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How to Pick and Use Drills

How to Pick and Use Drills


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The variety of drills out there reminds me of Bubba in the Forrest Gump movie and all the ways he described how to cook and eat shrimp. I think he may have put Tom Hanks to sleep with so many ways.  Hopefully I won’t put you to sleep here.

There are Balance drills, feather drills, hand drills, finger drills, feet drills, pause drills, back drills, height drills, level drills, control drills, wrist drills, elbow drills, shoulder drills, posture drills, swing drills, recovery drills, finish drills, catch drills, power drive drills, breathing drills, outside arm drills, inside arm drills, square blade drills, not so square blade drills……  whew!

For novice coaches, what about maneuvering drills, turning, backing, pointing into crosswinds? Also racking and unracking the boats, rolling boats into slings, putting it in and taking it out of the water.

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a:  to fix something in the mind or habit pattern of by repetitive instruction <drillpupils in spelling>

b:  to impart or communicate by repetition <impossible to drillthe simplest idea into some people>

c:  to train or exercise in military drill

"A drill is to make practice permanent." - Larry Gluckman

You get the point.  There are plenty of drills and they all require your brains to know them thru and thru.



Most of us who have rowed recall a drill or two. What about those we don’t know?  There is a fear of new drills.  This is a result of not understanding what the real purpose of the drill is.  If you don’t understand it, you won’t do it because you can’t explain it. Break down your stroke into smaller pieces to understand how to fix a problem area.

There is a BIG fear of loss of training time.  I can’t do drills because I must get them ready for this race!

Patience Grasshopper!

Do you fix the problem or leave it?

Fixing it requires time and consistent dedication. If you don’t fix it now, it will likely be there forever. What will happen when it is dead even in the 3rd500?  Will you question your decision to overlook that problem you saw last month or last year? Did you train them for just Poweror Power and Technique?


Different coaches call identical drills by different names which can be very confusing. Rowing at a different club or camp this year? Get ready for questions to the coach about the drills he uses and why!

I tried that drill once!  It didn’t work for me.

Trying it once is the problem and not knowing why the drill is important.  Overkill, exaggerate and repeat the movement. Extra slow (slide recovery speed) or super fast (quickened ½ slide, arms only, arms and back). Pay close attention to minor details. Rowers give up on drills quickly if they don’t have quick success or know why they are doing it and the potential benefits.

How do you know when you need a drill? Which ones to use? Should you create one?

Are your current favorite drills stale? How do you know they are stale? Do your rowers just go through the motions or do they embrace each drill every day to perfect a portion of the stroke? Most importantly, do they know why they are doing this drill and what is supposed to be accomplished? If your drill bits are dull, can you sharpen them or should you find another?  How do you know which ones to pick next?

Drill on the Water, Drill on the Erg, Drill in the Air, Drill in the Shadows, Drill with your weights.

Coaches have their favorite drills.

 "Shadow Rowing" – Brad Lewis, Assault on Lake Casitas.

Invite yourself out in the launch with a coach and make sure you pay attention to the drills they do.  Ask questions and write down the method for which they use the drill and when.

If they give you the stink eye in the launch then just watch, write stuff down and stay quiet.

When you go back to your team and look over your ‘drill notes’ and try to implement that cool drill you saw on the water with the coach.  Having trouble with it?  Call the coach and have them explain it to you.  Can that drill solve the problem(s) your rower(s) are having?  What if you get part of the drill wrong and heaven forbid, what if your rowers ask you what this drill is supposed to accomplish? We’re back at drill fear!



Use your favorite drills effectively.

Know precisely what the drill is to accomplish.  Make sure your rowers know the clear, absolute goal of the drill. Discuss the drill(s) for the day prior to practice.  Remind them of its benefits. If you don’t know why, they won’t either.  Pay close attention to details of the drill and its nuances. Performing a drill perfectly can be very rewarding!

Keep it simple – You can create your own drill!

Breakdown your stroke into its simplest components to target the area that is having difficulty.  Break it into pieces and parts and ID the highest quality parts that can give you the biggest impact. Some drills can be highly complicated!  Keep them simple.

From Your Toes to Your Nose – Identify the problem! 

Create your own drill. Break down the problem area into its simplest forms, and then dig into it.  Create your drill to solve the rower’s problem in the boat, erg, etc.  Everyone in the boat will benefit.

How much time to spend?

First stroke from the dock including warmup and cooldown.  Can you afford 15-20 minutes? Can you not?  Some days can be merely technique/drill days, some days maybe no drills at all.

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  • The Big Body Stuff (to stay within striking distance on the race course)
    • Upper Body
      • Head – includes face, eyes, jaw (and for some ears often confused with brains!)
      • Neck – also associated with trapezius
      • Shoulders and arms
      • Back and chest – upper back and lower back​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
    • Lower Body
      • Hips and Glutes
      • Quads and Hamstrings
      • Feet – ankles


 The Little Stuff (to win it by 1 inch)

  • The Upper Body Little stuff
    • Hands, wrists and fingers
      • Placement on the oarhandle
      • Handle diameter appropriate for your crew?
      • Three fingers or all four?
      • Thumbs on top or below?
      • Pencil gap between thumb and palm or closed hand on the handle?
      • Piano fingers
      • Letting go with outside hand
      • Feathering with outside hand (along with inside hand)
      • Outside wrist level or bent at release
      • Bent wrists or flat wrists?
      • Forearms, Elbows and upper arms
      • Elbows pointed down at the finish or flared?
      • Forearms level through the drive or angled down
      • Forearm tap out from elbow to fingers or upper torso release?
      • Hanging with straight loose arms?
      • Pass the load through arms to body
      • Arms extended in recovery or bent?
    • Head –
      • 12lbs of mindlessness or connected to each task via brain?
      • Eyes at horizon level or down at feet? (Beware too much stroke coach dependency!)
      • Chin up or down?
      • Jaw relaxed or grimacing?
      • Head straight or tilted into rigger or away?
    • Neck and Shoulders
      • Shoulders hanging down or up at your ears?
      • Shoulders making circles at release or stable? (Typical outside shoulder)
      • Neck tense or relaxed? (Ties into Jaw tension)
      • Pinched airway or open?
      • Shoulders tilted in towards rigger, level or away from rigger?
      • Hanging through shoulders to lats or not?
    • Chest and Back
      • Curved back or straight?
      • Chest out or not?
      • Low back rounded or straight
      • Good posture or not?
      • Body supported at finish or collapsing?
      • Lats engaged or not?
      • Heart level or not?
    • The Lower Body Little stuff
      • Hips and Glutes
      • Hip angle supported or collapsed especially at release
      • Body pivot from hips or not?
      • Butt engaged in drive or not?
      • Good posture (again) or not?
    • Legs, knees
      • Hamstrings tight vs. loose and flexible
      • Flow up the slide or snap last few inches?
      • Knees like pistons? Up and down.
      • Over compression or not?
      • Legs down in one motion or not?
    • Ankles, feet and toes
      • Even draw up the slide with both feet
      • Balancing boat with feet and toes
      • Weightless feet in the stretchers on recovery or pressure on top of feet
      • Drive off toes and balls of feet or whole foot
      • Heels down quickly or not?
      • Flexible in ankles (achilles) or not?
    • Body weight control- big body mass control comes from little body mass controls

Best Methods for fixing things:

Drills and Video, Closeup and slow motion can isolate problem areas. Moveable Mirrors on rollers and hinges for erg, weights for self-analysis.  Coaches need to find many ways to say the same thing. One on one coaching on land, erg, dock box.

Understand how minor pressure differences on top of the pin (oarlocks)can greatly affect balance.  Port and starboard pressure impulses on the pin with micro differences can make any boat feel unstable and jittery.

Small successes are in fact BIG successes!


Problems are not fixed in 1 practice.  Sometimes Years! Teach them not just for your boat and your team today, but for their future club, national team or just a lifetime of safe, efficient and enjoyable rowing!

Help them reward you now and also reward those they row with in the future.

Casey Baker