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.

Adapting Rigging for Masters Phyisology

Masters rowers fundamentally are no different from any other age group. However, regular competitors know that your strength and flexibility changes as you age and so it is helpful to re-assess rigging and boat set up regularly for masters training groups.

Comfort in the Boat

The goal of rowing and sculling boat rigging for masters is twofold

  • Be able to move through the stroke cycle
  • Be comfortable while doing it

Let’s start by reviewing the parts of a rowing boat which are capable of adjustment and the degree of difficulty involved in changing each.

  • Oar length easy to change
  • Oar inboard easy to change
  • Oar handle size moderately difficult to change
  • Seat height easy to change
  • Slide / track position moderately difficult to change
  • Foot Stretcher position easy to change
  • Shoe height moderately difficult to change
  • Foot stretcher angle / rake hard to change
  • Rigger pin position (span / spread) hard to change
  • Rigger pin pitch (fore/aft and lateral) hard to change
  • Oarlock height easy to change

My assessment of easy / moderate / hard is based on the amount of time, tools and skill needed to make a change.  For example, a club who uses snap-lock washers on the oarlocks will find it very easy to change the oarlock heights on the water.  Changing your slide position on the water is more challenging – but easy to do off the water with the boat on trestles. Adjusting the rigger pin takes tools, time and expertise and so is classified as hard.

Knowing what can be changed is a good starting point. Any change has to be made with reference to an “ideal” or preferred situation.  Therefore rowing groups should all know some basic principles of rigging which can be adapted for taller or shorter people.

Key Rowing Rig Positions for athletes

  1. Oar handle relative to the body at the finish (sweep and sculling)
  2. Shoe height relative to seat height
  3. Sill of oarlock relative to the water

There are some fixed positions that rowers should be able to achieve

  • Full compression at the catch, shins vertical, hips square off from the pin, oar spoons buried under the water
  • At the sculling finish blades buried under the water, wrist and forearms flat, elbows at 90 degrees to the oar shaft, thumbs brushing your lower ribs
  • At the sweep finish blades buried under the water, outside hand thumb brushes lower ribs
  • Mid-recovery oar spoons capable of square blades above the water surface

These give you clear points in the rowing stroke cycle to check against what your athletes actually do when they are rowing. Note that many will be able to get into these positions when the boat is stationary, check  if they actually do it while rowing continuously.

Easy rigging fixes for you to try

Problem: not enough space between the handles at the sculling finish

  • Move foot stretcher towards bow
  • Shorten inboard on oars [keep outboard the same if the athlete is a novice]

Problem: Handles can go past the body at the sculling finish

  • Move foot stretcher towards stern

Problem: Cannot get shins vertical at the catch

  • Lower shoes on foot stretcher and / or
  • Use a seat pad to raise seat height

Problem: Cannot get back rocked forward with shoulders in front of hips on recovery

  • Lower shoes on foot stretcher and / or
  • Use a seat pad to raise seat height – or two seat pads 

Problem: Cannot keep oars buried at the finish under the water

  • Lower oarlock height 
  • Use a seat pad to raise seat height

Problem: Tall athlete rowing with a shorter athlete

  • Set oarlocks high / low for the tall / short athlete
  • Shorten oar length and inboard for short athlete (keep outboard ratio the same)

Problem: Big shoes in the boat and athletes with smaller feet

  • Wear neoprene beach shoes inside the boat shoes
  • Raise the shoes as high as possible on the footstretcher so the heels are elevated

Most rigging fixes are a combination of recognising a problem and knowing what to try as a possible solution. As a rule, only make one change at a time, go rowing and see what the change is before making another change.

Marlene Royle and Rebecca Caroe coach at Faster Masters Rowing

Programs, video & technique for masters. 


Peer to peer coaching clinics

The Legion of Rowers hosted two coaching clinics during July 2021 for masters rowers who are not coaches. There are not enough coaches available for masters groups to get regular coaching. One way to get effective coaching for masters is to enable self-coaching and group feedback. This has never been tried before. 

During 2020 we surveyed masters rowers via the New Zealand Masters Rowers Facebook page asking what would improve rowing for masters.

5 key areas were identified

  1. To speak with one voice nationally
  2. Grow membership and participation
  3. Have more regattas and with new race formats (coastal and flat water)
  4. More social events
  5. Access to effective coaching

Legion of Rowers and Rowing New Zealand agreed to organise two peer to peer clinics during June 2021 in Auckland and Karapiro led by Duncan Holland and Raf Wyatt.

Erg masters rowing, NZ Masters rowing, Legion of Rowers NZ,

Erg coaching on the rowing model

Masters Coaching, Peer to peer coaching, masters rowing New Zealand

Raf Wyatt explains the stroke cycle

peer to peer rowing clinic, masters rowing NZ, Legion of Rowers NZ

Planning an outing using peer-to-peer principles

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The Legion of Rowers, in conjunction with Rowing NZ, are now inviting registrations for the first Peer-to-Peer Coaching Clinic to be held at the Auckland Rowing Club from Friday 18th June–Sunday 20th June.
Registrations must be lodged and paid by 12th June 2021.
The Auckland event is a “Trial” for the concept; with the possible running of additional clinics at Karapiro & Whanganui. All of these clinics are very much dependent on the numbers of rowers registering.
It is proposed to hold a similar event in the South Island later in the year.    
The Coaching Clinic times will be on
– Friday evening from 6pm-7:30pm
– Saturday 8am – 4pm (morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea provided) and
– Sunday 8am – Noon (morning tea and lunch provided).
All meals are included in the camp fee, accommodation is not included, but some billeting arrangements may be possible. All attendees will cover their own costs of travel and accommodation.

The program is specifically designed to introduce existing Rowers, Coaches, Non–rowers and Coxswains to modern methods of Peer-to- Peer coaching for Masters’ Rowers and how to:

  • improve technique whilst in the boat with other Masters and/or from a coaching boat
  • extend communication skills specifically towards Masters’ Rowers
  • improve the coaching of Masters’ Rowers within YOUR Club
  • improve coaching of New Members
  • increase the numbers of New Masters Rowing

Numbers for this Clinic are restricted, based on the use of two eights & two coxless quads, giving both sweep & sculling coaching accompanied by 2 coaching boats.
The Clinic will include video analysis, nutrition & strength lectures, erg demonstrations & on–water participation alongside expert question and answer sessions.
There is no limit on the numbers applying from any one Club or region. Each club may include 1x person for a free registration, provided at least one other person from the club is a full paying candidate.
The Legion reserves the right to cancel the event for whatsoever reason, in which case all payments will be refunded immediately.

Registration Details :
For information and registration, please go to our online form here

Payment of the required fee will validate your registration, which will be acknowledged when paid.

Any further enquiries can be made to

$ 350.00 for Members of the Legion of Rowers (2021-22)
$ 380.00 for Non-Members

Payment to :  03-0104-0099885-00
– Particulars & Code:  Name of Attendee/s
– Reference: Name of Rowing Club (e.g. Auckland or Taupo or North Shore)