Monday, January 31, 2011

Video of the Week: Korzo Coaching at Chula Vista



This video, shot in 2007, gives an eight-minute window in the coaching style and approach of one of the most news-worthy figures in all of USRowing last Fall -- Kris Korzeniowski. Not only this, but it shows what the training environs are like at Arco, which has recently become the seat of the US men's team. Though it was shot during a different Olympic cycle, it features some banter from Sam Stitt (most recently the three-seat in the US Men's 4- in Karapiro), as well as drills along with Korzo's commentary. In the last press-release regarding the changing role for Korzo in the coming year, his position was vaguely defined, and one suspects that he may be lending a helping hand during the 17 months left as we head toward London.

Note: For FeedBurner subscribers, click the title of the article to view video.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Great Ones, Part 4: Nature versus Nurture

We all know that the greatest athletes in the world are blessed with a great deal of talent and natural ability. Rowing is a sport which favors those that are tall and have long arms and legs because rowing is a sport of leverage. It is also a sport of strength and endurance and thus those with a large lung capacity and large hearts that can pump a lot of blood have a natural advantage. However, there are other aspects of an athlete's arsenal: 'talents' that are often overlooked when it comes to this subject, or characteristics not commonly thought of as 'talents.' These are things that people can practice and improve over time. It is my belief that mental toughness, discipline, work ethic/dedication, intelligence/knowledge and confidence, all of which are born of both experience and perseverance.

These are the things that can be controlled and therefore are the things that we should focus on in our own pursuit of greatness. The first example is mental toughness. I believe that anyone is capable of being the toughest person in the world. Toughness is a decision that one makes. It has nothing to do with innate physical ability, and has everything to do with the personal control one decides to exercise. Mental toughness can be hugely beneficial to any athlete, especially in endurance sports, which require athletes to push through physical pain, to overcome obstacles, and generally to persevere. Rowing, like most racing sports, is ultimately a simple battle of wills. It is about opponents battling each other until one cannot sustain the pace. In the words of Jake Wetzel, three-time Olympian and, most recently, member of the victorious Canadian men's VIII from Beijing, "rowing is a pain contest." Regardless of one's physical talent, it takes significant mental stamina to succeed this way.

The same can be said for discipline, hard work, knowledge and confidence. Anyone can decide to be disciplined and detail-oriented in their daily training, eating and sleeping. Similarly, anyone can develop impressive work-ethic by having a goal and pouring their efforts into achieving that goal on a daily basis. The same can of course be said for knowledge and confidence. When it comes to knowledge, it refers to the athlete's ability to become a student of the sport and stay up to date on the best ways to train and the level of performance necessary to achieve his or her goals. Confidence is another mental tool, which was discussed in detail in the first part of the series, and which one can improve upon, thereby achieving superior performances.

Often times, circumstances or environment can lead to the development of things like mental fortitude and discipline. Lance Armstrong is a prime example of an athlete who developed mental toughness as a result of his circumstances. He is obviously blessed with natural talent in terms of his lung capacity and the ability of his cardiovascular system to pump and distribute blood and oxygen efficiently. However, Armstrong never achieved greatness until he developed some of these other talents. Nature needed to work with nurture.

Prior to being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Lance was a very good athlete, having had a great deal of success early on in his career, first as a professional triathlete and later as a professional cyclist. Still, it was not until after undergoing chemotherapy, surgery and other treatment to help him recover that he went on to win an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France titles. There is no doubt that the experience of being so sick -- having to persevere and deal with such an extremely mentally and physically challenging situation -- armed him with these under-appreciated talents, and helped him take his mental toughness to a whole new level.

Though some might suggest that certain people are blessed with a higher pain tolerance than others, I don't know if or to what degree this helps when it comes to pushing through exercise-induced pain and fatigue. I do believe though that one can still improve his or her ability to deal with tough circumstances by conquering the mental component using the simple philosophy of "mind over matter." In other words "if you don't mind, it won't matter." If you tell yourself you don't mind the pain, it won't matter nearly as much. This is purely a psychological tool, readily available to all, which can help to raise your level of performance regardless of the physical pain, the outside pressure of the event, or the conditions of the race.

The beauty of lacking talent that cannot be developed (i.e. natural physical abilities/characteristics that facilitate success in a given sport) is that it may force an athlete to develop/strengthen these other talents in order to be able to compete with those having the God-given genetic gifts. Often times those with all the genetic gifts take them for granted and can skate by because they succeed in their sport with relative ease from a young age. One need only look at erg score differences between the heavyweight and lightweight squads at many clubs, schools, and colleges to see that having obvious physical advantages (being taller, having more muscle-mass) can lead to complacency.

Now obviously, the best of the best are the athletes that have all the genetic gifts and also figure out how to develop tremendous mental toughness, discipline and work-ethic. When this happens, new heights are reached, world records are broken and greatness is realized. If we think of #1 draft picks as physically talented individuals, how many of them succeed in developing the other half of the talent question? When you reach a certain level, physical gifts are a given. How will you separate yourself from the rest?

-The RR Editorial Staff

Monday, January 24, 2011

Video of the Week: The Searle Brothers, 1992



This week's video comes to us from the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sprints in Olympic rowing history. The brothers from Britain move through the Abbagnale brothers of Italy -- the reigning World Champions at the time, and the favorites to win the event—and manage to do so within the last 300m of the race. Only in the coxed pair can you effect such a huge change of speeds in so little time. Greg and Jonny Searle are nothing if not patient—they leave it so late that the first time I watched this race, I couldn't believe they were going to come back, even though I already knew the outcome. Greg Searle, now 38 years old, has recently made a comeback to the GB National Team, and hopes to race once again for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics. It would be his fourth Olympics as an oarsman. He's made a good effort so far, working his way through trials and into the GB VIII, which won a silver medal in Karapiro last November.

-RR

Friday, January 21, 2011

Rowing to Cycling: Australia's Ginn Makes Transition Look Easy

Drew Ginn has quite a track record in rowing (note the use of dramatic understatement). He's won three Olympic gold medals, and would likely have won four, if it weren't for an injury that prevented him from competing in the Sydney Games. His last race up to this point was the final of the coxless pairs in Beijing, where he and Duncan Free dominated the field despite not being able to practice during the regatta (again, Ginn was suffering from an injury). Only the Canadians were able to come anywhere near the Aussies, though to do so they needed to overstroke the tall duo of Ginn and Free by an average of four beats per minute. Suffice it to day, Drew Ginn is a damn good oarsman.

In the wake of Beijing, Ginn, who was struggling with back issues leading up to and during the Games, finally took some time away from the sport, had surgery, and healed up, only to find himself with the itch for yet another physical challenge. Because of the condition of his back, Ginn fixed on cycling -- a natural cross-over for many rowers, as we've seen with James Cracknell, Sonia Waddell of New Zealand, and Amber Halliday of Australia, all of whom are Olympic rowers turned successful cyclists. Ginn proved that the success of his peers was no fluke.

After taking up cycling in 2009, Ginn discovered that his his power and length were well-suited to the time trial. Within three months of tackling the sport more seriously, Ginn won the Oceania Time Trial Championships. In typical, deferential style, Ginn downplayed the accomplishment, pointing out that there were faster times posted in the U23 event (click here for Ginn's interview with Cycling News). Despite Ginn's feeling that he hadn't proven anything, he followed up on his 2009 success with a 6th place finish at the 2010 Australian National Road Champioships, in a very competitive field.

Despite all this, there is still reason to be cautious about cross-training with cycling, or crossing over into the sport. James Cracknell was nearly killed last year, suffering severe head trauma when he was struck by the side-view mirror of a truck as he was cycling in Arizona. Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet, but even this couldn't prevent him from suffering a fractured skull and some lasting effects from the injury, including memory loss. Amber Halliday also suffered a significant injury recently, after clipping another cyclists wheel during a race and falling awkwardly. In a press release today the Sydney Morning Herald reports that, while she remains in intensive care, she has opened her eyes and spoken once again, and has indicated that she recognizes her loved ones.

It's important to remember that these Olympic athletes are phenomenal physical specimens, and that they are constantly placing their bodies at risk in the name of sport. Their talent allows them to shine on the world stage, and the versatility of the rower is fully on display when it comes to crossing over into other forms of competition. The downside of this can be that you, the rower, take on more than your should a the outset. While the athletes mentioned above are professionals, it's important for those of us who are not to remind ourselves of this at times. Make sure to give yourself the appropriate amount of time to make the adjustment, and hey -- wear a helmet. The above rowers (who are, undoubtedly, cooler than you) did, and because of that, they're still here.

For more on Drew Ginn, check out his personal blog, "Rudderfish," at drewginn.blogspot.com. If you would like to send a 'get well' message to Amber Halliday, you can do so on the contact page of her website at www.amberhalliday.com.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Article from the RowingRelated Editorial Staff Gaining Worldwide Recognition

The recent article from the RowingRelated Ed. Staff entitled, 'Winter Workouts: Why do Rowers Fear the Erg?' is garnering attention from the worldwide rowing community, and now, several Olympians have weighed in on the subject. The article, posted as a 'Guest Blog' to the Rowperfect UK site (thanks to Rebecca Caroe and Mohit Gianchandani), now has comments from British Olympian Pauline Bird, multiple-time World Champion and Olympic bronze medalist single sculler Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand, and former lightweight World Champion Frans Göbel of The Netherlands. All of this points to the fact that it is indeed a divisive issue among rowers, though the consensus seems to be that thoughtful use of the ergometer is a necessary aspect of training.

Thanks very much to Rebecca and Mohit for spreading the word about this article, and we look forward to seeing how the debate develops!

For more updates check out the RowingRelated Twitter feed (@rowingrelated).

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Great Ones, Part 3: Focus and Drive

Many say they want to be the best, and claim they want it more than the competition, but very few actually do the work along the way. Similarly, many athletes can have the desire and the focus required to be a champion on race day, but not nearly as many have that same focus and drive day in and day out, when it's the middle of the offseason/they are tired/sore/busy/emotionally drained, or it is freezing cold and raining/snowing outside. At a certain level, the dedication required seems uncomfortably similar to a semi-weird, all-consuming obsession, like chess with the addition of physical abuse and exhaustion. Weird or not, it is this tenacity, this unrelenting force driving them, that causes the greatest athletes to prepare with such zeal and attention to detail.



Although the bread-and-butter of any athlete's work is goal-oriented training, managing the "small stuff" is what separates the great ones. As the legendary Bob Knight, who racked up the most wins of any basketball coach in NCAA Division I history, said, "The will to prepare is far more important than the will to win." Preparing means managing all the little things surrounding training. It means paying attention to your sleep, diet, stretching, core and other supplemental/ancillary training activities and exercises that enhance overall performance over time. These are the details that make the difference, and an awareness of these details is what separates Randy Moss and Kobe Bryant. Managing one of the details individually, in one workout, will make almost no difference in the grand scheme of things, but the cumulative effect of doing all of these things on a daily basis throughout the year and from year to year makes a tremendous difference. And it starts with that one workout. Just as one extra inch of run between strokes can add up to 220 inches by the finish line 2000m away, each one of these "small things" can earn you lengths when managed correctly.

It's not just about training hard when you feel like it, or when things are going well. It's about training well through the tough times. It is easy turn it on when it is race day at the adrenaline is flowing. The problem is, if you haven't brought the same attitude to your training, it doesn't matter how focused and motivated you find yourself on race day. A curious side-effect of this: athletes are often the most driven in the moments and days immediately following a heart-breaking loss. However, it is all too common for these athletes to let this motivation—the bitter memory of losing—subside with time, so that the great proclamations made immediately following a tough defeat, which seem so powerful and set-in-stone at the time, gradually fade with the ensuing weeks and months. The time when this motivation and desire is needed the most is the time when it is the hardest to summon. Far too often, the athlete that was so unequivocally driven in the wake of defeat is far less driven when he or she is a few months out from competition, in the middle of the heaviest training periods. All of a sudden that athlete, who seemed like she would never be stopped from achieving her goal, becomes derailed by small obstacles. The great ones seemingly have the ability to bottle up the motivation that comes as a result of disappointment, so that they have a continual supply of fuel and motivation for those days when quality training is required, but the light at the end of the tunnel remains distant.

This process requires sacrifice. No one—but no one—and that especially includes your girl or boyfriend, wife or husband, relatives, etc., unless they are similarly involved in sport, can understand that level of commitment. It is not a common component of the man, or woman, on the street. Their word for this kind of dedication is "crazy." It can be a challenge to manage personal relationships with those who do not understand the mindset required to achieve. The willingness to persevere and conquer this challenge, which can result in the destruction of relationships and the breakdown of personal lives, is yet another obstacle faced by the greatest at their discipline. Just as there is a chance that such fanatical dedication can result in difficulty, there is also the chance that, given the clarity and simplicity of goal-oriented training, the rest takes care of itself. Remember (and who doesn't?) that scene in Rocky IV, where he's running around splitting firewood in the forest? Ultimately, that's the idea.

On race day, the ability to dial it in, execute technically, and perform physically in the most efficient and effective way possible, is crucial. While managing nerves during competition itself is extremely important, all the things surrounding a major competition also demand attention and focus. This includes traveling and everything that goes along with it, from changing scenery, to changing time zones, to waking up early, having to stay in an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar foods, etc. Too many athletes train extremely hard leading up to a race, only to blow it in the last few days before the event. When, at last, you are sitting at the starting line as the flag goes up, you must be in a place where your mind is quiet and your body is simply ready to act. Focus during practice places you in a position of freedom when the moment arrives, because you know exactly how to execute. You can allow yourself to stop thinking, and start doing.

It's important to maintain personal balance during training and racing. You cannot become completely consumed or defined by the activity. If you become too caught up in your goals and your training training outside practice, you can become emotionally drained and/or mentally stressed, which can actually take away from your current performance and slow your progress toward the ultimate goal. One might classify this over-thinking/over-analysis as the point of diminishing returns.

Great preparation and keen focus lead to a singular vision, which is that of complete immersion in the moment. Often, athletes can't remember the specific details of great performances. This is because peak performance is a product of complete readiness—a point at which the mind and body are at peace in the knowledge that the work has already been done. The ability to be keenly focused and supremely driven results in true preparedness for the day, and allows the great ones to give their best performance when it matters most.

-The RR Editorial Staff

Monday, January 17, 2011

Video of the Week: Men's 2-, Sydney



This week's video comes to us from the Sydney Olympics, and features one of the greatest sprints in Olympic history. The French men's 2-, who cross the 1000 m line in 4th place, take up the rate just before 750 m to go. From then on, it is an all-out, cracking sprint to the finish. They have their moment, and they make their move, much like Tufte in the final of the 1x in 2004 and 2008, or the Searle brothers in 1992 (the last time the 2+ was an Olympic event). It's one of the things that makes racing small boats so exciting—the opportunity to shift speeds so greatly over so few strokes allows well-timed moves to completely change a race. This race also features a great performance in a small boat from a U.S. crew (Ted Murphy and Sebastian Bea)—something that McLaren and the US men's team are striving for in the Games to come in London.

-RR

Friday, January 14, 2011

RR Interview: 10 Questions with Silas Newby Stafford, Stroke of the US Men's 4-

Stafford & Co. in NZ (Photo Courtesy of S. N. Stafford)
Silas Newby Stafford has quite a track record already in his young career. After getting started in the sport as a college freshman, Stafford's talent was immediately evident, and he put an exclamation point on his excellent college career in 2007, stroking the Stanford Varsity VIII to its highest ever finish at the IRA (tying Harvard for second place in an incredible photo finish). He then went on to win the U23 World Championship in the VIII in 2008, before moving on to Cambridge in the Fall.

While rowing at Cambridge, Stafford once again found himself in the stroke seat, and was referred to at the time by the British Press as "The Boy with the Golden Ticket." His crew emerged victorious (despite a clash that greatly effected his crew) during the Trial VIIIs racing that took place during the Autumn of 2008, and he stroked the CUBC Blue Boat for the 2009 Boat Race. Though they were eventually defeated by an extremely experienced, heavier crew in Oxford (featuring a number of Olympians from Beijing), Stafford's CUBC VIII fought very well, and lead the race until well past the Chiswick Steps.

Since coming back to the US, Stafford has been training with the US National Team, and has made waves once again, stroking the US Men's 4- entry to a close 5th place finish at the World Championship Regatta in Karapiro last November.

RR: You participated in the Boat Race, stroking the CUBC Blue Boat in 2009. In a promo for the 2010 Boat Race, Matt Pinsent said that when he took part in the event, he felt like it was "sporting life, and death." How did you find training and racing in the UK?

SNS: Training for the Boat Race is a one-of-a-kind experience. It is indeed, all-consuming of your time, energy, and thoughts. When the race is over, you really feel that your life is over, simply because you haven’t bothered to think past the race in the preceding months. The stark win-or-lose nature of the race, combined with the incredible 180-year tradition and media whirlwind surrounding the race, make for an experience that doesn’t leave you quickly. It is undoubtedly the hardest race I have ever lost, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

RR: Since coming back from Cambridge, how have you found the training for the US team?

SNS: The biggest benefit to training for the US is that rowing becomes your singular focus; no schoolwork, no full-time jobs, nothing to compete for my attention. While some find this difficult and boring, I love it. Additionally, the level of focus and intensity is orders of magnitude higher than anywhere else I have trained.

RR: During the months and weeks prior to the World Championships in Karapiro, did you have a feeling that you would end up where you wanted to be?

SNS: Absolutely. I prefer the 4- to other boats; its very fast, but you have much more impact than you do in an 8+, and the group dynamics are easier to manage. It was also the priority boat during selection, and I thought we had a good combination with a good shot at a medal.

RR: How long before Worlds were you in your lineup?

SNS: We first rowed our lineup a little more than two months before worlds, although the lineup wasn’t finalized until 6 weeks before.

RR: I thought your entry and the 2x both performed very well, and the readers on RR agreed, voting the 4- and 2x as the most deserving of another round on the international circuit in the current lineup. Do you think anything, or everything, will be different next year? Or is Tim getting close to the lineups he would like to take forward?

SNS: I would like to keep working with that lineup in the 4-, and I think the coaches would as well. However, the four of us would need to get good results in the pairs at the National Selection Regattas to make that possible. I suspect that most of the lineups will change somewhat with the exception of the 2x. Its very hard to predict these things though.

RR: How did you find the atmosphere around Karapiro? I've heard both that it's a great venue and that it's very windy. Maybe both are true?

SNS: Its a great place to train in a beautiful part of the world, and the organizers put on a heck of a show for the world champs. Conditions were pretty miserable and un-rowable on some days. At one point in the final, the crosswind gusts were so strong that GB was about halfway into our lane, and we were halfway into the Italians' lane. Both of us were full-on the rudder, yet were unable to keep the boat in the lane. It was a complete circus. I am certain that conditions unfairly affected results in my race.

RR: You've now stroked boats for Stanford, Cambridge, and the US National Team. What do you think it is that coaches see in you that makes them place you there? 

SNS: I’ve spent a lot of time in the stroke seat over the past few years, and I used to despise it, because I preferred to grit my teeth and pull my brains out in the middle of the boat. Only recently that I started to enjoy stroking boats. Good stroke-seats have the ability to concentrate at a high level, combined with a fluid stroke and good boat-feel. While I like to think that I have those qualities, the real reason I am often in stroke is probably that I can’t follow anybody else.

RR: You've been coached by three outstanding leaders in Craig Amerkhanian, Chris Nilsson and Tim McLaren. What similarities can you identify that help to make them successful? What are the major differences?

SNS: I really can’t emphasize enough how different each of these coaches are, both in their technical focuses and in their coaching styles. Despite their differences, I admire each of them immensely as coaches and as human beings. Tim’s approach focuses on good fundamentals: grip on the handle, catch/seat timing, mental preparation and focus. His style is soft-spoken, subtle, and often sarcastic and harsh. Chris emphasized being tough as nails, while keeping focus and technique. Craig is very open and often boisterous, and he focuses on equipping his athletes for success; get them fit, give them the best equipment possible, and let them figure out the rest. A few similarities stick out; all three are men of great intensity, with passion for the sport and for their athletes. Also, all three keep it simple; rowing is not a very complicated sport, although it can be made to seem that way.

RR: Tim McLaren has been under some scrutiny because of the lack of medals at Worlds this year. How do the athletes feel, and what kind of expectations do you have for the coming season?

SNS: In the German squad they have a saying “achter ist gut, alles gut”. If the eight is good, all is good. This is equally true in the US. As a country, we really care about the 8+. While the 8+ has had disappointing results over the past two years, I think the small boats have unquestionably made strides forward, and we hope to have small boats in medal position in London. The guys on the squad are all buying in to Tim’s system, and we are using the disappointments over the past two years to propel us forward.

RR: The recent decision to move the US men's squad from Princeton to OKC and Chula Vista has yet to be explained in terms that make sense. Water-time was mentioned as a reason for the move, but the infrastructure necessary to provide you and the other athletes with adequate facilities is years away from completion, and the disruption to training caused by the uprooting of the squad must be considerable. What reasoning was presented to the athletes? How are you managing, given all the changes?

SNS: When Tim was named head coach in 2009, the Men’s national team began the experiment of a decentralized system. There has always been an east vs. west dynamic in American rowing, and this was an attempt to support athletes on both coasts, and foster competition between camps as a driving motivational force. Basically, results under this system were not what was wished, and US rowing wanted to take a more centralized approach. The decision was made to close the PTC and move everyone out to California. This closure was a pretty big shocker to the athletes, particularly those who had put down roots in Princeton. At the same time, we are well adjusted to rowing-induced disruption in our lives (we live in total transiency in the summer for training camps, selection, and racing. Also, the closing of the CRC last year had similar results). Overall the PTC guys have taken it well, and with resilience. I guess there is a sense that this is what we signed up for, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to hear the “Star Spangled Banner” in London.

Check out more of what Silas has to say at getsomesilas.blogspot.com.

-RR

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Great Ones, Part 2: Clutch Performers

Great athletes find a way. Even when they are not at their physical best, they manage to come up with a performance that changes the game. The language is full of clichés about this phenomenon: "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," and, "great players make great plays in big games," to name a couple. The funny thing about clichés is, they exist for a reason.

There are two aspects to performing at your best despite the odds: one is physical, and the other mental. Maybe this seems obvious, but the two must be in perfect harmony for the athlete to find the success that he or she seeks when it counts most. This harmony creates a balance, though the relationship is one that can fluctuate depending on the circumstances. First, let's talk about the physical aspect of performance.

The best athletes in the world are also the best at preparing for their athletic endeavors. The arc of their training sets them up perfectly for the most important day -- that of the championship race, or performance, or game. While this involves a great deal of hard work, the trickiest part of the job is managing the natural impulse to over-train.

People who are very competitive athletically often struggle most with the day of competition itself, because their nature and work-ethic creates a constant feeling of unease in training. This is a fear that long-time UCLA basketball coach John Wooden addressed, saying, "Failure to prepare is preparing to fail." The trouble is, for the most motivated, driven people, over-preparation can leave you unable to perform, unable to find the bottom of the well, when it matters most. As a coach, it is vitally important for the success of your team that you have an over-arching goal -- a point of focus around which your season is built. In this way, you can structure your training plan in such a way that when you arrive at that goal, at that point of focus, your team will be at that moment of athletic peak. As an athlete, it's just as important that you do what your coach is asking you to do. When your coach gives you a specific split that he or she wants you to achieve on a 6x2k workout, the best possible outcome is that you achieve that split. It is not that you exceed that split, even if you are physically capable of doing so. Your coach is asking you to execute something specific so that you will be able to perform at your best when it comes time to test, and if you over-tax your physiology every time you do a training session, your body will not be ready on the day. If you are finding the bottom of the well every practice, you won't be able to dig any deeper when you need it. The best athletes know this, and make the best use of the training resources and advice available to them.

An easy example of this in rowing is Olaf Tufte. Whatever you want to say about the condition of the competition, Tufte has been the best prepared athlete in the Men's 1x on the day of the Olympic Final two times in a row. Not only does he know how to prepare his body in the best possible way, he also knows exactly how to drop the hammer when the time is right, which brings us to the next point -- force of will.



The flip side of the coin for a clutch performance is an indomitable will -- a mental edge that the best athletes possess and use to their advantage. This works in tandem with the physical component, and can even help the great athlete to put aside setbacks that others would find impossible to overcome. It's something that must be part nature, part nurture -- no one can teach you to have a killer instinct, and there is much truth to the idea that your true character is revealed in the midst of adversity. However, this also relates to confidence, which, as we have already discussed, is born of experience. The greatest athletes possess both these things -- a killer instinct coupled with the confidence that is a product of their competitive experience.

Basketball great Michael Jordan is a prime example, as, while battling the flu, he summoned the strength to bring his Chicago Bulls back from a 16-point deficit, eventually leading them on to a 90-87 victory over the Jazz during the 1997 NBA Finals. In rowing, we witnessed the same thing with Mahe Drysdale during the lead-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, as well as during the Games themselves. Forced by the return of Rob Waddell to try to peak twice in the same season, Drysdale came up with enough early season speed to beat Waddell and represent NZ as the Men's 1x, and then began preparation for the racing in Beijing. Amazingly enough, he was still right on track -- having won the previous three World titles, he entered the Games as the favorite. Perhaps even more impressive than this, Drysdale, who was battling a stomach virus throughout the racing, still managed a bronze medal in what is one of the tightest fields in all of rowing.

Performance on the day is about physical preparation as well as about your mentality and approach to competition. The greatest athletes know how to get the most out of both when it counts. Intelligent physical preparation can help to build a mental edge, just as a mental edge can make up for a physical deficit in less-than-ideal circumstances. When all is said and done, this is why we watch sports, and why we play them -- whether we know it or not, we are all students of human nature, and we can't help but admire those whose natures compel them to achieve to the limits of their potential.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Video of the Week: Trial VIIIs



This week's video details the Trial VIIIs racing that took place last Fall between members of the CUBC and OUBC squads -- a race that helps to determine which athletes will be in the mix for the Boat Race this Spring. The Trial VIIIs race on the same course as the Boat Race (the Tideway from Putney to Mortlake), and the event serves as one of the only true experiences of the course that both squads are allowed as they train for their time-honored battle (this year will mark the 157th running of the event). The Trial VIIIs race is an intra-squad event (i.e. CUBC 1 races CUBC 2), which is effectively one massive seat race, with two lineups from each University vying for dominance and a clear shot at the real thing. This year's test between the two arch rivals will take place on March 26th. Cambridge currently leads the series over Oxford, 80-75.

Thanks to Chiara Ferrara of The Rowing Daily for spreading the word about this video, which was released last week and which boasts great visual appeal -- nice shots of the rowing as well as of the course.

For the official website of the Boat Race, click here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Dogma of Rowing: When Tradition Competes with Reason

Racing to the line on Lake Natoma (Photo: B. Kitch)
The question coaches need to ask themselves is, "Why?"

Rowing is heavily steeped in tradition, being the oldest intercollegiate sport, and boasting one of the longest-running contests in the modern era (considerably longer than the modern Olympic Games) in the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, which dates back to 1829. While this lends the sport a certain gravitas, and makes for a rich history filled with outstanding, larger-than-life personalities, it can also hold back scientific progress and adaptation. As Volker Nolte recently discussed in Rowing News, the first such step away from the technological advancement of the sport was the banning of the sliding rigger, but there are other examples. While I value tradition and history very highly, I don't feel that the sport has been corrupted by the technical and technological advancements that have been made over the past two centuries, nor am I worried that, should science play too large a role in coaching, we'll wind up with a bunch of super-athletic terminator cyborgs racing in hovercrafts as we puny humans watch from the shore (although, now that I think about it, that sounds pretty entertaining in itself).

Training on land is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the dogma of rowing, and it's clearly a still a point of contention for rowers of all ages. Look at the response to the RR article about rowers fearing the erg, and you'll find that there is a deep-seated mistrust of the machine that is actually the best form of cross-training for rowing in existence. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon and making the most of what is an extremely efficient tool, many coaches and rowers look at it only as a 'torture device,' which doesn't give you 'boat feel,' and can't possibly simulate the exact feeling of placing a blade and initiating the drive. So instead, let's all go running.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Looking at the erg in that way only holds you back, whether you are a coach or an athlete, and how you approach the erg can make or break a club rowing program. Club athletes, of which I was one, don't have a ton of time to waste doing inefficient forms of training, and if the coach approaches the idea of erging as though it is some sort of awful punishment, then he or she will inevitably have a smaller, slower team. The argument here is not that varsity athletes have forever to do whatever, it's that if you are not afforded any kind of luxury by the administration, you need to make the most efficient possible use of your time. There is no cross-training exercise for rowing that can compete with rowing on the ergometer, and no other exercise, with the possible exceptions of cross-country skiing, swimming, and boxing that can provide you with a similar workout in a limited amount of time. So, when I hear about club rowing coaches trying to make joining "crew" more fun by limiting their use of that horrible, un-fun machine, it makes me physically ill.

Nobody wants to be part of a team that is afraid of using the most beneficial tool at their disposal. It doesn't mean that you have to be an idiot, and use the erg to the point where you are causing yourself or your team injury, but you have to make use of it. Fifty years ago, when the land options weren't as well developed, there was more need of "cross-training" in the terms we usually think of it. Now, shying away from the erg just makes you look backward and out of touch. The workout that it provides is very difficult, and it holds everyone to the same level of accountability. Is that really so scary? If it is, then I'm glad we're not racing together, because I bet you're sandbagging.

Another 'dogmatic' issue is that of rigging. Coaches need to think about rigging according to the style they teach and the nature of their crew. So often it seems that coaches take their cues from people in the gym, using the ergs (poorly) with the vent setting on 10, because "harder is better." If you have a bunch of 'light heavyweights,' as many smaller programs do, then it doesn't make sense for you to rig your boat or your oars the way that the U.S. national team does. They have an eight filled with guys averaging 6'4" and in the range of 200-220 lbs. You, more than likely, do not. A further example: if you are using fatty blades, then it calls for an adjustment from where you set your outboard when you use regular smoothies. Obvious, right? Then why is it that so few coaches seem to operate with the apparent motive that going fast is better than just pulling hard?

If you are committed to giving your team every possible advantage, because you are committed to going as fast as possible, then you already know all of this. If you think that none of this is that important because it's the experience that counts, then good luck. The experience is always, always better for the team and everyone involved if there is a clear focus drive from the top down to compete at the highest level possible. The point of a team is to come together in pursuit of a collective goal. Too often it seems that people confuse this with the idea of a "club," which has only to do with coming together around a specific interest and enjoying that interest. A team has all of that, in addition to a main focus on competition and achievement. That is what makes the experience so powerful, and so important. It teaches the athlete how to make personal sacrifices in the name of a larger goal, alongside his or her teammates, who make the same sacrifices for him or her. It's more than just "hanging out," it is a journey. If the leader, here coach, doesn't appear to be doing everything in his or her power to help the team achieve its goal, then why should the athletes?

If you, as the coach, think that you are, in fact, doing everything in your power to help your team succeed, then you must be able to answer the question posed at the outset of this article, "why?" If you can't provide answers for why you are doing the things you do in practice, then there is a problem. Being committed to helping your athletes achieve to their potential is more than just a matter of time—each exercise, drill, and piece must be the outcome of a long thought process, not simply a 'knee-jerk' reaction or unconscious repetition. This is why the best coaches never stop asking questions. Arrogance leads down the same path as indifference, while confidence is born of engagement and experience. What kind of coach do you want to be?

-Bryan

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Thank You from RR: Over 10,000 Visitors in First Three Months

We here at RowingRelated would like to say thanks to everyone who has helped us to get started, even if it meant simply reading an article we've posted to the site. Having started the site just under three months ago (on October 11th, 2010), the hope was that the rowing community, which we feel is both intelligent and extremely dedicated, might appreciate a closer look at many of the things that often get taken for granted, as well as a fresh take on training regimens, technique, and the everyday. So far, we have been humbled to have received over 10,000 visitors (over 2,000 of whom have come from abroad), as well as some great feedback, and we want to say thanks for making our fledgling venture a success thus far. There is much, much more to come in 2011, and we look forward to sharing our opinions, thoughts and ideas with all of you as we begin the new year.

I'd like to extend a special thank you to Sean Wolf of Rowing Illustrated, Rebecca Caroe of Rowperfect, everyone at Rower's Edge, Crash-B Sprints, and Concept2, as well as Chiara Ferrara of the Rowing Daily, Göran R. Buckhorn of "Hear the Boat Sing," and Sara-Mai Conway of Flywheel Fitness for their help in spreading the word.

Thanks again, and check back often! We'll be hard at work putting together more of the opinionated, to-the-point content that got us here in the first place, and we've got a few things up our sleeve that we think you'll enjoy.

Cheers,

Bryan Kitch and the RowingRelated Editorial Staff.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes the Great Ones Great? Part 1: Confidence

Redgrave (Illustration: B. Kitch)
How can we define confidence? What separates it from arrogance? Where are the lines blurred between positive and negative personality traits? Arrogance, or cockiness, in an athlete and in the sporting world more generally, is most often viewed as a negative trait. However, the very qualities that can result in arrogance clearly help to make the great ones great at their craft.

We often regard athletes who seem to think very highly of themselves, or who even go so far as to speak about themselves in grand terms, as far from the ideal. But, undoubtedly, it is the belief that no one on earth is more capable than they that allows them to achieve at such a high level. Perhaps without such belief and behavior they might lose the competitive edge that allows them to reach those extra few percentage points that separate the 'great' athletes from those who are 'very good.' This is not to say that every athlete that demonstrates outward signs of total self-confidence is great, or even good, at his or her sport. However, a common trait in all the best athletes and competitors in the world is significant self-confidence, even arrogance, in training and competing.

This does not mean that great athletes never have doubts. Of course they do. What separates the great from the good is that despite feeling unsure at times, or nervous that things will not go right in a competition, their overwhelming confidence in their preparation and their abilities will help them to win under pressure at the highest level. No amount of nerves or doubts will change this -- they believe that the ball should be in their hands with 3 seconds left and their team behind by a basket, or that they should be the ones taking a hack with two out in the ninth, a 3-2 count and the bases loaded. This is the same kind of person whom I would want to stroke any boat I coach. The kind of person who doesn't back down from a challenge; the kind of person who wants to win at all costs, and, maybe more importantly, believes that they are going to make the difference when the going gets tough.

Let's take a look at the Canadian Olympic 8+ from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. They trained with the mindset that they were going to be the best in the world, even on their worst day. Sure enough, on race day they blasted out to a boat length lead in the first half of the race and never looked back, in much the same way as the Americans had done in Athens in 2004. This approach to preparation can be especially useful in a sport like rowing in which there is no defense from the opposition (i.e. all that matters is crossing the finish line in the fastest time possible). Adam Kreek describes his experience of that 2008 Canadian crew as one where everyone in the boat brought a leadership mentality to every training session. It's a rare and beautiful thing when an entire crew can come together in the knowledge that every single one of them is willing and able to lift the team upon his or her shoulders.

Steve Prefontaine, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, was famous for having this mindset. On his way to obtaining the American record at every distance from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters, Prefontaine famously said, "I'm going to work so that it's a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it." His training and preparation reflected this mindset, and allowed him to enter every racing situation with the confidence that he would be able to perform to his potential.

Muhammad Ali was another great athlete who was overflowing with self-confidence. He used this confidence not only to fuel himself internally, but also in an attempt to gain the psychological advantage over his opponents in the boxing ring. Talking trash and the associated bravado may stem from an athlete having high testosterone levels -- something which is clearly performance enhancing. It is possible that acts of bravado, like trash-talking, affect hormone levels within an athlete in such a way that more testosterone and adrenaline are produced. It's well-known that both enhance athletic performance. Can this help to explain things as mundane as why athletes lifting heavy weights in the gym yell or grunt loudly as they summon the energy to squeeze out that last rep or two? Or, rather, are these outward signs instead side-effects that occur when those hormones are released at higher levels? In other words, it's a classic 'chicken and egg' question: are psychobiological factors stimulating hormone production, which enhances performance? Or are hormonal fluctuations producing psychological changes, which manifest themselves in more aggressive behavior?

An example of the impact of increased testosterone levels can be seen when examining the use of anabolic steroids, which increase the levels of testosterone in the body. Taken to the extreme, high testosterone levels can lead to "Steroid Rage," which manifests itself in a heightened level of aggression (http://jcem.endojournals.org/cgi/content/full/89/6/2837, http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/roid-rage-14-questions-and-answers). But the takeaway is that maybe arrogance and cockiness in the athletic arena are just symptoms of self-confidence produced by extremely thorough preparation, coupled with hormone levels, which can be elevated naturally (or synthetically, as with Floyd Landis) leading up to and during competition.

A more positive, personal way that athletes express confidence in themselves is by setting goals, which serves to make the athletes accountable. Once Kobe Bryant makes his goals known to himself, his teammates, his competitors, and the world, there are more consequences for not achieving those goals. Athletes often talk about 'fear of failure.' Making their goals publicly known can serve as extra motivation for those athletes and give them that little bit extra, to push a little bit harder, for a little bit longer in both training and racing. They've made plain their desire, and they'll do everything in their power to 'put their money where their mouth is.'

This is not to say that one must be arrogant or self-deluded to succeed. One can still be humble while completely confident. Humility can be expressed as an outward, external demonstration. The important difference between arrogance and self-confidence has to do with learning. As Ted Nash says, "an athlete who is arrogant is as good as he or she will ever be." The self-confident athlete has complete faith in his or her ability to learn and to execute under pressure, but this confidence also allows him or her to take criticism and make good use of it. Arrogance prevents this, as it indicates that the athlete believes he or she already knows everything there is to know about the craft.

It does no good to be delusional and take things for granted. For instance, if you haven't done the work and aren't prepared physically and mentally, misplaced confidence can work against you. You must set reasonable goals and know what you are capable of accomplishing given your current state of preparedness. To be unreasonable in your dreams, goals and expectations will do no good. For example, if you have been training on the ergometer, and you've done workouts that indicate you might be able to do 2, 000 meters in about 7 minutes, it would be foolish to get on the erg on race day and believe that you are, all of a sudden, going to be able to sustain the pace for a 6 minute 2k.

Now at what point is the line drawn between appropriate self-confidence and unreasonable self-confidence? Simply put, confidence is the direct result of experience and preparation, which sharpen your mental state and produce hormonal changes within the body -- these elements combine to enhance your performance. When you and your teammates are in a mental and physical state of readiness, a kind of Zen state in which you are no longer rehearsing in your mind the drawing of the bow and the release of the arrow, but have become one with it, then the gesture, the release of the bowstring or the catch of the blade, becomes an instinctive act; you expect to acquit yourselves to the marginal edge of your ability -- you know you will bring it all together. That engenders a natural arrogance. You have confidence in your ability to bring to a given moment the highest level of your application -- mental and technical. If you are reasonably good, and if you hold this confidence and maintain your skill set consistently, you can even pull off an upset over a more "talented" team that lacks an equal focus.

Would the perfect athlete have complete self-confidence while making efforts to be humble? Absolutely. But nobody is perfect, and maybe we should be a little more willing to take the good with the bad. That is to say, the next time we see LeBron James come off as arrogant, maybe we should embrace it and recognize that it is this same attitude that allows him to score 25 straight points in a playoff game, lifting his team on his shoulders. In our own endeavors on the water, on the erg or in the weight room, maybe we should practice a little more internal confidence when it comes to racing another crew, bowball-to-bowball in the 3rd 500 meters, or when we are two seats down with 250 meters to go. For it is this belief that gives us the determination necessary to compete and to achieve at the highest level, when the chips are down and the race is on the line. If you demand excellence from yourself, and you do the work to make excellence a reasonable expectation, you can carry true self-confidence into the arena, no matter what awaits you there.

-The RR Editorial Staff

Monday, January 3, 2011

Video of the Week: 'Pieces of Eight'

This week's video, which I discovered on LARC's Rowing Blog, is a short documentary film that tracks the training and racing of the New Zealand men's VIII that won back-to-back World Championships in 1982 and 1983, and entered into the preparation for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles as the favorite in the event. The documentary is split into six parts, and features some fantastic rowing footage, great background on Kiwi rowing that will be of interest in a year when Karapiro hosted the World Championships, and a wonderfully 1980s soundtrack. Much like the later film, 'A Fine Balance,' which tracked the US men's team during the lead-up to the 2000 Olympic Games (the US won three-straight World Titles in the VIII in 1997, 1998, and 1999), the team with the target on their backs endures some setbacks (some of them self-imposed) along the way. The athletes come from all walks of life, and the film goes a long way toward giving the modern rower a sense for a time "when men were of iron and boats were of wood." The video above is on YouTube, but you can also watch the film on the New Zealand production company's website at http://www.nzonscreen.com/title/pieces-of-eight-1984. Interestingly enough, this film showcases a great deal of the rowing at the very Olympics where current US men's Head Coach Tim McLaren took silver in the quad. Thanks to LA Rowing for spreading the word about this film!