Five Drills for Teaching/Learning the Use of the Hands in Sculling.
1. Learning to maintain the wrists “flat and neutral during the Extraction – (Square-Blade Paddling):
Avoid the use of the word “drop” – It is very negative, and refers to something which happens by accident, rather than by design, eg., “drop the blade out at the finish” or “drop the blade in at the catch. With beginners, try to avoid introducing feathering too early, because it encourages dropped-wrists.
Initially, use a more stable training boat, so that beginners can scull square-blade immediately, without needing to feather along the water for stability. Once confidence and maneuvering drills & skills have been mastered, teach the sequencing of the stroke cycle with square-blades only. Beware – too much square-blade encourages gripping, (what I call “white knuckle syndrome”)!
Use this drill early and regularly, but not exclusively, whilst pro-actively coaching flat (neutral) & horizontal wrists, whilst tapping-down to initiate the extraction. When you do introduce feathering, teach and practice the skill on land first, one hand at a time, ideally with a scull in an oarlock. Then introduce feathering in the boat and include the drills below.
2. Sculling with Flat Wrists and Straight/Horizontal Fingers on the Recovery:
Once Square-blade paddling has helped beginners to execute the extraction with flat (and not dropped) wrists, the next progression is to ensure that they don’t drop their wrists on the recovery.
Once feathering has been learnt, introduce this recovery exercise:
After the extraction, and as soon as the hands lead away from the body, uncurl the fingers of both hands, so that the fingers are pointing horizontally towards the stern of the boat. In order to do this, the wrists need to be flat & neutral. If the wrists are dropped, then the fingers will be pointing upwards towards the sky, and the sculler will completely lose the scull handles!
When you ask the sculler to uncurl the fingers and point them towards the stern, the wrists will automatically have to flatten, to keep the scull handles resting just under the bridge of the fingers. Only curl the fingers round the scull handles again as you square the blades ready for the catch. It is best to introduce this recovery exercise for 3x strokes only to start with, and then return to the normal recovery grip. As confidence and skill grow, the number of repetitions and sets can be increased.
When the fingers are pointing towards the stern of the boat, there’s a natural tendency for the arms to extend, and in so doing, to relax and lose unnecessary tension through the wrists, elbows and shoulders.
For advanced scullers this is also a good exercise to ensure that just before the “placement”, (first part of the catch, which is executed with the hands/arms, and not with the body), the hands, wrists, & arms should be relaxed. You cannot “place” accurately and precisely if there is too much tension in the arms, prior to the “placement”. I like the arms to be “long – loose – & lithe” as they lead the body up the slide.
Sculling with flat wrists and straight/horizontal fingers on the recovery is an excellent exercise to encourage this looseness for top scullers, and for beginners, it will help them learn to scull with flat wrists on the recovery.
3. Sculling with Flat Wrists and Straight/Horizontal Fingers on the Recovery – Left-Hand Only:
A variation of exercise 2 above, is an extremely useful drill to ensure that, at the recovery cross-over, the hands are definitely leading-&-following, and not one-directly-above-the other. It also ensures that the hand which should be nearest the stern of the boat, (in my examples, the left-hand), definitely is correct.
Execute the same exercise, but only uncurl the fingers of the left-hand. As the left-hand moves away from the body, uncurl the fingers and point them towards the stern of the boat, whilst keeping the fingers of the right-hand holding the scull in the normal way. The natural extension of the fingers, wrists and elbows will have the effect of making the left-hand lead away slightly faster than the right, so that at the cross-over, the left-hand will be clearly ahead of the right. The coach needs to view from the starboard side of the sculler, and check that the scull-handles are leading/following, and are at the same height.
This asymmetric exercise also encourages some twisting of the body as well to show a clear left-hand and left-side lead. Again, do not over-use this exercise, otherwise the asymmetry will become too exaggerated.
4. Scull with the Knuckles of the Underneath-hand touching the Wrist of the Top-hand, exactly where your Watch-strap would be:
This drill has already been described, just before the “Prime Roles” Section. It can be used either during the recovery cross-overs, or the drive cross-overs.
5. Sculling with Hands Down the Loom:
This exercise just involves sculling normally, including feathering, for a set number of strokes, alternated with sliding your hands off the grips & down on to the thicker part of the loom. Initially move the hands just off the handles, and gradually increase the distance, until the hands are not more than half-way down to the collar.
This drill can be used to emphasis several different aspects of technique, for both internationals and beginners, but for beginners, there are two main benefits.
First, with the scull-handles free, the sculler can actually see the relationship between the two handles during both cross-overs, and they can ensure that the left-handle stays nearer the stern than the right handle on the cross-overs – (leading/following); they can also check that the handles remain very close.
Secondly, alternately holding the thicker looms and then the narrower grips, encourages more relaxation in the hands and helps to stop the tendency to grip the handles too hard. To emphasis this, it is good to scull perhaps 3-5x strokes holding the looms, and then 3-5x holding the handles. This repeated contrast really aids in discouraging too much gripping – (white knuckle syndrome). For beginners, a third benefit is that it is yet another exercise which will encourage confidence.
An exercise/drill in isolation, may not contribute fully to any improvement unless it is combined with active coaching. In addition, and once the sculler reverts to “normal” sculling after the exercise, he/she should be reminded to “put the exercise back into practice.”
Penny Chuter OBE,
Re-edited and expanded – June – 2020