Monday, 25 March 2013

Coxing in French (Part Two)

Regular readers of this blog (all two of you) will remember that, way back in October, I wrote a post about coxing in French. This post will be an update to that, so if a lot of technical talk about rowing isn't your thing, do feel free to come back for my next post. I won't mind.

Over the months, I've been doing a variety of things around Régates rémoises, the local rowing club. I've coxed everyone from 10-year-olds to seniors; subbed in to row with 14-year-old girls; rowed in an Empacher with some university students on an exceptionally cold Wednesday evening. However, one thing that I've been doing a surprising amount of recently is coaching, particularly off-the-water coaching. The club is very well-equipped with ergs (les ergos) for training off the water, and if a particular age group isn't going out sur l'eau that day, I'm occasionally asked to coach them on the ergs for a bit. This has been a very rewarding experience, particularly since I've got a lot better at explaining things to do with rowing (in English as well as French - it seems as if expressing yourself in another language helps you with your mother tongue too!). What's that? You want an example? Good - 'cause here one comes.

On the day in question, I was coaching les benjamins. These are ten-to-eleven-year-olds, who have been rowing at most for one year, so generally they don't spend too much time on the ergs. When they do, though, it's important to get it right. Many of the mistakes made by these novices are the same ones made by novices in the UK of all ages (including myself, on the rare occasions when I have an oar in my hand), so the French coach and I were both looking out for them. The classic error made by novices is rushing the slide. Essentially, the rowing stroke is made up of two phases: the drive phase (phase d'appui) and the recovery (phase de retour). The drive phase is when the oar is in the water; the recovery, as the name suggests, is the time when you're coming back up the slide on your seat, getting ready to take another stroke. Lots of novices don't put very much power down in the water, and try to compensate by rushing up the slide; this is dangerous as (a) you tire yourself out by pulling yourself up the slide, and (b) as you come up the slide, you're moving against the forward motion of the boat and by charging up the slide run the risk of slowing the boat down drastically. For this reason, coaches encourage rowers to spend about twice to three times as long on the recovery as the drive phase, so that you can put more force in the water while allowing the boat to glide under you.

The difficulty, however, was getting the benjamins to take this on board. There's an old saying in rowing that 'ergs don't float', which means that you can get away with stuff on an erg that you can't get away with on the water; hence someone who pulls amazing times on the erg might not make a boat move particularly fast. (For an example of this, watch this video.) As a result, I was concerned that it might be tricky to make changes to technique on the erg, rather than in the water. This turned out to be the case, but we still managed to make some progress.

The mysterious-looking thing to the left of this sentence is the monitor on an erg. It shows you several things: for our purposes, we're looking at the number of strokes taken per minute (top right) and the projected time it would take you to row 500m at your current pace (middle). The person who's recorded on this machine has just done what I tried to teach the benjamins: you can go at the same speed, far more efficiently, by pressing harder on the drive phases and relaxing the recoveries. Plus, you don't get tired nearly as quickly. (As a bonus point: for the curious, my score for the same test is fairly similar ...)

And with that in mind, the challenge was on. Each rower was given a cadence (stroke rate) and split time to aim for, and things started to change. I'm looking forward to working with them more on this in the coming weeks, since it seems like we may have stumbled upon a way to put my constant calls of ralentissez la coulisse ! into action.

While we're on the subject of putting-oars-in-the-water-and-moving-on-a-sliding-seat, I'd also like to take a minute to mention the heroic efforts of all the Cambridge crews at the Henley Boat Races yesterday. The results may not have gone the way we'd hoped, but from what I've heard everyone involved has a right to be proud all the same. Plus, the Clare College representation in the squad was phenomenal. Andrew, Ania, Claire, Esther, Jess, Moos, Rachel, Steen: absolutely inspiring.


  1. Interesting stuff! Does this mean that steadiness matters more than strength in a vessel? I have heard that a sailor leaning for long enough against even a huge ship in port can set it (her?) in motion.

    Do stroke rates decrease over time in races? If so, is this because the rowers have attained their speed and just need to maintain it?

    Incidentally, it seems that Erg monitors are another source of English!

    1. Well, both steadiness and strength both are important, but a big part of that steadiness is not counteracting the boat's motion by moving too fast up the slide to take the next stroke. So in a sense, yes. It doesn't take very much to set a rowing boat in motion, though ...

      During races, stroke rates usually start out very high, before coming down for the rest of the race.. If you look at the Boat Race footage, you can see that crews start out extremely high (often about 45 strokes per minute) to get their speed up, before dropping down to about 32, where they'll stay for the rest of the race. This is partly because they've attained the speed, but also because a rate 45 is simply unsustainable: you just can't do it for 17 minutes. Coxes will occasionally call pushes for 10, or something like that, which can lead to the stroke rate being 'reset' if it's been slacking off. Occasionally, coxes will take the rate up specifically for the push, although the danger there is that the rowers shorten up and don't put as much power in the water. All other things being equal, 30 good strokes every minute will get you further than 45 bad ones!

      Oh, and that erg monitor isn't at the club, by the way. Although it's true that the buttons on the ones in Reims are still in English ... I guess Concept2, who make them, couldn't tell where they'd ship each model to!

  2. Hi! So I realize I am a complete stranger from Canada but I am super happy to have found this blog and this post. Throwing myself out there...I've been coxing for a little less than a year, will be heading abroad to HEC for a semester this fall and would love your advice on relearning all the coxing terms in French, any other idiosyncrasies besides the seat numbers being backwards, etc. I've been Googling but not coming up with much...please feel free to shoot me an email! Thanks so much and bonne chance :)

  3. Ed, you missed out Rachel! She rowed in Blondie with Ania. I'm sure she wouldn't mind that much but y'know, pedantry ...