Rewarding coaching masters

I spend a lot of my time coaching. During the school season that’s mostly school crews but off season and when time allows I like

Wakatipu Masters rowing

coaching masters.  What do Masters bring that makes coaching them so rewarding?

Increasingly the masters I coach are taking it up after their own children have taken up the sport. Nevertheless they bring a youthful enthusiasm and have a real desire to row well. Add in to that the social aspect of masters rowing and a simple desire to get fitter, plus the fact that as coach you can have a coffee or other refreshment after training with the crew and masters crews are a lot of fun.

So how is it different?

There are some difference in the stroke pattern.

  • Flexibility is generally not quite what it was so the arc of the stroke is smaller.
  • For those who are newer to the sport the catch tends to be slower. That means that lots of focus needs to go on making sure the blade goes into the water at the point point the blade is out at its full arc – I describe that as when their knees reach the top. Strangely I have sometimes found that as the balance in the boat improves a slight pause at the front starts to develop as in a balanced boat there is less urgency to get the blade in the water.
  • Then the focus moves to ensuring that the drive does not start until the blade is buried – you might hear coaches going on about rowers missing water. There are drills for addressing that but one that sometimes works [there are no silver bullets] is having half the boat rowing square blade and every second stroke place the blade but don’t push at all and simply let the momentum of the boat move the boat under you and the handle come through to the finish.

Masters rowers are also much more likely to be on the water without a coach. That can mean that every session is much the same and that the session involves rowing to a point, turning round and rowing back. A suggestion is to have a coach set up some training sessions that include a warm up, a drill or two for the session [with an explanation of what the drill is wanting to achieve] and some set work. If those are typed up and laminated crews can chose the session they will follow and take that out on the water. From experience it makes the sessions more useful, more fun and actually seem shorter.

If it is possible, get someone to video parts of a session and share that with the crew Rowers can compare what they are doing with a video clip of what they aspire to look like. You may also inadvertently capture some moments of hilarity which can be a great addition on the big screen at your next masters social event.

For those masters who have rowed through the club ranks you can take comfort from that great saying –  “The older I get, the better I was.”

Allan Vester, Legion Committee Member

St George Rowing Club

Advice to the new sculler

Missing buoys, steering off course, falling out of your boat, being late to the start, rushing the slide, or stopping too soon before the finish line are only a few of those rookie mistakes common to the new competitive sculler. 

The skills of racing a single scull take time to develop because it is a delicate combination of fitness, technique, mental preparation, tactics, and navigation. If you are new to competitive sculling it is reasonable to expect that it will take three seasons to start having consistent performances. Patience is a requirement. The peaks and valleys of your learning curve are normal. Although you may want to win right away, an internal focus on self-improvement will translate into greater external results in both the short and medium term. 

3 Recommendations for you to try

Here are some suggestions to help you stay on track as you pursue your career in the single scull. woman 1x, masters rowing regatta,

Fitness forms the base of the pyramid to build your technique and mental skills. 

  1. If your sculling technique is not at a level that you can apply power effectively you should use land exercise to get and stay fit while you are in the early learning stages. Progress towards more time in the boat but continue to supplement your sculling with cross-training until you can get a good solid workout in the single.
  2. Technique will develop in stages and the experience of one season in the boat contributes to the next. First, establish your stability, then bladework, followed by power application, and racing skills at varied stroke rates. Consider full pressure as the best pressure you can row while maintaining good technique. Make drills a regular part of your warm-up and get as much coaching as you can during the early stages of your career by taking lessons, getting videoed or going to a camp.
  3. Competition is where you have to synthesise the skills you have accumulated to date. A prerequisite for a good race is steering. Learn to steer. Concentrate on one stroke at a time and aim for efficiency each stroke rather than watching your split. After your event, spend some time evaluating it. Write down 10 points you need to work on and 10 points that you did better than last time.

Progress may not feel linear – but remember as you learn new things you will be constantly pushing yourself to new achievements. It’s like walking up stairs, if you find you have gone a step too far and cannot sustain your pace or your technique falters, go back down one step, re-establish your technique and then try again.

Self coaching drills

A coach’s eye on your blade keeps technical crabs at bay during a practice. But if you’re out
alone you need a way to self-coach. As a part of your daily warm-up choose a drill that gives you
clear feedback and sets the tone for your row.

Two essential drills

Here are a couple of suggestions.
Feet-out rowing focuses on a clean release of the blade using the support of the water to assist
the exit. The drill helps you row tall, preventing your weight from falling into the bow. Remove
your feet from the shoes and place them on top of the stretcher. During the drive hold steady
pressure against the foot stretcher and as you draw the oar handle. Tap down on the oar handle to
release the blade in sync with legs down; just before you lose the pressure on the blade. Keep
your weight over the handle as you then feather as the hands move away from your body. If the
release is late, your feet will come off the shoes, and going in the water is likely. If you nail it,
it’s crisp and feels easy. Practice rowing slowly for 10 minutes feet-out.

masters rowing NZ, single scull masters man,

Rowing with a pause at one-quarter slide helps you practice rowing with a quiet upper body on
the recovery. Transition smoothly from the drive to the follow-through position of arms-body
away. When your knees rise slightly at one-quarter slide, pause. Let the boat glide for a count of
one-one thousand, two-one thousand, then row on. Keep your upper body quiet and steady as
you compress on the slide. Let the knees come up to your chest versus the chest dropping to the
knees as you get ready to place the blade. Practice sets of 10 strokes.

If it helps you to focus, give yourself a score out of 10 for each set of the drill you do. Mark your
improvement. If you don’t get better, it may be time to head in to the pontoon and practice again
another time. Practicing rowing wrongly will not be helpful in the long term and a tired body and
mind finds challenging drills very hard to do successfully.

Recovery for Masters

Just as pushing your bow across the line for the first time in the 50+ age category signifies entering a mature phase of your rowing career it may also mark new adventures in maintaining equilibrium in your training schedule. Masters athletes need to include the same intensities of work in their race preparation as their younger counterparts. However, the difference for masters is how and when workouts are planned in the weekly schedule to adjust for potentially longer recovery periods as the body requires more time. 

How to improve as you age

Improving your performance as you age is linked to maintaining a relatively high VO2 max. This means that high intensity intervals at race pace need to be key elements of any master’s program in combination with the substantial endurance work that rowing demands. Such intervals also place a lot of stress on your physiological systems so the volume and frequency needs to be approached carefully to optimize the benefits. Recovery periods are when your body makes the positive adaptation to the work you just did, without a good recovery period, you risk physical break-down and injuries can occur more easily.

Only you can gauge how much recovery you need between the intense sessions of the week. Monitor your morning resting heart rate the day after, if it is elevated above your norm, include low intensity sessions until it returns to normal rest rate. If this typically takes two days you can schedule a total rest day, easy distance work, or low intensity cross training. Using an app to track your heart rate variability gives an even more accurate measure your state of recovery. I use the HRV4Training app.

Weekly training patterns can vary, be creative so you don’t get bored.  You may find you feel more energized taking a total rest day after three training days. If a traditional weekly pattern is better for your schedule, resting Monday and Friday might give you the edge you need to maintain quality workouts during the in-between days.

Ways to recover from training

The best form of recovery as you age is sleep. Getting 40 winks, taking cat naps, or simply lying down restores your energy the fastest especially when backed up by healthy eating. Look over your weekly cycle and build your recovery days around your priority sessions of the week and follow it up with a good dose of rest. 

Technique makes my brain hurt!

When coaching masters, I often find that they over-think the coaching instructions they receive. 

This can be tested by asking the athletes to “think about nothing” for ten strokes and then to take 10 strokes thinking about a technical point. Most row better when thinking about nothing!

In our debriefs after practice many tell me that it’s hard to think about two or three things at the same time – their brain races from thinking catches, to thinking pressure, to squaring early and they fail to execute any of these well.

Thinking about multiple things simultaneously is just not possible.

So how does the human brain work when you are learning a new skill?

There is a 4 stage progression which begins with Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know how bad you are. As the athlete starts to learn they become Consciously Incompetent – they know how bad they are. Later as skill is acquired and successfully deployed, the athletes become Consciously Competent. When they think about a technical point, they can execute it skilfully. The final stage is Unconscious Competence – you can row well without thinking about it.

Eight on Saugatuck by Timothy Aquino

Coaching using the 4 stage competence model

If you are a coach reading this article, you can use this 4 stage progression to help your athletes acquire technique skills. If you are an athlete reading this article, you can use this for self-coaching.

Most of us start at the consciously incompetent stage – we know what we are trying to learn but we cannot do it well. Coaches introduce drills and exercises to isolate part of the rowing stroke to help you learn the technique. This moves you into the conscious competence stage. When doing the drill can you do it well? After the drill can you introduce it into your normal pattern of rowing? If you can do these two things you are well on the way. 

The trick to moving to unconscious competence is to practice not thinking. The athlete may be working on an early square during the recovery. Can you do this movement while rowing and thinking? Then try rowing and not thinking about squaring early – don’t think about anything…. Just row. And after 10 strokes, bring your thoughts back to squaring early but don’t make a change to your technique. You have to first observe your stroke – is it squaring early or not? When you have answered that question, you can make a change if you need to square a bit earlier – or no change if you are executing skilfully. Go back to not thinking as you row. And check back how your technique is going after a few more strokes. This is how to train your brain towards unconscious competence.

A word of warning – beware the devil on your shoulder. Most of us have an inner voice who talks to us while we row. As an adult it is very influential on your ability to learn. Children don’t have such an active inner voice and this is one of the reasons adults find it more challenging to learn a new skill.

Your inner voice has a tendency to be very critical as you learn to row; it may be saying “you’re an idiot”

It’s really important not to listen to the voice because it gives a subjective assessment of your rowing technique. And frequently it’s a hindrance to your learning and acquiring skill. 

When you review how you are rowing, try to be very clinical in your assessment of your skill. Be objective, not emotional and use logic only. Female athletes often have an overly-critical inner voice who can work them into a spiral of despondency which does not improve their technique!

And lastly it is not possible to think about multiple things simultaneously in rowing. Even the Olympians cannot do this. Experienced rowers can focus on one aspect of the stroke, add a second complementary aspect and then try to do those two things together. So even that is just one thing at a time – keeping one in the background while you think about the second and then re-introducing the first to reinforce them working together. A good example is to work on improving power in the second half of the stroke – start by activating your back swing; then add the arm draw to the back swing and lastly do them together. 

And keep that inner demon voice quiet while you are rowing!

Article supplied by Faster Masters Rowing.