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Bringing Indoor Rowing Programs to Middle Schools
Room to G(row)
March 28, 2016
Community Rowing

Photo by Damian Strohmeyer

For many kids, their most formative years often are centered around their involvement - or lack of involvement - in sports. While some are naturally gifted in traditional hand-eye sports, others that are less coordinated sometimes don't get the same benefits, be it physically, socially, or mentally, that an active and healthy lifestyle can give.

Enter rowing. Typically, high school, college, and boathouse-based programs are the only places to get access to rowing. Increasingly, however, programs dedicated to integrating middle school-age kids to the sport are popping up, and proving to be a wonderful alternative to physical education.

For Matt Rostron, who served as the Chief Executive Officer of London Youth Rowing the largest indoor rowing program in the world for kids aged 11-18, and is now Director of Systems and Growth at Community Rowing, starting these programs is a no-brainer. "Who are the kids that are going to do this? The kids that are last to be picked for the baseball team. Or the soccer team." Not only do kids benefit from being more physically fit, but their confidence also increases, and social development improves.

Another advantage for kids is exposure to their region. For Tiffany Macon, who oversees the Community Rowing program in the Boston Public Schools that serves over 3,000 middle schoolers annually, this was important. "So many of our kids had no idea where the Charles River was. We wanted them to get outside their neighborhood and immediate surroundings and learn to be physically active as well."

Developing these programs is a slow process, but can be incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. To do this, indoor rowing has to be a sport in its own right, not simply a means to exercise. Here are some tips to starting a program in your school system.

Make sure you handle the administrative aspects first. To implement a middle school program, oftentimes the first step is approaching the school system as a whole, or the Board of Education, with a contract or memorandum of understanding.

Each school is different. Depending on the location of the school, gyms can either be present or not. In urban areas, it usually is the latter. This doesn't have to be a deterrent - work with it. A physical education program is an integral part of a school's identity, and getting to know the styles of teachers and students can help you develop a plan tailored to suit their needs best.

Set up a schedule. Most physical education programs work on a constantly rotating schedule of activities. Implementing an indoor rowing program in multiple schools means working with these schedules to know which school gets how many ergs for however many weeks.

Find the balance in program duration. Once or twice in a week or two is barely enough to get one's feet wet, but an eight-week course can be draining to young students, especially if gym class meets two to three times a week. Once that is figured out (most likely after some trial runs) a set schedule should be made.

Develop a master lesson plan. The bigger a program gets, the more stretched its resources will be. Putting together a 12-week lesson plan for a school is a great way to work others into the program and the sport. With a thorough lesson plan (and probably some technique advice), "even teachers and administrators could theoretically help coach the kids," says Macon.

At Community Rowing, lesson plans usually start with terminology, then move to a games-based aspect. Pacing, split understanding, and ratings follow, culminating in a virtual race for the students to get a taste of competition in the sport.

Connect with teachers. "We don't force our program on any teacher, and just ask that they support us," explains Macon. Creating these relationships with various school professionals makes the program authentic and exciting for everyone. If teachers, administrators and coaches are excited, kids will be as well.

Create an inspiring atmosphere. "You need to build opportunities and experiences," says Rostron, especially for the type of kid that would succeed - the last to be picked. Engaging those students is key.

Macon agrees: "Those kids are going to see that they can pull harder, and that's going to inspire them."

Keep the program about growth, but also fun and competition. The difference between a middle school indoor program and a junior team is the push and pull factor: junior teams and rowing programs in general are drawing people in, and indoor school programs are charged with introducing a new sport to kids that wouldn't otherwise have access to it.

Many of these kids are the same ones that also wouldn't have the chance to compete in other sports, and so offering the opportunity to compete here is important. At London Youth Rowing, each contract required schools to participate in a program-wide competition. A regular program competition framework prepares students for this.

"Exit points are also essential. In regular rowing, if you don't make a specific split time, you don't get to be part of the boat going to the three regattas. That can be incredibly alienating," says Rostron. Allowing competition at all levels also removes the natural social hierarchy that's prone to happen.

Finally, work to keep rowing machines in schools. If one is available at all times, the risk of losing a kid that loves the sport but can't viably continue it after the machine moves on is eliminated.

A tip to do this? Encourage schools to keep the rowing machines for a year at a time - they get the program framework and rowing instructors, as long as data is collected. This data can be used to send back to the school officials and prove the positive impact rowing can have on kids as a quantitative backup to qualitative results: this is how many kids participated, and this is how they improved overall.

And at the end of the program, who knows, says Rostron. "You might even have a nationally-ranked kid that we never would have gotten otherwise, just because they had this opportunity."

Photo by Michelle McDonald


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