How South Africa is making their boats go faster
The simple aim of a rowing coaching is to make boats go faster and South Africa’s national squad programme is certainly picking up speed. At the Olympic level, the first South African boat to compete was the men’s eight in Barcelona in 1992. Twelve years later in Athens, South Africa won its first medal, bronze in the men’s pair. London 2012 saw South Africa win its first gold, in the men’s lightweight four. This success was built on in Rio, with five boats qualifying, all making finals and the men’s pair winning silver.
World Rowing’s 2017 Coaches Conference on 7-8 December in London, focused on the theme of using technology and data to make boats go faster. In South Africa traditional training methods are used to help synthesize data and analysis to deliver success.
All about the team
Roger Barrow, South Africa’s head coach and 2016’s World Rowing Coach of the Year, told the conference that his approach is quite simple. “I need to be solution-orientated. I am very much team-driven …. I am very much about the support team,” says Barrow.
In pursuing a goal such as success in rowing, coaches should “always surround [themselves] with people on the same mission,” says Barrow. The South African squad sticks to this principle, especially in building the support team.
“My simple philosophy is that, when you’ve got five clever heads [coaches and support staff], ensuring that you get the best out of those five heads is going to see the athletes [train] better and better with multiple inputs,” says Barrow who believes best outcome is when the support team is fully immersed in the programme.
South Africa uses a centralised approach to its squad training. Its relatively small pool of senior and under-23 athletes are all based in Pretoria and follow a standard training programme. This enables the athletes to train as a squad, to be monitored constantly, and to develop in a competitive environment.
“We train as a family and as a squad,” says Barrow. The centralised approach enables the coaches to see all of the training, build understanding of the athletes and assess where mistakes have been made. Following the same programme means the coaches “can assess, with different training loads, how it’s affecting different people.”
For the athletes, being in a centralised environment sharpens the competitive element and enables coaches to get the best out of them every day.
With ranking systems used so that the athletes know where they stand, Barrow says the squad selection process is brutal and “ensures there are no passengers.” He adds, “I don’t have a lot of resources, and I’ve got to make sure that the 16 athletes I am working with, I could trust them to go the distance.”
Embracing new and traditional technology
While Barrow looks to technology such as Nielsen-Kellerman or Peach measurement systems “to find some things that make our lives easier,” the squad still uses more traditional techniques such as straws taped to the boat to measure stroke arcs. Set at 58 degrees out forward and 32-34 degrees at the finish, using straws is designed “to maximise time in the stroke … as the length of stroke is key.”
The squad also sticks to tried and tested training methods and routines, such as a Monday morning indoor rowing piece (6 kilometres at stroke rate 20), conducted as a squad. In addition, regular testing helps build athlete performance databases.
The coaches monitor heart rates on the water, on the ergo and during recovery. Testing such as the Monday ergos also help the coaches assess an athlete’s health so that individual training programmes can be adjusted accordingly.
The squad conducts weekly psychological testing designed to “understanding the athlete’s status, psychologically where they are,” says Barrow. Understanding individual stresses on an athlete inside and outside of rowing enables the coaches to know “how much harder [they] can push the athletes, and where they’ve got family issues or things like that.”
The success of the senior team is being supported with athletes flowing through the system from junior and under-23 levels. The under-23 group in particular had a very successful year in 2017.
As the squad builds towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Barrow is driven just as much by the fourth-placed finishes in Rio as by the silver medal. “This is why we keep coming back, this is why we keep finding new ways of not repeating the fourth,” says Barrow. “It was a really good lesson for me as a young coach to experience the brutality of not winning, of not getting medals, because now I am even more enthusiastic to try and find ways of ‘how do I change those’ with the athletes, of coming fourth and fifth.” Barrow wants a podium finish.
Copy thanks to: Lee Willett