Coxswain Skills: Boat Feel

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  

“Boat feel” is something that you’ve gotta understand regardless of who/what you’re coxing. It most often comes up when we’re talking about bow loaders since instead of seeing what’s happening you’ve gotta feel it but everything below is applicable to any boat you’ll ever be in.

The way my coach approached it and how some of the best coaches I’ve worked with lately have approached it is that you should ideally spend your first season learning the basics of rowing, meaning you focus on just the bodies and blades. The following season, that’s when you start to really tie in the associations between what’s happening with the bodies + blades and what your body is feeling. That’s not to say that you can’t think about what boat feel is/means your first season but like they say, you can’t construct a building on a weak foundation. Plus, if you’re in boats with novice crews it’s pretty likely that nothing is going to feel good to the point where you’ll really be able to develop any sense of real boat feel anyways.

Related: 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?

Once you’ve developed a fairly solid understanding of the basic mechanics of the stroke, then you should start asking yourself how your body reacts to these three things: the movements of the boat, changes in the stroke, and technical adjustments made by the rowers. That (the italicized) is boat feel if you were to define it.

The first thing you should do to give yourself a baseline to go off of is figure out what your body is doing when the boat is running well and things feel good. What that means is consciously thinking about how every part of your body that is in contact with the shell feels (i.e. feet, legs, hips, core/back, hands, etc.). I like to think about all of this when we’re doing steady state because I have more time to focus on each of the three things I mentioned before. I think about it when we’re doing drills and stuff too but it’s a mid-level priority since my main priority is actually executing whatever we’re doing. I also like to force myself to think about it when we’re doing high rate stuff (30 stroke pieces are great for this) so I can get used to feeling how the boat moves in racing situations and managing doing that while my brain is trying to process fifteen other things at the same time. (This helps a lot when you’re actually racing because it takes less effort to do once you’ve practiced it a lot.)

Once you know how your body reacts to the boat moving well (which basically means it’s balanced, you’re getting good run, and the rowers are taking effective strokes) it’ll be easier for you to pinpoint when something is off. From there you can address the issue by reinforcing whatever your coach has been teaching lately or by making the call for the appropriate technical adjustment (hence why you need to have a good base understanding of the bodies + blades).

Once you’ve done that, give the rower(s) a couple strokes to make a change. During this time you should be feeling the boat again and asking yourself if and why it feels different, i.e. did the rower(s) make a positive change or a negative change. If it doesn’t feel any different or it feels worse then maybe the call you made didn’t fully address the problem or the rower was unsure of how to implement the change. This is something to bring up to your coach the next time you stop. If the boat feels good, meaning your body’s hit that baseline feeling again, then reinforce the change by giving the rower(s) some positive feedback.

Developing boat feel requires two main things – time and focus. The more time you spend in a boat consciously working on this, the better you’ll get at developing it. Same with focus, the more time you spend processing what you’re feeling instead of just spitting it back out at the rowers, the better you’ll be at understanding the relationship between what they’re doing and how the shell responds.

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