Op-Ed: Rowing Small Boats Does Not Make You Fast

An Op-Ed from the RR Editorial Staff:

One of rowing's universally-held, deeply-seated beliefs is the idea that rowing small boats makes you a more technical oarsman. Often, coaches spend the whole of their Fall training (after doing some head racing in the 8 or the 4+) in small boats, because of this known truth. On account of the stability of the 8 and the 4+, small boats are seen as the best way to acquire boat feel and develop the skills necessary for top-notch speed in the larger boat categories when it's time to line up for the Spring season. While it may not be far from the truth, this strongly held belief is wrong.

Here is the truth: rowing small boats well makes you a more skilled technical rower. Rowing small boats poorly causes your skills to deteriorate. If you spend all your time rowing poorly in a pair, you'll be ingraining physical adjustments to bad rowing, which will become bad habits, and can actually hurt your ability to move the eight. There are two obvious ways to avoid this. The first has to do with coaching: if you send your guys out in small boats, then the training session must have an exceedingly technical focus, to start. It is natural for rowers more accustomed to the comfort of the eight to be uncomfortable in the pair, and this can lead to some pretty ugly rowing. Too often, there is an all-too-cavalier attitude among coaches, who allow their athletes to simply "figure it out." While it is true that the athletes must be able to make the adjustment on their own, in part, it is up to the coach to get them up and running to the point where logging meters up and down the course won't actually be making them worse.

Reading the title of this article, I'm sure that many athletes and coaches were ready to disagree. The problem with universally-accepted truths is that too often they go untested. Aristotle knew that when you dropped a relatively lightweight object from a great height, it would not fall to the ground as fast as a comparatively heavy object. It took roughly 2,000 years for Galileo to come along and actually try it. The idea that rowing small boats can be beneficial is a logical one -- it makes the individual more accountable for the speed and set of the boat -- but the true benefits lie in the quality of the execution.

Never hurts to watch these guys either.

-The RR Team


  1. Love it. The pair is not the coach. Yes, I will say that too often coaches get lazy about "coaching" in small boats - as if the boat itself will do the work. And the good 'ole pairs matrix? What does that tell you about how effectively someone moves an eight? Don't get me started on that...

  2. An addition to the argument, based on the response on Rowing Illustrated:

    The important distinction that we are trying to make here is that some of the physical adjustments one makes to poor rowing in small boats can be more detrimental to technical development in the long term, precisely because of the greater level of instability. These adjustments can be more exaggerated and therefore more difficult to fix if truly ingrained. However, again, I agree with your overall point. The argument is not that proper use of small boats is useless or problematic. The argument, however narrow, is that it is important not to take for granted that rowing small boats will make you improve. While I can accept, to a certain extent, the idea that the cut-and-dried nature of small boat rowing can allow the cream to rise to the top, the technical development of the rowers must fit into the overall scheme of your coaching, so that when everyone comes back together to race in the eight, the parts function well together.


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