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Collegiate Coaches Corner
Rowing Technique Part 4 - Favorite Drills
August 18, 2020
Erik Dresser,

Following the cancellation of the 2020 spring racing season, row2k solicited the collegiate coaching community to engage in a variety of high-level topics within the profession. We submitted over sixty questions across a dozen topics and thank the coaches and staffs that found time to contribute their thoughts during this stressful time.

This week we focus on the topic of Technique with the following question:


It all depends on the skill of the rowers. Anything that adds spice and develops another stage of awareness. The “ghost stroke” (as I’ve been calling it), where you get the boat running and then every other stroke as soon as you enter you take your hands completely off the oar and sit back and fend it off as it comes at you surprisingly quickly, at the right depth/height. Many variations, all showing that the handle moves because the boat does.

We row quite a bit of feet out to keep women on the seat at the finish. I love when during training I have to ask, “Are you still feet-out?” When they’re able to row with confidence, connection and power throughout the stroke feet out, I know we’re making progress.

My two favorite drills are the Russian Drill, moving from the catch to the full stroke at the finish, and the gunnel tap progressing to one and glide as the team shows mastery.

My personal favorite for sweep rowing is the Pick Drill or Reverse Pick Drill with the Outboard Arm Only on the Square. The outboard arm is responsible for 90% of the motion of the sweep stroke and rowing with just the outboard hand forces you to have better feel and connection at all points in the stroke and forces you to both catch and finish properly to get the blade in an out of the water cleanly.

When I am watching the athletes I’m looking to see a deliberate unweighting of the handle to the catch at the shoulder joint (not with the wrists or elbows), a hanging connection on the water starting right at the entry, a correct sequencing of motion of legs, back, arms (slightly overlapped is ideal), and the handle carrying through to the chest in a straight line and not dumping into the lap or washing out.

Push/pull is a favorite of mine. It is a great drill for both small and big boats to reinforce the turn around and hang at the front end along with the force of the hands on the handle. Kids learn that there does not need to be upward force on the handle for power and learn to feel a little more hang and force on the front edge of the handle.

My all-time favorite is continuous rowing with the feather, both hands, low cadence, at full pressure. Can’t beat it, but then it really isn’t a drill at all. Covers all aspects of good rowing, with the goal of turning muscle motion into boat speed. Next favorite, and what would be considered a real “drill” is pausing at body angle; can’t have enough good preparation. Next is one-arm rowing, either inside or outside, to help simplify blade work and connection.

Straight Arm Stride, I'll do this by fours in an eight to get us connected to our larger muscle groups, especially glutes and lats.

One of my favorite on-water drills is the ‘golf swing’ drill that I learned (stole) from Marc Mandel while he was coaching Gonzaga HS. Every other stroke is an air stroke where you place the blade flat on the water at the catch and let it float through the drive – similar to how golfers take a practice swing before they line up to hit the ball. You can practice almost every facet of the stroke within the golf swing drill so it's useful all year.

I would say feet out is my most used drill. It forces the athlete into connecting to the footboard, which is one of the most important relationships in the boat. We start off most sessions with the feet out, except when it’s really cold.

By and large, I believe simplicity is more desirable. So, when it comes to drills, we focus on the simpler ones. We teach our athletes to be “active participants” in their rowing. For us, that means thinking about each aspect of their stroke and working on it, even when the coach isn’t talking to you.

For those two reasons, the overwhelming amount of our drill time is spent in some sort of pause drill. When we stop the stroke in-cycle, it gives the athletes a moment to consider where they are, how they got there, and what they are going to do next. Having said that, I always try and educate the rowers on why we are doing that pause drill on that day. There is a purpose behind everything that we do, and I expect them to apply the drills with that purpose in mind. We don’t subscribe to complicated or highly technical drills. A well-timed and generally understood pause drill almost always does the trick.

We row with feet out a lot. Keeping the consistent connection to the boat is key and we hope to be able to learn how to apply pressure without relying on the shoes to do so. Cut the Cake has become a favorite of our team, to work on rhythm and timing, but also relaxation and flow on the recovery. We do a lot of legs only, which we then lengthen out through the drive phase to focus on picking up the boat and keeping it going.

Lastly would be lots and lots of pause drills at all areas of the stroke. Whatever you think needs focus on that day, we may throw a pause in to emphasize a point. Last drill, which we didn’t get to do a lot of this year, was the Snake Drill (one that I picked up from Kevin Sauer years ago) where you have one side of the boat rowing with the other side sitting out. Can be done in eights or fours, and essentially “replicates” the idea of rowing circles in a pair. A great drill for length, timing, and connection. You can also make it fun by pitting ports against starboards. I have had a few crews experience some relative success and I can tie that success back to the Snake Drill.

Feet out build a pair is a game changer. As the boat picks up speed, it’s easy to want to “pull” to match the acceleration, when really you want to push or stand up harder. We also talk a lot about being balanced in the seat so that a change in direction is fluid and efficient. Lastly, I really like the athletes visualizing the balance of forces of the feet versus the hands. The hang in the grip of the fingers should feel like the same pressure as the feet making a footprint on the footboards. When those two forces are not aligned, you’ll see “opening” or disconnected blades.

Five (strokes) legs only – five legs body progressive. It is exactly 30 strokes if you do it in an eight. Start off with the stern pair taking five legs only strokes and then five legs and body only strokes. Then the five and six seats add in so the stern four does five legs only strokes followed by five legs and body only strokes. You repeat the pattern with the stern six.

You can focus on putting the blade in the water before applying leg drive, using leg drive only for the first part of the drive (although complete leg drive before any opening of the hip angle is an exaggeration for drill purposes), and pretty much any other aspect of the catch and drive that the crew needs.

Adding in pairs speeds up the boat, thus changing the skill of finding the speed of the boat at the catch and early drive. You could do the drill with outside hand only or a wide grip and add a pause in as well. We’ll go through the whole boat, letting each pair start the drill once, so everyone gets the same practice repetitions.

Anything that makes it heavy then light. Add a pair is great; row by 2s, 4s, 6s, then with power all 8. The rowers feel connection and make rhythm changes together as the boat speed increases. Plus, it's fun when it's competitive.

Legs only/top 6” – You have to place the blade before the push. The slide is moving such a short distance in either direction that you have to be precise. If the blade is not “secure” in the water before the push, then the bodies are moving, but the boat is not. We coach that as soon as the slide starts to move to the stern that the blade is moving to the water. The blade is in place with the last roll of the slide. If the blade is secure in the water, you have something to push against and the boat will move. When you are doing this drill with other boats it is pretty clear which boat is more precise.

I love two strokes and pause body prep, hands one inch off the gunwales. If done properly the boat just slides across the water, no tipping, no shakes, the coxswains says a quiet, “row”, and the crew quietly resumes the recovery, blades square and place and off they go again! So many things come into play for this drill. First, clean release. If they release together and clean, the boat will be flat, set, and continue to run. If they achieve the body prep together the boat will remain very set, flat, and run, and NOW they have achieved body prep so the next catch is possible before they drive!

Also by having the hands low, they are leaving plenty of room below the blades so any rough water, lips from puddles, etc. simply slide beneath their blade and the boat is not disrupted, and the blade is now far enough off the water to square with no chance of ticking the water allowing for a cleaner recovery. If they get to body prep pause, and the cox says GO, they are prepared with 90% of their body motion so they stand a great chance of just rolling up the recovery using their seats, and not lunging/diving for the catch but rather placing their handle and driving. To me this drill seems to have so many good focus points!

One that is really simple, but I find to be really effective is the “watch the catch” drill. This drill can be done a few different ways—sometimes you have the crew rowing continuously and looking out at their oars every 3 strokes, sometimes you add a pause during the recovery, have the crews turn their heads to look out at that point, then resume the recovery and they continue to watch their blade through the catch. We also sometimes do “pair circles”, in which the rowers go out in pairs and one rower sets the boat while the other rows and watches his/her blade.

The key component of the drill is that they actually see what their blade is doing as it enters the water. We learn predominantly in one of three ways—by doing, by hearing, and by seeing. A rower in the boat hears a lot of coaching, and they do a lot of rowing—but they typically don’t see what they’re doing with their oar (assuming they keep their head in the boat). Many rowers see their blade at the catch and start to realize that it isn’t doing what they think it is. Then they fix it, see that they’ve fixed it, and then, crucially, they learn what it feels like when they’re doing it right. That way, they can continue to do it correctly even when their head is back in the boat.

Another that I like is a “combo” drill, one that we only do after having done the parts of the drill individually first. It’s 8 strokes from half-slide, 8 strokes legs only, 8 strokes full. The rowers start at the finish and do 8 strokes in which they only go to half-slide; this emphasizes getting the body prepped early, as well as challenges them to push with the hips on the drive before opening the body, which is harder since the leg drive from half-slide is much shorter. They also have to keep their recovery controlled or the rate will skyrocket, and they’ll start to rush.

Then, as they hit the finish on the 8th stroke, they recover all the way to the full catch and take 8 strokes legs-only. This focuses on getting the hip push and leg drive off the catch, without the body/shoulders/arms taking the catch. After they finish the 8th stroke of legs-only, they recover to the full catch and take 8 full strokes, aiming to put together all of the elements of the stroke that were just emphasized in the first two sections.

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