How to: Rotate through the Sixes

This regularly gets asked by new coxswains at the start of each season so hopefully this helps you learn the order of the switches, as well as who’s being switched in and out.

Related: Transitioning by fours in an 8+ always confuses me. I know you start with stern four, then stern pair out, then three four in, but what’s after that? Who goes in and out in what order? Thanks!

It’s not nearly as difficult as it looks but it does help to familiarize yourself with the transitions before you actually need to call them.

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Question of the Day

How do you avoid being repetitive if your boat keeps falling off the goal stroke rate? The boat I cox sometimes struggles to keep it up and I don’t want to constantly be calling “up two in two,” as I feel like it’s either not working (which is why we keep coming back down) or it gets annoying. Once we get up to rate I try to sometimes call for a “focus 5” to really focus on what the rate feels like and maybe help with building muscle memory of what the slide speed and drive speed should feel like and I think it helps a bit, but sometimes we fall back down anyway.

Also, how do you call a double pause drill (e.g., pause at arms over and at half slide)? Do you say “row” after the first pause, even though they’re not actually rowing but rather moving to a second pause? Or do you not call the pauses/”row”s at all and just let stroke seat take control? (I’m in a bowloader, if that makes a difference)

Thanks!

Good question about the pause drills. Check out the “relevant calls” section, specifically the first and second paragraphs, in the “Top 20 terms” post linked below. That addresses exactly what you asked.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Pause drills

If for whatever reason you aren’t calling something, whoever’s in bow takes over making the calls, not stroke (and that’s rare too that they’d need to take over doing that). Being in a bowloader though is irrelevant. You don’t need to see them to feel when they get to the first pause and from there you just need to wait 2-3 seconds before calling them to half slide. Wash, rinse, repeat.

With the stroke rate issues, first thing you should do is talk to your coach. Explain that you’re having trouble maintaining the stroke rate and see if they can take some video of the crew that they can then go over with everyone later. This should help you narrow down what technical things you can narrow in on with your calls to help them hold the rate.

There’s plenty of things you could focus on but here’s three to start with..

Get the hands moving out of bow at a speed that matches whatever rate you’re at. You’re not gonna hit a 32 if your hands are coming away at a 26. Hand speed’s gotta match the boat speed. Get the body set before the legs come up too, that way you’re not dumping all your weight into the front end as you try to change direction.

Change direction at both ends in one fluid motion. When the slide/handle stops moving in one direction it should immediately start moving in the other. If you’re hanging at the front end or pausing at the back end the boat’s gonna lose momentum and whatever energy you could be putting into maintaining the rate is gonna have to go into picking it back up again (which is gonna feel super heavy and cause you to fatigue sooner which will also contribute to the rate falling off).

Get the rate on the drive. You’ve gotta build the pressure before the rate so as you’re building between the “off” strokes and the “on” strokes, don’t make it all about slide speed. Make sure the blades are fully buried and that they’re squeezing the legs the catch and getting a solid push off the stretchers that is then followed up by accelerating the handle through the second half of the stroke. If you can get the boat running well that’s gonna make it feel lighter at the catch which in turn will make it easier to pick up and turn around.

Focus fives lose their meaning really fast if you constantly call them without any sort of positive outcome. All you’re basically saying is that they just have to focus on X for five strokes and then they can go back to … not focusing on it. If something feels good, just say that. If you want them to do something, just say it.

I’m assuming you’re coxing a younger crew, in which case there’s not usually enough stability or consistency over five strokes to get a good idea of what good ratio feels like or how (for example) a 22 feels compared to an 18. Instead of doing a focus five, lengthen it out to 60-90 seconds … and be quiet during that time so they can actually feel the boat, process it, and commit it to muscle memory. This is a good thing to do during steady state and you can preface it by saying “the ratio here at the 22 feels pretty good so for the next 90 seconds, let’s maintain this by doing XYZ” … and then let them go.

The “inside arm, outside arm, and wide grip” drill

This drill is one we do fairly regularly as part of our warmup so I wanted to quickly go through it and differentiate between all three to explain what their individual purposes are. The overarching purpose of the drill itself is to teach the rowers how to distinguish between the functions of the outside arm and the inside arm.

How they’re done is self-explanatory … you row with just your inside arm, just your outside arm, and then with a wide grip. If you’re not sure what constitutes a wide grip, you can go one full fist over from where your inside hand is normally positioned (so instead of two fists between your hands now there’s three) or you can just put your inside hand on the far end of the handle either where it meets the shaft of the oar or just past it.

Inside arm

This is the version with the most variety in terms of what it aims to work on. One of the things we work on with it is catch placement. Rowing with just the inside arm puts the emphasis on placing the blade and finding an immediate grip on the water and takes the focus away from muscling (aka forcing) it in, which some rowers have a tendency to do. This usually happens because they’re lifting with their outside hands to get the blade in instead of unweighting the handle and/or they’re carrying a lot of tension in their shoulders.

Another thing rowing with the inside arm works on is keeping the inside shoulder relaxed and loose. It’s common for rowers who are switching sides to pull too hard with what used to be their outside arm, which creates a lot of tension in the upper body. (Rowers on their normal sides can do this too.) Your inside arm doesn’t have the leverage to yank the oar through the water though so this allows you to focus on keeping the inside shoulder loose and the body controlled as the wheels change direction.

When you’re first learning to row a lot of emphasis is put on learning which hand squares and feathers the blade and which one actually draws it through the water. The inside arm is the one doing the feathering and squaring so if you’re coxing a younger crew, this should be a point of emphasis throughout the drill to get them used to rotating the handle with just their inside hand. Once they’ve got a good understanding of this, you can have them add the outside hand but keep it flat (i.e. just their palms resting on the handle) throughout the recovery so they can focus on keeping their outside wrist flat while the inside one rotates. It’s also the one that guides the handle during the recovery so if set is an issue, this is another opportunity to work on keeping it level without the influence of the outside hand.

Outside arm

Whenever you talk about hang or suspension, this is the arm that’s doing it. Rowing with just the outside arm emphasizes this and gets the rowers to use their body weight to hang off the handle in order to move the boat since, similarly to rowing with just your inside arm, you’re in a weaker position to get the blade through the water when you’re trying to do it with just one hand.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Suspension

This drill, because it slows the drive down, also gives you plenty of time to focus on your body position at the catch and throughout the drive. When you’re coxing them through it you should be emphasizing what should be happening with their body so that their weight is being used efficiently. (Check out the “what to look for” section in the post on suspension that I linked up above for more on this.)

In terms of bladework, the outside hand is the one applying vertical force to the handle so handle/blade height is a point of emphasis on the recovery, as is blade depth on the drive. If you see the blades going deep on the drive you’ll want to point that out and remind them to draw through horizontally with the outside arm and feel the connection in their lats, not their shoulder.

Wide grip

For the most part this is essentially the same as rowing with just the outside arm but with better balance since you’ve got both hands controlling the oar now. Similarly to the previous drill, it puts the focus on suspending your body weight off the handle while keeping the outside shoulder just slightly higher than the inside.

This is a good drill to do to work on rotating around the pin and keeping the outside shoulder up on the recovery. If you visualize a line between your shoulders, it should be parallel to the oar handle when you’re at the catch, which is a good reminder if you have someone in your boat who has a tendency to lunge.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Lunge

Here’s a good video from USRowing that shows all three drills as they’re coached by Mike Teti (with his Cal 8+) and Kris Korzeniowski (with the USA 8+ and 4-).

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).

Top 20 Terms Coxswains Should Know: Pause Drills

Previously: Rush(ing) || Body angle || Pick drill || Suspension || Skying the blade || Quarter feather || Pin || Run || Lunge || Washing Out || Missing water || Footboard || Check || Ratio || Over compression || Release || Cut the cake || Hanging the blade || Shooting the slide

What part of the stroke/stroke cycle does it refer to

Pause drills happen on the recovery at any of the following points: the release, mid-thigh, hands away, bodies over, quarter-slide, toes, half-slide, or three-quarter slide.

What does it mean/refer to

Pause drills are a way to slow everything down, organize the bodies, and establish your positioning as you come out of bow. They’re an active process (similar to shooting drills in basketball) that tap into the need to be prepared. Each pause also acts as a “collection” or “gathering” point for the rowers to check themselves and ensure they’re in the same position as the other seven people so that the rest of the recovery leading into the catch is executed smoothly and in unison.

Relevant calls

There are few times when a coxswain (particularly novices) sounds more robotic/”IDGAF” than when their crew is doing pause drills. The overwhelming majority rely on (and say) only one word for the entire duration of the drill – “go”. Not only does this get really old, really fast, it just makes you sound bored and disengaged. And trust me, I get that pause drills (like most drills) are boring but just because they are doesn’t mean you can be. There’s not a lot of “pause drill-specific” calls that you’ll make outside of general technical reminders (which by this point you shouldn’t have trouble coming up with on your own) but one thing you can do is stop saying “go” and replace it (or at the very least, alternate it) with stronger words that tie into what you want the rowers to do.

For example, if you’re doing a double pause drill at hands away and bodies over, instead of saying “go … go” after each pause, replace both of those with “pivot … row”. Instead of the rowers reacting to a word and doing whatever they want (not literally, more in the sense that whatever they do isn’t likely to be done together), they’re responding to a direct command (“pivot”) and focusing on swinging together into the next pause. Similarly, when I think of the word “row” I think of everyone moving together in time whereas “go” doesn’t really have that same feeling to it.

This isn’t specifically about calls but it’s also important to remember to make the pause long enough that the coach can jump in if they need to address something. We specify to our coxswains whenever we do these to “add in a two second pause at [wherever]” (it’s always two seconds) and that gives them enough time to actually pause and us enough time to jump in if/when necessary. There’s no sense in doing pause drills if your pause is 0.3 seconds long so count it out in your head (“one one thousand, two one thousand, row…“) and make sure the timing of each one is consistent.

What to look for

What you’re looking for with pause drills is going to relate less to the “pause” and more to whatever thing the pause is actually addressing – i.e. if you’re pausing at the toes, square timing and body prep will be two things to keep an eye on. You should discuss with your coach (if it’s not mentioned at the start of practice) what the goal is for the drill, what the rowers should focus on, if there’s anyone in particular that we’re doing the drill for (i.e. 3-seat has been having issues with getting his shoulders forward before the slide starts so you’re doing bodies over pauses to help him work on that), and what you should be looking for as you go through it.

Related: Hi! I’m a novice and I have a problem with my oar. My coach said that it doesn’t square early enough. I square just before the drive but he said I need to square earlier. I don’t understand how I can do this ? I feel like I will catch a crab if I square too early (which I did twice today). Do you have any solutions or a way to know how to square at the right time? Is my oar too close to the water on the recovery? Thank you, your blog is the best btw!!

Outside of that, try to stay aware of how the slides feel after the pause(s). There shouldn’t be any rush to get to the next catch (especially if slide control is something you’re trying to address) so remind them that once they break the knees, let the boat come to them and keep the weight off the foot stretchers until the blade is locked in the water.

Effect(s) on the boat

Pause drills are effective because, like I said earlier, they slow everything down and when done/called right, get everyone to breathe, relax, and focus on taking quality strokes instead of just moving back and forth on the slide.

Related posts/questions

I’m the senior girl’s cox for my school club and my crew is really struggling with having a slow recovery then accelerating to the finish and putting in pressure. When I call to go slow up the slide they might slow down 1 or 2 points or not even at all. And the pressure dies when the rating slows. Then the rating goes up when I call pressure. Do you have any ideas about how I can help them get into a slow steady rhythm but still put in pressure?

Really quick question. How do you call switches between pairs/fours when you’re doing a pause drill. I find myself saying, “in two stern pair out, 5 and 6 in… uhm… I mean… just switch here” when they hit a pause and it’s awkward for me and my rowers. I don’t know what else to do though. Ideas?

Top 20 Terms Coxswains Should Know: Cut the Cake

Previously: Rush(ing) || Body angle || Pick drill || Suspension || Skying the blade || Quarter feather || Pin || Run || Lunge || Washing Out || Missing water || Footboard || Check || Ratio || Over compression || Release

What part of the stroke/stroke cycle does it refer to

Cut the cake occurs on the recovery and targets the finish through bodies over part of the stroke.

What does it mean/refer to

“Cut the cake” is a drill that focuses on swing and body prep and emphasizes getting the hands out of bow at the same speed together in order to maximize the amount of run you’re getting on the recovery.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Body angle

There are several versions of this drill but in the normal one you begin by taking a normal stroke and then on the subsequent recovery you pivot forward with the bodies, swing back to the finish (drawing the arms all the way through), and then swing forward again and come up to the catch. That swinging motion when the bodies pivot back and forth is the actual “cut the cake” part (although I really have no idea why it’s called that).

Relevant calls

The two main themes/calls that I base a lot of what I’m saying around are “pivot” and “stretch”. Pivot has to do with the swinging part of the drill, where you’re going from the finish position to bodies over, and I make calls relating to that because I want the rowers to be conscious of pivoting, swinging, etc. from their hips and not reaching or lunging from their low backs. The stretch call also relates to the bodies over position because when you’re sitting up and pivoting from your hips, you should feel just the slightest stretch in your hamstrings. (Obviously flexibility plays a big part in this … the less flexible you are the sooner you’ll feel that tug as you swing forward.)

Outside of those two calls, I’ll make calls as necessary to even out the speed of the drill if it looks like they’re rushing through the cut the cake part, as well as reminders to hold the knees down and/or break them together as they start the slides.

What to look for

You can see what the drill looks like in the videos below.

One of the things that makes cut the cake complicated and/or not fun is how easy it is to screw up the timing. It’s easy to think that this happens on the recovery when you’re swinging back and forth but it more often happens as a result of people driving at different speeds, which then causes them to finish at different times and then have to rush through the cut the cake part to catch up with everyone else. So, if you find that the timing is off, focus first on getting the finishes together before moving on to trying to match up the hands, bodies, etc.

Another thing to watch for is the speed at which the rowers move through cut the cake. It should be a natural speed that matches the speed at which they’re driving and recovering … it shouldn’t be a steady speed through the drive, fly through cut the cake, and then slowly proceed up to the catch.

Effect(s) on the boat

Cut the cake touches on a lot of different things like balance, swing, body prep, rhythm, etc. but the timing of the hands coming away at the finish is arguably one of the more important aspects of the drill. If you consciously go through the drill instead of just going through the motions then this can really help  the timing on the recovery by getting everyone moving together and at a steady speed, which in turn allows the boat to run out further between strokes (thus increasing the efficiency of each stroke).

Related posts/questions

I haven’t talked about this drill much on here so there aren’t any related posts or QOTDs to share but below is a video that shows a variation of cut the cake called “rusties” (it’s literally the same exact drill with a pause at the finish and bodies over instead of a continuous flow between the two) that we occasionally do as part of our warmup.

To see all the posts in this series, check out the “top 20 terms” tag.

Question of the Day

Hi! So I am in my fourth season of crew, and my second season of coxing. Our season started Monday and the novices were already on the water. I was not with either of the novice boats that day but I coxed one today. I found it really difficult to teach them everything. Do you have any advice on how to teach the novices? Also, our first race is in 4 or 5 weeks, so the novices need to get the hang of it as soon as possible so that we can get “normal” boats put together. My boat today was able to row all 8 (6 novices and a 2nd season rower and stroke) fairly well. Any and all advice would be super helpful. Thanks so much!!! I love your blog- I’ve used it since I started rowing.

Therein lies the problem – you can’t teach them everything all at once. Imagine you’re sitting in math class and your teacher starts the day by teaching you to add two numbers together and finishes 90 minutes later by trying to get you to do differential equations … that’s what most coxswains (and new coaches – I was definitely guilty of this) try to do when they’re in charge of a novice crew. You have to start really simple and build from there once you’ve established a solid foundation. 4-5 weeks is plenty of time to get them rowing well enough to race so don’t rush through everything or try to pile on too much in a short period of time just because it feels like you don’t have that much time to work with.

I run our walk-on program in the fall and what we always start off doing (both on the ergs and in the boats) is a super basic pick drill. We’ll start off doing arms only for awhile (like, 15-20min) and I’ll walk around the ergs adjusting peoples’ form and making sure they’re getting the motion down. It’s obviously not going to look great but if it’s like, 75% there I’m happy. From there we’ll take a break and then do arms + bodies. Same routine, I’ll walk around and coach people as necessary but for the most part I want them to just focus on getting the motions down. Even though there are like, a thousand things I could say to them I try to err on the side of letting them figure it out for themselves (unless it’s so egregious that I have to say something) since I think that’s goes a lot further than if I were constantly in their ear nitpicking everything they’re doing. Once they’ve got arms + bodies down we’ll go back to arms only and blend the two together, so 10 strokes doing that and 10 strokes adding in the bodies, and then we’ll repeat that once or twice more. The next day we’ll start with what we finished with the day before, cycling through arms and arms + bodies before adding in the slides. We’ll start with determining where half-slide actually is, what it should look like, feel like, etc. and then I’ll have them row at half-slide for a bit, similar to what we did the day before with arms and arms + bodies. Most of the coaching I do here is just reminding them to get the hands away and bodies over before the slides start and to not go too far past where half-slide should be. Another point of focus is feeling what it’s like to drive off the footboards with the legs at the catch, although I don’t bring this up until I feel like they have a comfortable grasp on the recovery sequence. After they’ve got half-slide down we’ll lengthen it out to full slide and repeat the whole process again. Points of emphasis here are, again, hands away/bodies over before the slides start and not flying up the slide just because your butt is on wheels.

Assuming our first practice is on a Monday, we’ll do all of that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (with Wednesday just being a “review” type day of everything up to that point … nothing new gets added) and then on Thursday/Friday we’ll start off with the pick drill (15-20 strokes each) before going into 3-5 minutes of continuous rowing (ideally in the tanks if they’re available). After that we’ll take a break and then do some kind of drill – like cut-the-cake or a pause drill or something relatively simple like that – before going back to a few minutes of continuous rowing.

Once we get on the water (and after spending the first day doing “admin”-type stuff – i.e. how to set the boat when you’re rowing and not rowing, what stern four, bow six, etc. means, how to spin, and all the other basic stuff) we’ll repeat what we did on the erg, either by pairs or fours depending on if we’re in a four or an eight and what the weather is like. The more stable you can make the boat, the less frustrating practice will be for them and you so always lean towards having less people rowing when it’s safe to do so. Oh, and don’t even think about rowing on the feather for at least a few days (or longer…). Stay on the square while going through the stroke sequence, rowing by 6s, etc. and get them comfortable with figuring out blade heights, setting the boat, etc. before you teach them the feather. Keep in mind that square blade rowing is a pretty useful drill in itself. What my coaches always did (with us as novices and as an experienced crew) and what I try to do with the walk-ons is once we were able to row by all eight (and not have it be a total shitshow), we’d row 20ish strokes by sixes and then all eight for 10 on the feather, rotating through the sixes for … probably 30ish minutes or so. A couple practices later we’d do the same thing except reverse it – 20ish strokes by all eight on the feather and 10 by sixes on the square – before eventually making our way to all eight on the feather (at which point we’d eventually work in varying rates and pressures to keep things from getting too boring).

All in all, everything I just said could be covered in roughly three to four weeks, depending on how quickly you moved through it all, which gives you a week or two to introduce them to racing and how all that works.

All that aside, the best advice I can give you is to talk with your coach and figure out what their plan is for coaching the novices. If they want you to be in charge of coaching them while you’re coxing (which isn’t uncommon) then at least discuss with them what you should cover each day so you’re not trying to come up with stuff on the fly. If you’re going out with your coach then let them do the bulk of the talking/coaching while you act as the reinforcer of what they’re saying as necessary. (Also read this post – it’s not entirely related to your question but the person asked about how to improve their coxing while working with novices and not needing to actually cox that much.) Make sure that whatever you are saying is communicated as clearly and in the most simple manner as possible too. If it can be broken down into simpler concepts, do it. You’ll end up saving a lot of time in the long run when you don’t have to go back and re-explain something that you didn’t cover initially because you thought it was obvious or assumed. (I touch on that in this post a bit – it’s about coxswains but the ideas behind the first three bullet points could all easily apply in this situation too.)