Are differences in rowing technique dying out?
Just over 100 years ago, the world’s two fastest eights from Belgium and Great Britain went head-to-head on a specially lengthened Henley Regatta course. What was at stake for the British in the final of the 1908 Olympics race was, on the surface, an Olympic title. But in reality it was about far more; a battle to prove that the distinctive British technique really was the best in the world.
For decades British crews, rowing with a long, exaggerated body swing both at the front and back end of the stroke, had dominated their competition. But in 1906, a Belgian eight had turned up to Henley, rowing in a completely different style: upright bodies, strong leg drive and shorter strokes. Using it, they destroyed their British opponents two years running. It was a result that struck at the heart of the British rowing establishment. A crew who was competent in rowing with lots of body swing was formed to go head-to-head with the Belgians for the 1908 Olympic crown. The British won. British rowing’s technique – and the country’s reputation - was saved.
The day after, the Times newspaper said: ‘If the Belgians had proved successful, it would have revolutionised our idea of rowing and a new style…would have had to have been taught throughout the country.’
According to some, in 2017, such a debate would be unthinkable. The reason, they argue, is that over the last few decades changes in equipment, technology and communication have caused a worldwide conflation of rowing technique. The impact of this has meant that rowers at all levels are increasingly being coached to row the same way, with major variations being harder to identify. One possible reason might lie in the focus that most rowers now spend on strengthening their core-muscles, than used to be the case.
Gathering information from coaches, athletes and watching racing videos indicates that while the way we row has become more similar there is still enough variation to suggest that technique variation may not be dead – at least for the moment…
Former United States chief coach, Kris Korzeniowski is in a unique position to give a great perspective. Korzeniowski highlighted coach education as key. But he went on to cite three other factors: wider use of small boats in training and selection, greater availability of biomechanics and the widespread use of long distance training at a low cadence. According to Korzeniowski the latter “also reinforces a better feeling for the boat which in effect makes all motions in sync with the speed of the shell. This way, there is no place for any exaggerated, unnecessary motions like the old violent American catch”. A look at recent US eights and fours seems to confirm Korzeniowski’s view. American rowers are being coached to be far more sensitive on the ‘pick-up’ than used to be the case.
It could also be argued that the move to centrally-run, well-funded programmes has also ironed out many technique variations. Thus the British squad system – with over £30 million to spend each Olympiad - has had a significant impact on how technique is now taught in clubs, universities and schools. Those at the top of British Rowing admit that while there may be significant variations in the way sculling is coached, there are now far fewer differences in rowing technique.
Korzeniowski described a similar process in the United States, but more due to a new generation of coaches that are “more educated, they watch videos, many of them rowed recently and they have a very good understanding of technique.”
British coach Paul Reedy similarly notes; “Social media has had a big impact on technique. Through self-promotion or openness, people put a lot of stuff on YouTube. You can see how the Croatian double or the Kiwi pair row”. The former Australian international also sees the impact of coaches moving. “There’s even more cross-pollination with coaches moving between countries. The Romanian paddling technique used to really stand out: lightning fast feather and catch and very slow wheels on the recovery around rate 16. Obviously it changed when they raced but now they seem to have moved to a more conventional style”.
Reedy’s observation on video seems to hold true for the world’s two best oarsmen; Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand. In 2010 Bond was sent a link to Australian Olympic Champion, Drew Ginn’s YouTube technique video. Bond explains: “When I listened, I thought: ‘the way he spoke about feeling and movement, he was more or less describing a rowing nirvana.’ So working with Drew’s ideas really changed the way that Eric and I rowed it. We didn’t take it verbatim. But the 2011 season saw us move to a whole different level.”
The equipment we now use has also had an impact. “There are now far fewer boat builders and oar-makers than there used to be. If you row in Empachers, use Concept2 oars and train on the Concept2 ergo, you’ll tend to be led into a certain style of rowing,” says Reedy. “The change from macons to big blades has also been massive on the homogeneity of style. There was so much reach forward with macon’s but efficacy has changed that and also rowers backs wouldn't take the load that is available with big blades in an extreme reach position.”
FISA’s Director of Coaching Giovani Postiglione agrees with Reedy on the move from macons to big blades. However Postiglione may well argue that it would be going too far to say that technique variation has ‘died out’. British rower, James Stanhope has rowed in different top eights and says they were rowed differently with the relevant coach dictating the style.
Perhaps the controversies about technique variation have become less vocal than they were over 100 years ago at Henley. But one thing is for certain. It’s a subject that rowers and coaches will never tire of talking about.