent his country, in either discipline, it’ll probably take him another 2-3 years to get good enough in that discipline. This is one of the reasons the USA is not strong in sculling events at the World Championships – College regattas only offer sweep events.
How would you improve the US international sculling programme?
To improve our international performance, I’d suggest we identify young gifted school rowers and keep them in the sculling pipeline through college. This long term track will help the elite national sculling team and will bring in gold medals. Anything less puts them on track to be the top of the B final. Which is what’s happened in recent years.