A couple weekends ago I had the opportunity to go to the What Works Summit that’s hosted each year by the IRL program at CRI. The theme this year was “The First 500” and each speaker created a presentation that related in some way to that theme. For the most part I’m writing everything below as it is in my notes so while I’ve completed some of the thoughts, some of it is still in shorthand.
The first presentation I went to was given by Yaz Farooq, current head coach of Stanford’s women’s program and former national team coxswain in the 90s. She spoke on “the language of the first 500”, managing the transition strokes, and knowing how to balance focusing on your speed and communicating your position relative to the other crews.
Breaking down the start from a language perspective
What does the start look like and what are it’s core components?
Start sequence to get out of the blocks → high stroke sequence → lengthen → lengthen again to base
The first lengthen is what you might know as the “settle” but as Yaz said, most programs are starting to move away from calling it that and instead are focusing more on calling it the “lengthen” or the “sub-lengthen”. The thought behind this is you’re not really settling so much as you’re trying to maintain as much boat speed as possible while transitioning to a more sustainable pace. It’s one of those subtle changes in language that, in theory, has a more positive effect on the psychology of the crew. (Regardless of whether you use “lengthen” or “settle” though, pick one and stick with it.)
How do you break it all up?
Based on strengths/weaknesses of the team, how well they handle the high strokes (i.e. how efficient they are at high rates), and how powerful they are.
Scripting out the starting sequence
First and most importantly, have a plan and map it out. This is the only area of the race that is really worth scripting (in addition to maybe the sprint depending on how your team approaches it).
How many strokes do you need to get off the line, how many high, how many to lengthen, how many base, etc.
Assign key words – these are things the coxswain would say to reinforce the rhythm and make sure it’s as effective as it can be. They key here is to have technical themes assigned, possibly emotional or philosophical themes based on team beliefs that the crew can lock into. Instill these themes throughout practice so coxswains can set up attacks with key words/phrases that reference each theme (without monologuing). Having key words/phrases attached to each theme results in no confusion and everything is clear because it’s been practiced daily.
When possible, reinforce the rhythm with your voice to support it and/or get it to where it needs to go. For a standard five stroke starting sequence (1/2, 1/2, 3/4, full, full):
Squeeze, direct, build, lengthen, full
Grip, lock, lock, lengthen, full
Complete, direct, grip, lengthen, full
Drills to work on the start
These drills, if done with multiple crews, should be done leapfrog style so each crew can watch/cheer for each other. Remember to be patient when something isn’t working. Talk it out with your crew until you find what works for you. I always talk with my stern pair first when something doesn’t work but it’s important to make sure you talk with the entire crew and consider/incorporate everyone’s feedback into whatever changes you make.
Stroke-by-stroke start drill
The goal is to perfect the sequence and bladework.
First stroke done from a dead stop.
Stroke 1 + 2 done from a pause.
Strokes 1 + 2 + 3 done from a pause.
First five done from a pause.
First ten done from a dead stop.
The first stroke is heavy but you get to keep perfecting it and improving the strokes by doing them one at a time and building up through the entire sequence.
Example: If your start is the standard “half, half, three-quarters, lengthen, full” followed by high strokes…
Half stroke done from a dead stop. When this stroke is done, pause at half slide. Hold the pause long enough for the crew to collect themselves and the boat to set up but don’t hold it forever. Two seconds or so max.
Half, half done from a pause. Again, pause at half slide when finished.
Half, half, three-quarters from a pause. Again, pause at half slide when finished.
Half, half, three-quarters, lengthen, full from a pause. Let it run when finished, balance the boat, weigh enough, and check it down.
Half, half, three-quarters, lengthen, full + first five high strokes from a dead stop. Let it run when finished, balance the boat, and weigh enough.
Starts are done by 4s, 6s, and all 8. Goal is to learn how to use your legs and complete each stroke. The boat is heavier when rowing by 4s and 6s so you don’t want to wail on the oar right away otherwise you won’t be able to hold on to the water and ultimately your strokes will be short and ineffective.
Stern 4 goes through the starting sequence (just the first five strokes). When finished, let it run, weight enough, and check it down.
Bow 4 ” “
Stern 6 ” “
Bow 6 ” “
All 8 ” “
Square blade starts
Goal is to complete the strokes. Can do the entire starting sequence straight through or do each stroke individually as with the stroke-by-stroke start drill. Best to start off stroke-by-stroke and then progress to doing them straight through the further into the season/more experienced you get.
Striking a balance between speed + rhythm and position
Ultimately what you’re shooting for (as the coxswain) is striking the right balance between getting your crew off the line effectively and letting them know where they are relative to other crews.
How much time do we spend focusing on boat speed/rhythm and how much on when/how to communicate the crew’s position?
It depends on the team and skills of the coxswain. If it’s the early part of the season or your coxswain is a novice, focus solely on execution. This may evolve throughout the season though.
Example: At the beginning of the season, Stanford coxswains don’t tell positions until they lengthen to base so everyone can focus on nuances of each phase of the start. By NCAAs the coxswains will communicate as much info as they feel is relevant at the time but the focus remains on the execution of each phase of the start.
Managing the transition strokes
The goal when transitioning from your starting pace to base pace is to maintain boat speed and keep the intensity on while getting the rating down to a more sustainable number. One of the most important parts of managing the transition strokes efficiently and effectively is to set them up and call them consistently. Find a set of calls that work for you, your crew, and what you’re trying to accomplish and then stick with it.
The “traditional” thing to do when calling transition strokes was to lengthen in one beat but now it’s becoming more common to transition over 3-5 strokes depending on how much the rate is coming down. A good habit for coxswains to get into is to say the rate as you’re lengthening, especially early on in the season. (This isn’t as necessary as the season progresses but ultimately it’s dependent on what the crew wants/needs. Personally I think it’s something that’s important to do regardless of what part of the season you’re in but it all goes back to what will help the crew the most.)
Good calls for this part of the start are “push the spacing” or “push the puddles” because it’s something the rowers can both feel and see.
Practice the transitional cues during practice so when anxiety takes over (during their first big race, at the national championships, etc.) you can use those calls as a fall back that they can rely on to be part of your plan in order to get everyone focused in on the same thing and moving/transitioning together.
Make it clear to the crew that they have to establish a solid base rhythm before the coxswain tells them where they are, that way they’re not tempted to rush the transition to base just to find out where they are. It’s important for the coxswain to reinforce and make sure they get to a sustainable base rhythm that mimics what you’ve practiced and worked on so the crew’s not distracted. You’ve got to establish the rhythm before relaying information, not the other way around because otherwise it becomes about the other crew and the people in your boat/their rowing gets frantic.
What should you look for when looking for a “solid base rhythm”?
When you practice your base rate during practice the rowers would know to a certain extent how it should feel based on the coach and coxswain’s feedback. This includes hitting a certain split (i.e. your “sweet spot” when everything just seems to naturally fall into place and come together), feeling like you’re able to get to full slide (coxswains, this is where it’s important to communicate with your stern pair so you can find out if this is happening or not), the stroke is leading the rhythm and everyone else is following and supporting it (again, talk with your stroke…), each end of the stroke is clean, and the rhythm has that “swing” feel to it rather than a “back and forth” rhythm.