“Baseball bat!”

A few weeks ago I went to the What Works Summit coaching conference at CRI and one of the main things I was looking forward to was hearing Kevin Sauer of UVA speak. He was a huge reason why I looked at UVA in the first place when I was applying to schools so to get the chance to hear him talk was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

He gave two presentations, one on how to make the boat move and then another as part of a roundtable discussion on championship programs. During the roundtable he told this story that, even now, just kind of blows my mind because it’s so awesome.

So, a bit of background to start. UVA won the 2012 NCAA Championship led by the 1st Varsity 8+, which was the first time they’d accomplished that. They’d won NCAAs previously but never with a 1v8+ win too. After graduating a good class the previous spring (2011), they were now tasked with putting together a boat that could match or exceed the skill level of the rowers they’d graduated. When they came to Head of the Charles in 2011 and won (in a time of 16:11.519, eight seconds faster than 2nd place Radcliffe), he was pleasantly surprised. They weren’t going against the national team since they were training for the Olympics, but they beat the other college teams, which is obviously who they needed to beat. Then, when they went to Princeton Chase and won there too, he started to realize this boat had something.

Now, looking at the competition, Michigan was solid last year. They killed it all season, basically just blowing the other crews they raced out of the water. They only lost twice on their way to a Big 10 Championship and 2nd place finish at NCAAs. When Coach Sauer was telling us this, he started talking about this race that Michigan had against Princeton.

Michigan got out hard and controlled the entire race, winning with a length of open over Princeton and two lengths of open over Brown. He called a team meeting and played this video for the girls, without saying a word from beginning to end. They silently watched it and at the end someone asked, “So, how are we going to beat them?”, to which he replied “I don’t know.” They started throwing ideas out there on what their race plan and strategy was going to be, how they were going to train for this, etc. Everyone’s contributing ideas and he just kind of blurts out “baseball bat”, to which the girls were all … “what??”. And he said “Baseball bat! We’ve just got to keep hitting them and hitting them and hitting them.” At the time, and still now, he said he had no idea why that was what came out of his mouth because it didn’t make sense to anybody, including him.

Part of their strategy was this move that they make at the 1000m mark but because they knew Michigan’s tendencies, he told his coxswain on race-day that if she needed to take it right at the beginning of the race to avoid letting Michigan get away from them, do it. The goal was to not let them get an inch of open water on them, otherwise it’d be all over. Coach Sauer and another coach were following behind the race in the launch and saw that, like they’d predicted, Michigan got out hard and fast. They started to walk, seat by seat, until they were six or seven seats up and he said he was thinking “come on, make the move, gotta go, don’t let them break away, gotta make it now…” and then all of a sudden they started seeing UVA walk until they were even with them.

The other coach in the launch said “You’ve got it. They (UVA) won.” and he said he was thinking this guy was crazy because they were only 750m into the race. BUT, they had won at that point because by making the move and walking on Michigan, they broke them. Michigan couldn’t and didn’t know how to counter it, presumably because it wasn’t something they’d had to deal with all season (which you can look at as either a good thing or a bad thing). UVA ended up winning and the rest is history.

When they got back to the dock, Coach Sauer went up to the coxswain and said “What did you do, what did you call? What’d you say to them to make that move?” and she said “All I said was ‘baseball bat‘.”

That is like … wow. This random thing that he’d blurted out during a team meeting, something that meant nothing to anyone at the time, is what they all internalized to help them win a national championship.

Related: When do you call power 10s, both on the erg and the water? Would it be like when you see a girl’s split dropping and staying down on a 2k or during a race if you’re close and want to pass another boat? Or could it be any time just for a burst of energy? I don’t really know the strategy, I just know at some point I’ll have to sound like I know what I’m doing and call a few.

My point with this story goes back to what I was talking about in the question I answered this morning (linked above) but it also touches on a lot of other things too. The moves you plan aren’t always going to happen when you want them to – sometimes you’ve got to do something spontaneous to reap the maximum benefits. The calls you make are important, which is why I try and stress to you guys to say what you say with a purpose. When you’re talking with the coach or your crew, pay attention to what people say – you never know what is going to resonate with people. Baseball bat?? I mean, come on!! That’s such a basic, meaningless term but it became the rallying cry of sorts for this boat. It is your job to figure out what it takes to get your boat to move, so always keep your ears open – you never know when you’re gonna hear the call that changes everything.

Words.

Rowers can do it all and they can do it well. Joining the rowing team will be the greatest decision you will ever make, if you choose to accept the harsh realities of the sport. By doing so, you will understand the incalculable value of an indomitable spirit – and you will learn, above all, that your achievements in life are limited only by the magnitude of your drive to achieve them.

Question of the Day

How do you deal with coxswains who just don’t really want to do what they’re supposed to do? I’m a very passionate novice cox but there are others who tend to slack off and don’t like going out on water and aren’t very helpful/motivating to the rowers. Some girls on their boats have come up to me and asked me to talk to the other coxswains.

If you were a varsity coxswain, I would probably give you different advice but since you’re a novice, same as them (I assume), I’ll say this: let your coach handle it. You can and should absolutely bring the issue to their attention but as far as talking to them I’d let the coach do it. If the other coxswains figure out that the rowers went behind their backs to talk to you and then you said something to them, even if you have the best intentions, shit could hit the fan. It could come off as you putting yourself on some kind of pedestal and thinking you’re better than or in charge of them, which will lead to them completely ignoring you and then taking it out on their rowers for being snitches.

Related: As a coxswain I do all the workouts (to keep weight down and to encourage/have respect from rowers) but none of the other coxswains do. Do you think I should ask them to join? I just feel when we are concentrating to do 50 push-ups and they are laughing they kinda bugs me / gets me off track, I don’t want them to sacrifice our rowers work outs. I know the rowers are quite annoyed also … should I tell them to leave join, stop, etc?

I witnessed a similar situation in high school when I was a junior or senior and it made practice miserable for everyone. It sucks having people like that on your team but sometimes the best solution is to just let the person in charge deal with it. They actually have the authority to tell them to either shape up or get out.

Question of the Day

I think this is a basic technique thing, but a lot of people seem to forget to watch their arms when we’re erging because they’re so focused on everything else. I know what the finish looks like but what position would you say the arms/elbows are in at the catch? Also with arms on the erg, should they be going straight in and out? Like should the cord (or whatever it’s even called) be moving at all vertically? If that makes sense?

It’s hard to explain over the internet what it should look like – it’s definitely something you need to see, not read – so my suggestion would be to watch this video. It’s the best one I’ve seen because it really breaks down the stroke and shows what everything should look like. They start with the finish around the 0:56 mark, so if you pause the video there, you can see what her body looks like.

The video I’ve posted below is great because it shows you everything people do wrong. You’ll want to pay particular attention to the 1:10 mark where they demonstrate “chicken wing arms”. The opposite of the chicken wing arms that they don’t discuss is the T-Rex arms. If you look at a T-Rex’s arms (in this super educational photo) you can see that they’re tiny, close to the body, and weirdly bent at the wrists, which if you watch some people on the erg, that’s how they row.

Regarding how the arms should travel, yes, they should ideally be going straight in and out, for the most part. Think of the handle and chain as the oar; if your arms and hands are going all over the place on the erg, what do you think the oar would be doing if you were in the boat? The movement of the chain and hands is a hotly contested topic amongst rowers. Some rowers on the erg pull the handle all the way up to their chests because it makes the stroke longer and the output is a few more meters per stroke than if they’d pulled into their usual targets.

If you watch the video below, see if you can pause it at 0:26. Look at the rower in the bottom right of the screen with the black and red shorts. See how far he’s laying back and how the handle is practically level with his shoulders? Now, unpause it and go back a few seconds so you can watch him take the full stroke. Play from 0:23-0:28 a few times and watch the path that the chain travels. He pulls the handle in really high, which, because he lays back so far doesn’t change the chain height too much, but watch it on the recovery … he shoots his hands down from his chest to his knees as he swings up and then brings them even lower over his feet 0:30 before lifting them back up a few inches at the catch. These are all guys on the Canadian national team so obviously whatever they do works for them but for the sake of demonstrating a different side of the argument, this guy does a good job of making my point.

Personally, I think this style is really inefficient so when I’m trying to explain the stroke I tell people to pull somewhere between the bottom of their rib cage and their belly button and make the small c-turn with the handle to mimic tapping down with the oar handle. I think you should row the same on the erg as you do in the boat because why wouldn’t you? People who say “oh, I don’t do this in the boat” are wrong – whatever bad habits they have on the erg almost always translate into bad habits in the boat.

You don’t want the chain flopping up and down because a) that will break it, b) it’s inefficient, and c) it’s just wrong. I tell people to envision a table or something over their legs that they have to slide their hands across as they come into the catch. Visualizing your hands gliding across something helps them to stay level and avoid lifting their hands up (which in the boat would mean they’re catching before their bodies are actually at the catch), as well as from dropping them down too low which would lead to missing water and rowing it in.

Question of the Day

When do you call power 10s, both on the erg and the water? Would it be like when you see a girl’s split dropping and staying down on a 2k or during a race if you’re close and want to pass another boat? Or could it be any time just for a burst of energy? I don’t really know the strategy, I just know at some point I’ll have to sound like I know what I’m doing and call a few.

On the erg, I don’t call a power 10 unless the rower has asked me to beforehand. A lot of rowers don’t like to be bothered during 2ks so they can get/stay in their zone and randomly popping up behind them to give a power 10 can sometimes do more harm than good. When they’ve asked me to give them one, they usually say to do it whenever it looks like they need one or they’ll say “I want a 10 at 1500m, 20 at 1000, 10 at 750m, 10 at 500m, and 10 at 150m.” If they say to call it whenever I’ll try and do one at each of the major meter marks and/or within the last 100m. In between there if it looks like they’re falling off a little I’ll give them a quick 5 instead of a 10 to get them to refocus.

On the water, I always have a strategy ahead of time that I try and stick to. Nearly every burst I call is called with a purpose – I very rarely call a burst just for power but if I do it’s usually because I’m not feeling the power or because I want to get up with or past another crew. During sprint races in high school I was always trying to listen to the other coxswains and when I’d hear them take a 10 or 20, I’d wait for them to get about halfway through it before I’d start my own burst. Not only would that counteract their move nearly every time but it’d also put us a little bit more ahead at the end of it. Sometimes those spontaneous calls would interfere with my planned calls so I’d either go straight into the planned call or I’d skip it if we were far enough ahead that I could afford to do that. For head races, using the course map to find the landmarks, mile markers, etc. will help you a lot in figuring out where to make calls.

Related: HOCR: Landmarks along the course

In sprint races, I don’t deviate too much from “the plan” each week since 1500m or 2000m courses are the same everywhere. They’ve all got 1500m, 1000m, 500m, and 100m to go marked along the course and since those are major points where I tend to call strategic bursts, I don’t change it up very much.

Normally my crew would also have a “special move” thrown in outside of my usual spots, usually to counteract another team’s move or to just open some water on the other crews. This was typically a 20 where we’d build for three, bump the rate up a beat or two for 15-18, then settle back into our regular pace over the remaining couple of strokes. These moves always had code words associated with them so that the other crews wouldn’t know we were making a move. “POWER 10” is really, really obvious (and easy to exploit by other coxswains), especially when you’re yelling it into your mic, so we’d talk during practice the week before and figure out what they wanted me to say. Usually it was something simple like “fire ’em up” and they would just know, without me saying it, that the move starts on the next stroke. They’d make the move and I’d cox them as normal. Even though I wasn’t calling it I could see it happening because we’d either be walking on or away from a crew and I could see the stroke rate change on my cox box. (We practiced this a lot to ensure everyone knew when to bring the rate up and when to bring it down too. Doing it on the fly I think would have been a mess.)

Related: How to survive winter training, pt. 4: 2k strategy

At bigger regattas where sprints were a bigger deal we’d take 5 to build into the last 250 but before that burst we’d take a build into the build that was purely for power. My senior year when I used the build-into-the-build nearly every race, I’m convinced that it’s what put our bow ball ahead in the few races we didn’t win by open water. I don’t remember what I’d say to start that build but it was always something synonymous with “power”. I think one of the things I said most often was “bend ’em”, meaning to hang on the oars so hard that you’re bending them as they go through the water. Going into the 5 to build into the sprint, the call was always “light ’em up” and then the start of the sprint was “afterburners”.

The best thing you can do is to sit down with your coach, your crew, and a course map. Figure strategic spots along the course to make a call then figure out what that call is going to be for. If you’re going to use a code word, discuss that with your crew. Make sure everyone knows what the word is and what means. Once you’ve got the strategy down, figure out your “special” move, what it’s going to be, where you’d ideally like to call it, and then make sure you practice it throughout the week so the crew gets used to hearing and feeling it.