From Noel Wanner, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Coach Tufts Men’s Rowing.
“Instant Gratification takes too long!”- Carrie Fisher
“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.” – Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed
“It’s like a finger, pointing a way to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory. – Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon
Many people come to Craftsbury to become faster scullers. But on that journey, many are stymied by a seeming paradox: what if the fastest way to get faster….. is to slow down? The longer I coach, the more I become convinced that slowing down is the best, fastest way to improve sculling skill. And yet many people resist the idea that there is anything to be gained from slow movement.
Motivated athletes see their sculling as a way to increase their fitness, and they see increasing their fitness as the best avenue to improve their speed. In other words: pull hard to get stronger, and once you are strong, you can pull harder! When I ask people to slow down, they often react with mistrust: how can anything that’s not hard, painful, or exhausting lead anywhere? Sculling slowly feels too, well, too easy – and easiness seems somehow immoral in a sport (and a culture) that fetishizes effort.
I’m not saying fitness and effort have no role in speed. A bigger, fitter athlete certainly has more power, and can sustain that power longer. But power has to be used skillfully to produce speed. But take a careful look at that last sentence: the two small words “used skillfully” gloss over an ocean of time spent to acquire skill. And by approaching the problem of how to move the boat using power and effort, you may miss the chance to actually learn the skill needed to use your power effectively. In the words of Drew Ginn: “Many have trained hard and gone slow.”
How can slowness help? Slow easy movement enables you to be aware of what you are doing. Learning new movement patterns takes thoughtful attention— and it’s pretty hard to be thoughtful or attentive with your heart beating 160 beats per minute and your muscles burning. If you are trying to break old technical habits, the challenge of creating new patterns is even greater than for a novice—and under the stress of hard effort you are more likely to return to old neuromuscular patterns.
Consider this story: one of the best young scullers I’ve known was consistently able to move his single faster than his erg score or his physical stature should have allowed. I asked him how he had learned to do this, and he replied: “I learned to scull when I was 12 and I was very tall for my age, but very weak. And I was lazy – I hated getting tired, so I think I learned to move the boat with as little effort as possible.”
So the next time out, try this: instead of exploring the limits of your effort on the water, explore moving the boat as effortlessly as possible – imagine sculling as if you had no muscle strength at all. Deprived of power as your main avenue, explore others: rhythm, leverage, lightness of touch, and timing.
Here are a few excellent drills that are so slow you won’t need more than a few meters of water to do them – and yet they are some of the best for developing the boat awareness and skill which will make you a better, faster sculler.
1) “Sit still” Sit at the release with the blades resting flat on the water. Sit still for a full minute-notice your balance in the boat, notice your breathing. Now, keeping the blades flat, go up to the catch position and sit still again for a minute. Notice anything different? Are you able to be as relaxed and balanced at the catch as you were at the release? Now turn your blades square in the water and again, sit still, breathing easily and focusing your attention on the feeling of weight pressing your sit bones down into the seat. If you find this position stressful or tense, relax back the release and shake out the tension-then sit at the catch again. Repeat this each day, and you will notice that you become more comfortable, less tense, more at home in your movement in the boat.
2)“Pushback” Start at the release with your blades square and floating just buried in the water. Push your hands away gently, backing the boat toward the catch, keeping the blade buried. As you approach the catch position, keep the blade buried as you gently stop the boat and transition to a very gentle drive. Again, keep the blade buried and move slowly toward the release. At the release, keep the blade in the water as you catch the boat on the blade and begin to gently push away again. Repeat this until you are gently see-sawing the boat back and forth, going nowhere at all. Notice the changing pressure of the water from the front of the blade to the back.
3) “Loose is Fast” Get the boat moving, and see how light a touch you can have on the water. Imagine you are barely touching the water with the blade and just skimming past it. Now try to raise the tempo/rate, keeping the same light touch. If you notice things getting heavy or labored, stop and begin again. See how high you can get the rate while keeping your perceived muscular exertion low. Focus on your rhythm and the looseness of the movement.
Everyone has had the experience of seeing someone scull so well that they make it look effortless; why not become that person? The humble pursuit of simple, easy movements can unlock a world of “easy speed;” which then, after many miles of easy sculling, becomes the conduit through which all your power and strength can flow.
“At the highest level of this discipline, the warrior becomes one with the flow of reality around him. In that state of oneness, he is able to act without the necessity of volition. To the bystanders, he doesn’t seem to do much, and yet he delivers the exact minimum of impact at the exact right time to accomplish what needs to be done and not one iota more.” – Derek Lin, Tao Articles