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Home arrow Rowing arrow Coaching arrow Improving your coaching skills
Improving your coaching skills Print E-mail
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To be a successful coach, it is not just a question of how much you know but how much of what you know you are able to put into practice. A coach is a teacher, and although practicing in a narrow field, must still be able to communicate. Also you have to understand how people learn.

It is not always the most successful athletes that make the best coaches but often those who have struggled to make it. Many great athletes are naturally gifted and although they would have had to work hard to achieve sporting success, they find it difficult to understand why someone is struggling with the basics.

I have tried to include all the key points you will need to know to become a successful coach that I have learned over 50 years in the sport. One of those things is that the best coaches know the most but say the least. You as the coach need to know why we do things in a certain way. With an understanding of why, you will be able to reason alternative processes to achieve a goal if and when traditional methods fail. An athlete only needs to know enough to move onto the next level and if they respect you the coach, they will follow your lead. However, respect does not come with the job title, it has to be earned. A sound knowledge of principles, and the ability to be able to answer questions arising is a good way to earn the respect of the athlete.

This doesn't mean you have to lecture your athletes in order to let them know how clever you are, on the contrary, wait until they ask. When someone asks a question it is because they want to know the answer and so they are receptive. If athletes are being given information they do not think they need, then by and large you are wasting your breath. One thing you must never do is to repeat verbatim what you have heard another coach say. Good coaches have a clear mental picture of what they want an athlete to do. In coaching technique they are getting the athlete to move in sympathy to this mental picture. You have to establish your own mental pictures and coach technique to this mental image. Copying the words of another describing a picture you cannot see is just talking rubbish and you will be found out.

Communication is a two way street. You need to know that the information you are imparting to your athlete is being received and understood. Feedback can be in the form of the athletes altering their actions in direct response to your instructions. Athletes need feedback from the coach to tell them that they are making the required improvement. Coaches will also need feedback from the athletes to let the coach know how they are coping with the programme.

Coach athlete feedback flowchart

feedback flowchart

The green path indicates that the athlete understands the instructions from the coach, makes the required adjustments and the coach confirms this to the athlete.

The red path indicates the athlete is not responding to the instructions or coping with the programme. In this case the coach has to reconsider and try alternatives.

Communication between coach and athlete can be divided into three areas.

Before Session During Session After Session
This should be an informative session or "top down", where the coach tells the crew what they are expected to do and the aims and objectives of the session. Confirm understanding of instructions. Again informative, coach gives feedback to crew on how they are doing with respect to the aims of the session. During technical work, coach identifies errors and gives positive feedback as the crew improve. This is a two-way session where the crew get the opportunity to express their opinion on how the session went, if the aims and objectives were met and how things are progressing in general.Coach may have to make adjustments to the programme as a result of this feedback.

When people are learning a new skill there is a process they all have to go through. Developing good technique is carried out in three phases. The first phase is to develop the motor skills to master the sequence of movements. Muscles respond to electrical impulses from the brain carried via the nervous system. Repeating a movement establishes a strong neurological pathway, which carries these tiny impulses. Breaking the rowing stroke down into its component parts and carrying out each segment slowly until it is mastered is the best method of establishing this pathway. During this period the coach needs to keep the instructions to a minimum, let the athlete focus on one thing at a time and not be bombarded with data. This is followed by joining the segments together gradually building up to the full stroke cycle.

During the development of motor skills there is no consideration to load, this comes next and is know as the functional stage. Here the muscle become familiar with the load, range and speed that they are required to work at and how it relates to other working muscles.

Learning a new practical skill can only be done by trial and error, or perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is trial and failure. When we first attempt a new skill we don't get it right first time so we fail. The next step in the learning process is to think about it, make some adjustments and then try again. During this phase of learning, the athlete's technique can become worse as they take one step back to make two steps forward. During these periods the athletes can become frustrated and many will give up and so it is important for the coach to explain how we learn and good days and bad days are completely normal.

Learning Curve

learning curve

You may think that when you have arrived at the cognitive stage then that is it, you've cracked it. To some extent this is true in that, like riding a bike, once learned you never forget it, you own this information. However, knowing how to ride a bike and winning the Tour de France are not the quite the same thing.

Until you reach the cognitive phase, training can be general and non-specific. Once you reach the cognitive phase then the training changes to specific training. As you continue to train your capacity increases and so now the emphasis of technique is to carry this increase in physical capacity pro rata into faster times. So the hierarchy is established, first learn the game then train to perform.

Experience has shown us that, by first introducing young people to the land based rowing machine results in a faster adaptation to the water. However, rowers must still "learn the game" which means, amongst other things, mastering the skills required to row a boat. The skill needed to row a racing shell stems from the fact that the shell design has negative stability. All other boats or ships designed by a naval architect have positive stability, which means when the boat lists to one side, the forces that occur make the boat right itself. In a racing shell, once the boat lists then the forces occurring tend to make the boat capsize. A racing shell is most stable when it is upside down and the only reason it remains upright is due to the skill of the rower using the oars for stability.


The centre of gravity (G) is a force acting downwards while the centre of buoyancy (F) is a force acting upwards (floatation). When the crafts are upright these two forces are in line along the metacentre of the boat. In the case of positive stability, when the boat lists the moment resulting from these two forces has a correcting or righting effect. In the case of the rowing boat the metacentre is below the centre of gravity and therefore the moment produced causes the boat to capsize.

The rower needs to work off of a stable platform to best enable the transfer of energy to the boat. In addition to the negative stability inherent in the design of the boat, rowing is further complicated by the need of the rower to move up and down the slide. In addition there is the need to control the oars. In any craft designed to carry cargo, the cargo is secured so that it cannot move during transit. Also no one would design a craft where the engine moves. Any movement of the cargo or of the engine will have a negative effect on the efficiency of the craft. In a racing shell the rower is both the cargo and the motive force and dealing with the movement up and down whilst controlling the oars, keeping balanced and stabilising the boat is the first thing every rower has to master.

We have mentioned the fact that a racing shell is unstable and this is because rowers do not sit in the boat, they sit on the boat. Because the shell is so light with respect to the crew, this means that the centre of gravity is very high which in a nutshell explains the reason for negative stability. Boat stability and balance are not the same. Stability applies to the boat, whereas balance applies to the athlete. Boat stability is subject to a number of factors, water and weather conditions as well as the technical skill of the rower. It is only the technical skills that we can affect while the external forces we have to cope with.

Good balance is inherent in all top athletes. Of course it is more obvious in sports like gymnastics but it is none the less important in all sports. Rowers should always feel themselves balanced rather than looking for the more abstract "sit the boat" which involves forces beyond their control. The boat is inanimate and therefore can only react to forces applied to it. The rower's actions can destabilise the boat if through the stroke the rowers are not balanced and in control. When balanced and in control, the rower is better able to cope with the destabilising effects of external forces. Balanced posture also means muscles use energy economically. Unbalanced posture wastes energy and sets up stresses in the body that strain tissue and cause pain. Off balance, the rower cannot generate the power needed to move the boat quickly. For this reason balance exercises should be included in any land training programme as well as part of the technical water sessions.

There are three points of contact between the rower and the boat, however, the foot stretcher is the only point where the rower is firmly fixed. This point of contact then has special importance because it not only enables the rower to develop power, but to control the speed of the recovery and establish balance. Therefore the rower has to be completely aware of the changing significance of the stretcher contact throughout the stroke cycle.

The two other points of contact with the boat apart from the foot stretcher are the hands and seat. These two points can also be useful tools to help balance. On the recovery, let the handle of the oar push up into the hand under its outboard weight and feel that your weight is equally distributed on both sides of the seat. On the drive phase your weight should come off of the seat as your body is suspended between the foot stretcher and the oar handle. The drive should be equal off of both feet and the load in the hand should also be equal. The better the balance of the rower the greater the ability to control the stability of the boat.

Here are some common faults that affect boat stability, possible causes and steps to correct them.

  • Washing out is when the blade leaves the water before the stroke is completed. Having first checked that this is not a problem of the set up, by checking the pitch settings, then you need to look at the body movement of the rower. Check for the oar handle being pulled down by the outside hand. If so mark the correct finish position by stopping the stroke at the backstop. At this point you can also check that the rower is not rigged too high and if not, then rowing outside hand only, and square blade rowing are good exercises to correct this problem.
  • Another possible cause is that the rower is not moving down the centre line of the boat but is moving away from the rigger at the finish. A good exercise to correct this is to sit on the backstop and row arms only checking that the body stays over the centre line of the boat and that the shoulder line is parallel to the handle.
  • Pulling the button away from the pin at the finish could result from the foot stretcher being placed too far towards the bow. If this is not the cause then backstop rowing, ensuring there is outward pressure on the handle, is a good exercise to correct this problem.
  • Diving at the catch can affect stability. First check set up for insufficient pitch or rigged too low, (set up should always be the first step in fault correction). When happy with the set up then check the action of the rower and in particular that the blade is set correctly for entry. A good exercise is, with the boat still; get the rower to move from the backstop to the catch position. Ensure that the rower squares the blade as the handle passes the feet and then places the blade into the water in one fluent action.
  • Blade catching the water on the recovery: stability can also be affected if the blades catch the water on the recovery. This can be the result of insufficient downward pressure by the outside hand. The exercise to correct this is, with the boat still; sit at the backstop position with the spoon covered. Push the handle down until the loom is parallel to the water and then move forward ensuring that the spoon continues in a horizontal plane and remains at the same height above the water.

At the catch, the blade is quickly placed into the water until the spoon is covered and the slip is taken up. The weight of the oarsman is suspended between the foot stretcher and the oar handle. The weight of the oarsman hanging off of the handle applies a force to the pin, which in turn causes the boat to accelerate past the spoon. When the handle reaches the body of the rower it cannot go any further and so the oarsmen release the boat simultaneously.

If this is done correctly then the boat will run off level but also if you can achieve this suspension then part of the weight of the oarsmen is transferred out of the boat and onto the spoon. This transfer of body weight reduces the wetted surface area of the hull assisting the acceleration of the system.

A commonality among all who display good technique is how easy they make it look. This is the same for athletes, artists and artisans and I have tried to understand why this is. To use an analogy, imagine you have a fire and a few yards away there is a stream. You pick up a bucket, fill it with water and run towards the fire only to realise the bucket has a hole in it. By the time you reach the fire the bucket is half empty and so to put the fire out will take twice as long as it would with a bucket that did not leak.

In the analogy, the water that has leaked away represents wasted effort. The bucket represents technique, good techniques is no holes and no leakage of energy. Why someone with good technique makes it look easy is that they get all of their effort into the task, none is escaping. What we see in poor technique is the effort not going into the task we see what is leaking from the bucket.

In order for you to improve the technique of your charges there are three things you need. The first is a clear mental picture of what you believe is good technique. The second is the ability to communicate that image to the athlete. Finally you need a means of measuring the effect of the change.


he difference between the useful work and the total work is a measure of the mechanical efficiency of the rower. Useful work is that which directly drives the boat along. The effort involved in moving the body up and down, which is not useful is known as the cost of effort. The aim is to increase the useful work and decrease the cost of effort, which can be as high as 30% of the total energy expended.

There are several ways we can reduce the cost of effort and the first way is to make sure that all muscles, not directly used in the propulsion of the boat, remain relaxed. This would apply particularly to the muscles in the face and neck during the drive phase and the whole body on the recovery.

The way to improve mechanical efficiency is to practice as much as possible, the more you do the more efficient you will become. Periods allocated to increasing efficiency or technique work do not require much physical effort. In fact if these periods do develop into work at a higher intensity then they can become counter-productive as fatigue will inhibit skill acquisition. Also it is no good practicing poor technique and so the whole focus of the long low intensity sessions must be on good technique and not effort.

Some key technical points to look at during the drive phase,

  1. The body weight should be hanging off of the handle and not on the seat.
  2. The hands are accelerating towards the body. This acceleration should not stop as the oars are extracted but rather turn around and change direction. This is similar to a pinball accelerating along the chute and then around the end of the machine to fall under gravity back to the start. In the same way the energy in the hands carries the rower's centre of gravity forward and the rake on the slide enables the rower to move forward without effort.
  3. The contact with the foot stretcher, which provided the platform for the drive, now acts as a breaking system controlling the speed of the recovery.