Rhythm in rowing

“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven.”

That’s the American poet Mary Oliver, winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, talking about rhythm in poetry. I wonder if she’s ever rowed? “A kind of body-heaven”—that’s the grand rowing quest, right?

Rhythm, timing, flow—words we hear a lot in rowing, but concepts that seem hard to tie down. Even some quite famous coaches have left me baffled with their abstract explanations of the rowing stroke. I don’t want to believe that rowing is really that complex (though I love that it is).

Some people resort to saying, “You’ll know it when it happens” or “When it happens, you’ll feel it”, and I have sometimes found this to be true. But I still want to understand how it happened and how I can repeatedly achieve it.

What is good rhythm?

GB coach Robin Williams has made a great attempt to articulate what good rhythm is in his article, ‘Rhythm, power and recovery’ [PDF]:

“A good rhythm obviously feels good! The boat feels part of you and moves willingly for the effort you give it. You have a sense that time is available during the recovery but there is no pause at the entry or catch”, he says. “In a crew, each person feels that all of the phases of the stroke happen at the same place and same time for everyone…

“Conversely, a boat with poor rhythm feels heavy and rushed; it’s difficult to appreciate acceleration or run, and hard to sense where people are working. A nightmare!” Who hasn’t been there?

How to get a good rhythm in the boat

Williams cites Martin McElroy, who coached the GB eight to a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000:

“[Martin McElroy] stipulated that rhythm is generated and defined. You don’t stumble across it, it’s not vague and the whole crew shares a responsibility for it.” Yes! Must remember that next time I’m in the stroke seat [It’s not me, it’s you ;-)]

Like boat speed, rhythm comes from both the work phase and the recovery phase, explains Williams. This is a point worth dwelling on, when you think that over 1000 metres you might spend 400 m working and 600 m gliding!

The rhythm should be good, he says, if the following 3 elements are present:

  1. Strong boat acceleration in the power phase.
  2. Lots of boat glide in the recovery. This gives a good ratio of work to rest.
  3. The athlete changing direction skilfully at either end of the stroke.

Keep the hands moving

American coach Troy Howell also believes that rhythm can be taught. In his Craftsbury Tech Tip, ‘Rhythm and Ratio, or Training the Nervous System, Part II’, he says it’s a “nonsense” to say you either have rhythm or you haven’t.

“[…] the stroke cycle is meant to be continuous, so when I set out to try to improve a sculler’s rhythm, the first thing I have the sculler do is focus on keeping the hands in continuous motion. This almost always produces a change in stroke rhythm, since almost everyone has at least one hitch, pause, or hesitation somewhere in the stroke – most often around the release.

“Initial efforts to keep the hands moving often lead the sculler to a higher rating and/or a bit of feeling as if he is rushing, so a good second step is to do a drill that shifts the focus to a livelier drive contrasting with a more relaxed recovery.

“I remember that when my coach in college was frustrated that our boats weren’t moving well, he often called for something he called the Blade Acceleration Drill – the idea of catching at something less than full pressure and building to full by the moment of release. This almost always made the boat feel smoother, more rhythmic, and faster.”

Be quick but don’t hurry

At higher ratings, Troy Howell says, good rhythm largely depends on your ability to ‘be quick but don’t hurry’—a dictum he attributes to UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

OK, let’s finish this off by going even deeper.

According to British philosopher Alan Watts, timing is the art of mastering rhythm, “but timing and hurrying are … mutually exclusive… For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind.”

Now I’m casting my mind back decades, to a Saturday night on the banks of the Liffey, rowers on the dance floor… uh, maybe not quite the rhythmic “body-heaven” Mary Oliver had in mind.

4 thoughts on “Rhythm in rowing

  1. Just finding your commentary now, but am thrilled to come upon your articulate way of capturing so many concepts in common language. I have felt it. Now I can read words that explain it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Mary. I hope you’re well! Good read – it’s what we all strive for in the pursuit of better boat speed and a more pleasurable experience.


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