Friday, December 31, 2010

Winter Training: How to Tackle Your 2k

Lightweights racing at Crash-Bs in 2012 (Photo: B. Kitch)
The junior and collegiate indoor rowing season is just around the corner, and that means sooner or later you are going be testing yourself for 2,000 meters along with your teammates. Whether it's at your club's boathouse, a regional championship, or Crash-Bs, there are a few tips that can help you to achieve your goals this winter. There are as many ways to approach a 2k as there are people rowing, but given my experience the following, simple tricks can put you in the right place when the electronic starting official let's you know it's time to go.

1. Don't worry if you can't sleep. Being nervous is natural, and look at it from the positive standpoint of neurological and physiological preparation: your body and mind are ready to get after it. That's good. The best advice I ever heard regarding sleep was as simple as this: when your body needs sleep, it takes it (I believe this came from Matt Pinsent or Peter Reed). If you are completely unable to sleep, then you probably don't need it at that time. So, relax. Let your body take over the night before, after you have made sure to properly hydrate and nourish it.

2. If you are testing in the morning, it is beneficial to be awake for three hours prior to intense athletic activity. If there's no way you can manage that (say, if you are set to test at 6am), then give yourself a full hour at the least. The body takes time to fully awaken and it's important that you are running on all cylinders for your test.

3. The warm-up should begin roughly 45 minutes before your test, with a steady-state about ten minutes long. At the outset, you should be at something very easy, in the range of +35-40 on your goal split. As your body warms up a little, you can start to let it creep down to +25-30. This is simply to get your system up and running, and a good sweat going. You can follow this up with a little water, and five to ten minutes or so of ten stroke bursts at or below your race pace. A trick that often worked for me was to close my eyes for the last of these bursts—usually, you'll find that you are well below your goal. Following these short intervals, get up, stretch, and walk around a little. Breathe and relax. You know your goal.

4. Sit down on your test erg as soon as possible. Take full advantage of the five minutes you are usually given prior to the test (this is the procedure at Crash-Bs), and begin by doing a drill: two legs-only strokes, followed by one full stroke. One of the hardest things going into a test is staying relaxed enough in the upper body to keep from wasting energy. This drill will help to remind you to keep your shoulders, arms and hands relaxed as you initiate the drive.

5. Have a race plan, and commit to your goal split. Some people have elaborate plans that they tape to the base of the erg monitor, and some people are more free with their planning—but everyone needs to go into a test with an expectation of where they will be at a given point, as basic or complex as that expectation may be. Personally, I don't like to over think things. People often talk about "the third 500" in daunting terms, so my own, very simple plan eliminated it. I knew my goal, and I knew I'd done the work. I would say to myself, "get to 700m to go," and that was enough. I knew that I'd be able to hold my goal split through 1300m, and by the time I reached 700m to go I would be more than half way through the dreaded third 500. From there, it always comes down to grit and rage—probably the reason I started rowing in the first place.

6. Again, commit to your goal split. Everyone feels like Hercules when they take the first five strokes of a 2k test, and there is always a temptation to linger too far below your goal to be sustainable. This cannot happen. You are a robot, programmed to pull one number. Execute. 

7. Remember to keep the hands moving. The more tired you get, the more likely you are to leave the hands in the finish. Continue to draw all the way through to the body, but keep your swing and momentum by making the handle speed away from the finish a reflection of the drive. If you can manage this, you'll always be able to take up the rate when your vision is starting to blur and you're losing feeling in your extremities.

8. Do not fall on the ground. If you have the ability to go full pressure all the way through a test, then you have the ability to sit up and put the handle down. What flopping on the ground says is that you are not physiologically prepared to handle the distance, or that you've had a bad test. (Take a look at Henrik Stephansen after shattering the lightweight men's world record, if you'd like an example.) Sit up, and pat yourself on the back. Leave the test knowing that you executed your plan, and take satisfaction in that, whether it brings you a medal or not.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Six-Part Series: What Makes the Great Ones Great?

Announcing a new, six-part series coming to RowingRelated on the characteristics of great athletes across all sports, and what we can learn from both their actions and personalities. Once a week, the RR Staff will look at one aspect of the successful athlete's character, making use of examples from mainstream sports as well as rowing. In so doing, we will delineate the athletic mindset and provide the reader with a new perspective on how to view professional and amateur athletes, as well as how to make the most of his or her own competitive drive.

We believe there are six common traits among all great athletes in all sports. In this weekly series we will provide an in-depth analysis of each of these qualities and why we think they are necessary components in all great athletes.

1. Confidence
What separates belief in yourself and your abilities from arrogance, and how can cockiness and self-confidence possibly serve to enhance your performance physiologically?

2. Ability to perform under pressure
Be a racer and a game day performer, not just a practice player or a workout warrior.

3. Focus and drive
The ability to be keenly focused and driven to achieve a single goal, drawing on your talent and resources to the fullest extent.

4. Natural talent and ability
Natural athletic gifts, from hand-eye coordination to height and musculature, etc.

5. Consistency
The ability to train and practice over a long period of time to perfect your skills and gain the natural strength and endurance to be able to perform at the highest level.

6. Opportunity
The chance that allows you to discover the sport for which you are best suited, and the opportunity to pursue it at a high level.

What makes the great ones great? We're providing answers. Our one goal: to help guide aspiring athletes to realize their potential, whatever their sport may be.

Series begins Wednesday, January 5th, 2011.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Video of the Week: Polish Quad

This week's video comes to us from Poland. The Polish Men's Quad, which won gold in Beijing, is shown here during what appears to be a low-rate AT training session. The base rating is 26 s/m—a number at which they arrive with the greatest of ease because of their aggressive, unified drive phase and smooth release, not disturbing the boat and allowing it to run out to the fullest extent before placing the blades once again (the shot of the bow sliding through the water is informative). If you watch the sculler at stroke, you can easily see how much thought and practice he has put into honing his technique. Not only is his sculling superb (in my opinion, the he is the most polished sculler of the crew), his breathing is equally as rhythmic and controlled.

If you take a closer look at each one of the scullers, idiosyncrasies will start to emerge. The sculler at bow breaks his arms as he takes the catch, and the two-seat allows his knees to fall over the gunwales just slightly, rather than lining them up exactly with the toes. However, when the camera pulls back and shows the swing (posture with abs engaged at the release, allowing a quick movement into and out of the bow), preparation and bladework, it is evident that this is an extremely unified, efficient crew. This is an important thing to notice as a coach—keep an eye on the big picture in addition to individual technique. After all, they are the reigning Olympic champions.

For more videos and analysis check the 'Videos' Page.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Chula Vista Bound: Is Now the Right Time?

The Wall Street Journal got involved in the debate surrounding the US National Team this week, publishing an article that is the first appearance to date of any reasoning behind the moves as expressed by Glenn Merry himself. The rationale, according to Merry, is directly related to training -- the warmer climate in California allows year round training on the water, and, given the US men's failure to bring home any hardware from Karapiro in November, the US Rowing leadership decided that the move would facilitate rapid improvement in small boat categories. The results from the RR short answer poll show that the move is a divisive issue: 38% believed the move was a bad decision, while 32% backed the move to California and 28% remained undecided. While I believe this is the right move in the long-term, there are a number of problems yet to be addressed in the wake of such a dramatic shift, and only 20 months left to resolve them.

First, let's look at the benefits of the move from the standpoint of training and the long-term:
Let's face it, the climate in Southern California is better suited to outdoor training than the climate in New Jersey. If the top priority is simply time on the water, it is hard to take issue with sacrificing three to four months of unrowable conditions for year-round convenience. The Arco facility has been in use by the US National Team for a number of years now, and many of the athletes and coaches are already familiar with the facility. McLaren is also quite at home in California, having coached at CRC prior to taking on a leadership role with US Rowing. Thus far, the athletes have expressed that they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to continue training in pursuit of the Olympic dream, and, despite the logistical issues that it raises for all those currently training in Princeton, they have maintained a unified front while beginning to pick up stakes and move across the country. Also, while the Arco facility is currently not equipped to service the entire team, it is at least a workable situation that can be improved over time.

All right, now let's talk about the problems:
There are only 20 months left until London. The move is not scheduled to take place until March 2011, when the athletes would be on the water once again in Princeton anyway, so while the idea of year-round training may apply to future Olympiads, it will have, at best, the cumulative effect of allowing another three months training on the water. Perhaps that is not insignificant, but due to the rushed nature of the move, following a very late World Championship Regatta this year, training for some of the athletes may be interrupted for almost that long as they move out to California and seek both housing and work. According to a recent national survey, the unemployment situation in California is tied with Michigan for second-worst in the US at 12.4%, and Chula Vista is located in a distant suburb of San Diego, so the more affordable housing will be located at some distance from the training center. Add to this the fact that the training center is not currently equipped to meet the needs of the entire team, hence the squad has effectively been split in half between the High Performance Center in Oklahoma City and Arco. This split involves the central issue discussed in the Wall Street Journal article -- that being the goal of producing more results in small boats and sculling events in 2012 -- as the developmental heavyweight group is currently scheduled to train in OKC, along with the lightweights. If the heavyweight group is split between two time zones, it will be difficult to create a consistent, team-wide culture, not to mention put together meaningful comparative data.

If, as the article states, the goal is to bring home five medals from the rowing events in 2012, then is this really the best time to reorganize the entire system for 50% of the National Team? If the stated goal were more long-term, even 2016, it would be easier to understand taking on such a major challenge at this point in time. Between relocating the entire coaching staff (minus Korzeniowski...?), sorting out the housing situation and providing some support for athletes as they seek new jobs in a new location, and (hopefully) making necessary improvements to the Arco facility to better serve the needs of US Rowing, the National Team may have a few too many variables to worry about outside of boat speed to be able to compete at the desired level in London. If the USOC were able to negotiate employment programs for the athletes in the process and aid them financially as they make the move, it would greatly improve the situation. I hope that McLaren et al. can manage to right the ship, and I will always be an enthusiastic supporter of the athletes representing the US -- maybe that's why I'm so concerned.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Coaches' Corner: Swing

One of the most important, rhythmic sequences in the stroke is the movement of the upper body from the finish position through to the body-set position. The video above, published by Everett Rowing Association, is a good example of the benefits of good swing. The stern four of this crew have gone on to prominence in the collegiate rowing ranks, and the eight move very well together out of the bow. Swing is easy to work on during the winter, as is team-wide uniformity of swing, by lining up the ergs at your training session and having the rowers do their steady state training together. If your team can match their hand and body movements as they establish good body position on land, it will solve a great deal of issues when you take to the water once again in the Spring.

Swing begins with good posture at the release. The rower must be sitting tall, making sure that the ribcage is not collapsed over the hips. The abs must be engaged in this position, so that they can easily initiate the movement out of the bow. If the rower is hunched, the movement will become more complicated: rather than simply using the abs to draw the body forward, the rower will have to first sit up, then rock, making two movements out of one, and slowing the swing by damaging the flow out of the bow.

From this tall position, with the abs engaged, the first movement is performed by the hands, which extend straight out from the release, as though on a table. Once the arms are extended, the hip-flexors and the abs draw the body over the hips until it reaches the position it will maintain as the legs are drawn up to the chest. This position should mirror the body position at the release—swing should be distributed evenly on either side of the hips. A metronome is a useful image. The core continues to be engaged, as the same tall posture must be maintained on either side of the hips to achieve maximum efficiency. The feeling for the rower can be described as a shift of the weight from the tailbone onto the feet. Once the weight is placed on the feet, the set can be controlled much more easily.

The key is sequencing properly out of the bow. The proper order ensures that the body and hands will be in the right place as the rower begins to draw the knees up to his or her chest. Proper posture coupled with the removal of any extraneous movements will maintain the boat speed as well as the set. Level hands and early establishment of the body position will help to simplify the catch, and can be monitored during the winter by means of coaching, mirrors and video. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't teach technique on the erg—land training can be equally as useful for ingraining the proper sequence as water training, and if this sequence is learned well, then the process of blade placement will come more easily to your rowers when the ice melts.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Workouts: Why Do Rowers Fear the Erg?

Op-Ed from the RowingRelated Editorial Staff

Friend. Not foe. (Illustration: B. Kitch)
I am really frustrated by our sport when it comes to the erg being viewed as a torture device rather than a helpful tool that people can enjoy. This negative mindset, which is extremely contagious, plagues the sport, preventing athletes from training to their potential and possibly serving as one of the reasons that careers in rowing, at every level, are often so short.

When compared to other endurance sports, I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training.My main problem is that everywhere I turn in the rowing community, whether it's high school rowers, college athletes, or even national team hopefuls, I hear of people dreading the erg. I've never heard about a cross country runner 'dreading' a track workout. True, basketball and football players may dread running wind sprints or other such conditioning activities, but I can live with that because those are not endurance sports. In other words, when strength, power, endurance, mental toughness, and monotonous activity are the bread and butter of your sport, it seems wholly inappropriate to create a culture that disdains such fundamentally important and central activities.

When compared to other endurance sports like cycling, running, swimming, etc., I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training. A track runner might complain if he or she had to be on the treadmill all winter long, but the idea would not strike fear into his or her heart, as track athletes are forced to be accountable at all times. I don't know why, every winter, I have to go on Row2k and read ROWING Magazine to find out about "How to get through winter training," or "How to find ways to spice up/find alternatives for the erg." Why can't people just say, "Time to erg? Okay great. What is the workout, what am I trying to accomplish and what is the best way to do that in this workout?"

Another issue: rowers complaining about mysterious injuries that only seem to affect performance on land. How common is it to have an injury that allows you to row on the water but not on the erg? I think that, in actuality, such injuries are exceedingly rare. I've had a number of athletes tell me about an injury they have, but somehow that injury only comes up on the erg. Rarely do I hear about an injury when coaching on the water. It is all too common for people to say, "but it doesn't hurt in the boat." Really? You mean that when you have to carry a heavy load, rowing by pairs, fours and sixes in an eight, have to twist out to one side with your torso and overload that side (all of this in a potentially unstable environment), that it doesn't hurt, but that when you are on a stationary machine that is completely stable and balanced, with a resistance setting that you can control, then it hurts? It seems very unlikely. I have a hypothesis: either it doesn't hurt on the water because you aren't pulling very hard, or it's because you aren't really injured and don't know the difference between pain and injury, or a combination of both. Again, track athletes are held accountable 100% of the time. The coach is standing there with a stop watch. When a rower is on the water, it's up to him or her to "give full measure."

"I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense.I have a simple solution to this: you can't erg, you can't row. It's amazing how many less injuries occur when this is the policy. Also, I don't care how hard you work when running, cycling, swimming or doing whatever cross-training you might be doing—you aren't going to be in very good rowing shape based on your potential without the sport-specific training development.

Another common phrase: "I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense. Sure, you might be able to beat someone on the water with a better erg score, but that is because that person is not technically skilled, and thus isn't able to utilize the extra power and fitness that they have. It's not complicated. I don't boat based on erg scores, but I give people with erg scores the presumption—they must lose a seat race to a weaker teammate in order to lose their seat in the boat. If that happens, it's not a good thing. It just means the rower with the stronger erg score is not technically skilled. Show me any good Olympic boat and I will show you a boat with great erg scores. Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand are excellent rowers with great boat feel and technical ability, but they also have tremendous power and fitness. What about Mahé Drysdale, or Olaf Tufte, or Xeno Muller? Tremendous erg scores. Sure ergs don't float, but they don't lie either. If you can't pull an erg it means you have no engine. I don't care how beautiful, sleek and aerodynamic your race car is, if it has V6 engine, then the only way it is going to win a race against a race car with a V12 engine is if that V12 is in an extremely inefficient car.

Now, I understand people might have a problem with the erg because it doesn't perfectly simulate the rowing stroke, and can, undoubtedly, end up rewarding things that will hurt boat speed on the water (like rushing the slide). I don't have a problem with those people, because that, to me, is a valid concern and viewpoint. These people are not afraid of the erg and it doesn't cause them mental distress that affects their ability to perform and achieve their best. However, I think it's time for the rowing community, beginning at the high school level, to be more willing to embrace the ergometer as a training tool, rather than coming up with millions of reasons to fear the machine and letting it play games with our minds. In my opinion, this attitude, which is perpetuated year after year in programs throughout the country, creates mental blocks and leads people away from the training intensity they need to achieve their best possible results.

This may be, in part, the result of coaches requiring athletes to go too hard on every workout on the machine. Sometimes, workouts should be easy. I suspect that if one went around to various rowing programs to find out how their 'steady state' speed on a 10k erg piece compared to their 2k or 5k time, and then went around to cross country and track coaches to find out what pace they had their runners run on a typical easy or steady state run, one would find that the rowers work much harder. For instance, let's say a runner runs a 5k in 18:36. This works out to six minute pace per mile, and 1:51.6 per 500 meters. According to the McMillan Running Calculator, easy steady state runs should be done at 2:02.5-2:06 per 500 meters and easy/long runs should be done at 2:18-2:27 pace per 500 meters.

Take a rower who pulls an 18:36 for 5k, which is that same 1:51.6 pace per 500 meters. I bet many high school and college coaches would have that person doing their steady state erg workouts at 1:58-2:00, and would never have them go as slow as the running calculator recommends on the easy/long runs.

Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.It's possible that because rowing is so low impact as compared with running, rowers can handle a faster pace for all of their workouts than runners and still recover. But this is a difference of 8-18 seconds per mile, which would be 45 seconds to a minute and a half difference over 10k. Finishing a 10k a minute faster than someone else is a pretty significant difference, especially if done day after day and week after week. The cumulative effect on the body wearing down could potentially be significant, as the body's physiological systems would be constantly over-taxed. Perhaps this is why so many people hate the erg and "burn out" in rowing—far more often and much earlier in their careers than the majority of runners. Many coaches seem to adopt the approach that Olympian and running coach Jack Daniels refers to as the "Eggs Against the Wall" theory of coaching, which he defines as the metaphysical act of throwing a basket of eggs against a wall and hoping one of them doesn't break.

When you train as hard as most coaches recommend, the few, stellar athletes that can handle the training will succeed, and some of them might even go on to compete in the Olympics. What about all the rest? They will burn out, get injured and leave the sport. The key is balance: your training program needs to be well thought out, with enough days of easy, longer training to complement the extremely demanding sessions. If the erg is used purely for the most difficult of training sessions, it will not only solidify a negative mindset regarding the machine, but also, unintentionally, contribute reduced accountability on the water. If water training is looked at as 'easier,' you will undoubtedly underachieve when it comes time to race. Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.

Finally, I think many rowing coaches fall victim to creating a crutch when it comes to an erg workout, rather than dealing the fundamental, underlying problem. Here is a common example of the kind of patchwork solution to a more serious problem: steady state erg workouts broken up into intervals like 4' on, 1' off when such rest is not needed to accomplish the physiological goals of the workout. In my mind, that type of rest should be used for speed intervals (in other words, when you actually need the rest to recover between intervals). I don't think if you are trying to keep your heart rate at between 60-80% of your maximum, for example, that having a minute off every five minutes will help keep your heart rate down over the course of the workout. At that intensity, if you are in good aerobic shape, you will not notice much variation in your heart rate between an hour straight through and an hour of 4' on, 1' off if it is done at a consistent 'steady state' effort (steady state being heart rate between 60-80% of its maximum). To me, this is appears to be another way of perpetuating the problem of disliking the erg, as it is clearly a concession to the idea that the erg is difficult to deal with mentally.

This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wonder how many running coaches would say to their athletes, "Today we are doing an easy steady state run of eight miles, I want you to run at your easy/steady state pace for four minutes and then stop, walk or jog for one minute before resuming your steady state run pace until you complete the eight miles." I don't believe many running coaches, anywhere in the world, at any level, would do this. I think they would say, "Today we are going to do a steady state run of 8 miles at your easy/steady-state pace to work on aerobic development. Stay within this zone by running 'x' pace and I will see you when you get back."

Maybe running is in the dark ages and rowing is just ahead of the curve on this one, but somehow I think it might be the other way around.

-The RR Team

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lightweight Speed: Spring Predictions

Newell Boathouse (Photo: B. Kitch)
The Fall season was dominated by Princeton, but Harvard had quite a showing at both the Charles and the Princeton Chase. Cornell's Varsity performed very well in Boston, but lacks the depth of the front runners. Yale has a ton of power, but as yet they're not applying it well enough to keep pace with their two main rivals. Georgetown also had solid showings at both the Charles and the Chase, but is anyone going to catch Princeton this year?

Lightweight racing is almost always close. For that reason, and because all the programs are given very similar parts to make up the whole, it's considered by some to be the most interesting form of racing. You are unlikely to see the kind of separation from the field that Cal and Washington had in the Varsity VIII last June. Still, the Tigers had a fantastic Fall. Not only did the Varsity break the course record at the Charles (by twelve seconds), but also the Tiger JV took seventh overall. Their performance at the Princeton 3-Mile Chase further confirmed that they are, once again, a force to be reckoned with, as the Tigers took first and fourth.

Harvard showed great depth on home waters and in Princeton as well, placing third and fourth at the Charles, where they edged a very experienced and fast NYAC entry into fifth place overall. They backed up that performance with second and seventh place finishes at the Chase. While they've not managed to catch the Tigers, they have been close, and clearly have the depth to help force their speed as they train for the Spring.

Cornell, Georgetown and Yale have had some quality results, but their comparative lack of depth means that they won't have the same kind of high-pressure, intra-squad training sessions that the Crimson and the Tigers will as they prepare for sprints season. Navy will always have depth, but this year they seem to lack the kind of top-end speed it will take to overcome the front runners. In light of all this, it seems logical to expect Princeton to have IRA-winning speed this Spring, with Harvard making it very interesting. Yale and Georgetown will duke it out for third place, possibly with Cornell in the mix, and Navy rounding out the Final.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is Behind USRowing Changes? What Does New Title Mean for Korzo?

In the most recent development from USRowing this December, it was announced today that Kris Korzeniowski will take on the role of Director of Coaching Education, remaining in Princeton while the US men's team takes up its new residences in Chula Vista and Oklahoma City. While I can understand the reasoning behind making use of two training centers given the circumstances, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind this move. Just before CRI's launch of its new coaching education program, USRowing wants to expand its own education programs. Last year, with the fledgling ACRA Championship beginning to establish itself, USRowing created its own collegiate rowing championship regatta. I'm not sure whether this has to do with bandwagon planning or a belief that the governing body of the sport should be profiting from events and programs similar to the coaching education credential at CRI, but it's a strange and similar pattern. Why create competing regattas and programs instead of working together with outside organizations?

Also, from the standpoint of making good use of available resources, putting Korzo behind a desk doesn't seem the best way to develop talent in the US. Whether or not you believe Korzo is a great coach, he's at the very least an extremely experienced one, and he's worked with Mike Teti in the past. CRC continues to lie dormant -- an excellent facility that is well-funded and maintained, next door to one of the best collegiate talent pools in the US, now run by Teti himself. If I were a visiting Martian, not knowing the background but able to read the immediate situation, it would seem a natural fit, so that valuable resources and talent do not go to waste in the limited time between now and the start of the Games in London. But maybe CRC never had a chance at him. While coaching education might be great for development beginning with the junior level on up, the fruits of those labors are in the distant future, and because of Worlds taking place so late this year, the next Olympiad looms large on the horizon. It appears, like many of the recent decisions, to be born not of careful consideration of the situation and possible consequences, but rather of a need to solve an immediate problem that arose because of unfortunate, undisclosed events.

Going back to the beginning, the recent changes appear to be made from a reactionary position. Take the move from Princeton, and examine it more closely. Presumably, if this move were prompted by purely logical forces, it would have anticipated some of the issues, such as inadequate housing facilities in Chula Vista, that might affect the athletes and coaches. Instead, in the rush to move, these things were considered only secondarily, and the result is that we have had to split the men's team in order to provide sufficient resources. What was the event that created the need for the US men to leave Princeton so quickly? It cannot be that the facilities at Arco are better suited to the needs of the team -- while this may be true in the future, the facilities at Arco are, at this point, insufficient to serve the needs of the National Team as a whole. This much is admitted as the primary reason for the relocation of the lightweights to OKC.

Now let's examine the situation with Korzeniowski. Having eliminated the most experienced coach on the USRowing staff, perhaps partly because of the move to CA/OK (though this is merely conjecture), without anyone to replace him, USRowing immediately hires him back in a more vaguely defined position. Why was Korzo released from the coaching staff? Does this new position mean that he will continue to be able to aid McLaren, now seemingly left to coach the 4x, 2-, 4- and VIII in addition to his other duties as Head Coach? Does it mean that Korzo will wander, like an itinerant monk, spreading the gospel of USRowing technique? In the meantime, who will take Korzo's place on the coaching staff? Will Cameron Kiosoglous's duties expand? At this point, it is impossible to say. In any case, it appears to be a move to keep Korzeniowski within the fold. What kind of influence he will have from this position remains to be seen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Clarification of Changes Made to US Rowing Program

On Friday last week, I wrote to Megan Kalmoe asking her a number of questions regarding the changes made to the US Rowing program. Despite her busy schedule, she took the time to write back with some clear answers. The information is summarized below:

First, all selection regattas will continue to be held at Mercer Lake, West Windsor, NJ. US Rowing's view is that fewer athletes from US Rowing Training Centers will attend these regattas in the future -- boats will more commonly be selected via the camp system, prior to the NSRs. Given this, they will send only a limited amount of athletes to these events, to finalize selection.

Regarding the separation of the men's heavyweight and lightweight teams, Kalmoe said that her feeling is that there is currently insufficient space to run two programs out of the Arco facility. Apparently, many of the heavyweight men will already have to seek offsite housing, as the their number exceeds that of the available residency spots. By making use of both facilities, US Rowing will ease the pressure on the athletes with regard to accommodations, as room and board can be subsidized for a greater number of athletes. Also, OKC is the permanent residence of John Parker, who leads the lightweight program.

Finally, having spoken with the athletes themselves, Kalmoe feels that the US men are optimistic about the changes, despite the challenges that those changes present. Kalmoe says that they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary with regards to moving and sorting out travel, and are eager to put the advantages that each of the training centers afford them to good use.

Thanks very much to Megan Kalmoe, and as more information becomes available I will continue to spread the word.


A Week After Announcement, Many Questions Remain Unanswered for US Rowing

The upcoming changes regarding US Rowing's training programs and facilities, acknowledged last week following a meeting of the High Performance Committee, have yet to be explained in full by the governing body, nor has any official announcement been made regarding the release of former coach Kris Korzeniowski. The decisions regarding the movement of the men's heavyweight and lightweight teams marked a drastic break with the system in place for the last two decades, with Princeton as a focal point for the US National Team, and the new rationale seems to focus on regional, weight-class specific training centers. This much can be deduced from the text of the announcements -- but will the reasoning behind such massive changes be revealed?

There are a number of questions that immediately come to mind regarding the movement of the men's squad(s). The first has to do with selection. Since the new training centers are both over 1, 400 miles from Princeton (Chula Vista is 2, 700 miles away), will NSR regattas be held in different places for the men of each weight class (with lightweight men traveling to Oklahoma and heavyweights going to San Diego)? Or will they continue to be held in Princeton, to the possible disadvantage of the people already training with the National Team? At this point, we don't know the answer. From a logistical standpoint, you are faced with either flying the team over from two places in order for them to race, or creating three separate regattas (one in Princeton for the women, one in SD and one in OKC). Is this something that was discussed in the HPC meeting in December?

The second major question that comes to mind has to do with efficiency. Is it financially viable for US Rowing to operate two international-class rowing facilities with such a limited number of athletes in each place? Also, from a communication standpoint, how will the two coaching staffs stay on the same page? There is a two-hour time difference between California and Oklahoma, which could make scheduling internet-based video-conferences more challenging.

The third major question has to do with creating a team-wide culture and atmosphere. Separating the two men's squads essentially prevents Tim McLaren from having the influence he might have simply because he will not be there for the lightweight team. His presence will not be felt in the boathouse on a daily basis, and inconsistencies will naturally arise between Chula Vista and OKC. This is not necessarily a bad thing -- perhaps it can foster a healthy inter-squad rivalry, or perhaps the combination of Volpenhein and Parker is extremely well-suited for coaching lightweights without the involvement of the Head Coach, or, perhaps there will be a great deal of travel in the weeks and months to come for McLaren -- but it is certainly something that must be acknowledged.

Lastly, no rationale behind the 'release' of Kris Korzeniowski has been revealed. Did it have to do with coaching differences, or is there a strategy behind it? It has been suggested that perhaps Korzo will fill the void at CRC, which has been awaiting a thoroughly qualified Head Coach since the departure of Gladstone for Yale earlier this year. It might make sense, given the new, seemingly regional nature of the US men's team. Will Korzo be the one to resurrect CRC?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Changing Situation for US Rowing

Yesterday, I published an article regarding the changes taking place with US Rowing. After reflecting upon it, I later decided that it was too early to form a strong opinion about the moves, given that so little of the background information has been released. I do, however, feel that it is important to acknowledge the changes taking place, as they have a great effect on the athletes training for London. Up to this point, the most informative article is posted to, as she sits on the HPC (High Performance Committee) as an athlete representative. From her position, she has access to the information behind the scenes, and being that she is there as an athlete representative, presumably she has a sense for how her fellow athletes are handling the situation. Overall, she describes the feeling coming out of the meetings as positive.

The facts are as follows:

The men's heavyweight program will move to the Arco Training Center in Chula Vista, CA, under the direction of Tim McLaren.

Kris Korzeniowski has been released from the US Rowing coaching staff.

The men's lightweight program will move in its entirety to Oklahoma City, making use of the new facilities there, under the direction of John Parker and Brian Volpenhein. OKC will also serve as a satellite development center for men's heavyweight national team hopefuls.

The women's national team will stay put in its entirety in Princeton, outside of the usual winter training camp in Chula Vista.

The following is excerpted directly from Kalmoe's post on the subject:
If you are upset about or confused by these changes, please do something productive about it. Call or email individuals who have accurate information about the changes:

Matt Imes (HP director):
Glenn Merry (USRowing Ex. Director):

Or, please email me directly. As an HPC rep, I promise to answer questions candidly and to be as honest and direct as I can be in order to settle any issues or doubts fostered by these changes.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What Attributes Make a Great Coach?

The view from the launch (Photo: B. Kitch)
Having toured the club circuit, I've been coached by a number of great athletes and leaders. Along the way, each coach contributed something specific to the overall picture, and each did so in a different way. I know this is a common experience, and over the years I've often mused about what features most stood out for me, in a positive way, among all my former coaches. Is it possible to list such attributes? Or are there too many intangibles, like personality and even manner of speaking, that play an important role? I figured I would take a crack at making a list:

1. Confidence.
For others to believe in what you are teaching, you need to believe in it yourself, and this takes the form of confidence. This is not to be confused with arrogance, which prevents a coach from improving. Confidence simply means that you have faith in your abilities and in the validity of your plan or training program.

2. Consistency
Rowing styles will vary, but the coach that brings a consistent approach will always be able to get more out of his athletes than one who is constantly changing his vision. Almost any approach can work, as long as you can clearly define how you want the technique executed and you are consistent about what you want to see.

3. Communication
Clearly defined technique is also dependent on communication. A good coach needs to be able to say the same thing in a wide variety of ways, so that it makes sense to each individual, and helps each rower to figure out how to be part of the whole.

4. Adaptability
This is to be distinguished from capriciousness, which keeps rowers off balance and makes for a confusing environment. Adaptability is the skill to work with what you've got in the most effective way possible. It's not wholesale change of philosophy or technical approach, but it can be a change in the gearing of the oars depending on the size and weight of your crew, or race-planning in response to adverse conditions/knowledge of your opponents. It's the ability to engage with a problem, and, using the tools available, be they physical or metaphysical, make the best of the situation for your team.

5. Toughness
Nobody wants to be a part of a team where the coach is begging people to stay. The best way to improve the numbers at any club is to have a hard-nosed, workmanlike ethic. Lead by example. That's not to say that you are brutal about cuts, but you must take a hard line and stick by it—your rowers will respect you and the culture of the boathouse will take on the same edge.

6. Goals
Approach your athletes with standards that they can look forward to achieving, whether its a personal best on the erg or championship performance in the Spring. If the goals are clear at the outset, then the work that it takes to achieve them will be seen as a natural part of the process. It's important to have an idea about standards as well, or benchmarks, that line the way as you progress toward that goal. Are you where you need to be at this point in the season to achieve x?

7. Vision
A good coach must be able to coach the entire boat as well as individual rowers. You must be able to see the big picture. If you spend all day picking apart individual technique rather than emphasizing what you'd like to see from the crew as a whole, you'll wind up with eight guys/girls rowing like eight individuals.

8. Knowledge
This is partly from experience and partly from having dedicated quite a bit of thought to the coaching process. I've seen fantastic rowers who have made atrocious coaches. Knowledge is not simply ability to row—it's the end result of having carefully considered every aspect of the stroke coupled with your own experience in trying to achieve technical excellence.

9. Expectations
You must expect a great deal from their athletes. If you set the bar high and expect that they will achieve what you are asking of them, they will, more often than not, achieve to their potential, which is success. If you assure them that they can't possibly progress that fast because they'll need loads of time to figure out how to row by eights/feather/build rate/execute a start sequence/whatever it may be, then chances are they are going to be pretty lousy at all those things.

10. Attitude
You are a leader. Your rowers want to look up to you, and they will if you are true to yourself and show them that you are not asking any more of them than you are of yourself. If you are doing everything that you can to help them achieve their goals, they will push themselves to the absolute limit for you, because it will be a relationship based on reciprocity.

There are plenty of things that could be added to this list—it's by no means comprehensive. However, in my opinion, these are the most important qualities that a coach can possess. How each one of us gets there is our own, individual journey.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

For International Success, Post-Collegiate Club Rowing Must Become More Integrated, Competitive

Over the past few months and years we have seen a steady decline in the funding and support of 'non-revenue' men's athletics—or 'Olympic Sports' as Steve Gladstone called them while serving as Athletic Director at Cal. This process began with Title IX in 1990, and has recently picked up speed with a number of the state-funded schools experiencing financial setbacks due to the state of the economy. Just recently, we saw the latest victims here in the Bay Area fall to the economic pressures of rebuilding California and restructuring University of California finances, as the Cal Men's Baseball team was cut from the athletics department, along with the Men's Rugby team. Both were programs with a long history of success—the rugby squad was the most dominant such program in the United States, but when it comes time to cut spending, men's athletics are often the first item on the chopping block.

In rowing, the few remaining varsity programs on the men's side divide up all the talent entering the collegiate ranks, and the result is an extremely high level of competition, for very few athletes. This can be seen in the increasing separation between the top club teams and the gold medal-winning varsity eight at the IRA. The difference is natural—programs that have advantages in terms of recruiting power and influence over admissions should always be more competitive than programs without those abilities. But how long will it last? Will we get to a point where the IRA becomes even more exclusive? How can we avoid shrinking the talent pool for the national team still further if varsity programs are diminishing and nothing steps up to fill the void?

A good illustration of this problem can be seen at the Pac-10 Championships at Lake Natoma, CA. Every year, Cal and Washington dominate everything by lengths of open water, with Stanford trailing (okay, sometimes Stanford is close), followed by Oregon State, and then, further lengths back, all the club teams. Cal and Washington have all the recruiting power, followed by the two teams trailing them, leaving the amateur athletes from unfunded programs well behind. For these reasons, there has been a shrinking number of club teams at the event. Many prefer the WIRA (Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association) Championships, which are held at the same venue, slightly earlier in the season, because the WIRA pits programs of similar size and influence against one another. From my perspective, parity among smaller programs appears to be the future of the sport. Programs like Cal, Washington, Stanford, and the Ivies will continue to be the most competitive into the future, because they have an incredible level of alumni support, and would most likely survive intact even if they were to be cut from their own athletics departments as long as they could keep their influence over admissions. However, outside of those schools, the movement seems to be toward an expanding ACRA program (despite US Rowing's attempt to derail the new platform in its infancy by introducing its own collegiate championships).

Looking at results over the past 10 years, there are 12-15 schools that consistently perform well at the IRA. Do those schools alone form enough of a base to field a competitive national team? What about wild cards like Bryan Volpenhein, who rowed at Ohio State, and became one of the best oarsmen in the history of the U.S.? It is my feeling that there is a great deal of talent that slips through the cracks due to the nation's under-developed, post-collegiate club system.

With women's rowing on the rise almost universally as an unexpected result of Title IX, men's rowing will expand alongside it in a club format, making use of the venues and equipment (when possible) of the funded women's program. What this means is that the competition will return to its roots, in many cases, as a contest between students qualified academically to gain admission, rather than recruited athletes, which is closer to true amateurism. It will also mean that for the U.S. to be competitive on the international stage, a new and much more competitive club system must emerge on the men's side, in order to make the most of the talent available after college. This is a system that works very well in Britain, and there is no reason why it cannot work, albeit on a much larger scale, in the US. British Olympic athletes are lottery funded—a great help—but the club system is such a part of the culture that talent is identified and developed long before the question of funding is raised.

The key is to continue to operate programs like the California Rowing Club (currently dormant), Vesper, Penn AC, NYAC, Riverside and others with elite level possibilities in each region. The varsity system is already failing the U.S. on the men's side in terms of development, since so many seats at the top schools are occupied by internationals. The post-collegiate club system has to step up and take on the role of development that varsity-level collegiate rowing once had, before its powers and size were reduced. CRC is a perfect example that this is possible—in only two years, McLaren and CRC were able to field a boat at the Olympics. In so doing, it took some of the talent from the ranks of varsity-level collegiate rowing, as well as top level talent from the unfunded collegiate club system. If what we are seeking are results on the international stage, CRC is a model that must be replicated across the US, and, if USRowing were smart, they might attempt to have a hand in developing that new system—not from a funding or logistical standpoint, but from the standpoint of guidance.

If USRowing can encourage the private club system as to where and how to train, it can do much more than any amount of money could accomplish in regards to providing an underlying structure, not only in terms of a development system, but also in terms of technical consistency across the board. Go to England, and regardless of whether you are at Molesey BC, London RC, or Evesham RC, you are likely to be taught very similar technique, and make use of training plans that the GB international squad uses. If you move on to the GB squad, having mastered the technique at your club, you are unlikely to find yourself having to relearn the stroke and completely change your approach upon arrival. Instead, it will be familiar, because you have taken part in an integrated development system that has prepared you to be there. This is not because the GB team has paid the clubs to teach a similar style, it is because the clubs themselves have an interest in placing members on the national team.

In order to accomplish something similar, USRowing must find a way to mend contentious relationships with clubs, and instead look to help clubs in gaining prestige by developing athletes in a consistent, universal way. As a result, athletes will begin to view the club system as a real avenue to the national team. With McLaren running the show, as someone familiar with a similar system in Australia, this might just be the perfect time to do so.

Impossible? I think not.