A familiar scene around Middle School Rowing (from Malden High's 8th grade summer camp)
In Part I
of our look at the recent growth of Middle School rowing, we examined a number of factors that played into this growth: expanded scholarship opportunities at the collegiate level, especially for women; an acknowledgement that rowing can be a healthy and fun environment for athletes of all ages; and greater efforts on the part of schools and rowing clubs themselves, seeking to draw younger athletes to the sport.
Once these athletes have arrived however, the real challenge begins: for a sport that idealizes its Adonises and Amazons, finding a seat for and teaching an asthmatic, 4’11" 12-year old how to row requires some real grown-up thinking. Here in Part II of "Little League Crew," we once again spoke with experienced coaches in order to hone in on a few "best practices" for involving younger athletes in rowing.
Rumsey Hall Head Coach Fran Ryan pretty much hits the reality of rowing for younger athletes on the head: "of course, they get the least desirable equipment in the house." In mid- to large-size rowing organizations, where the "paying customers" are likely those athletes gearing up for competitive racing it’s rare to find the level of funding to roll the best hulls down to the least experienced athletes.
However, Ryan makes precisely the opposite point. "That’s a mistake. However counter-intuitive, the younger athletes should almost be rowing the best equipment in the house!" It would make sense that learning might come easier in a boat that is not falling apart, than in a 300 pound beater that dates back to the years before hatchet blades.
What about different size boats for younger athletes? "The equipment and the rigging have to fit," says Ann Robbart, co-founder of Little Sculling Boats. "So, coaches need to know equipment and especially how to rig appropriately."
Having the right rig and right boat is certainly important at every level of the sport, but one might argue that for the smallest athletes just starting out, size can mean the difference between "getting it" and "getting out of it." Little Sculling Boats (who advertises on this website), specializes in boats specifically for the youngest, newest rowers.
"We build equipment small enough for young kids, ages 4-12," says Robbart. "We wanted to supply boats for young kids as there were none available. No one was making them. People start kids at much younger ages in music, language, and other sports. Think of how young some major athletes started in tennis, skiing, soccer, swimming, golf, and other sports. The key is having equipment that really is appropriate in terms of size and adjustments."
For instruction, singles and doubles are ideal. But how can you scale up a fleet to meet truly enormous demand? Coxed quads would seem to fit the spec; the boats are stable, safe, can handle boys and girls rowing together, and everyone gets a turn to steer. Inevitably, the equipment conundrum that most larger Middle School rowing programs will find themselves facing is whether or not to have their youngest (and smallest) athletes rowing in eights, which may offer the most seats per shell (a critical issue for programs with limited budgets and rack space), but also require the most manpower to move from land to water (see photo above), and which some believe have the potential to complicate teaching rather than simplify it.
Sweep vs. Scull?
Simultaneously peripheral and at the core of the question over "what types of boats should our youngest athletes row," is the question of "Sweep vs. Sculling" for Middle School athletes. While rowing sweep boats allows the younger athletes to develop skills that will fit in nicely at the higher/older levels of the sport, there’s more than a little evidence that sculling is better for younger athlete development, both physiologically and technically.
At any rate, most coaches who coach a great deal at the younger levels are almost unequivocal on the subject. "If kids start by sculling, they'll have a better feel for the boat and be more skilled scullers and rowers, if they sweep or scull later," said Robbart. "This is what the Europeans do. We often have trouble convincing people that little kids can scull. But this may be because most Americans sweep first, either in high school or college and, if they scull, learn later. So they recall it as complex and difficult. But, young kids do not have the muscle memory they have to overcome and 'rewrite’ as adults do. It's amazing how quickly they learn."
Seattle Rowing Club’s Conal Groom is equally direct. "This one I am extremely passionate about. Sculling! I am open to teaching kids sweep, but when they are young I think the benefits of sculling are impossible to argue with. They develop a better sense of boat feel. It doesn't get more sensitive than rowing in a single. They grow up muscularly more uniform and symmetrical. And it provides more play because each of their friends are in singles or doubles - more intimate. And the boat feel and accountability is innate in the smaller boats, like a bicycle."
Lastly, what these coaches have not said, but what is implicit in the sweep versus sculling debate is that, in sculling, the rowing team can be fully co-ed. Anyone who has tried (and pulled their hair out) trying to coach a mixed sweep team would agree that teaching rowing when athletes can sit anywhere in the boat regardless of any physical size differences is vastly more simple. Additionally, one could argue that the social aspects of providing young adolescents with the experience of what could be their last co-ed sports team is immeasurably valuable to retaining athletes over the long run. Younger athletes gravitate to where their friends are.
When it comes down to the biggest single factor in determining the success and safety of starting athletes in rowing earlier, namely the coaching, approaches vary widely, but a few common threads do emerge. As is the case with equipment, the coaching of the youngest athletes also tends to tumble down the priority ladder. "The younger rowers also tend to get the least experienced coaches, when they may deserve the most experienced ones, the best teachers," says Ryan.
It almost seems like rowing coaches for younger athletes need to think of themselves as teachers foremost, and not necessarily as athletic coaches. "I have definitely been able to refine my coaching to the essence of teaching the skill," says Ryan. "You have to be aware of all kinds of learners, at all stages of physical and emotional development. It does require use of several modalities to reach all sorts of kids."
Saratoga’s Chris Chase concurs. "You have to spend the time on teaching the kids to row well," he says. "Expect excellence. Don't overdo the winning or losing aspect of a sport, that doesn't have to define an athlete. Let the sport show them its basic tenants--teamwork, hard work, trust, loyalty, and honesty. All are amazing aspects of our sport."
Combining the fun of the sport with the necessary steps to learning it is, if not an art, at the very least a hugely important part of the coaches arsenal. "There are probably as many right ways to teach as there are a number of wrong ways," says Groom. "The kids are usually smaller and have less body fat, so are more susceptible to getting cold or sick. And they have short attention spans. So while every high school coach wants these younger kids to be technically perfect and fast, the sport needs to be introduced as fun. Most of our younger participants really enjoy the range of games we come up with on the water, all focused on developing intuitive boat handling skills, comfort in varying water conditions, and just figuring out how to move the boat both frontwards and backwards. But it is organized so that they don't know they are learning; they think they are messing around."
"They are kids," continues Saratoga's Chris Chase simply. "We are the entry of a lifetime sport. Don't ruin the amazing parts of the sport. You don't have to force rowing on kids, it will take care of itself. Most rowers become addicted to being on the water. Rowing provides so much to the athlete: the workout, the challenge, the social parts, the peace of mind the water brings, the beauty of being in nature all the time, the freedom of gliding at sunrise. If we just make them feel welcome long enough, rowing will bring them back."
These coaches also bring up a few surprising points regarding competition; it’s long been regarded as writ that, given the extreme ratio of training time to racing opportunities available in rowing, coaches and teams need to provide for a competitive outlet for their athletes. It turns out, however, that younger athletes may be motivated very differently than you might expect.
"Younger athletes care less about winning, and more about acceptance," says Chase. "They will tear themselves apart for a candy necklace and healthy competition, but you can't expect them to do it for you and still love rowing. In fact, the longer they are pushed for coaches' goals, the more they will resent the sport."
Ann Robbart agrees. "I don't think we should push kids to race early. Some kids will want to, others won't, they'll just want to work on sculling. Some kids want to scull with a sibling or friend, or in a group, others do not want too many other kids around. All kids should learn with no pressure -- no hard work at first, just learn the motion, then they can push hard later, when they want and are ready."
Like Chase’s "candy necklace," Robbart sees value in tweaking racing distances and formats to ideally suit younger athletes. "Many young kids don't scull more than a mile or two before getting tired. Races could be a short, maybe 250 or 500 meters, or it could be the least strokes over a given distance, a backing race, a race to pick up floating objects, such as a ball or balloon."
The approach to the erg, too, demands some thought with the younger athletes in order to forestall the "hate" part of the love/hate relationship that all rowers have with the machine. "Kids need to know it is just a tool. They use it, not the other way around," says Chase. "So many kids are taught to fear the erg, it drives them from the sport too often. They love the water, and hate the erg."
As scholastic teams and rowing clubs grapple with this growth in interest in rowing among younger athletes, which is in itself a positive thing, the demands of equipment availability and configuration, as well as appropriate staffing, can be daunting. However, the unlikeliest answers to all of these questions might also turn out to be the right ones: look for teachers instead of coaches, slap some sculling riggers on your old coxed fours, and let the kids goof off in the boats instead of prepping for sprint races, and you just might be opening the door to a lifelong activity for someone.