Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Consider the Erg - It Toils Not, But it Does Spin

 Okay, look - I'm not going to change any ever-optimistic parents' or unrealistic junior scullers' minds; the culture of "what's your 2k?" is far too embedded in the miasma of misinformation about our sport for one blog post to have much impact.  I'm just feeling a little once-and-for-all salty today and need to put this in writing for my own catharsis.  The fact is that 2k, 6k, and other erg benchmarks mean something, but not much, and not what most people think they do.  And as a rowing coach and a sometime/longtime SAT tutor, I can state unequivocally that the analogy between the SAT and the 2k erg score is quite apt.  Both will help you get in the door, and neither will do much of anything for you once you're there.  

"But coach," you might object, "shouldn't I attach quite a bit of my identity to my SAT/2k erg numbers?"  No, you myopic meathead, you shouldn't.  Think of it this way: if you were born in this country to middle or upper-class parents and your SAT verbal is 620, your application to Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton is going straight to the "deny" pile unless you are 4.0 student with multiple glowing recommendations, a patent for survival blankets that you distributed by hand to hurricane survivors for the Red Cross, and you are the best 18 year old cellist in the lower 48 and have guest second-chaired in that capacity with the Cincinnati Philharmonic.  On the other end of the spectrum, if you are the proud owner of 800 Math/800 Verbal, your professors and fellow students at Yale are going to care as much about that once you're there as they do about your birth weight.  By the same token, you'll need a good 2k erg time to get on the radar of the assistant coaches in charge of recruiting at collegiate rowing programs, but when you're sitting at the stakeboats waiting for the flag to drop, none of your opponents will know or care that you pulled 7:14 as a high school senior (or 6:10-ish on the men's side), and while your 2k time might have some small influence on your coaches' decisions on whom to switch you with during seat racing, it will have very little bearing on the outcome of those pieces.  Knowing how to make a boat go fast becomes real currency when actual on-water racing is involved.  

"But coach, don't you have to be sub-6:00 to race internationally?" Again - no.  The list of men who have never gone sub-six and women who have never gone sub-seven and still won World Championships and Olympic medals is actually fairly long, and the list of sub-six and sub-seven collegians who would get pantsed/doored/horizon-jobbed in international competition is exponentially longer.  As a measure of raw horsepower and to a lesser extent, grit, the 2k erg isn't a bad test.  Indoor rowing, though, is a contradiction in terms, and the two activities (erging and on-water rowing and sculling) just aren't nearly as similar to one another as most people believe they are.  The very idea that being able to produce good watts on a stationary bike would be a good indication of potential for the Tour de France is absurd.  So is the idea that watts on the erg translates directly to the boat.  I've said for years that faith in erg times proves that football coaches are much smarter than rowing coaches.  When a football coach sees a recruit who can run the 40 in 4.4 or who can power clean 350 pounds, his first response is "yeah, but can he play football?  Can he move in space and put himself where he needs to be and make a play?"  Rowing coaches who encounter athletes with good erg scores, by contrast, will continue to seat race big ergs against good boat movers with lesser erg scores long after the rest of the crew knows that the rower with the big erg and no boat sense makes every lineup he gets in slower.  Learn to row a single well.  Get better at following other rowers, and at stroking team boats.  And yes, continue to improve your erg time - you need a good one, but it only tells you something about your performance relative to yourself, and it has no place in crew selection.  

n.b. Just for grins, here's a fly-on-the-wall guide to coaches' reactions to 2k erg scores from hopeful recruits: <7:20 = When can you come for an official visit?  7:20-7:29.9 = Okay, you have my attention.  7:30-7:40 = Not bad.  Why don't you do another one in a month and get back in touch?  7:40-7:50 We'd love to have you join us as a walk-on and see how you develop.  >7:50 Seriously? Why are you broadcasting this information? Email again when you're 20 seconds faster.  Knock off a full minute for men's times, and adjust within gender by 5-10 seconds if you're a lightweight or you're applying to a small college or club program.  

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Bring The Mules!

Oh, man - I've got about a hundred closely-related soapboxes I'd like to get up on this morning, most of them related to coaches who only want to coach "talented athletes" and who believe that their primary job lies in recruiting them rather than creating them, and that they can elevate their own reputations by associating only with the "best" athletes and the "best" programs.  The most memorable story I have heard lately on this topic was told to me by a colleague at Craftsbury.  He had recently had a conversation with the coach of a small college who fancies himself a real coaching savant.  The conversation had come around to the specious matter of which athletes are worthy of a coach's attention (the simple answer is "all of them, if they're serious about studying the sport"), and the coach-savant's head-spinning pronouncement was that he wanted to recruit "thoroughbreds, not mules.  I can train mules and turn them into fast mules, but I can't make them as fast as thoroughbreds so why should I waste my time trying?"  
Oh, coach - so wrong-headed, for so many reasons - where to begin?  Here's an observation: of all the elite athletes I've ever met in sculling, rowing, Nordic skiing, and biathlon, the overwhelming majority of them don't strike me as people who could aptly be described as "thoroughbreds", if what we mean by thoroughbreds is genetically blessed with superior anatomy and physiology for their sport.  In fact, if we're going to stick with the metaphor, most of them are mules - if what we mean by mules is ordinary, hard-working, and methodical - people you could pass in the grocery store and never suspect are world-class athletes.  Further, there is no breed standard for humans, and there are more proverbs than can be counted that chronicle the trouble we cause ourselves when we begin to think of ourselves as inherently superior or inherently advantaged, and this isn't a pitfall for animals, who don't overthink or indulge in petty snobbery as we do.  You can have the thoroughbreds, coach.  Bring me the mules.  I want to coach the mules.  Mules get it done.  

Friday, December 27, 2019

New Year's Resolutions, Redux

"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 f__k.  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 f_k, 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 f_k," 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 2020.  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. 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

More Reflections on Training the Nervous System For Sport

Just outside my office, under the shade of some firs and tamaracks, our ski shop director sets up a slack line, horseshoe pit, bean bag toss/cornhole game, and volleyball/badminton court.  You might look it over in passing and see just a modest collection of picnic party games, but what I always see is an ideal playground for teaching the nervous system things that will improve my sculling and coaching.
When I've got ten minutes between tasks or in a gap in the sculling camps' daily schedule, I like to wander over there and spend a few minutes alternating between getting out of my comfort zone on the slack line and tossing beanbags and occasionally horseshoes.  I confess that I haven't yet figured out how to include badminton in a way that specifically benefits sculling, but someday maybe.
Here's what I continue to learn and reinforce nearly every time I do it:
1) Faith in the plasticity of my nervous system and proprioception.  Three or four years ago was the first summer I spent trying to learn just to stay on the slackline for more than a second or two - I did more falling off than anything else that first year.  By the second summer, I could stay on it pretty well, and in the third year, I developed the ability not just to walk on it but also to change direction and sometimes to be able to jump from the ground to the line and stay on.  Simple stuff, but remarkably satisfying.  And from the "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear" process-oriented school of thought, if someone had told me even a year ago that in order to move forward with learning to slackline what I needed most was to begin to feel the upward force of the line supporting me, I'd have had no idea what that even meant, and yet recently I have spontaneously begun to feel exactly that.  Unexpected epiphanies abound if you're receptive and open to them.  And if my nervous system learns something about balance and stability on a tightrope/slackline, I'm confident that I can apply that to balance and stability in the boat. 
2) A new appreciation for allowing looseness in the joints and the muscle groups that move them.  I had already learned this lesson from both horseshoes, golf, and darts, but apparently not well enough, so I needed Cornhole to seal the deal.  What I've noticed lately is that if I can truly let go of my deltoids and pecs and let my arm and shoulder relax and truly swing like a pendulum, I get a much more consistent flight out of the beanbag and a much higher percentage of throws landing on the platform and/or dropping through the hole.  It is not hard to tell when something seizes and gets tense on the downswing (or anywhere in the cycle), and the result is usually a toss that misses its intended mark.  I can even verbalize whether a throw is going to be successful as it's happening ("Off!" or "On" just before I release the beanbag) and I am almost always accurate in my assessment.  I've written on this topic before, and will only add this: the difference between genuine looseness in the joints and limbs and even a little bit of needless tension is subtle but crucial.  And unfortunately for scullers, the feedback is not immediate and therefore not as obviously important; a boat rowed by a tense person can still go fast for quite a while, while a beanbag tossed or a golf ball struck by a tense person shows the error immediately.  This, in my opinion, is why sculling is so difficult to refine - it fails to punish us for small errors and rewards us for effort, so we are fooled into thinking that more effort is always the best solution.  It's a conundrum.  Paying attention to the nervous system's subtle feedback is the way out.  Pay attention!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Elusive Obvious

There's a book on my shelf at home called "The Elusive Obvious."  It is about human movement patterns and how they develop, neurologically, and how patterns become habituated, as well as how even long-standing patterns can be changed and new ones learned in their place.  So that's the background of this post, but what really intrigues me from one day to the next has less to do with the specific content of the book and more to do with the many potentially valuable interpretations of its title, and the one that is on my mind today has to do with relaxation and its relationship to exertion and fatigue.
So let's start with something obvious: The absence of relaxation is fatiguing.  Would anyone care to disagree with that?  If you do, please stop reading - the rest of this won't help you.  If you agree with the statement, though, stay with it for at least a few more sentences.  From there, let's take things a step further with a modest theorem: Relaxation is not binary.  In other words, at any given moment, any human being is not either "relaxed" or "not relaxed/tense."  Rather, we are always somewhere on a spectrum.  And if we can move ourselves in the direction of being more relaxed, we might find ourselves less fatigued.  Now let's return to a second thing that seems obvious: Our reserves of energy are finite.  It should not be too great a leap, then, to conclude something like the following: In making boats go fast, you are drawing on finite reserves of energy.  Energy that goes into needless tension, wherever it appears, whether in specific locations like the face, hands, forearms, etc. or spread over the entire body generally, is wasted energy that does not contribute to making the boat go fast.  Thus, learning to set aside needless tension might be an incredibly valuable thing for a sculler's nervous system to learn and well worth each of us devoting unremitting attention to it.  And yet, obvious as this is, it is maddeningly elusive.  We may find that rowing easy and relaxed at 15 spm feels like a walk in the park - pleasant and seemingly sustainable for as long as we care to continue it.  We might feel almost as relaxed here as anywhere else.  Maybe we can even bring most of that ease to more vigorous steady state rowing at 22 spm, or even to some 20's and 30's at race pace with paddling between.  "They make it look so easy," come the plaudits from the sidewalk next to the river, and it does feel easy.  And then we go to a start & twenty at 42spm, settling to 36, and suddenly we're tensing everything more than is strictly necessary.  We know that it's possible to move quickly without needless tension, and yet it somehow seems to creep in anyway.  And in doing so, we're habituating our nervous systems to waste energy because "well, coach, you just HAVE to get tense to row 40+spm.  No you don't.  It's obvious, and it's elusive.  That's why it's so special.  First relax - then go faster.  The two go hand in hand.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


In rowing and sculling, there are two types of people: The first type, even when he has reasonable evidence to believe that he is the best boat-mover in his crew, always wonders if he is worthy of rowing with his boatmates, and sets about every day to be an oarsman that can be counted on in every situation.  The other type always wonders if his boatmates are worthy of rowing with him, and is pure poison to a crew even when he is the fittest, strongest, and most talented oar in the boat.  If you are looking to create or be part of a championship crew, start by getting every rower with the latter attitude out of your boat, even if it means demoting your "best" rower.  My colleague Ric Ricci once summed it up nicely - speaking of his pair partner from college with whom he won many races including the IRA's, he said "Whenever the boat wasn't going well, I always blamed myself and Dave always blamed himself.  As soon as you start blaming the other guy, you're done.  You might as well get out of the boat."  Take that one to the bank, and always bet on a boat full of people who trust each other and want to row together over a bunch of guys who think they're the guy everyone should want to row with.  Trust wins races, even over superior physiology.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Comfort In The Boat

I think it was around 2011 that I nodded off during a dock talk that Kevin MacDermott was giving and woke up just as suddenly to see him gesture broadly around himself in the 1X and declare "you've gotta own this space."  That was the genesis of the Comfort In the Boat dock talk and the idea of spending the better part of a whole outing to systematically explore drills that, to a passing observer, look like nothing but showing off/stupid boat tricks.  We're not the first people to employ stationary drills to gain mastery of tippy boats, but we believe in them as an antidote to the common misconception that training for rowing and sculling is nearly 100% physiology.  An important frontier is neurological.  Take time to explore it in between your 10x500m and your 120' battle paddles.
Video here: