National Cathedral School's Lauren Walker won both the U21 2k and 20 minute races at Erg Sprints this year, but what caught the attention of the row2k photographer was the way she did it: erging with a dodgeball between her knees.
The dodgeball turned out to be a neat technique 'hack' that NCS coach Judith Vogel taught her, and Walker--a senior who will row at Yale next year--knew it would help her performance during her races:
"Squeezing the dodgeball in place with my knees each stroke provides stability to the hips and activates the inner thighs," said Walker. "Only rowing starboard for the past few years resulted in a right leg dominance when erging. The dodgeball helps me engage both of my legs and my glutes for a more effective and efficient stroke. The goal is to build muscle memory and strength with the ball so the improved connection and power per stroke is retained without it.
"I erg with the ball all the time, during steady state and pieces alike. When preparing for Erg Sprints, I considered not using the dodgeball to see if I could translate the leg engagement in a real racing environment. I opted to use it for the 20 minute, however, knowing I was doing both the 20' and 2k that day to maintain my body.
"My coaches have been really emphasizing that being a good athlete means making smart training decisions for yourself, so using the dodge ball really was up to me. After a successful 20' piece, I again had to weigh the benefits of testing with and without the ball. I chose to do the 2k with the dodgeball as well."
Vogel, the coach who taught Walker the trick, explained the thinking behind it:
"At NCS, we are focused on process and finding opportunities to help individualize coaching for the athletes. We use tools such as the dodge ball to help athletes feel the changes we want them to make, improve connection, and become more powerful. The dodge ball can be used to stabilize the hips, activate the inner thighs, and can alleviate strain from the lumbar spine. It further promotes activation of the posterior chain, allowing an athlete to be more direct and powerful with their leg drive. This is something we are working on with Lauren and we find it a really helpful way to build new movement patterns."
Walker said the dodgeball is one of the ways her coaches have been helping her develop.
"At the beginning of winter conditioning, my coaches implemented a plethora of technical changes throughout the team. I was not the only person who was given a dodgeball to squeeze between their knees; however, I am now pretty much the only one who uses it and I do so religiously. "When I expressed my frustration with my progress over the past two years, my assistant head coach, Judith Vogel, and I sat down together to list my goals and plan how to achieve them. We both agreed to commit to the process. For her, that meant holding me accountable, for me that meant trust: I really had to trust that piecing with one of the dodgeballs I used in middle school PE between my knees would provide technical changes and long-term benefits.
"When I started using the dodgeball, I had to let the split rise while the correct muscles strengthened. Now, I am starting to see the progress not only on the erg, but in the weight room, and in my bodily health. My journey with the dodgeball goes to show that progress isn't linear and small steps are critical to achieving your goals.
The racing at Erg Sprints became part of that process for Walker:
"My coaches' emphasis for Erg Sprints was to work on transferring routines, skill sets, and execution plans to a slightly higher-pressure situation. Racing both the 20min and 2k gave me multiple attempts to adapt and apply what I knew across races.
"Going into the 2k piece with no expectations, split wise, was really beneficial for me. The 20 minute race beforehand and also the ball between my knees added an extra layer of difficulty on top of just doing the 2k. I knew I had to settle to my goal immediately regardless of what the other rowers were doing. I honestly settled higher than I intended but listened to my body and stuck to it. So, while some of the other athletes went out hard and started to falter, I held steady, stayed calm, and executed my adjusted plan to the best of my ability. I felt confident for the duration of the piece, and just trusted my training.
"My coaches used erg sprints to help us learn about race plan execution. We talked about having a Plan A (if the piece is going to plan, we use our execution skill sets to negative split), a Plan B (we use our tools to hold our splits steady), and a Plan C (it's a fight day and we use our skill sets to get the most out of the piece). The skill sets we are developing involve pacing strategies, self-talk, technical cues, and feeding off the energy of my teammates.
"After PRing to win the 20 minute piece a few hours prior, I knew going into the 2k that the piece was going to be a 'Plan B Day.' This meant that I had to acknowledge that, given my physical expenditure in the preceding piece, I was likely not going to set a personal record. I had to adjust my race plan accordingly.
"I started 3-4 splits above where I otherwise would and took calculated risks from there. I took three strokes and immediately settled. I felt the lactic acid in my legs almost immediately, but my coaches had already warned me I would feel this way, so I knew not to panic. I kept a sustainable split and focused on my own goals. Widening the gap between myself and the 2nd place rower was in the back of my mind. After my warmup, I took out my headphones, knowing that I needed mental clarity. Hearing my head coach Erin Briggs walk me through my race plan and my NCS and TBC teammates [from the summer] all screaming for me kept me holding on during the third 500. For the last 500, I let my body switch and heel drive lower the split into my sprint, where I just pulled with everything I had left.
"The biggest win," said Walker, "wasn't getting first but staying mentally tough and racing smart."
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