Magic secrets of top rowing coaches


We all want to know the deep secrets of top rowing coaches.  Surely they must do things that “normal” coaches don’t do? Charles Simpson is the co-author of Advanced Rowing and shares his deeper thoughts about rowing, life and how to become a better rower and coach.

Advanced Rowing Book Advanced Rowing book

Why did I choose to write this book?

  • It was clear that many of the world’s best rowing coaches are very happy to share their ideas publically at conferences (e.g. World Rowing Conferences) but:
    • The presentation details and content were often quite variable
    • It is hard for many rowers and coaches around the world to access the information, so lots of useful knowledge and experience of top coaches doesn’t reach a wider audience
  • So Advanced Rowing was a way to systematically capture the ideas of top coaches from around the world in a way that allowed space to give a good level of detail and to do so around key topics:
    • Training environment
    • Training and conditioning (including samples of weekly training)
    • Athlete selection and talent development
    • Coach and athlete relationship
    • Technical approach
    • Support services and technology
    • Fine tuning for racing
    • Blue sky thinking

Magic secrets of top rowing coaches

  • It’s human nature to try and make the complex seem understandable by focusing on the one thing that might explain why one crew is better than another.
  • It’s understandable why outsiders might think there are secrets, but if you ask top coaches if there are any secrets in what they do – the vast majority will say there isn’t. In truth, top coaches do lots of things very, very well.
  • Also, top coaches move around from program to program – if there were secrets in their approaches, then these secrets get passed around a lot….
  • So if there aren’t any magic secrets – why are some coaches so secretive???
    • Possibly, some coaches lack confidence in their methods – maybe they just are fortunate with recruiting good athletes…..
    • More likely, there can be a sense of power in creating the impression to outsiders that this team has a something special. We all like a bit of mystery and I think by trying to protect training strategies and athletes erg scores from the outside world it’s possible that athletes within a very closed team start to believe that their coach/system has something magical….So when it comes to race day, those athletes have a feeling that they have something extra in their back pocket…..something more and better than everyone else….it doesn’t matter if it’s make believe….what matters is that the athletes believe it SO then they have an extra layer of confidence……SO some coaches are probably playing on the theme of secrecy to help improve the confidence of their athletes through training and racing….
    • Once people realise there is far more to know about high level rowing than can ever be hidden, then people can stop chasing shadows and just get on with developing stable training approaches that are effective and time efficient.

Learning rowing coaching from books:

  • Lots of rowers don’t read rowing books……especially if you remove the biography-type books which are not designed to improve performance
  • What can readers take away from Advanced Rowing:
    • It’s possible to reach world class standard even if:
      • You don’t have great facilities (Denmark Lake Bagsvaard and 2000-m TURNING a coxless four in 16 to 18 secs!)
      • Sharing a lake and boathouse with lots of other users (Norway, Denmark)
      • You are NOT a full time athlete…….lots of the top rowers are part time students (esp. using online learning)
      • Coaches should be clear about their expectations of athletes (e.g. Tom Poulsen’s charter)
      • Range of cross training (e.g. Dave O’Neill’s running at the start of practice each day; NZ and the use of cycling)
      • ESPECIALLY finding ways to make the best of the environment and athletes that you have in front of you….
      • A tangible sense of the quality and quantity of training performed by top rowers.
      • Comparing national team to club rowers….in many cases the volume of actual rowing is similar…..150 km per week for men’s teams…..(10 to 15 hours)….what may differ is the additional training that full-time athletes especially can do….extra cross training in particular……

Noel Donaldson and building flexibility into the training program

  • At the heart of the NZ program has been a lot of effort placed on using technology and spreadsheets to log the training of every athlete. The athletes are provided with a Garmin watch to log heart rate, GPS, sleep etc….and this all feeds into software that helps monitor individual athlete training load. 
  • Once you have a way to track what athletes are doing and to capture their training load, it becomes possible to allow athletes more flexibility in choosing other ways to achieve the training load (e.g. more cycling, running, skiing)
  • So in Noel’s case….a lot of the flexibility he wants is to avoid boredom and give a sense of ownership

How do we get better at asking questions to develop understanding ???

  • It’s quite possible that rowers do not actually want to ask questions, at least not those in a team with a coach…….
  • The power dynamic in teams is such that many coaches want athletes to do as they are told….not to openly question……
  • So if a rower was to read a book, find some good solid information that could help the team, it may be risky to suggest to the coach that they could be doing something better……It can create tension and a perception of threat to the coach……Some coaches think “ROWERS SHOULD BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD”…….
    • In some teams, the US especially, there are team captains to help raise issues and discussions from the team to the coach – this helps
    • It would be better though if coaches had  more secure evidence-base and answers for their practices… I think Advanced Rowing does present a way for rowers and coaches to have a conversation about things that might be worth exploring together….

Art versus Science

  • The entire season is just one big experiment…..keeping written logs and notes of how a session went is probably a good way to find the balance………
  • Tom Poulsen says you can use more scientific type approaches such as seat racing BUT he then says one of the lightweights who won gold in 2012 in the 2X came 10th in the seat race rank order…..SO sometimes, he says, the coach must trust their intuition
  • Don’t get too wrapped up in the science……lactate monitors are helpful BUT it can take a lot of time to get the value out of the information………BIOMECHANICS……..Dave O’Neill says  his mantra every day is “The main thing is to keep the main thing as the main thing” – for Dave, the main thing is the NCAA regatta in May

What would a club coach take from the book?

  • Avoid the tendency to race too much in training….spend more time building weekly volumes at low intensity (4 of 5 sessions below lactate threshold; so 65 to 80% HRmax.
  • Seek ways to make the most of your existing opportunities….
  • Avoid the tendency to think that everyone else has better athletes, better facilities, more money, secrets etc… Advanced Rowing shows that what is common between clubs and national teams is a lot of sustained and sensible training –
  • STAY CURIOUS AND INTERESTED even as you become an elite coach……
  • Find stability in what you do…….
  • ALSO…….ideally ALL coaches would go and spend time with master coaches and this would help them learn their trade…..BUT……in practice…..this is not always easy to do…….especially if you live in a fairly remote rowing community (this was easy in Sydney and South of England) BUT it was hard in the North East of Scotland and Texas……SO…..books written by coaches may well be the best thing to being to sitting alongside a master coach for a season……

Summary of the Chapter themes:

Noel Donaldson – Very organised and disciplined training approaches…..lots of support staff, other coaches and athletes feeding in to the system….Geographical isolation is a challenge b/c it limits their access to top competition……..use of dynamic and static ergs to add variety to training (including Rowperfect).

Johan Flodin – one of two full time national team coaches in Norway BUT they make good use of Olympiatoppen staff and especially cross country ski experts. Take many training camps…..  treat technique on the erg as an important issues (while Noel says he sees the erg largely as a conditioning tool)…1000 hours per year of training and 125 km of rowing average week.

Simon Cox – Swiss (now Czech republic)………..setting up a national team system which clubs buy into……….a centralised system……………working with club coaches/meeting with them………Lots of variety in training location and CC ski camps as well as swimming camps, cycling camps, erg camps (which was partly used to bring on new talent into the national team system)…… Building athleticism into the training of the wider body of rowers in Switzerland (e.g. adding weight training).

Tom Poulsen – View that using weights could have helped him set an even faster world record but only by 1 second perhaps…..Use of weights…………Small centralised system……..willingness to work with local universities to make projects… training facilities……camps……taking boats to Copenhagen harbour…use of both C2 and Rowperfect ergs…..very democratic,…..the lightweights were really left to figure out how to make weight and athletes could be 3.5 kg over the male limit 24 hours pre-race….

Ben Lewis – Talks a lot about what he learned as a rower at Oxford Brookes from Richard Spratley…..developing an ethos of hard work….Helping guys who have full time London jobs to find time for rowing = efficiency in time use…..”row as much distance as possible within the time” – keeping intensity down to hit the weekly volumes……

Dave O’Neill – The coach as an educator – holistic – developing mindset, culture, tradition, being part of a BIGGER Texas project (athletic department) – INCREDIBLE financial resource  – selection is something that is happening every day and he works hard to be transparent to athletes – writing up the results….…..

Mark Fangen-Hall – Fair but not necessarily equal – best boats go the best athletes….elite culture….REWARD EFFORT NOT RESULTS…..weight adjusting erg scores….lots of levels of rowing in the club…..Not seeking to be the athlete’s friend…


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