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6 Things Not To Learn About Rowing From the Beijing Olympics

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With the Olympics blazing away it is an exciting time for rowing. And if you’re lucky you may just be able to view racing in person, on the web, or on TV. And possibly you can read about the training, selection, and coaching from a number of sources.

A word of caution—be careful what you learn.

The Olympics represent four years of a nation trying to make a boat go fast. It is our Indy 500. Our  Super-Bowl. To generate the hull speed needed to compete at that level the envelop is pushed—really pushed. Technological breakthroughs, advance training regimens, innovative equipment, and radical strategies and techniques are just a few of the outcomes of a country trying to get a boat to win a medal. However, many of those advances are not applicable to what us mere mortals can do with our rowing.

Do Big Advances Happen
No doubt—great advances happen in Olympic efforts. Obviously not all are good (doping) but some of the advances can be brilliant. As a recent Fast Company article details no holds are barred reaching for Olympics medals. Here are a few advances for the Beijing Olympics:

  • a swim suit that constricts to makes athletes smaller—therefore faster
  • a running shoe so light the runners do not know that it is on
  • track shoes that list to port to help with speed when the track turns
  • javelins made of aluminum wrapped in carbon, like a giant toothpick swaddled in a carbon-fiber fishnet stocking

At the 1996 Olympics, where I was boatman for the US team, I witnessed some incredible advances. From explosive reduction of erg scores, to blazing speeds, to wickedly high ratings, to new equipment designs—it was almost like being part of a science-fiction movie. The image below is a past example of one such innovation. It is a sliding rigger developed in 1956. (It was banned from racing by FISA after Kolbe won the World Championships in the single in 1981. Bad break for  all of those who had bought one.)

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(photo from Friends of Rowing History)

We Are Mortal

Often those advances are viewed as what colleges, high schools, and juniors programs should be doing. And this is where problems, sometimes big problems can occur. Olympic innovation is big—scratch that—huge. And big budgets, big athletes, and nearly unlimited resources (for some teams) are dedicated to being faster, higher, stronger.

But that does not describe most rowing programs in the US.  Our athletes are not Oympic athletes. Our training schedules do not allow for Olympic efforts. Our rowers do not row as well as Olympians. And our equipment is not like theirs. It does not mean that the aspirations of the rowers are different, but the  materials and resources are.

Yet I see many coaches, rowers, and supporters believing that what Olympians can do, others can do.

As you tune in and watch Olympic rowing I suggest there are 6 things you ignore when it comes to trying them with your own rowing or coaching.

Ignore This—Speeds. Aw, come on. They are faster than us. They are WICKEDLY faster than us. Heck, some of them are faster than my car. Hardly any crews can come anywhere near close to those speeds. So don’t ask to go that fast. Don’t ask your teams to go that fast. (Don’t ask your car to go that fast.)

Ignore This—Training. Those folks train like the type of athletes they are—amazing. The work volume, scheduling, and consumption is incredible. (At one camp I saw a sculler eat a 32 egg omelette after practice, and complain about still being hungry.) They train hard, and if anyone but those athletes were to try to train at that level the consequences could be drastic and crushing. Training plans need to be methodically designed for the level of athlete you are (or have). Don’t try to do Olympic training.

Ignore This—Strategy. Granted this is one area where you might be able to draw some wisdom, but keep in mind that Olympic racing strategy is designed to work against Olympic competition and with Olympic athletes.  And to implement an Olympic rowing strategy you  have to be able to do the tactics. Tactics such as racing the first 700 meters at 45 spm is probably well beyond all but the best rowers in the world.

Ignore This—Stroke Rating. See above. Their hull speed allows for higher ratings. Speed and stroke rating go hand-in-hand.

Ignore This—Rigging Numbers. This is my pet peeve. The only rowers who should be rigged like national team rowers are national team rowers. Yet I get emails from coaches who use those rigging numbers and wonder why their kids are hurting their backs. In my rigging clinics I no longer use national team rigging numbers as examples. Get the appropriate numbers for your rowing. Don’t use theirs.

Ignore This—Equipment. All that shiny new equipment, flying down the course. Don’t you just want to buy some? Of course you do, but is it right for you? For your team? There is some wiggle room here, but you might not get the bang from the buck you want.

So what should a rowing spectator do? Turn on the Olympics. Watch. Cheer. Enjoy.

But just be careful what knowledge you bring home.