Getting off the line with world class speed

This was a talk given by Bryan Volpenhein, former Ohio State and US National Team rower and now current national team coach of the men’s four. He spoke on “getting off the line with world class speed”, which comes down to having the right mentality at the start, staying relaxed at peak speed, and executing a clean shift.

The start defined

We’ve all heard the phrase “you can’t win the race off the start but you can lose it”, not just as a result of your rowing but also due to your mentality. The one singular purpose of the start is to get you into the race. Your specific job is to get the lead and the start is your first opportunity to do that. One of the biggest keys (#majorkey 🔑) to accomplishing that is the intent you go to the line with. There can’t be any hesitation or doubt about what you’re going to do – everyone has to be on the same page and know exactly how the next 30-40 strokes are going to be executed. If there’s any hesitation or you’re thinking about what you’re gonna do on the shift or how it’s going to happen or anything other than just straight execution, you’re already at a disadvantage.

This is  huge reason why coxswains MUST call the start consistently and not change the calls on race day or the number of strokes it takes to shift to base, etc. The start must be instinctual for you and the rowers and if your execution here is poor, you’ve gone from being an asset to a distraction in 30 strokes or less. Practicing them on a regular basis and having the discipline to “stick to the script” can help alleviate any uncertainty and allow the crew to become more comfortable with the calls, speed, and, in the case of the rowers, discomfort.

Relaxation with effort

This is a simple concept. Maintaining a sense of relaxation with power and while at speed is all about being loose. Less is more here and patience is the key to both.

At the catch and on the drive the shoulders and hands should stay relaxed while the resistance is felt in the hips and fingers.

Putting the blade in the water should be the result of swinging from the armpits rather than lifting with the shoulders. The catch should be completely free of tension.

The recovery should be an exercise in patience, particularly at high rates like you have off the start. A steady roll into the catch, regardless of rate, should occur naturally by letting the boat run under you rather than relying on the hamstrings to pull you up.

Bottom line – any unnecessary contraction of muscles you don’t need is going to result in a loss of speed.

Practicing the shift

This is one of the most important parts of the race so the execution of it has to be clean by both the coxswain and crew. One of the things that I thought was interesting was what Bryan said about the language they use to describe this chunk of strokes. Rather than call it the “settle” or say “stride”, both of which he considers too passive, he prefers to call it the “shift” because it refers to an active shift in speed to race speed. This communicates the sense that you’re not coming down in speed, you’re maintaining it or trying to go faster by attacking the race at a more sustainable pace.

When you’re calling the shift, the timing of your calls is important for a clean execution by everyone. Something you need to practice and discuss with the crew early on is where in the stroke cycle you’re making your calls. Convention dictates that 98% of your calls are made at the catch but if you’re one of those coxswains who counts their strokes at the finish, you’ve gotta figure out how the shift is going to work if you want the change to happen on the next catch (i.e. if you say “ten” at the finish of stroke 10 and want the change to happen on what would be stroke 11).

Personally I think making calls at the finish and trying to initiate the shift in the span of half a stroke (aka the recovery) rather than across one full stroke (the drive and subsequent recovery) introduces frantic, rushed feeling into the boat’s psyche that could easily be avoided by just spacing out the calls … and, obviously, as I’ve said many times before, not trying to cram too many words into a short period of time. Efficiency applies not just to the rowing but to your calls as well.

Related: Listen to how the shift is called in this race (around the 0:32 second mark), as well as the language used.

Drills to work on the start

Some of the high rate drills Bryan does with the four to help them practice getting off the line include half-slide builders, which help you change direction and get connected without checking the boat (seen below) and reverse ratio placements.

Reverse ratio, which is when you have a full speed recovery and a zero speed drive, isn’t something you typically want to see but in this context it helps the rowers work on body control (setting the bodies quickly) and accuracy at the front end. It also helps you coordinate the recovery sequence when you’re at race pace and eliminate any tension on the drive when the blade is being supported by the water.

Below are some videos that Bryan showed during his presentation and shared with me afterwards that demonstrate what the reverse ratio drill looks like. The first is a stroke by stroke drill, the second and third show the reverse ratio while rowing continuously, and the last one shows their full starting sequence (the splits of which he said were consistently hitting 1:17s).

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