row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Rowing Technique Part 1 - Coaching the Catch
April 28, 2020
Erik Dresser,

"If you ask a person to do a simple task; describe picking up a pencil from a table, almost every person will describe it differently, just slightly, so saying there is a perfect way to teach technique to me is a bit naïve. I try to explain by showing, describing, demonstrating, and coming at the same thing in different ways. Because what you perceive as one thing, someone else is different and the funny thing is rowing asks that we do the same thing. So each individual has to learn what and how to be like another. Sort of fun to figure out, and super cool when you get it right!"

That was the opening statement received from Cornell Heavyweight Head Coach Todd Kennett, and it couldn't capture the theme of this feature more perfectly as we received seventeen very different responses to a fairly simple question on technique. Here is part 1 of the Collegiate Coaches Corner on rowing technique focusing on how to coach the catch.


First, having a good finish, and proper recovery (body prepared, comfortable) allows the rower the opportunity to have a good catch.

Realizing how and where the hands need to be at end of the recovery to get the blade in the water has been very helpful; giving the athlete a chance to see the distance the hands need to move to get the blade from feather, to square, to in the water.

-Sit at catch and raise/lower hands, placing blade in water. Can be rhythmic. Should be done so blade it put in to good depth and not carelessly dipping or slowly placing, but done rather light and crisply.

-Pausing at finish, coxswain says row, and going up slide, placing blade and pausing there. Eventually after second pause just pushing legs. Can go to full stroke. But allowing rower to see blade placement while not driving!

Arms only! Seems counter intuitive, but so many rowers just throw their hands in front of them, rather than make the handle unweight so the blade gets movement and motion to the water BEFORE the drive!

I have found approaching the catch from multiple viewpoints is the best way to teach it. We start with what a good catch looks like as you unweight the hands, then we move to the sound the catch makes since you can't see it every stroke. Finally, we break it down with repetition through drill work. A lot of progressive slide drill work moving from the catch.

The most effective way is to have the athlete look at the catch while rowing and to make sure the blade goes in before pushing.

When teaching the catch, I try to break it down into a sequence that starts after quarter-slide on the recovery and each sequence has one or two drills that emphasize the catch we are looking for as a program. Depending on the experience of the crew, this may take breaking down the catch into a few days or up to a few weeks, but the goal is for them to really grasp what we're looking to accomplish with the catch.

For programs I work with, I start having them think about the motion to the catch starting after quarter-slide, and the hands start making the move up and the blade starts coming down. That I think is key, because even some experienced rowers think that the entirety of the catch takes place at full slide - hit full, blade goes in, hit full, blade goes in - but with that approach, we see missing water, half catches, butts shooting.

The other thing I want my rowers to understand is that just because you reach the catch, doesn't mean you have to immediately kick back and drive. Once the blade is entered, one should feel the load and the connection, and be, in a way, patient with the hips. Now, it's not like one can sit for two seconds before driving, but there is enough time to feel the lock of the oar in the water through the body before the hips initiate the drive.

There are quite a few drills I have used to teach the catch and its sequence, but some I like a bit include gunnel tap, inside arm rowing, inside arm rowing with a punch or flick, and push-pull from three-quarter slide.

Although the oar blade doesn’t actually stay in one place in the water during the drive, I find it easiest to teach the catch as if the goal is to put the blade in one spot and pry the boat past that point. As rowers reach a good level of ability, I don’t need to talk about that concept much anymore and can advance to talking about taking the water on the run and catching through the foot stretcher.

We have a “dockside coaching station” (designed by Gary Piantedosi) that I can use before and after practice. A big advantage is that it puts the idea out there while we are on our water in a very controlled environment. We coach “entry” followed by the catch/load, so this breaks down the sequencing to our wording.

A progression: (a) from pivot/body-over with blade square, slide to entry without taking the water, then reset back (b) extend the idea to going in the water with no catch/load (c) add the roll-up (d) add the catch/load. Other advantages: being in close to coach, having teammates watch/comment, switching to demonstrate as a coach.

Note: most rowers cannot hold the blade at the same height off the water in the beginning, or enter without putting pressure on the blade, or initiate/end the roll-up at the right times. All of these shows immediately that the rower does not have a great idea of how boats move.

We spend a lot of time on this in our rowing tank and on the water. I like to shorten the stroke to arms only so that the athletes can have a visual of their work. It’s hard to learn the catch by feel alone so providing a visual simultaneously will heighten their awareness.

I have always been driven by the notion that the front end makes the rest of the stroke make sense, you can’t have a good back end without a proper front. My goal is to always have the athlete feel immediate pressure/resistance on the face of the blade. The recovery and the athletes blade work will determine when they get that pressure, and their power application will determine how long they will hold it.

Since we race 8’s in college, the trick is always having athletes achieve perfect timing when the boat is at speed. I always liked doing circles in small boats to get the athlete in a comfortable position to feel immediate pressure and to feel them hold the pressure, however things are moving very slowly.

Add a pair is a favorite as it allows the athlete to feel a good grip on the water by pairs and the hope is to have them feel the same grip as pairs add in and the speed increases. It’s similar to a batting cage. If you start in the kids section, it’s easy to connect at 20 or 30 mph. Once you go to the 60 or 70 mph cage, things move a lot faster and the ability to connect is a lot more challenging. Add a pair is a great way to have them blend speeds and still connect.

I think this is likely the most complex part of the stroke. So many moving parts and directions and timing. Using video to slow it down will show the errors. Like most coaching phrases, we have borrowed from others. Dave Vogel visiting a practice said "catch with your feet". I wish I came up with that phrase. It made so much sense for me. It gets you in the right muscle groups to make power and likely lightens up the upper body to be supple. It also helps with timing and to avoid landing on your feet. Besides the language, stationary catch drills are very good basic exercises to reduce the variables.

I believe that everything we do with the catch seems to revolve around, or at least comes back to, what it feels like to take an effective catch. There are a handful of drills that I use to coach the catch. It’s hard to say if one is more effective than the others, but what I ultimately hope is that by doing a variety of them, that one will ultimately stick for that athlete, or the combination of them all together will help start illuminating some light bulbs.

I am a fan of backsplash. Not a tremendous amount that could check the boat, but the idea of backsplash as an indication that we are not missing water at the catch. I will reenact what I want to see with an oar in my launch, and we will row by 6s a lot and I will allow them to watch their catches. Look to see a little splash off the back, and see how many times you can watch the blade enter before you push the legs. Constantly asking of them and them asking themselves, “What does that feel like to do it right? What is the difference when it’s done poorly?”

Then we will mix in sets of strokes watching our catches, alternating with eyes forward, trying to find that feeling. I want them to see that they can do it correctly, and then connect the dots of how it feels to do it correctly. We do a lot of top end work. I like the drill of backing the boat down from the release up to the catch and then taking a stroke. Feeling that connection and heaviness. Drills to feel that initial impulse, so perhaps five top quarter strokes followed by five full strokes. Nothing crazy or different than everyone else, but emphasizing the patience of letting the blade fill with water before pushing is key.

Focusing on the unweighting motion of the handle to the water and the objective of feeling connection to the water immediately is important. Too many athletes hear the words “quicker catch” and think, Ok I need to jam the oar into the water really hard to make it faster.

Instead I try to use the word “deliberate” to describe the catch which signifies that the catch should be done with purpose and without hesitation. I like to start most practices with the reverse pick drill and frequently do catch placement drills and up/down drills at the catch with all eight. I also encourage spending substantial time using dynamic ergs to promote more immediate feeling of connection at the front end.

I like to begin conceptually by using the “jumping onto a moving treadmill” analogy when teaching the catch. If a treadmill is moving at a 16:00/mile pace, that’s pretty easy to step onto. If it’s moving at 12:00/mile pace, that’s a bit faster but still very doable. At 8:00/mile it becomes trickier, and at a 4:00/mile pace it’s almost impossible.

In the same way, as the boat speed increases (adding a pair, more power) and the speed at which the oar goes the opposite direction relative to the way that the water is moving past you increases (increasing the rate), it becomes tougher to be direct to get into the water.

Once the rower understands that, they can realize the importance of having a quick, direct catch. I also like to use the “conveyor belt” analogy when talking about the handle’s movement during the stroke (and catch), as opposed to the “row the rectangle” analogy I used to hear. I emphasize, “A conveyor belt rounds off on both ends; it never stops moving horizontally and only moves vertically. In the same way, your handle should be rounding up and into the catch, with the seat moving towards the stern and then immediately towards the bow. There should be no point at which you’ve stopped moving the seat and are just hanging there.”

All about the timing of the blade to the water with the last roll of the slide. Time blade down/unweighting handle with the seat on the recovery. When you get it right the blade will be secure in the water before you even apply any pressure.

Dependent on the level I was coaching I oscillate between coaching the catch as a passive movement (‘unweight the hands’) or an active movement (‘punch the inside wrist up and drive the blade in’). I found the most effective way to be isolating the front-end junction either with pauses, or rowing top 6 inches, or even coaching it standing still with catch placement (but don’t sit still too long!).

Like most parts of rowing technique, I teach the catch with the focus being on the purpose. I believe “knowledge is power.” So, if the athletes understand that the catch is: 1) part of the recovery not the drive, and 2) that it is fundamental to effective and efficient boat speed, then they will be all the more motivated to get it right. Next, I approach the catch by instructing my athletes to get rid of all of the “noise” that may surround it, from a technical standpoint. We set our body positions early in the recovery, roll-up early, move the hands purposefully, and eliminate body movement in the last 1/3 of the recovery. When you eliminate anything that may distract from a proper catch, the athlete is left to only think about the timing of putting the blade in the water.

Ankle weights on the end of the oar are a huge help in teaching the catch. From what I have noticed some rowers either get it and it is easy or others just can’t quite get it. They can try and try but their catch is still not what you expect. Unweight the hands, the more relaxed you are the better your catch will be. I feel these are things every coach preaches; you just have to keep on it but at the same time not get hung up on it. Patience into the catch is crucial and it takes X amount of time for the catch to happen, so be patient.

Still water finish-to-catch drills and rowing with inside arm alone are helpful. The best path to good catching is to ignore the catch while you work on something else, like good body preparation and a continuous drive connection through to the release. The act of thinking about the catch seems to mess it up.

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Log in to comment
James Heney
11/22/2020  5:22:48 PM
The best coaching technique is that of Drew Ginn. Nothing in the article comes close. None display the essence of the continuous dynamic technique required. Kleshnev's research is ignored.

10/07/2020  11:02:26 AM
feet out on the square by pair in a headwind on the lake--todd kennett

05/03/2020  2:32:11 PM
Working from home with lots of time to reflect on the theory rather than the practice of rowing presents an opportunity to posit on how to define and optimize the most efficient stroke. As an ancient rower/coach and mechanical engineer, I rely on over 60 years of rowing, basic physics, and the wisdom passed down from great coaches. So this is a good time to reflect on what biomechanics tells us. Putting past as prolog 350 years ago during one of the recurring instances of bubonic plague Newton, had to leave Cambridge and self-quarantine at his ancestral farm during 1666-1667. It was during that time with lots of time to think that he posited his theory, which the Royal Society published as the "Principia" 20 years later. What better time than during the current pandemic to review how Newtons second law tells us everything about how we should analyze the rowing stroke, particularly the catch, which is at once both the beginning and the end of the stroke cycle. Rowing, being the ultimate biomechanics sport, with the rower being part of a biomechanics system composed of rower, boat, and oars is a perfect example of Newton's Second Law F=MA. As the prime mover (power source) in this system, the rower is the biggest mass (6x that of the boat or the rowers part of a crew boat) the rower supplies the force during the drive portion of the stroke and the rowers mass provides the kinetic energy during the recovery portion resulting in almost equal amounts of positive force during the stroke cycle. This is seen at race pace with efficient crews generating only the average boat velocity of the stroke cycle at the end of the drive, but almost twice that velocity (the maximum) just before the next catch. Back to F=MA, if we multiply each side of the equation by the time we get the impulse-momentum equation of Ft=Mv, force times time (Impulse) equal to mass times velocity (Momentum). Using engineering license I equivocate the drive (when the oars are in the water propelling the boat) as Impulse and Momentum as the recovery force when the rowers mass is equally propelling the boat to its maximum velocity just before the catch. Analyzing this tells you that the handle speed (attached to body mass) should be maximum just before the catch with a quick catch coinciding with a square-up and forceful lifting of the hands, but no body movement toward the bow (which would result in a negative force). The key take away is that pressure on the foot-stretcher should result in a force vector (force direction) upward, or "stand on it” at the catch. There was a picture of a drill which I had never seen before recently in Row2K of an entire 8 all standing up at the catch. This was, of course, a drill, but I have to commend the coach, whoever he or she is, understands rowing physics. The take-home is that the system mass must stay the same with the boat and the rowers accelerating as one, both at the catch and during the drive. The body must not increase in velocity any more than the boat's natural resistance to system mass acceleration of boat, oars, and especially rowers mass will allow. When Newton finally published his "Principia" in the 1680's he used primarily geometry and Descartes’ coordinate system (x-y) to show by way of augmented reality what was dynamically happening. Today the charts showing the Covid-19 progress (or lack of)uses these 2-dimensional displays showing the "flattening of the curve". For rowing the shape of the force-time curve or the "handle speed" curve is real-time feedback for showing an optimum catch when using a force measurement system in a boat or tank. With these 21st century tools, the rower can see for themselves their effectiveness with minimal verbal coaching inputs.

05/03/2020  11:39:11 AM
1 people like this

04/29/2020  1:38:58 PM
Roll up soon but not too soon. I've seen whole illustriously-named eight-oared crews ruined by rolling up too soon. You don't want a hurried, last-instant snap-roll. You do want to spend a little time so that the roll is a roll. So where does it begin? Lower shins? Ankles? Whatever the answer, it has to come from feel more than concept.

04/28/2020  5:40:29 PM
Neat article, but why no women coaches?

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