Training junior novices
A novice juniors coach is one of the hardest, and perhaps the most undervalued job in all of rowing.
It can also be one of the most rewarding. Your ability to teach the basic rowing mechanics will be much more visible at this level than on any other. Generally speaking, you will have no idea how many athletes you will have on the roster, you will not know what kind of athletes they will eventually become. It is likely that none of them have ever taken a stroke before, and you will have less than a year to prepare them to race.
These athletes are also in high school, which is a time where athletics begin to be taken very seriously. These circumstances are very unique and unusual when compared to other sports. Can you imagine a high school basketball or football team starting like this?! No one has ever played before, and you have a single season to have these athletes game ready? It would sound impossible but it is also how almost every rowing career begins in the United States.
Lets discuss some strategies on how to approach training these athletes and make their first season a success.
The Fall- Teaching season
You are not training to win Head of the Whatever. The head races in general can be counterproductive to your athletes’ season if the results are overvalued or pursued too aggressively. This is especially true at the novice level.
Teaching the athletes to connect pressure to the erg or oar with their legs and with as little lifting or pulling with their upper body should be your main objective. Using the reverse pick drill by 4’ and 6’s is an excellent place to start to drive home these mechanics. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it likely won’t be, but eliminating as much slide shooting and arm grabbing as possible will serve them well.
You do have to let them row, and let them row hard, even if the technique is not exactly as you would like it to be. It is fun to try to go fast. It is fun to exert force and you do not want to deny them the fun aspects of the sport. You will need some “fun” to keep them engaged. Just keep it short while they are learning. Consider starting with 1 minute pieces at rate 22-24 spm. Can they row well from a technical standpoint while pulling hard and staying on rate? This can actually be a pretty daunting task for a brand new rower, but a very important skill they will need to be successful. Take the approach that the rowers will be rewarded by getting to row longer when, and if, they can do it properly. This approach will pay off in the spring.
Teaching the stroke and creating a fun environment centered around improvement and understanding needs to be the focus of the fall season. This is even more important than fitness at this point in the year. Even though the results shouldn’t be the priority, the head race regattas can still have a lot of value at this part of your athletes’ development. If possible, attend at least one big regatta in the fall with your novices. It is a huge morale boost for these new rowers to see how many other teams are out there doing this new sport. Whatever their results are on the race course, use them as a point of reference to improve upon and not as milestone of success or failure.
The Winter- Fitness season
For most teams across the country, the winter means moving indoors. While still maintaining a focus on proper mechanics, it is now time to start developing some fitness goals, as well. While the erg can be a great individual training tool, I recommend setting fitness goals for the group at large. You have now had a fall season to assess the athletes in the room and gauge some of their strengths and weaknesses. Use this information to set a group goal based on what you have objectively observed. Generally, the 2K score is the benchmark to attack. Pick a time standard that you think at least half the room can attain, or focus on what the average score of the room will be.
Keep the focus on the achievements and improvement of the group as a whole, and not just individual performances. For example, the novice team that comes out of winter training with 12-16 guys saying “We all broke 7:00” is usually going to be better than the team that is glorifying the one stud in the corner who has gone 6:25 as a freshman.
It is important that they know they are in this together. The ergs have a way of making rowers, especially new ones, forget that fact.
Keep perspective on your goal and the athletes you are training. You are preparing very new rowers for a 5-6 min race [6-7 if you race 2k] in May and, more importantly, you are preparing them to become contributing varsity rowers someday. Anything longer than 20 minutes on the erg is typically not a good choice at this level. Do not do hour of power or a 10k, etc. These types of workouts require much more experience and skill to be executed effectively. Instead, attack workouts with built in mental and physical breaks.
3 x 6-8 min with a rate cap is a very useful workout.
3 x 1000m with 6-7 minutes rest will adequately test your athletes but give them opportunities to improve.
The goal is to implement workouts that the athletes actually have a chance to execute, and if and when they fail, they can learn from and make adjustments to their performance. A novice rower is not likely to make an adjustment or have a major learning breakthrough with 7k left to go in a 10k. It is much more likely they will just be suffering and develop a distaste for erging or, even worse, the sport of rowing.
The Spring- Racing experience season
It is time to get back on the water. If you have done your job well leading up to this point, you will already notice how much better the athletes look in the boat. From fall and winter training, you have established a priority of focus on the basic application of the stroke and some fitness to support continuous rowing with power. Try not to focus solely on the regatta results, especially early in the season.
The biggest goal is to maintain an emphasis on power per stroke and solid mechanics as you take the rates up. Taking the rating up slowly and only as they show the ability to row each rate with a good ratio of drive to recovery speed is a smart approach. Understanding this, especially so early in their rowing career is an invaluable skill. It will give them an advantage in all their novice races and let them hit the ground running when they move up to varsity.
Avoid long 20-30 min steady state rows. These workouts are not for novices. Instead, use similar workouts to what you implemented in the winter. Keep it short with built in rest time where you can supply feedback. Anything longer than 5-7 minutes is typically overkill for novices. The athletes will be physically familiar with these workouts having just spent months practicing them on the erg, which will help them translate their fitness base into boat moving and racing skills.
Finally, remember to have fun and keep things positive. Hopefully these young rowers are starting a long career in the boat. They are likely going to remember you, and how you bring them into the sport a lot more than the race results.
Mike Wallin is the Director of Rowing at Chicago Rowing Foundation.
He rowed at St. Joe’s Prep in Philly, Cal Berkeley, and was on the US Junior National team.