Race plans: Making moves

What is a move? Or, rather, what is it not? A move isn’t some random burst of hard strokes that you take because you don’t know what else to say and you know you’ve gotta say/do something. Those arbitrary power tens you call with little to no context? That’s not a move. What a move is is a part of the larger overall strategy (aka … your race plan) that gets you from Point A to Point B, which means they’ve gotta be executed with intention and a bit of forethought.

In my race plans we’ve always included two planned moves – one around 1000m (the stereotypical “20 at 1000m”) and another towards the latter half of the 3rd 500m. We had a third ten or fifteen stroke burst in our back pockets for the first thousand if we needed it but we avoided using it unless absolutely necessary – i.e. we had the lead and needed to do something to fend off a charging crew or we were in a position to get even or take the lead and knew we’d have the psychological advantage in the second half if we did it before 1000m.

Another thing that moves accomplish is helping keep the crew committed to the larger goal of the piece at vulnerable points during the race. You should obviously be feeding them information throughout that keeps everyone on the same page but a secondary purpose of a move is to act as a rallying point for the rowers. This was our basis for that move in the 3rd 500 – we knew that if the race was competitive then we’d need to make a move here to set us up for the sprint but there were times when, based on what I was seeing and sensing, I’d call it for nothing more than pure commitment to the (wo)man in front of you, the team, yourself, etc. We almost always accomplished the goal of getting even, getting our bow ball in front, etc. but this is an example of how phrasing it can have a big impact on how effective it is. Don’t be all business all the time and forget about the people is what I’m getting at.

As you get more experienced (and your listening skills adapt to the noise of the race course) you’ll be able to start predicting and picking up on when the crews around you are making moves, which gives you the significant advantage of being able to counter it with one of your own. There are few things more satisfying than seeing a crew start a move, waiting a couple strokes, and then laying down a solid 20 of your own to put them back in their place. I say “seeing” too because you’re not always going to hear the move being called. Sometimes you might but you should rely on sight more than sound because silent moves are a thing and any coxswain worth their weight will know what a difference they can make if the other crew(s) don’t pick up on it.

An important point to remember is that the effort you’re putting into your move has to be maintained on that 11th stroke (or whatever stroke follows the last one in the burst). If you have a really effective move but follow it up with a couple mediocre strokes, whatever advantage you gained is gonna be lost and you’ll end up taxing your body even more in the process. I’ll try to make a call or two about this as we near the end of those strokes, usually something simple like “maintain it now” on the first stroke after the move, “no sag, sustain the effort…”, etc.

Related: All about Power 10s

Like I said earlier, we usually included at least two planned moves while keeping it in mind that we might do three total based on how the race evolved in the early part of the piece. That “unplanned” move wasn’t technically unplanned but I knew that if I needed to use it, it wasn’t gonna catch the crew off guard and create unnecessary chaos. That’s what can/will happen though if you start using power tens disguised as “moves” as a fallback when you’ve got nothing else to say. Unplanned moves tend to be reactionary in response to another crew’s increase in speed or like I said earlier, as a competitive tactic to get your bow ball in front or to reel the other crew back in and prevent them from increasing their lead.

There’s lots of good examples of moves in the recordings I’ve posted but a great example is the one below (starting at 1:50ish) from the recording I posted of UW vs. Cal’s duel in 2009 (the second recording in this post). I’ve included the original video below the recording too, where you can hear AND see Katelin calling this move and the impact it had on UW’s position relative to Cal.

Question of the Day

Hi. I was hoping to get some explanation on how to call a power train. My guys said they like power trains but I’m not sure how to call them. Thanks!

Follow-up question – are you sure they’re not saying “power 10”? I’ve never heard of a “power train” before. Anyone else familiar with them?

Related: All about power 10s

Anyways, assuming they’re asking you to call a power ten, check out the above link. It talks about what power tens are, what they aren’t, how to call them, etc. Also check out this question that asks about a different take on power tens.

Related: Hi! In a race, when you call a power 10, do you call it two strokes ahead (Power 10 in two, that’s one, two,) or do you just call it?

When in doubt, the best (and fastest) thing to do is ask your crew to give you an example of what they want to hear. Presumably if they’re asking you to call something then they already have an idea of what it sounds like or how they want it to sound so getting their input first will give you something to work off of (and then fine tune from there once you’ve got a better understanding of what they’re looking for).

Race skills: Calls for when you’re behind

Today I’m sharing one of my two articles that were included in the first issue of Coxing Magazine. The first article is on calling the start and the second is this one, which is on calls to make when you’re behind. To see more of what’s in the first issue, check out the website here. And, if you haven’t subscribed to the magazine yet, read to then end because I’ll be giving a couple copies of away.

When you’re behind in a race (let’s assume “behind” = one length or more of open back) there are three things you can/should do to get back into it and none of them involve invoking some sort of “magical” call. That call doesn’t exist. There are of course great motivational calls that you can have tucked away but you can’t rely on them to be the game changer when you’re down by open water. Skipping the process outlined below and resorting to spouting platitudes for the rest of the race is akin to putting band-aids on a bullet wound – they’re not going to stop the hemorrhaging.

Fix the rowing

If you’ve fallen off the pack then it’s safe to assume that the quality of the rowing has fallen off too. Your first task is to re-unify the crew by getting everyone to take the same stroke at the same time. Presumably you have a solid understanding of technique and the stroke your coach teaches so apply your knowledge of both to what you’re seeing and feeling in order to get the rowing back on track.

“900m in, one length of open back on Columbia. Let’s tighten up the timing and complete the strokes – we got this guys! The race starts right … NOW! Squeeeze through … squeeeze through – that’s it! Hold the back ends and breeeathe through the recovery … now. In our rhythm … let’s accelerate and swing together. Squeeeze swing … hands out together now … hands now … hands now … accelerate swing – there it is … accelerate swing…”

Match the speed of the crews in front of you

It’s hard to move on a crew who’s moving away from you at the same time so before you can start closing the gap you first have to stop them from advancing further. This is where you need to watch the rate and make sure you’re at the pace you want to be at. One tactic I’ve used in the past is raising our rate a beat to match the other crew(s) if it looks like they’re (effectively) rowing higher than us. The risk-reward here is very high so you have to make a quick assessment (mainly, can you raise the rate without spinning your wheels and then sustain that speed/pace for the next few hundred meters) and then commit to executing it.

“1100m in, time to shut ‘em down. We’re at 35 right now, we’re taking it up to a 36 … pick it up together … on this one! LEGS commit, LEGS 36 – right here, stay in this rhythm now and attack … legs loose … legs loose … get stubborn now, hold on to them … legs yea middle four! Trust our rhythm, trust our speed … holding our margin now, that’s it…”

Make your move

The second you sense that the margin is holding, you have to capitalize on it and go. You can’t waste time or meters because by this point you’re probably well into the 3rd 500, which means you’ve got time for maybe one last 20 before it’s time to sprint.

“Four seats of open back now guys, let’s close that gap and make contact over the next ten … ready in twoin one … commit NOW! One go! Two go! Three commit! Load together send … that’s it, WALKING! Two seats back now … it’s yours, take it! Hit it harder with the legs, together in two … one … two, GO NOW! Legs go! Legs go! Do not sit, do not quit … together go! Bow to stern now, bow pair, reel it in! Six bend ‘em! Seven break them! Eight break them! Nine last 500 … ten stay on it!”

If you find yourself falling off the pace of the other crews, evaluate the situation, make a smooth transition to your “Plan B”, and aim to keep the energy high. Making a successful comeback might not always be possible but at the very least you should aspire to cross the line with pride and the calls you make are your best resource to help facilitate that.

If you’re interested in signing up for a subscription, you can use the code 2016LAUNCH and get 50% off the first year, which will make it $36 instead of $72. If you don’t have a copy of the magazine yet or want to check it out before you subscribe, I have five copies to give away to the first five people that email me before 9am tomorrow morning (July 15th). Include your name + address so I know where to send it and who you cox for. (Update: all copies have been claimed!)

How to Lose vs. How to Win

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat

It’s obviously not that simple or black and white but that’s the easiest way to frame the points I’m trying to make.

There are two big tactical mistakes that you can make during a race that could cost you a win, a qualifying position, or a spot in the medals. (There’s probably/definitely more but our team had issues with both of these at various points this year so they’re fresh on my mind.) I say you because it’s your job to be aware of how you’re moving and how the race is evolving. If you’re paying attention and not just robotically going through the motions of reciting your race plan then you’ll be able to recognize these situations and say/do something to (hopefully) prevent them from having a negative impact on your crew.

Getting comfortable/sitting on a lead

The longer you sit on a short lead the more confidence you’re giving the other crew(s) to make a move on you. A coach I worked with a few years ago frequently said “hope is not a strategy” – you can’t sit on a six seat lead and hope that you can hang on until you cross the finish line. Leads are fragile and you don’t want to give the other crew(s) any opportunity to think you’ve peaked and “now’s our chance”.

Succumbing to another crew’s move

A crew has broken you if they can get in your head with a single move. In most cases this happens somewhere between 750m and 1250m; you’ll be even or close up to this point, their coxswain calls for a move, they walk four or five seats, and you completely fall apart or scramble to make a counter-move and then fall apart because you’re just spinning your wheels.

You also can’t guarantee a win (it’s foolish to ever think that, regardless of how you stack up against your opponents) but you can put yourself in a good position to succeed, which is what these points address.

Make your moves decisive

Rather than being the one who gets broken, be the one doing the breaking. Once you start moving, regardless of whether you’re walking on a crew or moving away, don’t stop. Racing is a game of inches (see also our race against Wisco) so every move you make has to have an unwavering amount of intent, focus, and discipline behind it. This starts with you – your calls and your tone can/will have a huge effect on how successful your moves are.

Execute the race plan

It’s there for a reason. Without it the race lacks structure which makes it impossible for you to manage and if you can’t manage it, you can’t win it. Know when to focus on your boat, when to focus on the field, what your cadence should be, what your moves are, where you’ll take them, what volume/tone is appropriate at different points throughout the race, etc. Your coach not giving you a race plan is not an excuse for you not to have one. Period.

Practice how you want to race

I’ve always viewed this as a standard that the coxswain is responsible for upholding, mainly because attention-to-detail is a core component of what makes a good coxswain and the devil is always in the details. You have to have the discipline to act like an athlete on and off the water and as the coxswain, you sometimes have to be the person that reminds them of that when you’re away from the boathouse and holds them to it during practice. You can’t practice with a lackadaisical attitude and then expect it to all come together on race day – it never works like that.

This post, as you might have noticed, isn’t about giving you bullet-pointed solutions or ideas – it’s about increasing your awareness so you know what to pay attention to when you do pieces during practice, watch race video, etc. From there you (along with your boat and/or coach) can come up with strategies to achieve/deal with each situation so that on race day you’re prepared to manage the race regardless of what happens.

Race skills: Coxing from behind

Coxing when you’re behind is one of the hardest things you can be tasked with during a race, second only to coxing a race like our JV had this past weekend where they built up a 2/3 length lead by 1000m and then lost by a seat or two of open water. (You can watch the race here if you want.)

The latter has always been hard for me to work out how to do, on one hand because it’s (luckily) not a position I’ve found myself in very often but also because there just doesn’t seem to be a strategy for dealing with a broken crew (coxswain included). Today’s post though is gonna talk about coxing when you’ve fallen slightly back but are still within striking distance or when you’re in the thick of a race and are trying to work your way up to get your bow ball in front.

My strategy when I’m sitting in third, fourth, fifth, or sixth is to make it a two-boat race and work our way up crew by crew. These mini-races within the context of the overall race helps you to manage your calls (instead of bouncing around all over the place with minimal direction or focus) and in turn gives the crew small achievable goals to focus on.

The thing I struggled with initially when doing this was knowing when to demand more of my boat to actually get us past another crew. There were times where we’d slooowly move on them (or we’d move quickly initially and then sit for awhile) but when you’re sitting in fourth and you’ve only got 1100m left to work with, that’s not good enough. Creating these mini-races helped me develop my awareness because it forced me to pay attention to our speed relative to the other boats. I found that when we were sitting on a crew or the amount that we were walking on them slowed, it was usually because I was becoming too focused on what was happening outside the boat, which would dampen our fire a little bit and allow the crew’s focus to wander.

Once I realized this I’d make calls like “we’re in a good position on New Trier but we’ve been sitting for the last 10 strokes … let’s refocus the legs and shut them down … on this one … legs NOW, legs NOW…”. “Now” is a call I use a lot while coxing but in situations like this, the change in my tone when I said it communicated a (controlled) sense of urgency that resonated with the boat and helped us find that next gear and move. That’s the key too – as demanding of a call as “now” is, it was never that that they were responding to … it was how I said it and that can make a huge difference when you’re coxing from behind. One of my stroke seats used to call it my “don’t fuck with me” voice. When that came out during a race (which was only in certain situations) the crew just knew to snap back into it and respond to whatever I was saying in an instant.

Awhile ago I found this anecdote from Marcus McElhenney from when he raced in Beijing in 2008 that touches on creating mini-races and getting your crew excited about moving past the boats around you.

“In the Olympic final we had an okay start but at the 500m mark we were in 6th place. We were in lane two. The Dutch were in lane one and almost ¾ of a length up. Lane three and four had the Brits and Canada, who were WAY out. This left Poland and Australia leading us on the outside in lanes 5 and 6. My crew could not see anyone next to them. Realizing that we could overtake the Aussies and Poles, I started to race them. It was all about getting up just one place at a time.

Over the second 500 meters we were then able to overtake them and were sitting in fourth. In the process we were able to cut the Dutch lead from two seconds to half a second. Then we turned our focused in the third 500m on the Dutch which would put us in medal position. I can remember looking at the bend in the oars. As guys from the bow like Schnorbich and Hoopman could sense the lead and medal, the bend in the shaft grew. That feeling then started to pass up the crew as we began to move, the energy increased and we really started to cook. Stern pair, Volp and Inman, were now foaming at the mouth. We over took the Dutch establishing our Olympic medal spot.

New focus…the Brits! Their commanding lead over us during the first part of the race was now less than half a second. Last 500m and we were charging. We ended up not passing the Brits, but we came home with some hardware.”

If you’ve fallen really far back (like a length of open or more) then your focus has to shift to creating internal targets within the boat. You can’t keep saying “they’re walking away”, “we’re a length of open back”, etc. and expect the crew to suddenly have a burst of enthusiasm and “let’s go get ’em!” energy. Instead, focus on something tangible like dropping the splits by a second (and maintaining it) or re-establishing the rhythm so everyone is rowing together and not doing their own thing. If the boat is getting frantic, eliminating that feeling has to be your first priority otherwise you’ll just waste a ton of energy and have an even harder time trying to walk back on the other boats.

One question that comes up a lot is whether or not you should tell the crew that you’re in last place. For me, it’s 50-50 … if you’re sitting in last by no more than half a length of open water then you should tell them because closing that gap is doable. If you’re more than half a length back then I wouldn’t say anything until you’ve closed the gap to within striking distance of the other crew(s). This lets you focus solely on whatever’s going on with your boat without having to worry about the chaos around you (which honestly isn’t a bad thing).

That approach came out of a conversation my freshman year after my novice eight (predictably) fell pretty far behind our three varsity boats while doing pieces. I remember it being one of the few times where I said “I don’t know what to say” and my crew gave me a ton of ideas and feedback that we trial and error-ed over the next few practices to figure out a strategy that worked. That boat was made up of a bunch of two and three-sport athletes so to capitalize on our strength there was a lot of focus put on bending the oars (as long as our technique was good … our coaches drilled into us that that always came first).

This in turn became our rallying point. If we fell back we’d refocus on our technique – I made a lot of loose, breathe, relax, focus, sharp, together, etc. calls – and once we had that on lock I’d make the call to “bend and send”. The pick up and surge that resulted from that call was incredible – it was like lighting the afterburners. If we were half a length down when I made that call we could easily get even within ten strokes and then from there it was back to “regular” race-mode.

Coxing from behind isn’t something you want to have to do but I guarantee you’ll spend more time doing that over the course of your career than you will as the crew out front. You don’t want to find yourself in that situation and not know how to manage it though (because it all comes back to execution and management) so spend time discussing those “what if’s” with your crew so you can establish your Plan B, C, D, etc., as well as the calls you’ll make to get you back on track. For us, it was “bend and send”. By no means was it a “magic” call (there were times when it didn’t work) but it was well thought out, well rehearsed, and positive (in a non-cheesy way) and that was what made it the catalyst to making our “comebacks” effective.

End of the season calls + motivation

This is an email I sent over the weekend to our varsity coxswain who will be driving the four we’re taking to IRAs this weekend. As I’ve said in the past, being in the launch every day has its perks and while it may be boring at times it can be a useful tool once the end of the season rolls around. I tend to take a lot of notes when we’re out, either in a notebook or on my phone, and it’s nice to be able to pull them out now and get a few ideas for calls or new things to say that we haven’t talked about in awhile. Even though you could take a lot of what I said down below into the boat with you verbatim, there’s really only a few explicitly laid out calls in here. There’s a lot to be inferred though so coming up with calls on your own shouldn’t be hard.

“Here’s some of my notes on the guys from the last few months. The whole not being able to see them thing means you’ve gotta rely on what you know they have a tendency to do and these are their tendencies. Incorporate these into your calls this week (throughout the entire practice, not just the 500s and 250s we’ll be doing) so you can pull them out on Fri/Sat/Sun without having to think about it.

STROKE

No wind up

No up and down movement with the shoulders at the catch – lock the blade in then hang on it (“suspend send” for three is a good call here…don’t say “for the next three” or anything, just call it…)

Keep the hands moving out of the finish – he’s got to be a metronome if he’s gonna stroke this four and it’s on you to not let up for a single stroke if you see the rate fall off.

Release clean, feel the boat send away followed by smooth, relaxed hands out of the finish

Lean into the rigger

THREE

Keep the shoulders low

Patient with hands out of the finish

Don’t lunge at the catch

Hold the finishes, has a tendency to wash out at higher rates/pressures

TWO

Sit up/posture in general, particularly through the back end

Stay loose in the shoulders (tends to get tense when told to sit up)

Don’t get grabby at the catch

Back it in, don’t miss water at the catch

Hands down and away – specifically say “[his name]” when you make this call so he knows you’re talking to him

Stay connected with the feet at the finish

BOW

Hold the finishes in

Don’t cut off the lay back, get all the swing through the finish – especially important since he’s in bow now

General stuff

Suspend the weight, feet light on the stretchers

Accelerate with the hips

No lift out of the catch

Find speed through the legs

Smooth turnaround at the finish, keep the hands and seat moving (important for [STROKE], he adds the tiniest pause over the knees and that’s where [THREE] + [TWO] get ahead of him)

Build together through the water, don’t force it via rushing the hands out of bow ([THREE] + [TWO] in particular but applies to the whole boat)

Stay relaxed and long

During the “10 to relax” after the start, focus on actually getting them to relax and swing rather than just calling another 10. You shouldn’t need to count this out, instead remind them that every stroke needs to be relaxed but intentional, free of tension, etc. and then make repetitive swing-related calls for several strokes as you begin to establish your rhythm. Keep your voice calm but focused here.

Third 500 – the focus has to re-shift back to their form as fatigue sets in. Catches sharp, posture tall, cores solid, chins up, hanging on the handle, sequencing, mind over matter, etc. – all of it has to be on point. Every single thing you say, more so in this 500 than any other 500 during the race, has to have a purpose otherwise all you’re doing is taking speed away instead of adding it.

During the last 500 when you build for the sprint you have to be unrelenting when it comes to those rates. I know we’ve talked about not getting picky when it falls off by a beat but during the sprint that can’t happen. As the rate goes up remind them to sustain their rhythm and speed by picking it up together and staying light on the seats. As [THREE] said, the organization during this chunk needs to be better. There can’t be any second-guessing, tripping over your calls, periods of silence, etc. especially if you’re tight with another crew.

Be prepared. Eliminate all distractions. Be relentless. That’s your only job this week.”

How to Prepare for a 2k Test

Now that almost everyone is in full on spring-season mode I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about the best way to prepare for a 2k and how to do well on it. One of the more popular posts on the blog (#2 or #3 currently) is this post I wrote on 2k strategy  (linked below) back in 2012. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out.

Related: How to survive winter training: 2k strategy

Below are three more tips on how to prep for a 2k in the days before your test. Coxswains, pay particular attention to the last one.

Sleep

Seriously, get plenty of sleep. For at least the 2-3 days leading up to your test try to make sure you’re getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep every night. If you have to wake up at 7am for school, commit to going to bed by 10:30pm or so. I always end up laying in bed scrolling through Instagram for about 30 minutes (or more) before I actually fall asleep so whenever I know I need to be in bed by a certain time I always factor in a 20-30min buffer, that way I’m actually falling asleep roughly around when I’d initially planned to go to bed. Your body needs time to recover and a lot of that recovery happens when you’re sleeping so if you’re not getting enough, especially before a 2k, then you’re kinda putting a ceiling on your performance.

Fuel properly

Same as the sleep thing, for at least 2-3 days before your test make sure you’re drinking a lot of water. I’ve started carrying around a 32oz Nalgene and trying to drink one of those every day. Obviously while you’re training you’ll need a bit more than that (I think most of our guys probably try to drink at least two full Nalgenes each day if I had to guess) so I would carry a water bottle around with you and drink it throughout the day so you can ensure you’re properly hydrated.

More than anything, staying hydrated will help keep your heart rate from skyrocketing during your test, which is important. When you’re dehydrated your blood is thicker which means your heart has to work harder to pump it throughout your body to your muscles, which in turn increases your heart rate. When you’re working hard like you are during a 2k you don’t want your heart rate to be spiking like that because it just makes you feel heavy and fatigued and uncomfortable a lot sooner than you otherwise would.

Related: So this might sound funny but why am I always hungry?I I’m a high school girl and I began rowing about a year ago so while I have my general bearings, I’m still learning something new about the sport everyday and I was just curious. Ever since I’ve started rowing I’ve noticed that I have a much bigger appetite than when I participated in other sports. Is it just cause I’m a growing teenager or is this every rower?

In addition to drinking water, make sure you’re eating good foods. If you don’t typically have a healthy diet try to start making small changes and replacing the food that’s not doing anything for you nutritionally with healthier options. Definitely make sure you’re eating breakfast, even if it’s just some toast or a banana, and try to eat several small meals throughout the day instead only two or three big meals. This will help keep you fuller for longer and avoid any mindless snacking.

Eating healthy while you’re training is a good habit to get into in general but it’s also important leading up to a test or race. It’s like fueling your Maserati with regular gas vs. premium. It’ll still run on regular but it’s not going to run as efficiently as it would with premium and it might end up hurting the engine in the long run. Same thing applies with the food you eat.

Have a plan

I posted this picture on Instagram a couple weeks ago after our guys did their second 2k test of the season. Something we’ve started doing with them this year is having them write out on a note card how they’re envisioning their race plan and taping it either on the side of their screen or down near the handle rest. It’s honestly more for them than it is for us but it’s also been a great tool for the coxswains as well because they can see what your goals are in terms of splits and overall time and use that to cox them.

Some of the guys have also written down specific things they want the coxswains to say (including if they want a specific coxswain to cox them, which you can see on that picture) which is also really helpful for us and them. If you don’t want to be coxed this is also a great place to write that down (large enough that it’s visible) so the coxswains/coaches know not to bother you.

Related: Words

When it comes to having and writing out your plan, it doesn’t need to be super detailed. All these guys are engineers so they’re super methodical about pretty much everything but there are a few guys who keep things simple and just write down the splits they want to hold for each 500m. Others write down little reminders to themselves, like “breathe” or a technical focus that they’ve been working on recently. There’s really no right or wrong way to do this, just write down what works for you.

Ultimately what it does it break down the race into smaller, more manageable components and gives you targets/mini-goals to go after … that way once you’ve passed them it’s a kind of like a little mental victory which can be a huge motivating factor as you get closer to the end. We’ve gotten pretty positive feedback from the guys (and the coxswains) so it’s definitely something I’d recommend trying at least once.