Question of the Day

Hi, I never know what it means when someone asks me what the boat “feels” like. Like the rush for example. I’m not sure what that feels like vs. a boat with no rush. Just in general, I’m not sure how to gauge whether a piece felt good or bad. I feel like the only things I can see are blade height, square up timing, catch timing, and if bodies are moving together, and I can tell if the boat was really moving and if there was power. But what else should I be aware of?

Rush is something you need to communicate with your stroke about because they’re usually going to feel it more than you will, unless it’s really bad. You’ll know if the boat is rushed (without your stroke telling you) when you’re getting thrown back and forth in the seat. When you’re rowing normally you can sense the rhythm and see/feel that one part of the stroke lasts longer than the other but when it’s rushed you can’t see a difference in the ratio, which is a good indication that the boat is just spinning its wheels.

Related: Coxswain skills: “So, what did you see?”

This is what I wrote in response to an email how to develop better boat feel:

“There’s no substitute for being in the boat so try to get out as often as possible. Experience on the water is key. By now you should have a good sense of technique, what the blades should look like, what the bodies should be doing, etc. so now’s the time to start applying that to their respective effects on the boat. When you’re on the water, commit to feeling every stroke the rowers take. Pay attention to their effect on how the boat moves in response to the calls you or your coach make.

To feel how the boat moves, the best way to do this is to become “one with the boat”. You want to position yourself in the coxswain’s seat so that if someone were to pick the boat up and flip it over, you wouldn’t fall out. Have your feet flat against the footboards on either side of the cox box, slide your hips into the back of seat, and brace your arms against the gunnels. You want your body to be tense enough that you can feel every movement of the boat but not so tense that you feel like you need a massage afterwards to get rid of all the kinks. You don’t necessarily have to sit like that for an entire 90 minute practice but getting in that “coxswain’s stance” every so often throughout practice does a lot more for you than just sitting there and letting the boat move you around like a rag doll. When I’m in this position, I aim to focus on four things: the kick at the catch, the surge on the drive, the acceleration at the finish, and the relaxation on the recovery.

Personally for me, I see what’s wrong almost always before I feel it, especially during a race. I can feel when the power is off, when someone is catching early, or sometimes when there’s a lot of rush, but the really nitty-gritty technique stuff is more noticeable to me just by watching the blades rather than trying to feel it out.

Having a good sense of boat feel is a big part of being a good coxswain and it’s most definitely a skill that everyone should learn but I think some people put too much weight on it sometimes. Just like different people have different learning styles, I think coxswains have different ways of knowing what needs to happen in the boat – some operate more on what they feel, others more on what they see. It’s all very philosophical if you think about it. I don’t think one is right, wrong, or better than the other though. I’m a very visual person so I go off what I see because it’s easier for me to convey what’s happening to the rest of the crew.

Even though the crew should be going off what you say and not necessarily what they think is happening individually, I think boat feel is very much open to interpretation. Unless the rowers understand and feel the same thing you’re feeling, it can be hard for them to make the necessary adjustments, even if you’re telling them exactly what needs to happen. I’ve heard and read boat feel be described as being similar to the concept of love – you can explain the concept to anyone but until that other person feels it too and really gets it, there will be a gap, similar to a language barrier, where things get lost and/or are misunderstood. This is more of an occurrence with younger crews compared to more experienced ones though, which reiterates my point that time on the water is everything.

Feeling the boat requires a lot of concentration. A lot. There are a lot of subtle hints that you might naturally not pay attention to but when you do pick up on them you’ll be able to recognize the part they play in developing (or hindering) the boat’s speed. Sometimes when we’re doing steady state, especially if we’ve spent the past few practices doing a lot of drilling, I’ll just not talk for a few minutes at a time and instead focus on what the boat’s doing.

In addition to sitting properly in the boat, total silence is another thing that helps me feel what’s going on. As long as we’re in a straight section of the river (sometimes few and far between on the Charles) and I’ve got a good point, I’ll close my eyes for 3-5 strokes and base my “observations” off that. I listen to the oarlocks, the slides, the catches, the water, the rowers breathing, etc. Sometimes I’ll have the rowers do that too, except we’ll do ten minutes of eyes closed or two minutes closed, one minute open. Not only does this help them feel out the rhythm but it also helps me later on because when I ask them for feedback on how the boat felt, they can tell me exactly what they felt, what they thought was working, what felt off, etc. Whenever somebody says “that felt good today” ask them why it felt good, make note of it, and see if you can replicate that same environment tomorrow.”

Knowing whether a piece was good or bad is something inherent, I think. You just know when a piece is bad and you just know when a piece is good. One of the first ones I ever did as a coxswain was when I was a novice and it’s something I think about every time one of my boats has a good piece. I knew nothing about technique, what I should be looking for, or anything other than how to steer at this point but at the end of it I just smiled and said “that felt good” because it did. I swear it was the closest I’d ever been to flying at that point because the power was there, the strokes were clean, and there was this quiet intensity that encompassed the boat…it just felt like we were gliding over the water. My coach did the best thing I think a coach can do though after that because instead of responding with “good” he asked “why” knowing full well that I had no idea why. He made me think really hard about what I saw and felt, and then let me struggle with trying to come up with the words to explain it. He told me to think about it for the rest of practice and have an answer for him when we got off the water.

This was all in the spirit of teaching me something – he didn’t say it like he was annoyed that I didn’t know what to say. Once we got off, he sat with me and listened to me explain what I thought and then went over everything I said in actual rowing terms so that I could tie together what I felt vs. what I saw. It was one of the best teaching moments I’ve had as a coxswain because that really kickstarted my education on the rowing stroke.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your rowers, specifically your stroke seat, and ask them what they thought and how it felt to them. Sometimes they feel things you don’t but finding out what that was lets you look for what could be contributing to that (positively or negatively) on the next piece.

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