The Recipe for Novice Rowing Success

Rowing novice masters national champions

Mike Landers continues his series on how Learn to Rowers can become national champions. Read part 1- LTR to national champions and Part 2 Learn to row as asset to the club

It takes around 8 months to get Masters to the right standard of flexibility, technical competence, fitness and race coolness to be in with a sporting chance of winning the Nat’ Champs’ in June so September or October is the latest you’d want to start. The 36 weeks will go quickly and in each of the last two years I’m certain if we’d started only two weeks later we’d have lost rather than won. So the summer holidays are the perfect time to get your program rolling. Here’s ours:

Rowing novice masters national champions
Rowing novice masters national champions

Step 1 – Find a suitable Lead Coach. Your Lead Coach doesn’t need to be the most experienced or best qualified, those coaches are likely to be focussing on your elite crews anyway. What they need is a passion for rowing and an enthusiasm for passing on that passion. If they’re qualified as a coach, if they’re still rowing (novices like to see their coach suffering on the end of an oar occasionally) and if they can cox too, so much the better.

Step 2 – Assemble your resources in advance. Even if you have plenty of free time you’ll still need a team to help – this year we had 8 people offer to help with coaching, coxing and dropping into the crew – we needed all of them and more. As lead coach you’ll need a break over the 36 weeks and the crew will benefit from other people’s insight. After arranging some help my top priority is getting an experienced cox – it’s not always easy to get experienced coxes to spend hours and hours during winter with early stage rowers but in my experience they’re critical to winning. They’ll get a chance at a medal too and hopefully make friends along the way. Agree with the club captain priority access to a basic boat and then a better boat, access to blades, boating slots, and gym slots. Do this after you’ve drawn up your list of potential recruits but before you’ve got them together in the bar – then you’ll be ready for step 3. You can’t agree the boat until you know numbers and crew weights but it does need to be a competitive boat. Typically novices need a boat with an extra 2 degrees of stern pitch and a bit more height at the gate but it also needs to be something inspiring that they can take pride in rather than something that looks as if it spent last winter on the river bed.

Step 3 – Round up the usual suspects – you need a critical mass – this could be a combination of people who’ve finished LTR / LTS, those who’ve been rowing or sculling a while and are now looking to take it more seriously and those people who are still novices because they were on holiday when their mates won in a coxed 4 at the local splash and dash. Every club has them, last year we rounded up 4 Vet F novices, this year we rounded up 14 novices ranging in age from 41-57 giving us options across vet C, D and E’. I’d keep an open mind about who you include, sure everyone would like to be filling a boat with 95kg 6’5″ athletes but at 50 years old they’re thin on the ground so don’t overlook that 5’7″ computer programmer with a point to prove. You want to win but it’s not the Olympics and besides the guys who look great in week 1 quite often aren’t the best boat movers by week 36.

Step 4 – Head for the bar and outline the goals and the plan. We aim each year to win novice at the Masters Nat’ Champs’. It’s an ambitious goal that focusses people, they need a clear view of what’s coming and need to buy into it. I wouldn’t pressure anyone, they’ll only drop out after a month, so give people a week to mull it over, get their partner’s approval for the time commitment and come back to you with questions. The key here is to be honest – it will take 250 training hours with commuting, showering etc. on top, to have a decent chance of winning. That’s for the crew, for the coach you can add another 100 hours planning time, reflection time and video review time.

Step 5 – Retain your sanity by getting the group fully involved in the organisational side. Our first outing required 83 emails (to get 9 guys in a boat!!). By the end of the program we were down to 4 or 5 emails per outing. Use Doodle, Teamer or something similar and swap the job of organising around the squad monthly. People become more responsive when they’ve had a go at managing the organisational side themselves.

Step 6 – Take advantage of the modern technology at your disposal. Every smartphone now has a decent video camera. Apps like Hudl Technique allow you to review video in slow time and show people the difference between what they’re doing and what they could be doing.  Crewnerd or similar allow you track individual and collective progress and will help create a sense of transparent competition in your squad. Again get one of the crew to manage data collection and graphing and share it occasionally so that people know if they’re on track. In my experience people can cope with evidence supported truth, it’s ambiguity that leads to crew selection friction. Having said that we aim to give everyone who completes the program a race.

Step 7 – use the old technology too. We’ve relied heavily on OUBC’S rowing tank – a great facility that’s very reasonably priced (£15/hour per squad). If it’s good enough for the Oxford Blue boat it will do for your novices and it’s great for addressing postural and sequencing issues. It’s also useful when the river is on red and provides a welcome change from ergo. We’ve also had people out in tub fours and, as the water got warmer, tub pairs.

Step 8 – Execute your coaching program. The good news is almost all coaches already have a program that could be adapted for Novice Masters. Our program at Marlow is probably similar to everyone else’s but it might be worth highlighting the special issues that, in our experience, arise with Masters. Here’s our top six additional “masters” issues in priority order:

8a Lack of flexibility, allied to a lack of understanding of the importance of flexibility, allied occasionally to a lingering sense that stretching is for wimps. My advice here is start early and use regular reach tests to track progress. Publish your reach test results along with your weight adjusted ergo results and Crewnerd boat moving results. That way people are more likely to ascribe to stretching the importance it merits.

8b An enthusiasm born of long practice for using upper body ‘lifestyle’ muscles rather than legs, core and glutes. The bigger they are the harder they pull – but you know the task is to teach them to push! Like stretching these pulling habits take months to rebalance so start early. To make your point that boat moving isn’t all about brute upper body strength get the guys racing against a junior girl’s boat early on and smile inwardly as they pull harder and harder while the 40kg junior girls vanish into the distance. They won’t enjoy it but they will remember it.

8c Flabby cores – often brought on by years of sitting at a desk. We’re lucky to have a professional personal trainer running our core / circuit session and she’s made huge improvements compared to us running the circuits ourselves, which we did for 15 years. (Thanks Jacqui!). Plank competitions helped here – everyone in a circle and last one down wins. Focus on technique and expect the kind of noises you’d normally get in a maternity ward after minute 2.

8d Concentration – or lack of it. Done well rowing looks easy, but very few novices have any idea how much concentration is required and people might be used to chatting in the boat.  You don’t want people feeling like they’ve joined the Marines but there’s a reason they wouldn’t chat their way through a driving lesson – keep time free when they’re turning and after the outing debrief for chatting.

8e Weight, or more accurately body composition. It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to assemble a squad of middle aged guys (or women) and find that a few of them wouldn’t benefit from turning a stone of fat into muscle. No one likes being told they’re overweight and again it’s not the Olympics but each kilo of spare fat in the boat costs a foot over a kilometre. If you’ve got 8 guys losing 3kg each you’ve just gained half a length. Healthy eating and diet are the key and the prize can be enormous. One of the guys on our program this year dropped from 85 to 75kg, got back to the weight he’d been at 27 and is now boring to death anyone willing to listen. He’s also enjoying spending his money on a new wardrobe. 

8f Being receptive to instruction. Many Masters rowers have been successful in their professional careers and have arguably become used to giving advice at a greater rate than receiving it. It can be a culture shock for them to be told what to do time and again. Each coach will have a way of dealing with this that works for them and their squad. My way of dealing with this was a combination of repetition, bluntness and occasional tact. Outcome focus is probably the key – if people see your motivation is only to make the boat go faster and improve their win chances they can usually cope with a direct style.

Step 9 – Prepare specifically for the event you’re targeting. It’s not enough just to learn to row better – that’s what we did in 2012 and the result was we lost by 3 lengths.  People will be nervous on race day so there needs to be no surprises, everything needs to have been practiced again and again and again. The BR Masters race takes place from a stake boat over 1,000m. So we did almost 500 practice starts to find the combination of fractions and pressures that worked best for us. We did 250 1000m race pieces 50 of which were alongside other Marlow crews, we practiced backing down onto the stake boat 20 times and we even practiced sitting tall on the start line to intimidate the opposition. I think it all helped on the day. Inevitably people were nervous but they had practiced the process both at a stroke level and across the 120 strokes of the race enough to trust the process.

Step 10 – Enjoy the big day. My aim on race day is to keep people relaxed. Typically having set a high goal and put 250 hours graft into it people will be adequately motivated to need calming down rather than winding up. I was fortunate enough to cox this years crews and got the best view in the house of the race but I was surprised in our second final to have to call the adrenalin fuelled rate down 3 times. Crossing the line it was obvious the crew hadn’t “just” won a race, they were ecstatic to have won having taken 8 months out of their busy schedules to take on a real challenge and been successful. The icing on the cake was that the crew was on the British Rowing FB front page for each of the next two days – something that hasn’t happened to them before and is unlikely to happen again. It might be some time before we hear the last of it.

Good luck – and we hope to see you soon on the start line.

One thought on “The Recipe for Novice Rowing Success

  1. graham cawood says:

    One windy day I noticed a woman, about 50 years old, wandering round our clubhouse in what looked like rowing gear. Not wanting to go out in a single I asked her if she would like to go out in a double. We went out and had a comfortable, light outing in fairly rough water. Afterwards I asked her where she rowed, and she said ” I haven’t rowed before”.
    We had been doing 1:1, light, short strokes at about 25spm.
    Sculling is NOT complicated, and can easily be learnt if we are SHOWN how to do it.
    I suggest you get GOOD, EXPERIENCED rowers to stroke novice boats, at 1:1, 25+ spm, 2 breaths per stroke, light short strokes to begin. SHOW!!!!!!!!!!!! them what to do!
    Ditto on the ergs.
    And NO Drills please!
    Have fun.

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