There are millions of competitive rowers across the world, and every single one of them has a secret. For a number of hours each week, they separate themselves from the bustle of their daily lives to repeat a motion that hundreds of millions have before them: the simple act of placing an oar in the water to a propel a boat forward.
While not impressive on the surface, consider this. Rowing is a rare sport in that this motion — one that a beginner learns on their first day — is the same for the novice as it for the Olympian, so this pursuit of the perfect stroke becomes a catalyst to a lifelong journey of learning. We learn patience and humility, and we learn to delight in even the small victories — adopting the new habits in our technique which make us faster and shedding the ones which slow us down. We also learn the limits to our fitness and use our coaches and teammates to break through them.
At some point, we all face stagnation, perhaps in our technique, fitness, or even our motivation. We experiment with ways to push past the plateau, and some succeed and some fail.
Who succeeds and who fails is not up to chance; it is up to the power of great mentors and coaches to inspire and unlock a rower’s potential. The pursuit of excellence in our passions is an intrinsic human need, yet the majority of coaching today is set in oral tradition; experienced coaches have often rowed or coxed for several years themselves in order to develop a concrete understanding of what makes the boat go faster based on what technique they have seen fast crews adopt. Different ideologies have emerged — hands fast out of bow vs a “micropause” at the release; extended arms vs relaxed inside arm in sweep rowing; legs, back, and arms finishing simultaneously vs in sequence during the drive; and so on. Whatever the technique, all our coaches’ efforts strive to answer the crucial question: “Will this change make the boat go faster?”
Intuition and tribal knowledge only take us so far with our athletes, so several coaches look to technology to help them answer that critical question. Visibility into a boat’s speed, stroke rate, and even the force curves of each rower can be very useful during a practice, but they come with a devastating curse: data analysis is hell.
If a practice is 1000 strokes per athlete (generous), with 8 athletes (also generous), even with only 3 on-water practices per week, then that’s 24000 force curves and 3000 data points on split and stroke rate per week from which to generate at least one “Eureka!” insight that impacts your team. Although the data will always be “interesting” to curious rowers and coaches alike, deriving anything meaningful without a clear strategy is often fruitless. Is our boat more powerful than last week even though we raced in a 5mph headwind today vs. 2mph tailwind last week? How should we expect to perform at Mercer Lake in June based on our current splits in Mission Bay in April? Are we making the right progress to hit our goal pace for the Head of the Charles?
Today’s technology cannot easily answer these questions; it is so bad that many coaches ignore all of the telemetry for fear of being sucked into the “black hole” of data analysis. And who could blame them?
I imagine the world differently.
A New Way to Train
I believe in a world where competitive rowers who have the unstoppable desire to improve — regardless of age or level of coaching available — can enable themselves to be the best they can in the time they dedicate to training.
On the water, rowers and their coaches make use of data in real time to make technical improvements. Now the athlete’s feedback loop is no longer just about what their technique looks or feels like — positive changes are confirmed by concrete improvements in boat speed or power output. Rowers also receive visual feedback when they drive too early or too late compared to their stroke seats, so synchronization is ingrained from day one.
After a row, athletes can immediately derive value from the data on these devices in a number of ways. For example, they should see how this workout impacted their training load, how they performed on these intervals compared to the last practice (normalized for wind and current), and how on track they are for reaching the desired speed before the big race. Today this information takes too much time to derive consistently, especially for a large team.
In the erg room, we see something similar. Rowers can easily keep track of their personal results to their phones without buying expensive cables that are easy to forget or misplace. The results are immediately available for coaches to analyze across the entire team to inform boat selection and progress tracking for every athlete.
Each athlete owns their data and takes it with them no matter which club they go to or who coaches them. It is easy to track everything in one place.
Some of the pieces needed to solve these problems exist today, but many of the tools are just too costly for anyone besides elite or very competitive collegiate crews to justify their investment. As technology evolves and the cost of development and implementation dwindles, we believe in empowering rowers and coaches at all levels with these tools to achieve peak performance on race day. As long as they have the desire to go fast, rowers should be able to flourish.