The Future of Rowing: What's the Effect of Sharing Erg Scores?

Indoor rowing, the Internet, and the future of our sport (Photo: E. Dronkert/Flickr)

Op-Ed: The discussion about publicly sharing erg scores and test data has been taking off in the rowing world. So, what does it all mean for the future of our sport?

This is a subject that I've been interested in for some time, going back to Drew Ginn's pre-2012 Olympics posts about his approach to training. And now, with the rowing community embracing social media more than ever, and videos like the one below from Martin Cross, the idea of information sharing as a way to move the sport forward has never been more relevant.

Some people have taken the angle that there is no real advantage to knowing the erg scores of opponents, citing, as I did back in 2011, things like the NFL Combine, or even the trusty 'ergs don't float' approach. The argument there is that the level of physiology ought to be assumed to be elite at the elite level of any sport, anyway, so seeing the photos of erg monitors only serves to confirm those assumptions. While that makes some sense, ultimately, it's not a position I think is completely defensible: The fact, is knowledge is power.

What we're seeing when we look at the impressive erg scores posted by national team rowers around the world is the tip of the iceberg, to be sure. It's not the key to success the way sharing entire training regimens would be, but it's something. It's more than nothing. And even a little knowledge is a little power. In the most basic terms, not only does it potentially open your eyes to what is possible, but also it gives you something very specific, very concrete, to aim for in your training.

Remember when no one thought it was physiologically possible to break the four-minute mark for the mile? Roger Bannister did it, and then John Landy did it just two months later. And now, high school athletes have done it—in fact, Drew Hunter just set a new American indoor record for the mile only a few days ago, at 3:58.25.

Again, just seeing it done doesn't take the place of the necessary physiology to train at the highest level, or the experience and coaching acumen necessary to achieve those kind of results. That's why people like the Kiwi Pair and the Sinkovic Brothers are comfortable in sharing that information—in some ways, it's even intimidating.

But it's a concrete goal. It's something to aim for. The answer to the age-old philosophical question of why did you climb the mountain is, 'because it was there.'

So, for me, the important question at the heart of the debate is not 'does it convey any advantage to opponents,' but rather, what does the cost-benefit analysis to coaches and athletes look like in terms of elevating the level of their competition, versus helping to ensure the sport of rowing's standing for future generations.

Without a doubt, sharing erg scores is good for the future of rowing. That much is not debatable, in my opinion. It's a way for everyone who has ever been on an ergometer to immediately feel a kinship with those at the highest level, as well as to make what is close to a direct comparison to the best athletes in the sport—something that isn't possible with on-the-water rowing. It's also a great way for the athletes themselves to help build their following on social media, and that applies to athletes outside the traditional world of rowing—just look at the attention that British CrossFitter Samantha Briggs received from the international rowing community for her performance at the English Indoor Rowing Championships in January, and you'll start to see what I mean. And, sticking to traditional rowing avenues, among the most popular pieces we ran here on RR last year dealt with the leak of British Olympian Constantine Louloudis' 5k erg score that he recorded while training for last year's Boat Races with Oxford.

Given all this, and given the concerns that Cross expresses in terms of media coverage and general interest in the sport, sharing erg scores would seem to be something of a necessary, or at least natural, step in order to help build the next generation of rowers.

But is rowing really at risk of disappearing? How do the statistics look, internationally? Here in the U.S., at least, it would seem to be a different story. In the wake (if you'll excuse the rowing pun) of Title IX, and somewhat at the expense of men's varsity (that is, programs funded by the university) rowing at the university level, women's rowing has exploded—turns out, it's a brilliant way to balance athletic department budgets that have to make room for (American) football. So, here in the U.S., the general involvement in rowing has increased, on the whole. Add to that the recent onslaught of articles about how 'rowing is the new indoor cycling,' and the sport appears to be in good shape, domestically—more a part of the general consciousness in the U.S. than at any point in the last 10 to 15 years—and there has certainly been an uptick in the number of social media and websites, and even magazines, dedicated to rowing since RR began in 2010, though there may be fewer features in traditional newspapers, as Cross points out.

Also, since we've established earlier that knowledge is power, and coaches are charged with giving their athletes every advantage to win races, it would make no sense as a coach or an athlete to share data—the only caveat would be if we were to see such a decline in interest that jobs would be at stake. However, as a journalist, and as someone who would love to see the sport continue to reach new heights and raise standards of achievement across the board, I think it's fantastic when we are allowed a window into just what the best of the best can achieve, and, even if we're only seeing the end result of a very long process, there's something we can learn all learn from it.

There is so much that we can do to grow the sport. This debate is part of that discussion. As a community, we don't have the luxury of focusing on individual goals, but rather must favor the common good. We have a duty to the next generation to continue to move the sport forward, and to deny that would be naive.

With the amount of time and effort that these athletes dedicate to reaching the podium at the Olympics, it is certainly more than understandable that they would want to protect any information that might be of use to the opposition. That's what makes it so impressive when the best of the best are willing to share—they have intimate knowledge of what's at stake, and are taking a risk that few others in our sport are taking.

And frankly, I'm glad they're doing it.


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