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One Thing to Teach Scullers to Do Better (Part 1)

My answer to a Question on Sculling Technique from Rebecca Caroe during an interview for RowingChat in the … read more

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My answer to a Question on Sculling Technique from Rebecca Caroe during an interview for RowingChat in the Autumn of 2017.  I have now re-edited and expanded this article – June – 2020 – (Apologies that the photos are from my international coaching era!).

Q:  When watching sculling today, what’s the number one thing you think you’d like to teach athletes how to do
better?

A:  Teach Scullers how to use their hands to keep their boats level

To maintain the hull absolutely symmetric in shape under the water, it is essential to keep the hands level throughout the sculling cycle.   If you scull with one hand higher than the other, especially at the catch or extraction, then the boat will not be level, and the hull shape under the water will become asymmetric.  This can lead to steering problems and also what I call “syncopated scullers”.  By this I mean that many scullers are “not in time with themselves”.  Their blade on one side doesn’t enter the water at the same time and/or at the same angle as the blade on the other side.  The same applies at the extraction; their blades may extract at different times and/or at different angles.  In other words, they are syncopated!  In crew sculling boats, the problem can become magnified, and if the stroke rower is syncopated, which of his/her  blades do you follow??

So how do we ensure that the beginner learns to maintain his/her boat level?  This issue of course is dependent on how the hands cross and uncross each other during the recovery phase and the drive phase.  This is the asymmetric part of sculling technique.

Why does the UK Sculling Technique use the left-hand nearest the Stern at the Cross-over Phases?

In late 1976 it was clear that some basic guidelines needed to be established in respect of sculling technique.  Prior to that time, with some notable exceptions, Great Britain (GBR) had not been known for crew sculling, and in singles how the hands cross-over (left nearest the stern, or right nearest the stern) on the cross-overs, doesn’t really matter, but as soon as sculling crews are formed, the whole crew need to execute the cross-overs the same way.

After the 1976 OGs, I became responsible for Coach Education in GBR, and I wanted to re-establish a clear model for both our rowing and sculling technique.  In respect of sculling therefore, I attended quite a few long-distance singles races throughout the country that autumn.   I recorded how many scullers used their hands – left-hand nearest the stern, and how many right-hand nearest the stern in the cross-over phases.  At that time there was very little technical coaching of single scullers, so I could assume that all were largely self-taught, and had therefore decided, of their own volition, their hand-lead preference in the absence of any national guidelines.

The result was that over 60% sculled with their left-hand nearest the stern during the cross-overs, and less than 40% sculled with their right-hand nearest the stern.  In fact, many executed the cross-over by using a technique I termed “knitting” with their hands, ie., not keeping the same hand nearest the stern for both the drive & recovery cross-overs!  “Knitting” is absolutely not to be recommended, and it is usually caused by dropping the wrists during the extraction.  With dropped wrists, the hands effectively become reversed on the recovery phase.

The GBR medalist M.2x at that time, (Hart/Baillieu), sculled with their right-hands nearest the stern, as did all DDR scullers, and their sculling technique was an excellent model.  Indeed, I discussed this with DDR coaches asking them, “why have you established the right-hand nearest the stern” technique?”  The answer was that when they standardized their sculling technique model, most of their top scullers happened to scull that way. They could not give me a technical reason for their choice.

As a former physical education teacher and therefore student of movement in general, as well as a national rowing coach, I decided to establish the opposite in GBR – the left-hand nearest the stern.

My reasoning was as follows :

  • For crew sculling, all those in one crew, and therefore in one club, and in one nation, need to scull with the same
    hand
    nearest the stern during the cross-over phases.
  • My observations had shown that over 60%  of “untaught” scullers in GBR sculled with their left-hands
    nearest the stern,
    by their own choice, rather than the reverse option.
  • It made good sense therefore, to go with what was natural for the majority.
  • Another consideration was that, as an international sculler myself, I knew that the technical challenge for the
    “underneath hand” is greater than that for the top hand, because the underneath hand is effectively “trapped”
    underneath the other on the cross-over phases.  Since most people are “right-handed”, it made sense to give the
    right-hand the more difficult technical task.
  • It would therefore be the dominant hand for most people, which would be required to maintain the boat level
    during the drive phase cross-over – See why later.
  • So from 1977 onwards, the left-hand-nearest-the-stern was gradually established in GBR.
  • Theoretically, it doesn’t matter which hand remains nearest to the stern, as long as everyone in a crew, sculls with
    the same hand nearest the stern during both the drive and recovery cross-over phases.

The next standardization for the GBR Technical Model required consideration of the “pros and cons” of  the hands being “one-directly above-the-other” or “one-in-front-of-and above-the-other” during the cross-over  phases:

I will call these “hands above” and “hands leading/following” respectively.  The difference is that the former creates a much bigger height difference between the hands than the latter, whereas with the latter, there could be a greater difference between the power profiles on each side, and also in the arc angles on each side.

At that time, only the GDR clearly advocated an element of leading/following with the hands, albeit with the right-hand nearest the stern.

See the photo on the left below – Lucerne Regatta – 1985: Uwe Mund – (DDR-M.1x):  Right-hand nearest the stern, and hands leading/following. Also, in the background, Yakoucha – (URS-M.1x): Left-hand nearest the stern, and also dropped wrists.

Lucerne Regatta – 1985 (Credit: Unknown)

Clearly, because of the overlap of the handles, one hand has to be above the other.  So, this is the issue – Should the hands be directly above, or with hands leading/following as well?  The latter needs less vertical height room, little if any difference of rigger heights, and, if beginners are taught well, with special attention to the hands, will result in less rocking of the boat through-out the stroke cycle, and more relaxation of the arms and hands.

I recommend sculling with hands leading/following.  In my racing days (1960’s) rigger heights were very low. (A mis-guided logic up to that time which I won’t discuss here).  With low riggers, if you didn’t scull with hands leading/following, you simply couldn’t keep your boat level at all, and there was no room for error!

Even with higher riggers these days, those that scull hands above, end up with blood all over their lower hand, especially if they have long nails!  If as well, there is a big rigger height difference between each side, it is even more likely that at the catch the lower side will enter the water first, and the higher side later (syncopated).  Equally at the extraction, the lower side hand will find it difficult to tap down and around the turn, as there will be less height room for the extraction, whilst the higher side hand will find it difficult to keep the blade covered in the water right through to the release – again, a syncopated extraction.

I do not subscribe too much to the theoretical disadvantages of hands leading/following because, in my experience, the differences on each side are just as prevalent with scullers who scull hands-above each other as they are for those who scull hands-leading/following!  I emphasis again therefore, that this is why it is so important to teach scullers how to use their hands to control the boat and the blades right from day-one.  In addition, for beginners, “hand-height awareness” is best taught by setting the rigger heights level, since setting them at different heights immediately encourages them to scull with their hands at different heights at the catch and extraction!

In our post on Monday I will teach you more on sculling and using your hands properly.
Enjoy Sculling!
Penny Chuter OBE,
Re-edited and expanded – June – 2020

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