Saturday, March 23, 2013

Race Day Management

Workout planning, coaching on the water, trailer driving, inspiration, boat repair, rigging, trip planning and dozens of other skills are all part of what defines "coach."  Today at the John Hunter Regatta, another important ability came into play:  creative race day management.

The heavens opened long before we got to the course, with a cold rain before dawn pelting down in 40 degree weather.  Horrid, cold and wet.  Add in the occasional lightning and the announcement before first call was easy to predict:  delay.  We got the boat down, rigged and carried the oars over.  I then told the girls to find someplace in the Lake Lanier boathouse to keep dry and sort of warm, like the coach of EVERY other team there. 

We found hoards of wet, cold high-strung rowers, stuffed into a room triple its capacity.  I managed to find an out of the way corner down a hallway and some chairs, so we didn't have to breathe the stank breath of everyone else.  The girls were already hungry, and rumors of the fabled Biscuit Shop quickly spread.  When word came down of a three hour delay, my decision was easy.  "Let's get some food."  There are two tables in the place, but the biscuits are warm from the oven and ready instantly.  Crew fed.  Check.  Must keep crew fed.

But now where?  We filled that place and I couldn't keep the kids there for the next two hours.  More than anything, I wanted someplace quiet, out of the rain where they might be able to nap, get some schoolwork done or surf their smartphones.  Anything but think about rowing in the cold rain.  Setting up the tent next to the trailer would put us outside and in the mud.  We couldn't overstay our welcome at the shop.  Where next?  Starbucks?

How about the Hall County just as we finished eating, chairs, quiet and with very fast WiFi.  I'm sitting there now, and here are my rascals....

Fed, safely asleep, warm and off their feet.  Check all boxes.  

All of the preparation for a race can go right out the window if a coach can't keep his crew comfortable and ready on the race day.  A hungry, shivering team won't perform anywhere near its best.  Managing the challenges of race day has become something I've gotten better at.  Years ago, I might have just fumed at the officials, paced around, driven more hair grey and not actually DONE anything to help my team.  Today, I couldn't care less when the race starts, as I've got the twitter feed and a warm, rested fed crew.  

Speaking of twitter, the feed suggests the regatta should restart soon.  Time to wake them up.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Examining the past

Todd Jesdale showed me his files once.  Boxes of notebooks, programs and shirts occupied an entire room in his home.  As you can imagine if you know Todd, it wasn't very organized, but he seemed to know where everything was.  Workout results, records, seat racing notes, entire seasons of memories sat in that room.

I don't think I'm even as organized as Todd was, but I've been "saved" by modern technology.  As everyone knows, the internet forgets nothing, especially when nobody pressed the DELETE button.  Obviously, this blog is still here, preserving my insanity as a second-year coach from 2005.  My Youtube channel is also still up, with videos I took of my crews from 2009 all the way to this past weekend.  I've even managed to find a few notebooks.  There's a flash drive somewhere with workout results from 2004.

So I've been reading through this stuff for the last few days.  Call it introspection, personal or professional self-scouting, whatever.  And I've come to a few conclusions:

1) I've gotten old.   I know, I say that all the time, like everybody in their 30s.  However, there is a lot more grey in my hair.  I'm not nearly as intense nor do I lose my temper as easily as I used to.  I've even been polite to referees the past few years.  Shocking, I know.

2) I still LOVE coaching There is absolutely nothing in the world I would rather do than teach people how to row, how to train and how to love this sport.  I've had some challenges these past few years, times when I can't say I was happy with the direction of my life, but I've always loved coaching.

3)  I've finally learned patience  I had a brand-new, first time assistant coach sending her novices out at a regatta a few years ago.  She reminded me so much of how itchy, twitchy and nervous I used to get.  Her crew didn't have a very good day (they flipped--story later) but I hope my patient good humor and the humor of her crew helped get her through a tough first outing.  (That crew went on to become a great novice team.)  I've realized there are things I can't change immediately, and thus I'm a lot more relaxed when short-term setbacks come around.

4) I still care deeply about my teams, but I've learned to pull back Getting older will do such things, I know, but while I used to thoroughly enjoy being a close part of their lives, I now am more reserved.  Communication is still very, very important to me (2000+ texts/month), but I'm not all over their Facebook pages.  There has to be a happy medium that I'm still searching for.  Things still get a little dusty when they win a big event, though.

5) I plan better  This was never my strong suit.  Flying by the seat of my pants was the usual way I would run practices.  Seat racing?  How   These days, I've got most of the season planned out on a google doc my crew can access months ahead of time.

Getting old still sucks, though.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

This is still here?!?!

Shockingly, this thing is still here.......... I might start writing on it again. Shout out to for somebody mentioning a five year old post and inspiring me to look at this again. I'll have to spend some time here deciding what might need to go and looking to re-load some images. I'll be messing about with backgrounds and other formatting.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

How to: Pull a 2k test

UPDATE: I'm going to "bump" this post from last winter, as there seems to be a bit of "action" on it. I won't change anything I wrote at the time, because I still feel the same way. So, instead of searching for this post, here it is again at the top of the stack.

, here we are after the turn of the year, when most crews start testing over 2000m in preparation for sprint season a few short months away.

The 2k test became a staple in the rowing world in 1996, when the Charles River All Star Has Beens changed the format of their little event from 2500m to 2k. Everyone can blame these clowns for the invention of the dreaded erg test in 1980. They thought it would be "fun." Thus the erg, never very popular before, became synonymous with pain.

You see, there is a big difference in discomfort between a 6000m and 2000m test. As I've written before, the 6k is a test of endurance and mental toughness. The 2k emphasizes endurance, power delivery, mental toughness, and pain tolerance. The 2k hurts you, if you do it right. It hurts you a lot, and being mentally prepared for that pain is far better than not knowing what you're walking into. So, off we go.

I loved only one thing about 2ks, and that was the feeling of the first 350m. All the nervous energy would burn off, and most people get to their target split without too much trouble. (Always have a goal or target for a 2k. Always.) After that first 350 is the beginning of the "fun," because the rower starts to hurt.

Not a lot at first, but enough to be noticeable. Lactic acid was produced in that first 200m burn, and it ends up in the muscles where it was born, so the legs start a little complaining. The best route here is to find that goal split and concentrate on "building the piece" of as many of those splits in a row as possible. If 1:40 is the goal split, make sure every stroke is there at 1:40. An early indication of a piece in trouble is the inability to hold that goal, with the splits jumping around with every stroke.

At 1500m to go, I'd like to take a little power 10. Nothing serious, just 10 strokes to push the splits down 1 or 2 and get ready for the worst 500m of my life. Because the 2k is going to fail or succeed right in that second 500m, and the mental toughness of the athlete will decide it. Right there, I would usually think, "I can't hold this pace. I need to back off," because here it really starts to hurt and you are not even halfway done yet!!! But know this:


Why? Simple: The difference in power output into the machine from a 1:40 to a 1:42 is mere percentages. The athlete will still hurt just as much producing the energy for a 1:42 as a 1:40. But the mental drain that comes from "stepping off" just a little opens the door to "stepping off" a lot. Suddenly, an athlete whose goal was 1:40 and was capable of holding that split is pulling 1:44 or 1:45, gasping for breath and wondering why they still hurt so much.

The lesson, as always: RACES ARE WON IN THE MIDDLE.

Tough it out through that second 500m. The time from 1300m to go to 1100m to go will be the longest 42 seconds of any one's life. Gut it out.

At the 1000m to go mark, it's time to take a power 20. Why? To prove you're still alive and attacking this test. Always attack. Suffering along is waiting for another boat to come and get you, so train the 2k test like you plan to row in the spring.

I always felt a sense of liberation as the clock dropped below 900m to go. The worst was over, it was more than halfway done and I had "held the line" of goal splits. A good piece will find the athlete still holding the goal split for a majority of strokes from 1000m to 700m to go.

Here's where my process differs from what I'm teaching the CC novices. I would always "step" at 700m to go, dropping the split down one and holding it there. At that point, a one second difference will move the average split number after 6 strokes or so, and it feels good to be going faster than the average split number. I imagined each 1/10th of a second on that average was one seat of an opposing boat, and I needed to "walk up" that boat, taking seats. I would prefer the novices to hold their goal splits through here, saving mental energy for.....

....the last 500m. As a coach, when I'm selecting a boat, I want to know two things about an athlete's erg test. Did they hold steady through the second 500? Did they go faster in the final 500? Yes, taking a power 20 at the 500 to go mark is great. But a power 20 that is only 1 second faster that what was being held, followed by dropping a second slower isn't what I'm looking for in my first boat. As you can see, races are getting closer as time goes on, and that last little inch just might bring a National Championship. Is the athlete capable of being on the winning side of a race like this one?

So, that final 500m tells me a lot and told me a lot when I would suffer through this. Lift once at 500 to go, keeping whatever rating I was at, then lifting the rating and leaving whatever energy was left in the final 200m.

The key to the sprint is to stay long with the legs and not shorten the stroke, and to sit tall with the body. The athlete's legs are in cramping, burning agony at this point, and the easy way out is to start rowing half slide and asking more of the back and body. This might work fine on the erg for a few strokes, but the back muscles aren't big enough to produce as much output as the legs, and the splits will fall off. Plus you don't sprint at half slide on the water.

Remember, after all, we're doing this to go fast in real boats on real water. Ergs don't float.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

How to: Pull a 6k Test

UPDATE: I'm bumping this post up as well, so all three "how to" are at the top of the stack.

The 6000m erg test has become a staple in the rowing world since the US National team instituted it nearly 10 years ago. Prior to the 6k, most long test pieces were twenty minutes in length, with the oarsman striving for the greatest distance rowed in that time frame. That test was a hold over from the gamut erg, which measured a number of revolutions produced by the rower over a set amount of time. I don't have any images of a gamut, but rest assured, gentle reader. The gamut was evil. They made the Concept II B look like a Cadillac.

The 6k is usually tested in the fall and winter, when crews are concentrating on endurance. Not only is endurance tested, but mental toughness. A coach's thinking assumes that anyone can "hold their breath" and "tough it through" a 2000m test. The 6k requires concentration and mental toughness over a long time that can't be faked.

The critical moment of a 6k happens in the middle of the piece. As I've said many times before, rowing races are usually won in the middle, when a crew's fitness and technique pay dividends over the explosiveness of the start or the burning agony of the sprint. A 6k emphasizes the middle of the piece, because the start and sprint are such smaller portions of the total work.

From 4000 meters to 2000 meters to go, the rower will struggle against increasing exhaustion. This is very different from the increasing lactic acid pain that builds during a 2k. Because of the emphasis on aerobic work, the exhaustion an oarsman battles during a 6k feels more like a power drain. The key to having a successful piece is consistency during this section. The oarsman should have found a sustainable rhythm fitting his goal during the first 2000m. Simply pulling the same average split through this section of the test will usually bring a positive result.

Sounds simple, right? Sure. I usually had the "I can't do this" moment during this stretch. Exhaustion sets in before the halfway point, and most people just want to back off just a little to conserve energy for the sprint. That's the problem and challenge of the 6k. If the rower backs off just one or two splits during the middle, those splits are usually gone forever. You can't just hop back "up" to that faster pace; that takes mental energy that should be reserved for the sprint. Now the rower is struggling just as hard to hold a slower pace. Think about it: the difference in real energy required to pull a 1:55 rather than a 1:57 is tiny, just a few percentage points. The mental energy required to get back to 1:55 after two minutes pulling 1:57 is massive.

Finally, why really "save" anything for the sprint at all? In order to make any significant of difference in the "average split" in the final 750m, the rower has to carve off 10 seconds per 500 and hold that through the final 750. If the rower has waited until the final 500, it is too late to "salvage" a good result. Once second "average split" is far too much to make up in the final 500m of a 6k.

I always started my sprint at 1500m to go, by pushing down whatever split I was pulling every stroke by one second. A longer "push" makes a bigger difference in the final time. There would always be energy for the final mad dash, which is really for the coach to watch his crew and measure how much pain tolerance everyone has.

What lesson to take from all this? Emphasize the middle of the piece. Every stroke is an opportunity to build your average towards what you want it to be. Push in the last 1500m and trust that your inner crazy will always be there for the final 500m. Just don't trust that final 500m to save you from a bad piece. As always, win your race in the middle.

Friday, March 01, 2013

How to: Win a seat race

Uh....make the boat go faster than the guy you've been switched with.

Ok, snarky, sarcastic, obvious comment aside, selection time is upon many teams as the spring rolls on. Seat racing, if it hasn't been used yet, will be used soon by most coaches here in the United States. We like seat racing because it doesn't involved the mechanical, dry numbers of the ergometer. The coach actually has to think now, putting together the best lineup for the fastest boat, rather than writing Excel tables for tabulating erg scores. In short, rowing adds the "art" that has been lacking through the long winter.

But seat racing means so much, out-weighing most erg scores and other testing numbers collected during the winter, that oarsmen approach "selection week" with dread. Suddenly, one or two short pieces in an unfamiliar lineup mean the difference between first and second varsity seats.

I won't get into the reasons for seat racing here. I believe it's the best method for selection of a fast lineup, followed closely by lots of work in pairs. And there are no inside secrets that could help me seat race myself into the American Olympic eight. The training that an athlete brings to the water after the winter heavily influence the outcome of seat racing, and the results from the winter do influence the direct, athlete vs. athlete comparisons that a coach looks at.

So, what can I offer here? Mainly, the mental approach the athlete brings to seat racing day can make a significant difference in how that athlete performs. To bring your best during a seat race and have the opportunity to win, here's Coach Jay's advice for winning seat races.

First, for everyone on the team, "RACE DAY RULES APPLY." That means everyone needs a full night of sleep, good hydration and dietary preparation and good health. If any member of the team is deficient in these areas, they should notify the coach before seat racing starts. This is the "First law of successful seat racing." Because, even if you weren't raced that practice, but tell the coach that you were racing on 2 hours of sleep afterwards, the coach now gets to throw out all the results he just got, and repeat the whole sequence later. Thanks for wasting that practice. (Now go do a 6k. Grrrrr.) Furthermore, Race Day also means that you have to get your mental "game face" on and face down your nervousness.

Being seat raced is an opportunity for the athlete to be the coach's complete focus for one, two or even 5 entire racing pieces. As an athlete, you will not get this much attention during a typical practice. It's your opportunity to shine.

It's also your opportunity to prove the coach wrong. That strange little hitch in your shoulder at the catch? The technical problem that you've been yelled at about for the entire season? Well, it doesn't matter all that much when you win your seat race, does it? Prove the coach wrong; prove you deserve a seat in the next boat up. Prove that you're the Alpha Wolf.

So, what is the coach looking for during seat racing, other than the obvious results between two athletes? I would also look at the stroke seats, if I wasn't sure who would be stroking the various boats. I want to see how well they're keeping the required rating and how easily the boat behind them follows. The athletes that are being raced are obviously the center of my concentration. I'm looking for how well they row when under pressure and how they mentally strong they are. Are they looking over? Are they shouting in the boat? Did they give up when their boat got too far down or ease off the pressure when they got too far up? Lots of questions about how the athlete attacks seat racing will directly translate to how that rower will approach real competition. Be aggressive, but mentally strong. This is the "Second law of successful seat racing."

Seat racing is (if the coach has done his lineups correctly) the closest racing that will happen in practice. For many crews, this is the only opportunity to experience competition before they are putting their uniforms on for the real thing. Will the technique that endless miles in the tanks, on the ergs and on the water fall completely apart when *real* full pressure is required? Thus, please don't suddenly change your approach to rowing when a seat racing day gets started. That would be the easiest way to lose the race and drive the coach insane. (I know, short drive.) This is the "Third law of successful seat racing."

Next, try to meld in to the rhythm of the boat that you are in. The easiest way to win a seat race is to switch into the boat that won the previous race and "get out of the way." Don't try to win the race by yourself; this is a team sport, after all and the athlete that adds to the swing of a successful boat will have an advantage. Because of this, time spent on the paddle with your new boat, or even a power ten is key. Make your switch as quickly as you can, get adjusted and go. Those warm-up strokes give the athlete the opportunity to learn the rhythm of their new boat, either helping a struggling boat or meshing into the good swing of a successful boat. Thus, the "Fourth law of successful seat racing" is to switch quickly and get a few warm up strokes.

So, when the practice is over, the athlete must now face the results. Either you won or lost. Was is close? If so, expect that race to be "looked at" again by the coaching staff. We like "definitive" wins; that means we can be reasonably certain about that outcome. Close races leave the coach shaking his head. Now he's looking at just making a "gut call:" who is better when a seat race basically ties? Good luck with that one, it keeps us up at night.

Coxswains, a word. Steer straight. Get the boats together quickly. Get the boats lined up quickly. Don't screw up the timing. Don't screw up the distance between the boats. Don't lie to the athletes on how many seats they might be down. (Basically, don't screw up. The, usual, you know.) Because neither the coach nor the athletes want to re-race because of a coxing screw up.

And for those on the "sideline" not being raced: If you don't think that we're watching the entire boat, you gravely underestimate your coach. Yes, we're concentrating on two rowers, but the quickest way for me to throw out my seat race plan and make a "surprise bow vs three" switch is if I believe somebody isn't giving their best effort, or worse, is trying to throw the results. We're all on the same team, people. And that is the final lesson of seat racing.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Stress (don't ever quit)

There was a famous study done during the Vietnam War that I'm sure may of you have heard about. EKGs were fitted to Navy pilots to measure stress during combat. The researchers were surprised by the results, which revealed the greatest moments of stress came during landing after a mission. Pilots were at greater stress at that moment, instead of during a violent launch, delicate mid-air refueling or terrifying high-g avoidance maneuvers. The reasons included the precision required by landing a high-speed jet on a relatively small, pitching carrier deck, many times in the dark.

I believe another reason also included somebody called the Landing Signal Officer. This job is to help the pilots land on the carrier using a system of lights and mirrors. After the landing, the LSO grades the "pass." Pilots are graded on their bomb damage by intelligence, sometimes days later. Landing grades are given immediately, and the pilot signs off on his grade with the maintenance log of his or her aircraft. Because of the immediacy of the feedback, pilots (known for supreme self-confidence and motivation) put a lot of pressure on themselves over their grades. The risks of crashing a multimillion dollar airplane into a nuclear-powered ship and starting a little fire might also have something to do with the stress.

Yes, there is a rowing point to all this. I equate that sort of stress with the reasons rowers hate and stress about the erg so much. Unlike rowing in a boat, the ergometer is an individual performance, with the numbers right on the screen in front of the athlete. As Topher Bordoux wrote in a column recently, "That almighty number rules your world. The machine either says you're a god or you suck." This kind of pressure, like that faced by pilots when landing, is the worst sort; this kind of pressure is self-inflicted. The athlete not only feels the desire to perform well, but also feels naked and exposed to their teammates when the performance isn't up to what the athlete expects. Nevermind that everyone else in the room is also feeling the same thing, everyone reacts as though their monitor was being projected on the wall, with a big "YOU SUCK" right there.

This is the sort of pressure that rowers feel when they give up on a workout and quit in the middle of a piece. A sense of despair rolls over the mind, and as the pain increases, the athlete reaches a point that they feel too miserable about their poor performance to continue. Frustration boils over into shouts, moans and a big scene. Suddenly, a tough workout has become something everyone notices. Where that athlete may or may not have held the attention of one or two people, they now have the attention of everyone in the room. Even as the workout continues, every other athlete knows who's quit on the piece.

During the Pittsburgh erg race last weekend, some of the Pitt kids apologized to me after pulling races below what they were capable of. My position was and still is not to expect or even accept such apologies. I've been where all of these athletes are, and I know the fortitude required to even walk into the gym some days. Finishing an erg race is praiseworthy in my book, especially after a piece that wasn't going well. It's really hard to row out an erg workout when the scores and energy just isn't there. Everyone has days like that, and I understand. Toughing out a bad piece is a testament to the courage of the oarsman.

Quitting on a workout is the only situation that I really feel disappointment in the athlete. That says that there is some courage lacking that should be there. Don't get me wrong, everyone has quit on a piece at some point in time or another, sometimes for injury. Sometimes those injuries aren't real. But the entire crew knows when somebody gets off the machine (something that really never happens in the boat) and that implants the most damaging thought in the mind of everyone else in the room: "Can I trust this person in my boat? What happens in a race?"

Trust is the basis of everything we do in rowing. The athletes must trust the coaches that have prepared them, the coaches must trust the coxswains to execute the race plan and not hit a bridge, and the coxswains must trust the oarsmen to follow orders. Most of all, the athletes must trust each other, that everyone knows everyone else is giving total commitment an output. If the rowers don't think everyone else in the boat is going as hard as possible, they will take a little off themselves. It's only natural; who wants to kill themselves carrying some lazy s*** down the course?

The basis of trust in oneself and one's teammates should be enough to hold everyone on the machines 99% of the time. Getting off the machine breaks trust with oneself, as well as everyone else in the room, because it implants doubt in everyone's mind, including the coach. Tough it out, rowers. Even if the time sucks, tough it out. Everyone will respect that far more than giving up on yourself and everyone else.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Shutting down

I've thought about this for awhile, but have been putting it off. There are a lot of reasons I haven't said or done anything, but everyone who has read this blog over the last years deserve some sort of explanation, no matter how cryptic.

I haven't been writing here for several reasons, all of them personal. My anonymity, which I never really protected, has been breached and things I've written have followed me around. While I'm known for speaking/typing my mind on what I think on many different subjects, the problem of watching what I type in passing isn't something that leads itself to good blogging. That's all I'm really comfortable saying on the subject.

I thought about deleting the whole thing, but there's too much here that I think can help too many people, so it will stay up. But I won't be writing anymore for quite some time, if ever. Who knows, I might start another blog with a different screen name and protect myself better, but that's a long way off. Good luck to all, make your boats go fast.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Go here

I'm not kidding. Right the **** now.

Great site. Contribute a little if you've got the inspiration.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time for a scolding

Three years ago in this space, I snarled at Central Catholic, a crew that (ironically) I would go on to coach, about what I felt was excessive celebration after a match race between Pitt, Fox Chapel and Central. It started a lovely little firestorm, the effects of which I still had to deal with when I started coaching Central later on. Jay Hammond and I had a long talk then and later about what I said, what he thought about it and celebration in rowing in general. Basically, we both think that such spectacles are best reserved for the Olympic Games or serious, major, end-of-season races. And I've tried to teach my crews that point of view over the years.

I was aware of the little stunt the boys of St. Joeseph's Prep pulled at the end of the Stotesbury Cup regatta a few weeks ago. I thought then it was low-class, garbage behavior and I still do. I haven't written about it because I wanted a little time to pass; I wanted to make sure I didn't put something up here in anger that I might later regret. But I've found as I get older, my first reactions are usually what I'm thinking later on. So, here we go:

A picture is worth a thousand words. Here are two. Then I'll add my thousand words anyway.

For those that don't know, here's the gist of it: after winning every other boat they entered, the Prep lightweight boat swam that broom out to their varsity after the varsity won the senior 8 grand final. The varsity got to celebrate with it on the water while they waited to get their medals, posed with the broom with the cup and then carried it back to their boathouse. I find such actions appalling.

Now, don't get me wrong: I've been involved in some very questionable celebrations in the past myself. In 1996, after "sweeping" the Harvard-Yale race, we swam out to the varsity boat and generally acted like idiots. I believe the varsity hadn't beaten Harvard in 11 years. So part of me does understand the reaction of the boys at Prep. They were excited at the accomplishment of their team, and that was a major, significant, noteworthy accomplishment. I give St. Joe's a lot of credit for that accomplishment.


If I was the coach associated with that celebration, I would have been livid. It goes against everything I've ever taught my guys and I can't understand any coach that would be fine with this action. I mean, getting your picture taken with the trophy, your crew and an f'n broom? No, sorry, not me. Take that broom to the boathouse, boys, and sweep out the boat bay with it. I'll collect your medals and the trophy. Then we'll have a little chat about sportsmanship and "pretending that you've been there before." Two weeks ago I believed and still do, that their antics with the broom disrespected their opposition and a historical regatta. It sullied a great team performance, leading the conversation away from what all those athletes accomplished toward what kind of people they are.

To finish my Harvard-Yale story, yes we got a broom out at Gales Ferry. The next morning, we taped it to the flagpole over the boathouse, took a few pictures of it and then took it down. We needed that broom: We had to clean the place out and get it ready to wait until next year's crew moved in.