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The Paradox of the Quick Catch

Troy Howell

It seems as though one of the first things most of us remember hearing about the catch is some variant of "it should be quick." Scullers and rowers strive for quicker catches, and coaches call for that from the launch, the dock, the bank, in video review, and elsewhere, ad nauseam. As often as not, though, that call just doesn't work. The root of the problem lies in our misconception of what quickness actually is. And though that may sound ridiculous, consider this: most scullers tend to translate "quicker" as "harder." When we call for a quicker catch, then, we get a harder catch, or a sloppier catch, or a deeper catch, because instead of becoming quicker we become more rushed, more clumsy, or even frantic. Clearly, we need to try something different.

It should comfort you to know, though, that even coaches of Olympic champions still have to work to overcome this very issue. The core of this tech tip really comes from a story told about Mike Teti when he was working with the U.S. men's national team. He had been shouting himself hoarse at his guys, "Quicker at the catch! Quicker at the front end! Place the blade and get on it!" only to find that the crew's catches usually got worse. Finally at the limit of his patience, he told his crew "Okay, forget quick. Show me something different. Show me ANYTHING different. No, try this: show me a slower catch. Show me a slower, more patient catch." And the surprise was that what he actually got out of his crews with that call was ... wait for it ... a quicker catch. So he got the result he was looking for in this case by asking for something else - something seemingly in opposition to what he wanted, in fact.

There are several profound lessons here, for both coaches and athletes. One is that sometimes asking for exactly what you want in the most clear and direct way can actually be counterproductive. "Be quicker at the catch" seems clear enough at first glance, and yet rowers and scullers from every generation of the sport's modern history have managed to mis-apply the instruction and get it wrong for years and decades on end. And the corollary to that is that trying the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result is as futile in rowing as it is in any other area of human endeavor. And the corollary to that corollary is that when you're not getting the result you're after, you may need to try something that differs radically or unexpectedly from what you've been doing, even if you're not sure the new approach will work any better. Coach Teti's advice to his crew wasn't complicated. "Show me something different" is neither radical nor complex nor especially specific. "Show me a slower, more patient catch" isn't complicated, either. The genius of it was a product of intuition, timing, and a willingness to take a step back from the wall instead of head-butting it again.

"No, try this: show me a slower catch. Show me a slower, more patient catch."

Finally, it is worth noting that in hearing this story, we are looking backwards at something that worked, and so we potentially fool ourselves into thinking that it was bound to work. The fact is that Coach Teti took a chance, not knowing what the results would be. If it hadn't worked, presumably he'd have tried yet another approach rather than reverting to "MAKE IT QUICKER." So the moral of the story is that coaches and athletes both have to be clever in order to get a desired result, and all coaching and learning is situational rather than formulaic - the same advice given by the same coach to two different athletes may produce two radically different results. More curiously, a coach may say two very different things to two different scullers in order to achieve a very similar outcome. The genius of both the coach and the athlete is revealed in the willingness of each to experiment continually.