Winter Training Camp Coaches Blog 2012

Hugh McKeegan
Assistant Men’s Coach

While our first couple of practices on the Manatee river this week were a little shaggy – bus legs and a month and a half on the ergs do not generally lead to especially smooth rowing the first time back in the shell – the guys quickly knocked off the rust and we got down to business. Drill work and mileage in the morning, rinse and repeat in the afternoon – not necessarily the most exciting program, but one that provides the space and time for both the rowers and coxswain to shape and develop their individual skill, boat feel, and crew cohesion. Beginning with the basics – grip, posture, connection to the water – the guys worked especially hard this week to develop a feel for “edge control;” that is, learning to use their hands and bodies to manipulate the blade effectively.

Their success in improving on that aspect of the stroke really showed as the week wore on. Skillful blade work is crucial to getting the most out of every stroke: the oarsman must be able to work the oar through the longest possible stroke while minimizing errors that disturb the run of the boat. So, it was great to see our guys getting a feel for putting a lot of power on the handle while also placing and extracting the blades from the water with an ever increasing degree of precision.

All work and no play (or something like that) can make for a dull camp, so the team made the most of the opportunity to spend a few hours at the beach and celebrate the new year with the “Pineapple Drop” in downtown Sarasota. While the men’s tug of war challenge ended in a draw (the rope snapped – our guys really know how to lean on it!), the varsity men swept the novices in two games of greasy watermelon, and our collective beach volleyball skills need some work, everyone had a good time without getting too sunburned.

As I watched the guys row during our first practice on the final day of the camp, I was struck by just how far they’d come, as individual oarsmen and as a group, since arriving in Ellenton, FL late last week. I’ve had the opportunity over the course of my time in rowing to participate in more than a few training camps, both as a coach and as an oarsman, and this past week was definitely one of the most successful training trips in my experience. From the quality of the work done in the boat, to the unfailingly positive attitude that the crew brought with them to every aspect of the camp – practice, meetings, extracurriculars – every day was packed without ever becoming frustrating or tedious. It’s a credit to the drive, competitiveness, and enthusiasm of each of the novice men who attended the camp that we were able to have such a successful week of training, and bodes well for the upcoming spring season.

Thanks to Molly Potgeter for stepping in to cox the novice men, and many thanks to Nancy for keeping the athletes well fueled this week.

We go back into winter training on Monday – lots of ergs and weights – and look forward to getting back on the water in March. With the core group of novice men that we had this week at camp, and the rest of the team working hard at home, the 2013 season has the potential to be a successful campaign.

Kelsey Arnold
Assistant Women’s Coach

This year I was able to invite a strong developmental group of eight novice rowers and a coxswain to train in Florida. They were told the trip would consist of long steady state rows with a focus on technique. Having a technical-based camp allows athletes to work on specific struggles as well as work to find the cohesive and beautiful stroke all rowers desire.

My overall focus for the week was to immerse the athletes in “deep practice” — an environment where the rowers could make mistakes, realize their mistakes, and learn from them. As novice rowers, a huge part of the learning process comes from making mistakes. My job is to identify those mistakes early on and fix them right away before they become bad habits. An ideal learning environment has minimal distractions, which is not always easy to find. The waterway has diving pelicans, barking dogs on shore, buzzing power lines, party-goers on boats, enormous wakes, and other crews. Athletes must learn to focus in the boat and ignore those distractions.

On Day 1, we focused on the athlete’s connection points to the boat: hands, seat, and feet. Making sure the boat is set for each individual athlete is the first key to rowing well. Correct posture at each point of the stroke as well as how the oar is gripped are also key.

Day 2 was spent working on getting pivot out of bow. Most technique problems can be corrected by the simple movement of swinging the torso to stern and preparing the body for the rest of the stroke. We worked on getting “propulsion per stroke” at low rates with controlled compression after the pivot. Length starts with the pivot!

Day 3 was spent working on the catch and the first six inches of the drive. After doing catch drills, the novice women described what the catch felt like to them. Being able to describe what part of the stroke feels like is often difficult to do, but can be a very helpful tool in learning.

Day 4 was spent on the catch, with the addition of the feather. We worked on the “hinge,” where the top edge of the blade stays at one height off the water while the bottom edge squares down to the water, as if on a hinge.

On Day 5, we worked on lateral pressure, body angles, and keeping connection from the catch through to the release, and continued to work on the feather.

On Day 6, we went back to some basics, rowing by all eight and working to set the boat. This included focusing on having rounded releases, downward pressure on handle and the racetrack oval.

Day 7 – the last day of practices! This day I promised the novices speed work, so we did short rate pyramids, leading up to a 30 stroke rate. They were able to keep the ratio and stayed more than a foot out of their puddles — it was exciting to watch!

After fourteen practices, I couldn’t believe the improvements from both the athletes and coxswain. They came to practice each day with high energy, focus, and an excitement to row–and kept them throughout practice and the entire day. I found it difficult to tire them out! By participating on this training trip, they each improved their individual skills and gained valuable experience, which they can carry back to benefit the rest of the novice squad.

As an athlete and coach, this was my ninth training trip to Florida with the rowing team. This trip has by far been one of the most productive training trips in my experience. Why is this the case? We brought a good group of rowers. They maintained a positive attitude and were eager to learn and work at a high level. I see in many of the novice women the “need for speed” – they have the drive and desire to get faster. The Laker Navy will carry their new-learned skill into the remaining winter season, while continuing to build speed into the spring.

Alyssa O’Donnell
Varsity Assistant Coach of Rowing

Having the pleasure to travel to Sarasota, Florida to coach a great group of rowers was such an awe-inspiring experience. Being my first year on the coaching side rather than the rower on a training trip, I learned a vast amount of material in just a week. Starting at the basics and working up to “Whatever it Takes to Win,” the athletes were coached on every aspect of the stroke, from how to grip the handle to applying a hydro-dynamic lift right at the catch.

After rigging our 22 boats, we started off the week on the square with the basics. Sitting up tall, working with balance and bladework, touch and control, it seemed that the rowers were picking up right were they left off at the end of fall season. Each day we added more technical aspects of the stroke, applying a whole, part-part, whole method to further understand the developmental points within the stroke.

Whether we were working on the drive or recovery sequence, the fact that we had 5-6 small boats out of the water everyday was a huge factor in their improvement over the week. The smaller boats allow the rowers to feel where they are making mistakes and what needs adjustments. Rowing in circles for half their practice working on different pause sequences and coming out of the bow with the “race track oval” really helped them work on balance, which we all know is a big factor when it comes to an 8+. Listening for the “Bell Note,” from Fairbairn, and getting the nice V-splash as the bottom edge enters the water, the rowers were really focused on improving, while getting a some nice sun and dodging the other boats or “water bugs” that were around them.

Each day had a different focus and you could tell that everyone was eager to learn so they could make themselves, and the boat faster. I must say the days where the focus was on a greased watermelon were pretty entertaining. The rowers got to spend an afternoon at Siesta Key beach doing a few different Lake Navy traditions. Of course the greased watermelon is a big favorite as varsity look to take down the novice as they charge the ocean waves for the Crisco covered melon. Varsity prevailed on both the men and women’s side. It was interesting enough when other bystanders would approach me and ask what they were fighting about and I said …a watermelon.

The highlight of the trip had to be when different rowers would “get it,” fix their own technical problems and keep moving up from there. As much as we coaches like enjoying seeing our rowers improve, it’s even better for the athlete as they are devoting so much of themselves to this sport. As they would feel what was right within the stroke from where they would make mistakes, you could see the joy in their face when it all clicks. That’s what makes all this worth it, seeing the rowers enjoying themselves.

During the trip to Sarasota I got to wear many different hats. Coaching from a dock, coaching from a launch, bowing a quad, even coxing and having my own leisurely row out on the Manatee River, the week was great. Once we get through the months on the erg and lifting in our training center, I can’t wait to see where the Spring season takes us. 2013 is looking to be a great one for the Laker Navy!

The Grand Valley State University Rowing Club challenges its student-athletes to reach the highest level to which they aspire both academically and athletically, while continuing to build and sustain a nationally competitive intercollegiate rowing program.

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