Best Rowing Drills: Two-time NCAA Champion Kevin Sauer of Virginia's Fave 5

Kevin Sauer at the 2012 NCAA Championships (Photo: B. Kitch)

Having done a little research recently, I discovered that, surprisingly, there's not much available on the Internets in terms of useful content for rowing coaches. Try scanning the web for decent examples of drills and technique, and you'll find that what is accessible to most is largely race footage, which certainly has its place in the coaching toolkit, but ultimately isn't that informative on its own. This is the first in a series on the best rowing drills, featuring some of the top junior and collegiate coaches in the U.S. If you like this idea, let us know, and share it—if it takes off, then we'll continue to build a library and create an index on our Rowing Drills page. For the first series, we'll be releasing the an article every Wednesday for the next five weeks.

As with this post, this early series will be mostly geared toward sweep rowing, but sculling will also feature in the near future. And so, without further ado, here are two-time NCAA champion head coach Kevin Sauer's five favorite drills.

"So what I did was, I just emailed the team and told them I had an article that was coming out that asked about drills," Sauer explains. "I got some feedback from the team and this is what we came up with."

1. The 'Snake' Drill

"I had the kids name these, so that we don't have to go through the explanation process all the time. The first one is 'snake'—it's pretty straightforward, you might have seen it before, but it comes from rowing circles in the pair. If you have a wide enough body of water, you can row the pair in circles, and the person rowing can really focus on their blade what their doing, and not worry about hitting someone in the body with the oar or that kind of thing. So I adapted that to the eight, and since there's not usually enough water to spin an eight all the way around in a circle (at least not where we row), I'll ask the coxswains to go five to ten strokes on each side. The side that's not rowing is setting the boat with their handles level, and with their bodyweight into the rigger so that the boat doesn't flop when the blades come out of the water." [See it in action in the first part of the video below.]

"Im not as concerned about timing," Sauer says, "as I am with their individual technique. So, I'm going to want them to focus totally on what their blades and bodyweight are doing. We usually start with square blades for a couple of cycles each side, and then we'll go square for half and feather for half, and then to all feather. The reason we do that is that, as you know, usually square-blade catches are better than feathered-blade catches. We use that square and then feather/square so that they can see the potential change—and coxswain will look at that as well—when they're not quite ready to put the blade in the water."

It's popular among the UVa athletes as well: "About five of the kids who responded said that that was one of their favorites, because it really allows them look and feel—it's not just about the catch, it's also about the blade depth during the drive, and finish height, and cleanliness at the release, whether your squared or feathered."

He continues: "What I emphasize to them a lot is that I want them to use the visual—to see what's happening—but I want you to be aware of the feel. So when you take a good catch, don't just use the visual, use feel—what did that feel like?"

It's a drill that Sauer and UVa use very often, but it's not well known. "It's funny—in 2012 after the NCAA final ]of the varsity eight], a coach came up to me and asked if we'd had equipment breakage or something—'Did your rudder break or something before the final?' I said, 'No, why?' He said, 'Well, my coxswain said that you guys were veering off toward the shore.' I realized that our coxswain was doing the snake drill before the final of the NCAA Championships—and I'm going, yeah fundamentals! John Wooden, dribble drills right before the NCAA final, good!"

2. The 'Missy Elliot' Drill

"Kristine O'Brien, who's currently out training in San Diego right now with the senior team, named this one. I have no idea who Missy Elliot is—I asked the team and they all started laughing. Anyway, what this is—this is more a drill that just gives them confidence. It's like, wow, if you can do this, you can do anything. A lot of times, that is the best part of a drill—just showing the athletes what they're capable of."

In essence, the Missy Elliot is a something like a combination of the chop drill and the catch-placement drill—in reverse, which is presumably where the name comes from. "You start with all eight, blades buried at the catch, full compression, full rotation, long arc—and then you start chopping [the blades in and out of the water]. Then the coxswain will call 'in two,' and then they come back to half slide, and keep chopping," explains Sauer. The next call moves the athletes to body angle (legs flat), and the next to the finish position, continuing to chop the blades. Finally, the coxswain will again call 'in two,' and the crew will do a catch placement drill (release, feather, move up the slide and place the blades). The drill starts over again, with the athletes back in the catch position.

"It's great for body control, blade control, timing, awareness, everything—it's just a really, really good drill," he says, adding, "but it's too hard to explain, which is why we had to name it."

3. The Flow/Flo Drill

The name? "Well, it's a play on flow, and Flo from Progressive Insurance, whom the drill is named after," he says with a laugh. "A lot of people do this—it's just 10 strokes, each pair, down the boat; 10 strokes each four [including outside pairs]; 10 strokes each six; and then 10 strokes all eight. It's just a way to start a practice that helps you feel the load, and still connect the same way when it starts to get a little lighter. We do it with square blades—we start practice like that a lot, just to get them locked in, going with the Flo."

4. The Finish-Release Drill

"Not a great name, I know," jokes Sauer. "What it is is they sit back in the layback position, tall and strong—core strong—and braced, and I tell them here's what I want you to do: stretch your arms out, so they do that first, and put the blade in the water. Then I have the person in front of them turn around and grab the handle between their hands [the person in front's hand goes in the middle, between the two hands of the rower behind], and just pull a little bit." So, the person in front pulls the oar toward the stern, while the person behind resists without using her arms—only the powerful finish position of the body is needed to resist this pull, illustrating proper body position at the finish. "Just use the bodyweight—don't use any muscular action, just lean back against the pull. If you're sitting straight up, there's no way you can use the bodyweight. But if you lean back just a little bit and feel that bodyweight, then that's a really good finish position."

Then, when the next part of the drill begins, the athletes have a reference point. "We do this all eight—you can do this by sixes first if needed—sitting back in the layback position, shoulders behind the hips, blades in the water with the arms outstretched. Then the coxswain calls it, and they draw [the handle to the body]. The key is that they draw, not grab. Even though they're breaking their elbows right away, there's a difference between drawing and grabbing." They complete the draw, tap down, release, feather, and balance. "It doesn't sound that hard, but it's really hard—there's barely any momentum to the boat at all, so you have to nail the finish perfectly. What I say is you release 'over a grapefruit'—there's a grapefruit sitting on the water, and your blade goes underneath it, and then goes over it without hitting it: release, follow the contour of the grapefruit [with your blade], and balance the boat."

The drill begins the arms only, then moves to body and arms, then half slide, and eventually full slide. "It's a really good drill to work on the start—essentially, it's the first stroke of the start sequence. You're not going too hard. You're not ripping, your prying the boat past the plant."

5. The Triple Pause Drill

Another favorite of Sauer and UVa is to throw in three pauses during the recovery—first pausing at the release, then pausing at body angle, then at half slide. "I don't do any pauses with arms away, because I don't want them to separate the arms from the body out of bow, so we never do an arms-away pause. It's always either at the release or at body angle. I want them to extend and pivot over at the same time."

Bonus Drill: The Hydroplane

This one has two phases: static and continuous motion. To begin: "All eight, blades flat on the water. Start at the finish; pause at body angle, checking pivot from hips, shoulders with the angle of oar shaft, arms outstretched. As you go to the half slide pause, increase to full body angle—start rotating by facing the handle with chest. Then, go to full compression, maintaining body angle, arm stretch, rotation with handle, shoulders matching the angle of the oar shaft. From there, reverse feather and drive with blade on water (interestingly, the drive phase with no load is exactly how you want it). And, having the blades on water entire time shows them how important level hand heights are."

Part two gets a little fancy: "Next step is the moving hydroplane. No pausing—continuous movement, blades still on the water. They have to remember to reverse feather at catch and go back to normal feather at release. This allows the coach to check body/slide timing out of bow and continues to reinforce level hands. It's also a great way to stay warm on the starting line if there is a delay."

Thanks very much to Kevin for taking the time, and for being willing to open up the coaching manual for our benefit! Again, if you like the idea of more coaching articles and ideas from some of the masters of the craft, please let us know, and share the love—together, we can move the sport forward. 

-Bryan and the RR Team

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