From Carol Bower, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Rowing Coach at Bryn Mawr College, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist.
One of the most challenging technical changes to make in sculling is to let go of the tight awkward grip of the oar handle on the recovery and hence also on the drive. We all develop this grip when we are learning to row because of the instability of the shell; any kind of imbalance causes us to tighten up and grab the handles tighter. This tight grip leads the newer sculler to drop the wrist to feather the blades which leads to a very awkward and tense hand position on the handles during the recovery.
Once you are sculling somewhat proficiently you can spend some time working on letting go of the tight grip on each handle. The goal here is to use less wrist action to feather and square the blades and move to letting the handles roll out into the fingers for the feather and then roll the handle back into the upper palm to square the blades.
Again, this is a challenging change to make. You are undoing a lot of muscle memory in your wrists and hands on the handles. Here are some things to keep in mind while working to make this change.
Make it a priority. The first step towards making this change is to make it a priority. Too often I see athletes trying to fix the handle connection while also working on a more direct placement of the blade at the catch and/or better acceleration through the drive. The ironic thing is that if you can fix the handle connection, that will make the blade placement and suspension a lot easier.
Go slow to go fast. Give yourself time in each practice to work on this change until you start to feel a difference in how your hands feel when feathering and squaring the blade. This means spending more time going slow in rate and with less pressure while rowing and doing drills.
Slowing down and doing drills also allows you to be loose and relaxed while you are trying to release the tension in your hands. As you become more proficient with the drill you can add pressure and speed. Just be sure to back off on pressure and stroke rate if you feel tension returning.
Ultimately your ability to go fast and maintain your speed over a 2k race or a longer head race will be enhanced by staying loose in your hands.
Pick a drill and do it well. It is better to use one or two drills and perfect them than it is to use a lot of drills and never progress towards something better.
A good first drill is to row on the port side with your arm and body swing while keeping the blade on the starboard side flat on the water and that handle next to your body for stability. After a few strokes switch to rowing with the starboard side. This way you can focus on making the change in one hand at a time. You can also observe what your hand and blade are doing while working on this.
Another good drill is the pause at the release with quarter feather. As you come out of the pause pay attention to keeping the wrist flat while the handles roll out into the fingers. Also notice how flat the wrist are as the hands cross over each other on they recovery.
Incorporate the drills into your warm up and workout. Ok, now you can feel the difference in your hands and you know when it feels right. Keep working on this change you have made in your hand-handle connection by incorporating the drills into your warm up and workouts.
Chances are very good that even before you take your first strokes of the practice session you will need to row on one side to get your boat pointed. Take the time to slow down and pay attention to your hand while you feather and square on that side. Chances are equally good that you will need to stop and turn to return to the boathouse. Rather than quickly and awkwardly (and mindlessly!) getting your boat turned around, take a little more time to pay attention to your hand as you deliberately and efficiently turn your boat around.
The pause drill can be added to your warm up and to your steady state workout. You won’t lose endurance training time by adding 10 strokes of pause every 5 minutes during a long workout. You can also add the pause into any part of the recovery; pausing hands and body out is another good place to take a moment to check and see that your hands are relaxed on the handles and your wrists are flat.
Take on challenging situations. Its easy to be relaxed and have good form in flat water and rowing relatively easy. Feeling relaxed in your hands while rowing in rough water and/or at racing speed is more challenging.
One whack of the blade against a wave in choppy water rattles the brain and tightens the muscles. Our bodies naturally react to instability by wanting to grab on to something with our hands. In this situation keep rowing the same pressure and speed but give yourself a few strokes to take the response tension out of your hands and return to the relaxed connection to the handles. On rough days you will be repeating this process many times. In the Row2k interview called “Float Like a Stone: Gevvie Stone Survives to Win Her Heat,” Gevvie Stone talks about her strategy for dealing with the really rough conditions in the heats of the Olympic Games in Rio. A lesson she learned from her mom, Lisa Stone, was to draw the alphabet with her fingers to stay loose.
The racing start is another tension generating situation. The power and high stroke rate causes us to clench the handles as we work to get the boat up to racing speed from sitting still on the starting line. As you practice your racing start it is important to pay attention the loose grip on the handles. Loose hands lead to loose forearms, which lead to loose shoulders. Loose muscles are much quicker and stronger than tense muscles.
Work hard, stay loose. These steps work for any changes you want to make in your rowing stroke but I think it is especially true for the connection between your hand and the handle. The small quick action of the feather and square are harder to correct than the proper leg drive or body swing. Once the hands are relaxed and you use less wrist to feather and square the blades you will find it is much easier to make other corrections in your rowing stroke.
Rowers of all levels remind themselves to stay loose in the hands when working out and racing. Power, speed, and feel of the water are greatly enhanced when the hands and other muscles in the body are relaxed. So take the time to work on the little motion of the feather and square and the feel of the oar handles under the weight of your hands on the recovery.