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


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. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Training is Racing and Racing is Training

So at dinner tonight, one of the athletes at U23 Worlds was griping about getting rowed through in the heats, and his gripe was worded roughly thus (stop me if you've heard this one): "y'know, we've had a really good training cycle, but today was the first time we've really raced and there's just no substitute for racing."  And everyone present sort of gave him a nod and an "ain't that the truth" look as though to affirm that what he was saying was some sort of truth written in granite rather than the excuse that it is.  Granted that I don't know the context of this athlete and his crew's training situation, I still had to scratch my head at some of the assumptions that almost have to undergird his thinking: 1) that you can't actually race unless you're at a regatta or maybe 2) that you can't call what you do in practice against your teammates racing and (worse) that you can't motivate yourself to row as hard in practice against a known opponent as you can against an "enemy" from across town or the next state over or another country or what have you.

I truly don't want to disparage an anonymous stranger for an offhand remark.  There are, in fact, obstacles to creating race-day intensity on a regular basis in training.  But the bottom line is that THAT'S YOUR JOB AS AN ATHLETE, and THAT'S THE COACH'S JOB AS A COACH.  You race the way you practice.  This is an inevitability.  And if that's true, shouldn't you be finding ways to train in such a way that your speed on race day is a known quantity and a foregone conclusion because you generate it on a regular basis?  The only difference between racing pieces in training and races themselves should be the number of people watching them.  Res ipsa loquitur.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Notes from a Coaching Conference Part I

What follows are my raw notes from a coaching conference (Oklahoma City 2012 USRA, I think). Because why not?  I don't think I've misrepresented anyone, and I trust that readers are intelligent enough to remember that this is all filtered through my lens and therefore represents only my own process of continuing to try to understand what makes boats go fast.  Questions and discussion, whether in person or via email/Facebook, are welcome.  

Volker Nolte's Biomechanics Talk
Volker says that where the sport is going is in the direction of individualization and specialists: one coach can't do it all, so you're going to need to hire and work with specialists in rigging and biomechanics and let them take care of that aspect of your crew.  Says that individual rigging will soon create a situation in which each seat will be so customized that only one rower will be able to row it. 
Latest research claims that the middle of the drive is the LEAST efficient in terms of creating propulsion and that actually it is the catch and release that are MOST efficient and the middle is LEAST.  The practical application for coaching and making boats go fast?  Longer stroke, stretchers to the stern.  Contrary to old-school wisdom, this DOES NOT PINCH THE BOAT. 
Volker concluded with "Biomechanics is legal doping." 
Korzo says there are two important curves: The force curve and the acceleration curve.  Force curve tells you only about the force generated on the drive; acceleration curve tells you about how the boat is running. 
Korzo is skeptical of curves: "Everybody looks at them, no one knows what they mean." 
Korzo's practical solution: look at the curves of your best boat mover and use that as your model: "I look at this guy's curve and I know it's good, because he wins every seat race.  This curve, though, is a guy that we cut - compare their curves." 
Kleshnev defines slippage = the time between when the blade touches the water and the time it's fully submerged (should it be "loaded" instead?)  Similar definition at the release. 
Curtis Jordan cut through the b.s. most effectively: "I looked at some curves of guys rowing at 38 and said 'that's the cost of doing business - big bodies moving fast aren't always perfect.  The biomechanists would tell you we need a smoother curve, but sometimes a prettier curve means a slower boat.  You can have a pretty curve and a slow boat." 
Biomechanics as it applies to actual rowing:
It starts with the catch:
Put the blade behind the post: Korzo asks "is it post or not post?"
What about back splash? 
Nolte says "no post - if there's a post, the blade's not moving in the water.  The blade has to move in the water, and it actually moves FASTEST AT THE CATCH!"  Top scullers have 70-80 degree catch angles.  In biomechanics, there is no post."
In sum, it may be okay to use the post analogy with beginners, but it's not what really happens. 
Kevin teaches backsplash and believes that if you teach missing water, they'll miss more water - so rowing circles in pairs, you coach lots of backsplash.  Rowing steadily in a pair, you'll get a little less.  Rowing in a four, even less and in an eight maybe none at all.  But if they'd missed water rowing circles in the pair, they'd be missing the whole damn stroke in an eight.
Teti counsels against "quicker catch! Quicker catch!  Quicker catch!"  He told a crew "show me something different.  Show me a slower, more patient catch" and says he got what he wanted.  (Moral of the story: coaches have to be clever to get a desired result out of a given crew.  It doesn't work the same way in every situation.  Some crews need to be coached for a quicker catch, or quicker hands away. Some crews need to be coached for faster hands away or slower hands away.  IT'S SITUATIONAL, STUPID - the skill of the coach is revealed in whether he knows what a crew needs in a given situation. 
Regarding post and no post, I had the following insight: Sometimes it may be okay for an athlete to have a foolish thought in his head - if the boat is going fast.  If the boat is going fast and the athlete has a foolish thought (like "plant it behind the post or just pull harder" in his head, let him keep it.  You can fix it later, either by a gradual approach or by sudden enlightenment." 
People are perverse - they believe what they believe, and someone with a more accurate view of the rowing stroke may lose to someone with a less accurate view.  SO WHAT?  Don't get so bound up with a slavish devotion to always seeing/knowing/acting on the ultimate truth.  What makes the boat go fast?!  When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. 
Once the discussion turned to the catch, guess what?  The question was not resolved (backsplash, frontsplash, quick, patient, abrupt power application, whatever).  No one in the room had a definitive answer.  Surprised? 
Charlie Butt - Video Analysis
Opened with the stern against bow shot - how does the sculler's boat move relative to the coach's launch?  When does the boat start to accelerate?  Two inches into the drive, or halfway through?  Obviously, earlier is better.  Showed a sculler who was well into the drive and said "see?  He's on the stretchers already, and that's pushing the boat back towards me - he's not on the handles yet."
This view also helps a great deal with seat/handle connection - if the athlete is on the feet and not yet on the handle, the boat comes back to the launch. 
Butt says if there's a disconnect and either one goes without the other, the boat comes back to the launch.
Try THIS: "Stay off the stretchers until you see the stern coming up."  Further "Control your body and you won't push the stern down!"
Butt says the round robin system of switching people in and out of boats is unique to North America, and he's critical of it - says that coaches insist on racing and re-racing guys that the other guys on the crew ALREADY KNOW ARE BOATSTOPPERS.  Advises to listen to your athletes about what they feel (but be careful because there are inevitably guys who don't feel ANYTHING but will still insist on sharing their flawed opinions. 
He recommends a "rotation of emphases" - "Maybe you teach 'post in the water for November, and then you teach 'hit the catch hard' for December and then 'pick it up on the fly' for January.  Then maybe repeat that cycle but only for a few days each - by then you've found out what your crew responds to."
"When a new regime comes in, crews usually go faster.  It's easy to assume that the new guy brought the right stuff in; that he knows the right way to row and his predecessor did not.  The truth, often, is that the change in emphasis got the crew doing something different and if the two roles had been switched, the other coach would also have gotten a better result."  Sometimes the solution isn't to find the one golden road but rather to do something different, and different ITSELF is the solution. 
"You can't see what the athletes feel - therefore don't make too much of what you see." 
"It is very difficult athletically for athletes to separate quick and hard.  The athlete thinks they're synonymous" (- not intellectually, but kinesthetically - my note)
"Transition from when you're moving water to when you're moving boat" (? Are you ever moving water?) 
Charlie was talking about a coach who "no one knew what he was saying because he mumbled a lot, but he got boats to go fast." (my point exactly).  Also said this coach watched the stern A LOT. 
Finally: "You can't be finicky to the point that they lose their fight."  In other words, coach technique but don't insist on perfect - be tolerant of idiosyncrasies. 
The trouble that some coaches gets themselves in is that they're too stuck on the idea of presenting the whole truth right away and thinks it's wrong - even dishonest - not to do so.  What they don't realize is that people need what they need when they need it.  For example, a good coach who knows biomechanics will tell you that there's no post in the water, and yet we've all observed crews being told to think in those terms who IMPROVE THEIR ROWING IMMEDIATELY.  The same goes for "just pull harder."
Bernhard Stomporowski:
"Rowing clubs have a responsibility - you can't just hire someone to coach children."  (Speaking of the German club system)
Volker Nolte on rigging:
Some things Nolte advises "Don't bother trying this": Lengthening your oars.  Resist this temptation, he says.  It won't work. 
Volker says drag is very inefficient, while lift is very efficient.  In practical terms, it means that lift is easier to get than drag.  Bottom line: If it feels heavy, you are pulling too hard.
Interestingly, he also referenced both C2's Path of the Blade graphic and Bryan Volpenhein's "be patient and feel for the water at the catch" assertion. 
He also referenced Nordic skiing ..
Tom Terhaar
Always switch things up - try new things.  Never let your athletes go on autopilot.  They'll face the unexpected in races, inevitably.  If they are constantly adapting in training, they'll be more likely to adapt to the unexpected on race day.  More importantly, it keeps the mind and body working productively. 
"We don't use much videotaping - much less than we used to- the athletes just want to see themselves, they don't ask to see their blades," so it often becomes a bit of an exercise in narcissism.  Never forget that what it feels like is far more important than what it looks like. 
Emphasis on the OPPORTUNITY to win - never the expectation of winning. Winning is special and it's hard to get there and at every level.  Never forget that at every world level regatta there are great athletes who have prepared well and do not win. 
Hold yourself to a gold medal standard, the highest level of performance you can produce - it maximizes your OPPORTUNITY but it is not a guarantee. 
Know ALWAYS that you can always go faster - no one truly gets close - we never say: "wow - I can't imagine her ever going any faster (this should be self-evident, but it's easy to forget - recall JA and LM's "untouchable" erg record and how cool it was that it got touched only a few years later). 
NEVER FORGET THAT IF YOU TAKE MORE STROKES, YOU'LL GET BETTER.  Everyone looks better at their second Olympics. 
"I'd rather beat someone physiologically than row beautifully and lose - there' always some roughness with young athletes."
Our performance comes from killing yourself next to other athletes - athletes know "I've got to do that or I'm going home."  I'm not threatening the athletes - they just know they have to.
Young athletes in this situation almost always p.r. on their early 6k's when they start training with us, even at controlled rate. 
Common Themes:
Patience at the catch - the paradox: you usually get a quicker catch by asking for patience/find the water than you do by asking for quick.  Again - people are strange, and the language we use is vitally important.  In this case, we ask for exactly what we want and we get something very different.  Instead, we get the result we want by a backdoor route, asking for something that sounds slower but yields quicker. 
Lengthen the stroke at the catch.  Modern blades like steeper catch angles.