Improving rowing technique when you don’t have a coach

I love being coached—even when I look like I hate it. I love being called out in the boat because I see it as an opportunity to improve. I love the challenge of a new drill, or trying to do something in a different way, because I love the process of trying to master rowing.

Right now, I am shifting my thinking about the recovery. Instead of thinking about moving my body up the slide, I’m trying to think about drawing my feet (and the boat) towards me. It gets me sitting taller at the catch, my upper body now seems to have nothing to do, and I feel lighter. Without a coach, I wouldn’t have seen this as a way to fix my tendency to overreach

This past year is my first year having an official coach since my return to rowing 7 years ago when I decided to learn how to scull. 

In my years without a coach, I did keep improving, probably in fits and starts, and possibly because I was starting from a low base. But it’s so easy to develop bad habits when no-one is giving you honest feedback.

Below are some things that helped me develop my technique when I didn’t have a coach.

7 tips for improving rowing technique when you don’t have a coach

1. Ask more experienced rowers for feedback

“Can you have a quick look at me?”, I would often ask clubmate Karen Turnbull at the end of a session, and she helped me greatly, sometimes sculling alongside me and watching my every move.

And she loved that I would ask her for feedback—many others would charge off in the opposite direction if they saw her coming, fearing her critical gaze. So it was a win-win.

2. Ask someone to video you

I have been filmed in a single scull only a few times over the years but I found enormous value in seeing myself in action, up close, excruciating as it may be. Seeing is believing, and it can be a great motivator for change.

Even a photo can be enough to shake your ‘reality’ (“Oh @#$% – I really am skying”).

3. Row with people better than yourself whenever you can

This was Karen’s advice and I think it’s terrific because I always get something from these outings.

Rhythm, for example. I’m not sure you can know what good rhythm is until you’ve sat behind a stroke person with good rhythm. And sometimes it is simply a confidence boost to discover you are able to hold your own in terms of technique or fitness.

I’m really proud of this photo of me sitting in 3-seat in front of Australian Olympian Hannah Every-Hall and… square blading!!! It was a one-off opportunity and I was nervous as hell, though she was warm and helpful.


4. Watch good rowers

I would go as far as saying that the internet was my head coach for many years, and I still love to watch videos of good and/or fast rowers and trying to decipher what it is that makes them good and/or fast.

Sometimes I take that visual out with me in the boat. For example, I loved the arms flowing away in this RP3 video of the Swiss 2X and the next day I thought about it while rowing.

5. Go to a rowing camp

I’ve been to 2 weekend camps run by Kathy and Bill of Row-Craft, and made massive leaps each time.

In the first one, I had to completely change my grip which was disconcerting to say the least, but I am so grateful I did. I can still hear Bill yelling “Don’t you dare move those fingers!” as I fought every instinct to slip back into my old grip.

While it takes a little courage to go along to a camp as a solo, an added bonus is that you meet lots of people from other clubs and develop longstanding connections. I ended up finding a well-matched doubles partner and we enjoyed racing together the next couple of seasons.

Now, I dream about going to Craftsbury in the US or maybe to Joe DeLeo‘s camp in Portugal. Alas… $$$$

6. Learn from the best

Invest in yourself if you can afford to and sign up for remote coaching with experts such as Marlene Royle.

When I started sculling in 2012, Xeno Muller was still sharing his insights and advice for free on Facebook. He would often critique other top-level rowers (and himself) and I found his insights thought-provoking and helpful.

Then he launched a paid package of information (video clips, tips, drills) which I signed up for. It was great value. I wanted to try everything he suggested on the water, and I did. Some things sounded quite basic e.g. sculling with one oar to finesse your entry (and, therefore, rowing in circles)—but when you learn that it wasn’t beneath a budding Olympic champion to spend hours at a time doing this, it somehow gains more credibility.

And right there are 3 things I love about rowing:

  • We may have the same technical issues as a world champion.
  • To fix our technical issues, we may be doing the same exercises/drills as a world champion.
  • Even world champions still go back to basics.

By the way, Xeno Muller was the first person I’d heard talk about drawing the boat under you with your feet. I recall him mentioning the sensation of ‘scraping’ your feet down the footstretcher on the recovery. He may have got that from coach Harry MahonIt was too far beyond me back then, but here I am, years later, finally getting it. 

7. Try new things on the water

You can read voraciously, listen to podcasts and watch countless videos of the best in the world, but unless you get out there on the water and try the things you’ve learnt, you won’t improve.

I once read that you haven’t arrived as a “decent” sculler until you can do “front stops paddling at ease”, so the next day I was out there, wobbly and tense, but determined to “arrive” as soon as possible. Not sure I have yet, but I quite enjoy ‘stuffing the duck‘ now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s