Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Coaches' Corner: Finish and Release

The release (where the outside hand taps the handle down causing the blade to exit the water on the square) is the most important position to master first because it is the key to initiating a good recovery and, therefore, a good catch. It is important that posture is maintained as the handle is drawn through the finish (if the body slumps down into the boat, the rower cannot possibly maintain pressure on the handle as the support structure for the work of the arms lies in the static strength of the core), so the first step is to make sure that your athletes are sitting up tall, which requires development of the core musculature.

The next item to focus on is the position of the hands. The handle should be drawn to the top of the rib cage, at which point the rower presses downwards with the outside hand, making a vertical turn (a 90 degree angle change in the trajectory of the handle), to a point where the rower will have clearance to allow the blade to exit on the square. This cannot be accomplished if the rower is slumped over the handle at the finish, as he or she will not have enough room to make the proper motion. Typical problems that arise from having a curved spine at the finish are hunched shoulders and messy finishes. If the spine is curved, the shoulders will naturally elevate in an attempt to preserve proper handle height through the finish. Too much layback can prevent proper movement of the hands at the release, as the hands must be able to press the handle down, which is impossible if the body is underneath the handle at the release. Drills such as square blade rowing and outside-arm-only can help to correct issues at the release, but there are also ways to work on these issues indoors.

Six ways to work on the release on land:

1. Erging in front of a mirror
Take notice of your posture as you draw the handle through to the finish. Are you sitting up tall? Have you drawn the handle straight through the drive (a flat plane of motion) to the top of the rib cage? Are your elbows lined up with your wrists at the finish?

2. Medicine ball twists
Sit on the floor and grab a medicine ball. Lift your legs off the floor and position your body such that you are sitting only on your 'glutes' (butt), and hold the ball just out in front of your body. Twist from side to side, just letting the ball tap the floor as you rotate each direction. This can be made more difficult by extending your arms.

3. Sculler's sit-ups
This should be familiar to every rower. Sit in the same position as the medicine ball twist, with your body weight supported on your hind quarters. Begin with your knees tucked to your chest, and your arms outstretched. Finish with your arms drawn in at your body, and your legs fully extended straight forward from your hips. Shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles should all be aligned.

4. Stair Jumps
Grab that medicine ball again. Find a suitable set of steps, and begin with hopping up two steps at a time (skip one step) while holding the medicine ball just out in front of your body with both hands, jumping off both legs (to imitate the legs during the rowing stroke). You can divide this workout into timed intervals or sets, depending on how many people are participating. As you get more advanced, jump up three steps (skip two), or four (skip three), if you are feeling ambitious. As you jump, make sure that your continue to hold the ball slightly away from your torso (hugging the medicine ball will not have nearly the effect on the core that holding it out will).

5. Planks
Yeah, they're boring. And they make your elbows hurt (at least, if you're bony like me). But they get the job done. Front planks, side planks. The interval is up to you and how athletic the participants are. Make sure that your back remains straight ('neutral'), rather than allowing it to bow or peak.

6. Two-footed jumps
The same principle as the stair jumps, but without the stairs. This time you can ditch the medicine ball too. Standing flat-footed, simply jump off both legs and tuck your knees as close to your chest as possible, taking care to land very softly on ball of your feet on the way down (landing on your heels is not acceptable, as it will simply have the effect of pounding your knees and hips). The idea is to jump off the legs, then use the core to pull the legs up as high as possible before returning to earth. This, coupled with a soft, quiet landing teaches a dynamic shove with the legs and an aggressive acceleration with the core, as well as a careful approach on the recovery. Best of all, it requires almost no space and no equipment. BEWARE, however, as silent landings are the key to injury prevention. Don't hammer, and perform this exercise on a softer surface, such as grass.

These can be coupled with 'superman' exercises (lie flat on your stomach, then lift your shoulders, arms, legs and head off the ground for 1-3 seconds, and repeat) to work both the front and back of the core musculature.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marin Junior Men Set Gold Standard This Fall

The Marin Juniors have shown a level of dominance this Fall that has the rest of the junior rowing world looking for an answer. The Marin RA boys, led by Graham Willoughby, began their Fall campaign with perhaps the biggest statement possible on the grandest stage available -- a first place finish at the Head of the Charles from a 69th place starting position. In so doing, they trumped Everett's push to surpass Eton College, the 3rd and 1st place starters respectively. Everett can be very pleased that they too triumphed over what has been a powerhouse British school for several years now, but clearly they had much less to deal with in front of them than did Marin, whose coxswain steered a fantastic course and allowed his rowers to ignore the distractions that go along with passing, turning and adjusting speed on the Charles. In speaking with Willoughby, he described it as an almost automated series of decisive moves that his veteran coxswain was able to make -- exactly what you need in close quarters.

Two weeks later, Marin was back in action at the Newport Autumn Rowing Festival. This time, both Marin A and B came across the line well ahead of the competition, showing the added depth of the program in a region that is, by far, the most competitive in the US at the high school level. Following behind them were Newport, Long Beach (look for Long Beach to have a strong Spring this season, as Nick D'Antoni, multiple-time national champion coach with Newport AC, has made a move just up the coast and has the LBJC boys on the right track this year), Marina AC, Oakland, with the third Marin VIII in 7th place overall. All this indicates that there will be another Grand Final this year in Oak Ridge heavily-laden with strong entries from the Southwest Region. MRA just missed it last year in two categories (three seconds total separated them from celebrating a National Championship in the VIII and the Lightweight VIII last year, as Newport AC was able to accomplish under D'Antoni in 2008), and they will be back looking to change all that this June.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Gladstone Will Create Another Dominant Program at Yale

Lined up at the start on the Cooper River (Photo: H. Kitch)

Steve Gladstone made a big move earlier this year, leaving his position at the California Rowing Club to take on the role of head coach at Yale. This left CRC without a head coach, as assistant Joel Scrogin accompanied Gladstone, and led to widespread speculation as to the reasons behind the move. The rivalry between Harvard's Harry Parker and Gladstone, perhaps one of the most intense and important in U.S. collegiate rowing's history, is widely considered to be the main reason for the change of venue. Yale has been far behind the curve for quite a while, but I believe their new chief is going to turn all that on its head.

Each program that Gladstone has touched has turned to gold, and, unlike Parker, who has been at Harvard his entire coaching career (though he has coached crews representing the U.S. at the world championships and the Olympics, in addition to his duties at Harvard), Gladstone has moved around quite a bit (from Princeton, to Harvard, to Cal, to Brown, then back to Cal, and finally to Yale). Every program Gladstone has coached has won an IRA title during his tenure (with the exceptions of Princeton, where his freshmen took silver twice, and Harvard, where his lightweight men had four undefeated seasons and two victories at Henley, but did not attend the IRA at that time). This means that he not only knows how to coach excellent athletes at an elite level varsity program, but also that he knows how to recruit those athletes and rebuild a program. He's had success with both heavyweights and lightweights, he's flexible, knowledgeable, and he's been in this very position before.

When Gladstone came back to Cal in 1997, the program had not won an IRA title since 1976—during his first term as the Bears' Head Coach. In the first two seasons of his second term with the Bears, his varsity squads twice took third at the IRA, and then ripped off four straight IRA Championships from 1999-2002. To paraphrase Gladstone's very own Wikipedia entry, nearly every member of those varsity squads rowed for the U.S. or another country's national team. This shows not only his recruiting talent, but also his ability to develop that talent at the elite level. All of this is why the Bulldogs couldn't be more pleased to welcome their new leader.

Harry Parker has come out with guns blazing—his Harvard squad looks stronger top-to-bottom than it has in several years, as I've discussed. The Bulldogs have some important adjustments to make, as is the case anytime there is a regime change. Gladstone may not be able to pull off the upset this season, but it is coming...soon.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Which US Men's Entries Earned Another Round in Karapiro?

The US men's squad came home from Karapiro without a single medal, of any color, to show for its efforts this year. However, there were some crews who showed that they have potential, this being their first chance at the World Championships. Which entries earned another trip around the international circuit?

In my view, the crew that most deserves some time to stay together and develop is the M4-. This is a group that got together only weeks before Worlds, and, despite having no international experience as a unit, managed to place a very respectable 5th in what is one of the most hotly contested Olympic events on the men's side. Also, looking at the way the final played out, it seems that there were some serious issues with fairness and wind interference, so we may not have seen all that this group was capable of this time. I know that the event was slightly weaker than it might have been, had the GB squad not taken Reed and Triggs-Hodge out of the 4- and put them in the pair in order to take a crack at Bond and Murray (and the fact that the Brits made it that close with what has been a truly dominant NZ pair over the last two years is impressive). The British have a decision to make now, since the 4- placed 4th in a tight field -- perhaps they are thinking about trading a gold in the 4- for two medals and a possible defeat of the Kiwis in the 2-? In any case, the US 4- performed very well in its international debut, and, for my money, they deserve some time to develop and gel the way their international counterparts have done over the past two seasons.

The second crew worth developing is the M2x, which performed well in quite a strong field, winning the B Final and placing themselves in the top 50% of the event (along with the 4-, it was one of only two US men's entries to do so). Warren Anderson is a beast on the erg, and is finally starting to figure out how to make use of his strength on the water. Also, by all counts he and Ochal have meshed well, and the results confirm that the US may have something with that combination.

The VIII made a case for itself in the rep, but I think there need to be one or two key lineup changes for this boat to truly be a contender. There is a core that has the potential to medal in 2012, but their lack-luster performance in the A Final in Karapiro showed that there is much work yet to be done. Personally, I don't think putting a first-time National Team member in the stroke seat is a particularly great way of going about things, especially when the guy sitting right behind him is perfectly capable of stroking, and has an Olympic gold medal in the event. Also, the LWT 2x had a decent showing, placing 11th in one of the most subscribed events at Worlds this year (along with the LM4- and the M1x) -- even making the A Final would be an achievement for US Rowing in that category.

Beyond those four entries, however, I think there is much reshaping to be done. In the 2-, the US entry of McEachern and Monaghan raced well, but looking at the list of boats in front of the US going into 2011, there seems to be very little chance at a medal in London. This partly depends on where the priorities of the GB team lie, but with the Greeks, French, South Africans, Kiwis, Germans and Italians to pass before standing atop the podium, the US have a very long way to go. The LM4- hasn't managed to crack the A Final in a meaningful race since Sydney, and until some major changes take place with the US system, it's probably going to stay that way. Entries like the M2+, the LM VIII and the LM4x can be looked at as development boats, so their last place finishes in events with fewer than 6 entries can be chalked up to 'gaining experience.'

When it comes right down to it, this is my stance: outside of the two crews, who, in very competitive, Olympic events, managed to make the top 50%, it's back to the drawing board. What does Tim McLaren think? Well, I guess we'll find out in 2011.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who's Ahead as Winter Training Begins?

Fall racing is always unpredictable, and not necessarily indicative of Spring speed. However, there are several collegiate programs who made quite a loud statement in the early going this year. Let's take a look given the results from the main event of the Fall -- the Head of the Charles.

The most dominant program on the men's side this Fall was Harvard. The program at Harvard had two boats in the top ten in the the Lightweight VIII, the Championship VIII, the Club VIII, and the Championship IV. That is truly an impressive showing, and while they couldn't catch the blazing fast Tigers in the Lightweight VIII (who blew away the old course record by 12 seconds, albeit in the best conditions I've ever seen at the Charles), they revealed amazing depth in that event, with two VIIIs finishing 3rd and 4th overall, both in under 14:31. The Harvard Champ VIII managed to beat Cal -- last year's IRA Champion -- and take 2nd place overall, behind what will surely be a contender for the national championship this Spring in Washington's Varsity VIII. The second Harvard VIII in the event took 9th, with the Yale Varsity coming across in 14th place -- it appears Gladstone will have his hands full with Parker's boys this season. In the Club VIII, a further Harvard VIII took first, despite being dressed as firefighters for the race, and yet another entry took third, just behind the JV from Boston University. All of this points toward a very strong Spring season for Harvard, who certainly have the bodies to make a Sprints Champion VIII in their program, if not an IRA Champion -- I don't think we will see the same kind of separation between the two dominant West Coast schools and the rest of the pack that we saw in last year's Varsity VIII Grand Final in New Jersey.

On the women's side, Yale had entries in the top 10 in the Championship VIII, the Championship IV, and the Club VIII. Princeton won the Champ VIII, and had a 6th place Champ IV as well, while Brown managed a 3rd place and a 12th place finish in the Champ VIII, as well as a 2nd place finish in the Champ IV. Virginia also had a great showing, taking 2nd and 8th in the Champ VIII. Look for Yale, Brown, Princeton and Virginia to have very fast Varsity VIIIs come Spring, given the depth across the board from each of these programs. It's never safe to count programs like Cal and Washington out of the mix here either, as East Coast head racing is less of a priority for such West Coast crews. On the whole, it's a pretty familiar looking lineup of schools, though Yale may find itself toppled from the podium this year.

I know it's early, but the Harvard men did an excellent job in defending home waters, and I think that Steve Gladstone is going to have to wait until next year before he can challenge Parker's Crimson for the top slot at Sprints. As far as the IRA Championships go, well, Harvard have a lot to prove before I'll put them on the same level as Cal and Washington, but they have taken the first step. Another very notable Pac-10 team is Stanford, who did not show their hand at the HOCR -- instead, they had athletes abroad in three separate entries representing the US in Karapiro (the victorious VIII, the 4- and the 1x). Look for Stanford to be very strong after they reabsorb these athletes back into the mix. However, the Virginia women showed the same great depth that earned them the team championship last year, and I'll look for them to build on that in the coming Spring with a victory in the Varsity VIII.

Then again, we've got a long way to go until June.

Monday, November 8, 2010

US Men's Rowing Performance in Karapiro: Rough Waters

The US men's squad emerges from the competition in Karapiro with very little to show for its efforts this year, though this does not do justice to the improvements that have been made over the past twelve months. The cold, hard fact is, this year's team did not take a single medal of any color home from Karapiro, failing one of the major criteria laid out as a basis for saying McLaren's program is working as we head toward London. Even in events that were not well subscribed (the 2+ and the LWT VIII), the US couldn't manage a podium finish, and of the boats that made A Finals (including final-only events, this amounted to four) the best finish by a US crew was 5th place.

Now, as far as improvements go, there are a couple of things to talk about, most notably the 4-, which didn't even make the B final last year, and which finished in 5th place overall during this year's campaign. A great deal of work has gone into this boat, and the results show that a tremendous amount of progress has been made in what is possibly the most competitive event on the men's side. The problem is, placing your most talented athletes in an event that is probably out of reach (the GB team finished fourth, with a lineup that didn't include two of their Olympic Champions from 2008 -- Triggs-Hodge and Reed -- who were busy nearly toppling the Kiwis from their place atop the podium in the 2-) may not be the best way to up the medal count in London. The VIII also improved, making the A Final this time, but did not have a good showing in the final race of the 2010 World Championships, finishing 6th in a race that left them behind from the beginning. Still, despite the lack of any tangible evidence of their improvements, the US brought a stronger team to World's this year than last year, with fewer boats missing the A/B semi.

Here is the hard part -- what we are witnessing is an attempt to restructure the US Rowing community in the style of a European or Commonwealth system, with a greater emphasis on smaller, skilled boats and sculling, making the top priority crew the 4-. That system works really well in Europe and elsewhere, because the athletes grow up with the sport forming a much greater part of their consciousness, and because they are much more likely to begin with sculling rather than sweep rowing. Therefore, they are much more accustomed to coxless boats by the time they are ready to make the step up to the international scene. This is absolutely not the case in the US, and I have a great deal of trouble believing that it ever will be.

US Rowing is, and will always be, much more driven by intercollegiate rowing than club rowing. One needs only to look at the relative levels of participation to see that much, and this association is getting much stronger now that the NCAA is beginning to take control. The most important boats in intercollegiate rowing are the VIII and the coxed 4, and, because of the restructuring of the national championships, there are no longer any events for coxless boats. The only experience most US oarsmen get in coxless boats is pairs matrix racing in the Fall, or perhaps a little time in the 1x in order to work on stability issues. The most talented oarsmen will spend all their focus and energy trying to make it into the Varsity VIII -- the nation's premier event. This creates problems for the next level, because US Rowing's development system is just like that of the NFL -- utterly reliant on collegiate talent. There are no minor leagues here, as there are in Europe (with it's extremely competitive club rowing circuit), so when it comes time to make a national team, we end up drawing directly from the ranks of collegiate athletes, none of whom know how to move a 4-, but all of whom know how to move the VIII. Why, then, is McLaren trying to install a European system on top of an existing collegiate one, which is entirely based around the VIII?

This kind of change needs to happen from the ground up, and unless McLaren can get collegiate teams to do something they have never done in the past -- that is, come together with the common goal of developing athletes for the national team, rather than teach wildly different rowing techniques and ignore the obvious benefits of having championship races for coxless boats -- this system is not going to work in the US. The highly successful British national team (which topped the medal count leader board this year in Karapiro), has benefited greatly from its club rowing system, which emphasizes small boats, standard technique and year-round training. Club rowing in the US is largely a summer program, and there is very little cross-over in terms of technique from one program to another. This is because of the short-sighted tendency to look only at immediate gain -- whatever seems to get the job done at the moment is the preferred style, rather than having a long-term, consistent approach (look at the difference between lightweight rowing techniques in the US from the early 2000s and those that are used now).

The long and the short of it is, something has to change. If Tim McLaren is going to be successful as the US Men's Head Coach, then the landscape of collegiate rowing has to adapt to the needs of the national team to an unprecedented extent. Should McLaren and the 4- make their way to the top of the event in London, it would be an emphatic, landmark change in the history of rowing in the United States, signaling the beginning of a new era of post-collegiate development. If the collegiate system remains the same, then I don't think the resources at hand will be going to their best use.

The stereotypes about US rowing are, in large part, true. We are very strong, don't row that well, any yet somehow keep winding up on the Olympic podium based on guts and rage. That's a great way to move the VIII. The 4-? Well, not so much.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

US Men Make A Finals in Two Olympic Events

The Men's VIII will join the list of US men's crews in the A Finals this year, winning their rep just ahead of NZ, and sending the Canadians to the B Final. So far the A Finals tally is two, not counting the boats in events with six entries or less (the Men's 2+, the LWT 4x and the LWT VIII). The 2-, 2x, LWT 4-, LWT 2x, LWT 2-, and the 1x have all landed themselves in the B Final, leaving the US men with four shots at the medals, and two chances at Olympic-class medals so far. This could grow to six chances at the podium, should Anderson and Ochal make the A Final in the 2x (another Olympic event), and should Urevick-Ackelsberg make the A Final in the LWT 1x (though in field with Jonathan Koch, Peter Chambers and Duncan Grant, medals will be tough to come by). The 2010 regatta is certainly an improvement from last year, when the US men were completely shut out of the A Finals in Olympic events, and finished second-to-last in the VIII -- an event in which they took the bronze medal only a year earlier in Beijing.

The finals in the VIII and the 4- will be hotly contested, and very much fun to watch (if the reps in the VIII and the 4- are any indication). It has been wonderful to see crews that McLaren has built over the past months succeed on the international level despite being virtually untested, and I'm looking forward to seeing how those crews take on the challenge of the A Finals in Karapiro -- 20 months to go until London. Once the racing is done and the medals are distributed, I'll take a look at the team's performance and rate it according to the criteria laid out in my article last week.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

US Men's 4- Wins Rep to Earn Place in A Final

The performance of the day for the US men's team was turned in by the 4-, led by Silas Stafford of Stanford. The crew placed themselves firmly in medal contention with a solid performance, holding off a late sprint from the Italian crew immediately to starboard. It's a great sign moving forward and exactly the type of performance needed to set the tone as we draw closer to London. Stafford, Stitt, Rummel and Lanzone also make up the first of the US men's Olympic-class boats to make the the A Final this year -- something that is extremely important for Tim McLaren as he tries to harness the potential of the US club system in preparation for 2012 (as I've discussed).

Tomorrow will feature a very tough race for the Men's LWT 4-, in a heat with Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France -- all perennial powerhouses in the event. If the US can make it through to the A Final from this semi, they too will have placed themselves in medal contention, having raced some of the most experienced crews on the international circuit.

The VIII and the LWT VIII both had somewhat uninspiring results, though the LWT VIII was an exhibition race, there being so few entries this year, and such meaningless races can sometimes be deceptive. The heavy VIII finished just behind two strong crews from Great Britain and Australia, and will have a real test in the reps to come, with both Canada and a strong New Zealand crew on the program.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Strong Start for US Men in Karapiro

The US men's team has opened up very well across the board thus far in Karapiro, with the LM4- making a big statement in their heat, finishing second and going straight to the A/B semi. The LM 2- finished third in their heat (behind quality entries from NZ and France), and will be heading to the reps, as will the M4-, stroked by Silas Stafford, who also opened up very well, finishing 2nd behind an excellent NZ crew. In the 2-, Monaghan and McEachern took 3rd, placing themselves in semifinal A/B in one of the toughest events at the regatta, and Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg did just enough to take the 3rd qualifying position in the LM1x as well, landing himself in the A/B semi. The 2x combination of Anderson and Ochal competed very well in their opener, taking 2nd behind another quality entry from Great Britain. They'll now set their sights on the A/B semi along with many of their teammates. The toughest result for the US to this point has come in the M1x, with Ken Jurkowski coming across the line in 5th place in his heat -- he'll be looking to turn that around in the reps.

It's a solid start, and many US crews have set themselves up to make a statement in the coming week. If the team is, in fact, as strong as it looks to be after the first two days of racing, McLaren may just have the team on the right track. The road to 2012 begins now.

For more results from the World Rowing website, click here. The racing is about to begin once again!