The Front End: Keystone of the Stroke

Craftsbury GRP Athlete John Graves in the single.

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By Troy Howell, Managing Director COC Sculling Camps

Back around 2003, I was reading Brad Lewis’s coaching memoir, Wanted: Rowing Coach. One of the passages that was most memorable to me was his description of how he insisted that his crews always start rowing from the catch rather than the release. This was contrary to my own rowing experience; most of the drills and pieces that we did in college started from the release, for whatever reason – either the drill itself called for it, or it was justified by the release being a position of relative stability.

By Lewis’s reasoning, though, it makes more sense to start at the catch, because by doing so, you are effectively practicing a racing start every time you start from a dead stop. I later learned that Larry Gluckman was also an advocate of this approach. It was not until well into my tenure coaching at Craftsbury, though, that I began to see a multitude of reasons for doing it and prescribing it for well, pretty much everyone.

The fact of the matter is that the front end is the point in the stroke cycle where we feel the most vulnerable. The blades are close to the boat, the handles are outside the gunwales, and capsizing feels like a very real possibility. A few years ago, I asked one of our sculling guests to “come up to the front end and sit with your blades feathered.”  Her reply surprised me: “NO!” I asked her why not and she said “because that’s the scary place and I don’t want to go up there.”

Well, I sympathize with the sentiment, but here’s the thing: You’re going up there EVERY SINGLE STROKE, and if it’s going to scare you, you’re going to spend a lot of time being anxious and scared, and that’s no way to master sculling. My tech tip, then, is a pretty simple one: spend a little time doing stationary drills at the front end every time you go sculling, whether you do that as part of your warmup, cooldown, or between pieces.

Get your handles as far away from you as you can and sit there, feeling the boat under you with your ischial tuberosities (sit bones). If it makes you tremble or grip the oar handles, exhale, sit easy, and try it again. Blades feathered is the easiest variation. When that becomes not-scary, do it with square blades. When that becomes not scary, feather your blades again and let go of an oar handle (yes, let go – it isn’t your oars that are keeping you upright – it’s where your weight is and how your sit bones and nervous system manage the boat – standing up and walking was a similar neuromuscular challenge for you when you were a toddler so experiment in that spirit). Now wave – Hi, Mom!  When that becomes easy, do it with square blades. And when THAT becomes manageable, do the tapping drill, tapping the handles down simultaneously so the blades leave the water completely. If your tapping is simultaneous, it will stabilize the boat. If they’re not, it will roll to port or starboard.

Make up your own front-end drills. The more comfortable you get there, the more confidently and rhythmically you will scull, because you won’t be in a rush to get in and out of “the scary place.”  It is a simple thing that pays enormous dividends.

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One Response to The Front End: Keystone of the Stroke

  1. Tom J Taylor says:

    Thanks for these. It is worth reading and putting into practice.

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