Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Misconceptions and Self Deceptions Part I - Small Boats

Tell me if you've heard this one:

"I'm not that great in singles and pairs, but I'm much better in big boats."

Or this one:

"I'm not very fast in the single, so I think I'll find a partner for the double and we'll really make some noise at the (insert championship regatta name here)"  

By all means, if you enjoy rowing in the bigger team boats, you should take advantage of opportunities to do that.  The greatness of team boats is apparent to all who have experienced them.  Their virtues are numerous - cooperation, accountability to something larger than oneself, shared experience of victory (or just exhilaration) and so on.  Doubles are sublime.  Victorious eights are thrilling in a way that no other boat class can quite match.  Quads and fours are fantastic.  That being said, if you cannot row singles and pairs, you are not contributing optimally to the bigger boats you're in.  The assumptions inherent in the two statements above amount to little more than common means of self-deception and guarantors of continued performance that is less than what you and your crew could be capable of.


The place where rowers and scullers get themselves into trouble is by engaging in the wishful thinking that it is possible to select or create a fast team boat full of people who row small boats poorly.

Scratch any world-class double and you'll find that it contains two world-class single scullers or something very close to that.  You're just not going to find championship doubles composed of two athletes with big ergs who can't row singles well.  Same for quads: in any quad race, bet on the boat that has the four best single scullers in it. Take apart any really fast eight and you'll find that the four component pairs are also pretty slick rowing the 2-.  If you think that you and your doubles partner can be competitive with a double composed of two scullers who can defeat each of you by 10 seconds over 2k in singles, I'll cover all bets against that outcome.  None of this is to say that if you are reasonably certain that you are not fast enough to win singles trials, you shouldn't take your shot in the 2X or 4X.  It IS to say that you shouldn't be avoiding singles trials because you think you're "better" in the 2X (news flash - if you aren't fast enough to make the A/B semifinals in the single, you're not going to be in a double that wins trials), and it is also to say that the best path to optimizing your value to team boats at any level involves increasing your mastery of the single and/or the pair rather than continuing to row the vast majority of your kilometers in the bigger boats that mask your shortcomings.  No one is better in the big boats. They're just better hidden. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Limitations of Language, or: A Case for the Usefulness of a Neurological Perspective, Part 2

I'm a little bit beyond my baseline curmudgeonliness this morning, so I'll confess that the term "muscle memory" drives me a little bit bananas.  Most of the time I can suppress the cringe reflex and write it off as just an innocent use of an imprecise phrase, but the teacher and coach in me always instinctively wants to get up on the soapbox and provide a compelling reason for the world to set that aside in order to avoid the propagation of additional misunderstandings of what we're really talking about when we talk about movement, particularly where sculling is concerned.
The larger topic, of course, is the general inadequacy of language as a tool for teaching and learning movement - imagine the absurdity of a toddler having the usual human difficulties learning to walk and his mother trying to reassure him by saying "it's okay, Johnny - you just have to get it programmed into muscle memory" or "look - your technique is a little flawed; let me just help you understand the complex interrelationship between your hip flexors and glutes and it won't be long until your stride improves."
Muscles don't have a memory, exactly, and your difficulties with aerobic capacity don't have anything to do with your "wind" (just gotta get some miles under my belt to get my wind back, coach!).  I very much doubt that Fred Astaire ever spoke about his dancing in terms of "technique", and a lesser dancer could not have rivaled him just by performing the same steps and putting his body in the same positions as he did.  Like all masters, Fred Astaire developed neurological habits that served him well in his chosen activity.  Some of them probably came easily to him because of who he was and the way his mind and body worked, and others had to be painstakingly created through mindful repetition.  It is the latter that we seek to improve, and that is the frontier for all of us. 
What we risk losing sight of when we use imprecise, variably defined catchwords to talk about athletic movement is that optimal performance of any movement requires the athlete to be in a very specific neurological state, and this is perhaps the most ignored, under-coached, and underappreciated aspect of athletics, in large part because we lack adequate means of describing it and inculcating it in ourselves and in those we are coaching.  When I am standing on the teebox during a round of golf in which I've been striking the ball well, I can sense a difference in the way I feel from head to toe, in the rhythm of both my backswing and downswing, and in the tonus of my skeletal muscles.  And if I begin to feel a sense of hurry, impatience, or anxiety about the possible result of my next swing, my next shot is far more likely to depart from my intention for it.  A very similar thing is true when I am sculling well: if I am moving through the stroke cycle with both confidence and relaxation, the system flows in a way that feels less effort-full than it does when I allow myself to slide in the direction of feeling that I have to force the boat to accelerate and impose my will on the system.  The subtle and confounding difference in remaining aware of these neurological states is that when a little tension creeps into one's sculling, the loss of speed may be close to nil, at least in the short term, while in golf, the result tends to be immediate and dramatic.  An inattentive sculler may scull clumsily but make up for it with hard work and come in thinking "wow - that was great - I'm knackered and that means I worked hard and that's the main thing anyway, right?" while an inattentive golfer who bludgeons the ball and works harder and harder to impose his will on the course and the equipment will score very poorly and leave the course frustrated.
In either case, though, the road to real progress lies in recognizing and cultivating the precise neurological state required by the activity.  It is what every athlete is striving for, whether consciously or unconsciously, and what prompts observers of any sport being performed well to remark "they just make it look so easy."  And it is, when you're there, and it isn't, when you're not (or you haven't figured out where "there" is).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Queens of Turd Mountain

n.b. the phrase is not mine.  I first heard it from Wes Ng at his 2016 Joy of Sculling presentation, and whether or not it's original with him, I thank him for introducing it to my lexicon and for giving me something to think about over the past few weeks and to write about this morning. 

Too many coaches take it as a given that intra-squad competition is always and inevitably a good thing.  Like many oversimplifications, this is true unless it isn't.  More accurately, it's true if certain usually-unmentioned conditions are met.  And it is certainly a counterproductive falsehood when you allow it to make you the Queen of Turd Mountain.

The concept doesn't require a great deal of illustration, and once grasped, should not be easily forgotten.  Put simply, intrasquad competition works best when and only when the people who are not winning are truly emptying the tanks and making those who are winning give their best effort.  A quote-unquote "victory" over an opponent who is content to make the competition look good to someone watching from the bank while racing well within current capabilities is pretty close to meaningless.  Imagine a high school track team with five guys who can all run the mile in around 4:50.  In training, there's one of the five who usually wins short intervals, another guy who usually wins longer intervals, and a third guy who almost always sets the pace for long runs.  The other two guys always finish in the middle, with an occasional but infrequent surprise.  And they go through the motions of beating one another up a bit in all workouts, but they all keep running in the 4:50's and the guy who almost always wins keeps almost always winning - except when they go out of town and face the five guys from other schools who can run 4:42.  If the goal is to run faster than anyone else in the state or even just to keep improving, those five guys need to stop being the Queens of Turd Mountain and shake up their pecking order.  They are not doing each other any favors by training in a way that they content themselves with feeling comfortable being fast relative to one another.  They need to get back to earning their status daily and going faster than they've ever gone before.  

A few years ago, we had a sculler in the Craftsbury SBTC program who habitually seemed to find a way to break loose from the field during pieces and just walk away.  When she had to empty the tanks to win a piece by half a deck, she did.  More importantly, when she got a length up halfway through a piece, she kept her foot on the gas and expanded her lead.  The situation didn't seem to matter - she always and inevitably put everything on the table, and it was a ton of fun to watch.  I remember one representative workout when she was crushing it as usual.  I looked over at Larry Gluckman,  knowing that we were both thinking more or less the same thing.  "She wants to make a statement," was Larry's terse summation.  She was the very antithesis of the Queen of Turd Mountain: the athlete who says "Okay, if you guys aren't coming, I'm going ahead without you, because the point of this exercise isn't just finishing in the lead - it's to make the boat go as fast as I possibly can, right now, and every time I get the opportunity."  And if you're fortunate enough or skillful enough as a motivator and creator of team culture to have more than one or two people in your program who are looking to make a statement, being the Queens of Turd Mountain won't be an issue and intrasquad competition will serve its intended purpose - the creation of fast boats rather than more grist for the manure pile.





Sunday, December 11, 2016

What Scullers Can Learn From Swimmers, Part I

It is a very common pitfall, particularly among rowers and scullers, to assume that more fitness inevitably means more speed, because it usually does, if you only consider a single athlete in comparison to himself.  Simple math, right?  If I get fitter, I’ll get faster!  So far so good.  The theory falls apart, however, when you look at two equally fit athletes, one of whom is well-adapted to the more subtle aspects of the sport and the other of whom has limitations that have nothing to do with fitness, but rather technique, confidence, temperament, neurological factors, and so forth.  Something I’ve learned from being around competitive swimmers is instructive here. 

I swam in high school, for a single season.  The team was pretty improvised - we frankly were not very good, not very dedicated, and not very well coached.  That said, by the end of the season we had learned enough to have some sense of why we weren’t very fast in the pool, what it was that we lacked, and how we might go about moving in the direction of swimming better.  One phrase that stuck with me was "ride the glide," which pointed to the idea that swimming was as much about streamlining the body and allowing it to "run" while under the somewhat periodic application of propulsion.  The interplay of propulsion and glide was intriguing, and most of us were limited by our rudimentary understanding of how to actually make it happen.  It made sense in an academic sort of way, but we couldn't really feel it in the pool, or at least not the way that better, more accomplished swimmers could and did.

Many years later, after I had rowed in college and learned to scull, I got back in the pool - partly because I had developed an interest in using triathlons as a cross-training and competitive outlet and partly because I had a recurring back injury to keep at bay.  I was training a few times a week with a masters group, some of whom had swum competitively in high school and/or college and some of whom, like me, who had not.  What swiftly became apparent was that the people who were real swimmers had a phenomenal ability to go further with each stroke than those who were not.  By far the biggest difference between a fit person who swims and a real swimmer is the number of strokes it takes each to get across the pool.  It would be hard to overstate how dramatic the difference was - the “real” swimmers might take 11 or 12 strokes to cross the pool, while the fit people who were not swimmers might take 18, 19, or even more.  And it clearly wasn’t a matter of physiology - some of the non-swimmers were demonstrably fit people - people who were winning races in their chosen sport at a very high masters level, 2:30 marathon runners - while some of the folks who had been collegiate swimmers had clearly gone to seed, so to speak - they weren’t that fit and could still easily go faster and do so with less effort than the fit non-swimmers.  And you see that happen and you scratch your head and you almost inevitably have the "wow - how do they DO that?" reaction.   So then you try to do it yourself, and you take a shot at getting across the pool in fewer than 20 strokes and you get there in 18 or 19 and you experience a similar reaction - you still don't really get it.  "I tried really hard to get more propulsion per stroke, and I tried really hard to streamline myself and glide further and I can now imagine getting across the pool in 17 strokes and I did it in 18 but how in holy hell are they doing it in 11?  And at that point you have a moment of truth in which you either decide that you're not ever going to get it to the extent that real swimmers do, or you accept that the road to figuring out the subtleties of the sport is long and requires more than just fitness and you're just going to have to keep chipping away at all of those unquantifiable subtleties as you make your journey from 20 to 11.  Good luck. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Love Letter to Golf, from a Sculler

My involvement with golf predates my involvement with sculling by almost twenty years; with a brother who was once a scratch golfer (and who hits the ball harder than anyone I've ever seen, even in the gallery at PGA tournaments) and a father who was a dedicated, consistent duffer for most of his adult life, I was bound to be swinging a club by the time I was able to be trusted to hold one.  Although I never developed my game to anything near the level of my brother's and was too impatient in my youth to even achieve my father's consistency, and I put the clubs away for the better part of my thirties and forties once I became seriously involved with sculling, I always knew there was something to be learned from the game.  A couple of years ago, it came to my attention that there was a very nice club not far from Craftsbury and I began playing again, partly to have a pleasant distraction (and many good walks spoiled) and partly to see what I might learn from it that could make me a better sculler.  This is what I am beginning to learn (and thus far it has improved my sculling more than my golf scores):

First and most importantly, impatience, tension of any kind, and fear of failure are a triumvirate of killers.  Let any of the three creep into your swing and you can expect to perform poorly.  Set aside all three and the sport becomes far more rewarding.  The same is true of sculling, though not as obviously so (a tense, anxious, impatient sculler still gets from A to B, sometimes pretty rapidly, while a tense, anxious, impatient golfer tends to hit a lot of balls in the woods, loses them, scores poorly, and vows to quit the game until the next time his optimism returns and sends him out for more punishment).

Here are some more specific tips for golf and sculling alike:
- Take the biggest, boldest stroke you can.  A short arc almost inevitably produces a weaker, less-fluid stroke.
- Stay long and follow through.
- Relax completely, throughout the entirety of the stroke.  Relaxation is not just for the backswing/recovery; it benefits the downswing/drive as well.  When you hit it just right, you'll feel it from head to toe (including your perineum).
- Stiff wrists lead to a stiff stroke.
- Your grip cannot be too loose.  The hands will take care of themselves at the moment of impact/moment of suspension, if you'll let them.
- The top of the swing is analogous to the catch.  Each should be a moment of stillness with absolutely no drama.  
- Don't worry about whether your heels are in firm contact with the ground/footstretcher at all times.  If your stroke lengthens when you lift a heel, lift the heel and don't worry about it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Selection

Many coaches and athletes make the mistake of thinking that anyone with any sense can select a crew in a short span of time, whether through seat racing and erg times or what have you or just through intuitive alchemy. 
The truth is that good selection is a long-term process.  If you observe an athlete over an extended period, you come to find out what she really believes.  Equally important, you'll see whether she's a person who is in boats that go fast more often than boats that go slow. And you simply cannot get that from a few data points collected from a physiological test or an erg piece. 
Watch your athletes.  Assume nothing.  Give up on no one.  Pay attention to the facts in front of you that matter most: what happens with real boats on real water doing real racing?  There's your answer, grasshopper. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Resolutions

"No one of our human passions is so hard to subdue as pride...For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility." - Benjamin Franklin

There is a priceless voiceover in the opening moments of the first season of "Eastbound and Down" in which the recently and involuntarily retired major-league pitcher Kenny Powers says with apparent conviction "I am the man with the baseball.  I am the man who can throw it faster than fuck.  And that is why I am better than everyone in the world."  It is such a bald statement of the total absence of humility that it cannot help but get a laugh, but because it is so over-the-top, its more subtle point is often missed: it is ever so tempting to hear someone else's out-of-control ego and feel better about ourselves.  We laugh, and gloat a little without realizing it, and think with a sigh of relief "thank god I'm not a jackass like THAT guy."  The uncomfortable truth, if we care to acknowledge it, is that there is more of Kenny Powers in most of us than we are prepared to admit.  

Ten years or so ago, I got a subtle lesson in what humility really means from my wife, whose intent at the time was not to teach it but rather to call me out for not recognizing two of pride's many avatars: the making of false idols and condescension.  It went like this - in the late 1990's, there were a couple of Olympic medalists training in Dallas, out of the same boathouse as my scholastic crews at the Episcopal School of Dallas.  We had a pretty good girls' quad that year, and the two Olympians had befriended the girls in the quad, along with the rest of the crew, and been supportive of their quest for speed and Stotesbury Cup/Youth Nationals hardware.  They even baked cookies for the girls for the plane ride to Philly in May - a nice gesture that turned out to be the catalyst for the humility lesson when I unknowingly reacted to it in a way that subtly over-valued the gesture and prompted the following questions: 1) If Olympians want to bake cookies, why shouldn't they?  2) If Olympians bake cookies, are they necessarily more valuable cookies than those baked by people who are not Olympians (the correct answers, by the way, are 1) Yes, if Olympians want to bake cookies, they should by all means do so and 2) No, they're not any more valuable for having been baked by Olympians.  We'll return to that in a moment.  

My reaction was this: cookies in hand, I made a big production of telling the girls how special and important it was that their efforts had been recognized in the form of the charitable service of NOT ONE BUT TWO OLYMPIC MEDALISTS SACRIFICING THEIR FREE TIME TO BAKE COOKIES FOR THEM, prompting my wife to ask, privately and days later, "so if it had been someone who was not an Olympic medalist doing the baking, it would be less special and important?"  Full disclosure: she had skin in this game too - as a practitioner in myofascial release and deep-tissue massage, she had supported the crew at ESD (and the two Olympians -particularly their hamstrings) and helped keep them healthy and injury-free throughout the year and thus had various reasons, some of them no doubt egoic, for feeling slighted that I would make such a fuss - but that's beside the point.  My first reaction was both befuddled and slightly defensive: well, of course it's more special and important if Olympians baked your cookies - because - well - because they're Olympians and they didn't have to!  To which the obvious response is "no one else had to, either - so explain again why it's MORE special?"  Well, because they're Olympians.  And not only that, but medalists too.  "Uh huh.  And that's relevant to enhancing the value of an unsolicited kindness how?"  Well, I'm not sure, exactly, but I know it must be.  Maybe because they have the baseball, and they can throw it faster than fuck, and that's why they are better than everyone else?

Everyone, it seems, wants to feel special and important.  We human beings seem to spend inordinate time and energy finding reasons to feel superior to our fellow man.  So much so that many of our otherwise noblest efforts end up soiled by the ulterior motive of mastering something in order to feel superior to others who have not done so.  Sometimes we even spend time and energy finding reasons to feel INFERIOR to our fellow man in the misguided hope that some of their superiority will either rub off on us or perhaps be available to be experienced vicariously, or perhaps later, when we've successfully emulated them and become more special and important than we ever dared to think possible.  The two Olympians devoted huge chunks of their lives to the craft of making boats go fast.  My wife raised a child for nine years as a single parent, while simultaneously learning skills as a soft-tissue therapist that might be favorably compared to throwing a baseball - well, really fast.  The fire chief put his life at hazard to save people and preserve property from destruction.  The third grade teacher gave confidence to students by showing them they can master things that seem overwhelming to their young minds.  And the reality is that they can all "throw the baseball faster than fuck," and having mastery of a skill IS special, but none of them is better than everyone else because of that, and if they bake you cookies, your gratitude should be the same toward any of them.  Happy New Year 2016.  Be humble.  Bake cookies often.  Avoid the twin extremes of condescension and the false idolatry of hero-worship.  And feel free to remind me (and Ben Franklin, or Kenny Powers) of the same.