From Ric Ricci, Craftsbury Associate Director, Head Coach Connecticut College Men’s Rowing
Many coaches fail to teach scullers what to experience in their ankles, feet and toes. Why? Simply because the sculler’s feet are not visible to the coach from the coaching launch. The shell hides the importance of dynamic motion at the ankles, feet and toes and how that motion connects to the overall movement of the rest of the body and especially to the wrists, hands and fingers. Not seeing or understanding the potential for action at the feet also misleads coaches and scullers alike into conceptualizing sculling as a form of pushing and pulling. Of course, pushing against the footstretcher and pulling on the handles of the sculls works, and scullers can go very fast operating under those assumptions. But is that approach the most efficient way to move over the surface of the water? Below is a general outline of an alternative approach that might be worth considering.
Just after the blades leave the water, start flexing your ankles (called dorsi flexion). Your toes will be up and your heels will be down. Keep flexing at the ankles even after your heels start coming up and continue this effort until the blades are fully immersed in the water. This effort is not easy and most people will experience intense discomfort in their shins. This effort becomes increasingly more difficult as you reach full compression (shins at right angles to the water and chest on the thighs) and the desire to stop this effort will quickly become apparent. Press on regardless! At the point of full blade immersion this effort to dorsi flex will culminate- your toes will still be up (pointing toward your shins) and the balls of your feet will be in contact with the footstretcher (heels will most likely be off the footstretcher).
Ankle flexion is actually part of an overall greater effort on the part of the sculler to flex their whole body into the “catch” position – which creates a compressive effect in the muscles and tendons that has the potential for a powerful, spring-like uncoiling. The ankle flexion that began just after the blades released the water is SIMULTANEOUSLY coordinated with flexion at the wrists, hands and fingers (similar to the motion of making a fist). This effort is what contributes to the blades falling into the square position.
Now the blades are in the water. In a brief but powerful uncoiling, all the strenuous compressive work that the sculler did “on the recovery” is released into the drive. Just after the entry the ankles start extending in a fashion similar to what you would feel when you jump off the floor. Extension at your ankles (a toe point called plantar flexion) needs to be coordinated with a simultaneous extension at your wrists, hands and fingers so that maximal extension is achieved at the feet and hands just as the blades are releasing the water.
If the sculler coordinates the movement of the ankles, feet and toes with the movement of the wrists, hands and fingers, the rest of the stroke will take care of itself – WITHOUT CONSCIOUS EFFORT. Focus on finding this timing and coordination at the transitions (catch and release) and the rest of the body movements “will follow” between the catch and the release. Finding the timing/coordination will be easier if the sculler keeps the stroke rate low with moderate intensity. Feeling for constant pressure between the hands and the feet is essential. (The concept of constant pressure could be the topic of another Tech Tip but suffice to say, the sculler seeks to shift weight from the sit bones to the handles and foot stretcher- continuously).
Flexion until full blade immersion also eliminates “rushing the slide,” and when done properly, the shell moves under the seat instead of the sculler’s hips moving toward the stern. Full extension at the point of release results in a crescendo of accelerated effort and immediately sets up the beginning of another period of flexion. When you scull from this perspective your effort can literally be thought of as an attempt on your part to jump or vault upward off the surface of the water into the air from the blades. This “sculling jump” culminates as the blades release the water. The sculls act in a fashion similar to vaulting poles. The sculler’s effort to jump up off the water with the aid of the shell and sculls at the release is, in my opinion, the most efficient way to move in a bow-ward direction. The higher you attempt to make your “sculling jump” and the more times per minute you “jump” the faster you will move in the bow-ward direction.
The best way to experience the above is to first practice the technique in a wide enough shell that you can comfortably let go of the handles and not roll into the water. It is essential that your fingers, hands and arms rest on the handles. It is also important to make your feet very loose in the shoes or foot clogs. If the sculling handles are being tightly gripped the sculler will go back to pushing on the foot stretcher and pulling on the sculls.
In my opinion, the efficient sculler is always seeking to scull “from the inside out, instead of from outside in”. Loose and light feet and hands is the best way to accomplish this!