June 2 marked National Learn to Row Day when clubs open their doors to newbies who wants to give rowing a try. It's difficult to teach much in just one outing but hopefully these people will come back for the Learn to Row classes that start up soon after. We've taught many raw beginners - often advancing in three days from a wide, recreational boat to a racing shell.
If I ever went back to coaching collegiate novices, I'd try to get my rowers out in singles. You can learn so much more quickly knowing that everything going on in the boat is caused by you. But let's be real, if you have 8 rowers and one coach, putting everyone in an eight is a lot easier and safer. So if you want these beginners to have a good introduction to rowing and then stick around to grow the club, make the class fun. If it's not fun, they won't come back so all that teaching will have been in vain.
Chances are members of the class have little or no knowledge of rowing so start by showing some videos. This will give the participants a visual image of what they're aiming to do. Showing the video is also an opportunity to introduce the new rowers to all the vocabulary that is unique to rowing. Drafting a take home handout of these terms plus a diagram of the boat with all the relevant information - bow, stern, port, starboard, seat numbers, coxswain - will help get everyone up to speed. After all, if they can't understand what you mean, you're not going to get far.
Before they get on the water, use the erg to teach the basic rowing motion. No need to worry about squaring, feathering, boat balance or trying to follow the person in front of you. However, they can learn how to sit in the boat (relaxed, natural curvature of the back), how to keep the arms loose and not locked on the drive, how to keep the hands as level as possible and to understand the stroke as a horizontal motion. While it may seem easier to teach the stroke as a 1-2-3 process, i.e., arms - body - slide, in the long run the motion should be fluid and smooth so work to incorporate that on the erg.
Once in the boat, not everyone will be rowing all at once so be sure to teach those not rowing how best to set the boat. I suggest getting people to sit at half slide and then brace the oar handle against the thigh. A more stable platform will make it much easier for everyone to learn. Another thing that will help keep the boat more stable is to teach blade work right from the beginning. So many coaches will insist on square blade rowing for umpteen sessions but I would strongly recommend teaching squaring and feathering right from the start. It really isn't that difficult a motion and will make the recovery soooo much easier.
Setting the boat with oarhandle against thigh
When just learning, there's no need to worry about the blades being off the water, remember we want the rowers to relax and have fun. Teach them level hands, yes, but this can easily be taught with the blade gently skimming across the water. By learning to row with the feather, they'll never feel the need to make big up and down movements with the hands, which is not the goal in the long run and will only make the boats more unstable.
Try not to overload any one person with too much information. Give positive feedback and if you find yourself getting frustrated with one rower, just let them be for a while and move on to someone else. Everybody will learn differently - some need to see, some need to do, some need to know why, so try and provide a little bit of all of those. Don't be afraid to ask the rowers for feedback. At the very least, do they understand what you're trying to get them to do? But most importantly, make it fun!
Did we mention - have fun!