Entries in Al Morrow (1)


Coaches Boat View: Think about your rowing drills

By: Dr. Volker Nolte, Carolyn Trono, Mike Spracklen and Al Morrow.
From: Coach Boat View: Segments from Rowing Canada Aviron Magazine


By Carolyn Trono, Coach and Athlete Development Consultant

Drills play an important role in helping sport participants learn motor skills. Whether the participant is a beginner or an elite athlete, coaches and instructors are notorious for inventing creative drills to help athletes perfect a motor skill.

Normally, coaches and instructors have a good reason for asking rowers to do a drill. Sometimes a drill can help the rower isolate and work on a certain movement pattern. Sometimes, a drill is used to teach skills to a novice rower. And sometimes, the drill is used to help an athlete correct incorrect movement patterns.

Here are a few considerations about drilling that coaches and instructors should be aware of prior to giving athletes drills to do.


You should be able to communicate this to the participants. This is important so that the rower can focus their attention on the correct part of the stroke and the movement pattern that is being refined.


When someone is learning a new skill or changing a motor pattern, they are considered to be in the “early” stage (cognitive stage). At this stage, the participant is concentrating so hard on mastering the skill that any type of distractions (wind, noise, rough water) can interfere with this process. If the boat is rocking and unstable, the rower will have difficulty focusing on the skill that is being taught. Another important consideration at this stage is that the dominant sensory modality is visual. The participant needs to be able to get a visual sense of what is required for the skill. Therefore, demonstrations are helpful and the participant should be encouraged to watch his/her oar when doing drills. As a participant gets more experience, he/she will appreciate more auditory and kinesthetic cues.


The Canadian National Rowing Team may do a drill that is suitable for them and helps these athletes to refine skills. However, this doesn’t mean that all athletes at all levels should do it. For inexperienced rowers, it is important to minimize the variables that the rower has to contend with when doing a drill. Here is an example. The pause drill is used very frequently.

I have seen National team rowers do this drill with a double pause every second stroke. For an inexperienced crew, I would suggest having half of the crew, not row and concentrate on holding the boat balanced.

The rest of the group would row and do the drill, with one pause every stroke. In this way, the rowers do not have to worry about balance. They only have to pause once and don’t have to worry about counting every second stroke.


Researchers suggest that everyone has a preferred sensory modality - auditory, visual or kinesthetic. By using a variety of modalities in the coaching repertoire, the coach is likely to provide cues for all three modalities. For example, a visual learner learns best by seeing demonstrations, looking at videos and watching his/her oar. A kinesthetic learner learns best by doing. Sometimes this means that the coach must adjust positions to help the rower get the “feeling” of the correct movement pattern.

An auditory learner does quite well with verbal cues and feedback. Sometimes listening for the correct sound helps such as the “plop” sound when the blade drops into the water properly.

By now it should be clear that drills are important in the process of learning and perfecting technique. In this part of the Coach Boat View experts will present their favoured drills. First, our role model athletes share their ideas.

Kathleen Heddle writes:

“When I think back to doing drills, the interesting thing is that the actual drills I practiced stayed much the same throughout my career. Those drills we did the day before an Olympic final were the same basic drills I learnt my first year rowing. My favorite drills were all very simple and basic, but even when we were as close as we ever came to rowing perfect, they were challenging.


This drill was very helpful in the small boats. Starting from a standstill at the finish, the hand speed pushing the handle down and then forward, swinging forward with the body, breaking the knees, squaring the blade, and into the water, all these elements must be exactly coordinated between partners. Because the boat is sitting still, even a small difference between partners will make the boat go off balance. Marnie and I would often sit in a corner of the lake for 20 minutes doing this drill.

PHOTO 1: Start and finish position of the ‘set drill’. 

PHOTO 2: Middle position of the ‘set drill’. 


Going up and down the range from hands only to 1/4 slide etc. to full slide was important in ingraining between partners the timing coming into and out of the finish. Focus on having the same motion and timing at the finish whether rowing full slide or just partial slide. I think this drill also helps ingrain a good strong pull through at the finish.

PHOTO 3: ‘Hands only’ rowing.




Taking short little 1/4 slide taps at the catch, focusing on moving the blade with the legs only, for a count of 10, then going to full slide for 10 strokes. For the full strokes, focus on maintaining that feeling that came from the short strokes of grabbing the water quickly and firmly with the legs.

This drill perhaps over-emphasizes the power at the catch end of the stroke, but it was an important drill for me personally.

K. Heddle, Sept. 6, 2001

PHOTO 4: The release in the ‘Russian Catch:Drill’ with blades on the square.

Kathleen and Derek where asked independently to describe their favoured drills and it is interesting that both mention the Russian Catch Drill. This is a clear indication how important this drill is and therefore, we would like to present both views on this drill. Derek Porter sent us his favoured drills: RUSSIAN CATCH DRILL

This is a great drill for learning the correct blade motions at the top of the slide. It reinforces the correct timing for blade entry and the proper application of power to initiate the stroke.

Just working at the top six inches of the slide with blades on the square, drop the blades in at the catch position and drive the legs for 6 inches (at the most) of the slide while keeping the arms straight. Then extract the blades quickly by dropping the hands and arms as you would with a regular finish except with straight arms. Repeat this cycle for 10 strokes then do a full stroke then back up to the top of the slide for another set of 10 Russian catches.

When you return to full stroke rowing you should feel much more ‘connected’ at the top end of the slide. As soon as you feel it slipping, go back again and do a few more sets of the drill.


One arm sculling or one sided sweeping. Starting from a stationary position take the catch with one scull working on a solid application of power and consistent pressure on the blade. Try to establish the air pocket behind the blade and maintain it through the stroke. Too quickly and the blade will rip through the water, too slowly the pocket will not form properly behind the blade making for difficult extraction of the blade at the finish. Repeat the stroke cycle until you have done a complete circle (make sure you are clear of other boats!) then repeat with the other side striving to achieve the same feel and power.

Most scullers will find this easier or stronger on one side than the other. Therefore, work on the weak side more to bring it into balance with the other. Key points are accurate blade entry, blade depth, and application of power. I like to do this drill at half and quarter slide and really snap the legs down trying to turn the boat as much as possible with each stroke. Use the non-involved side to steady the boat. Take time between strokes to make sure you have a stable platform before taking the next stroke and watch the blade to insure the depth and air pocket is desirable.”

D. Porter, Sept. 5, 2001

Photo 5: Three-sixties in a sculling boat.

Photo 6: Three-sixties in a sweep boat.


By Mike Spracklen, Men’s National Team Coach

Rowing with a square blade is a good exercise for improving the quality of the stroke. It is also a good exercise for improving balance. Athletes are inclined to carry their blades too close to the water in the recovery. The affect is poor balance and loss of length, which occurs at the beginning, and the finish of their strokes. Carrying the blades forward at the correct height, which square blade-rowing dictates, can help to improve rowing technique generally.

PHOTO 7: Stroke beginning with ‘square blades’.


To achieve a good beginning the blade should be carried forward in the recovery at a height, which allows it to be brought down to the water ready squared for the next stroke. A blade carried forward close to the water has to be raised to make room for it to be squared. Dropping the hands and raising the blade affects balance, the athletes timing and the way in which the blade enters the water. Rather than a smooth semi circular entry it becomes a “chop” which misses too much of the first part of the stroke.

Rowing with the blade square keeps it at a height, which allows it to be placed into the water quickly at the beginning of the stroke. A blade, which is quickly covered, can grip the water efficiently with little loss of leg drive and forward reach.


The finish, described as the last part of the stroke and the extraction of the blade from the water, determines the speed at which the boat travels. Maximum thrust is achieved by accelerating the blade to the finish and extracting it cleanly from the water.

Square blade paddling is a useful exercise for teaching the athlete to keep the hands drawing to the finish at a height, which keeps the blade, covered and allows room for the hands to recover the blade smoothly at the release. A lively draw with the outside hand completes the acceleration and the inside hand completes the clean release.

Drawing hands low to the finish is a common fault which paddling with square blades will help to correct. The reasons for correction are:

1. Drawing the hands low allows the blade to rise out of the water before the hands reach full length at the finish. An uncovered blade does not move the boat and some length and power, is lost.

2. When hands draw low at the finish there is no room for them to circle down and away to clear the blade. The hands then rise as they move away and the blade fouls the water.

3. Drawing the hands low will pull the rigger down, leaving no room for the hands to move away and the blades scrape along the surface of the water. If riggers on one side are low to the water, the other side will be high making it difficult for those athletes to keep their blades covered. This is pronounced in small boats, the four and pair.


A boat can run level when the athletes are relaxed and moving their hands at the same speed and height as they slide forward. When blades are carried forward too close to the water the natural movement of the boat as it travels through water is restricted. This restriction will affect some athletes who will lean away from their riggers to make more room for themselves.

PHOTO 8: Perfect balance with ‘square blades’.

It becomes a competition as athletes each side of the boat lean against each other for more freedom. No one wins, the boat merely rolls from side and the athletes complain that the boat is lying down on their side. It takes only one blade to be too close to cause this balance problem.

A boat will only run level if hands are carried forward at the same speed and height above the water. That height should be sufficient for the blades to be brought down square close to the surface.

Insufficient height means that the blades have to rise to be squared. Paddling with square blades is a good exercise for learning balance. The amount of room is limited and the hands have to move forward at a low, but constant height, which contributes, to good balance. The higher the hands draw at the finish the more room they have to circle down and away to extract the blade cleanly. This action also helps balance. As their skill levels rise, the athletes learn to make small adjustments to balance.


Square blade paddling is a good exercise but it requires a good level of skill. Without specific coaching, athletes may acquire new faults or allow old faults to go unchecked. In the initial stages the athletes should be coached to control both hand movements and relaxation. Rowing with square blades will induce tension for athletes unaccustomed to doing the exercise. Athletes must be encouraged to practice frequently in order to raise the level of skill, which will increase the value the exercise can give.

Rowing just a few strokes with square blades occasionally will have little positive effect.


Paddling with square blades is beneficial to scullers as much as it is to sweep athletes. The main difference being the way in which the boat is balanced. The scullers hands must cross level in the recovery with the left hand leading the right hand. With blades square there is little room for the hands as they pass over the thighs and is further reduced when one hand passes over the top of the other. In a crew sculling boat it is particularly important that in the recovery all hands cross level with the left hand leading away from the body.

PHOTO 9: Hands crossing the knees in ‘square blade’ sculling.

By Al Morrow, Women’s National Team Coach

It is very important to understand why one does drills. I believe the reasons include:

  • They add variety to workouts- they can aid correct skill acquisition.
  • Weaknesses can be highlighted. For example, if someone has trouble doing a drill it shows them their weakness in this area of their technique.
  • Drills aid ones ability to learn good concentration.
  • They can be lots of fun.
  • They can become a part of the whole area of challenge and competitions.

I also have two pet peeves about drills: First, people do drills and then don’t carry the lessons learned over to their regular rowing! So they just do the drills for the sake of the drills and don’t reap the benefits of the drills.

And secondly, people do drills and do them poorly! For example, one should always try to perfect everything you do in rowing rather than not doing it well.

Three of my favourite drills are as follows:


This is done by rowing only to 1/2 slide on the recovery. When this drill is done well it really emphasizes how fast ones leg drive can be. This is possible as it is like a 1/2 squat and the leg can really extend much faster than at full slide. One of the best ways to do this drill is to alternate i.e. one stroke on the 1/2 slide and one stroke on the full slide or two on the drill and one on regular length rowing. When this is done the carry over effect to really fast leg drive can really be felt.


There are a lot of variable grip drills. Some can be really fun like gripping with the hands overlapped or underneath the oar handle. However, my favorites are wide grip (good in sculling and sweep), inside hand only and outside hand on the square only.

Wide grip really reminds people of the importance of the pivot in sweep and allows one to have the option to try to look at the blade at the entry. Wide grip in sculling allows people to really develop water feeling at the entry i.e. to learn the skill of carving the blades into the water at the entry and also teaches people the importance of relaxation and length at the entry.

Inside hand only rowing in sweep allows one to develop water feeling, length and relaxation.


Outside hand only rowing in sweep allows on to really practice the role of the outside hand in sweep, which is essentially the height control that is needed to have a clean release and entry.

PHOTO 13: Rowing with ‘outside hand only’. 


There are a lot of variable slide length drills. Nevertheless my favorite sequence is to row for 10 strokes on the drill at low rate and 10 stokes at high rate and then 10 strokes at low rate. Then move on to the next length of stroke and repeat the low-high-low sequence.

I often encourage the rower to do this sequence at arms only, arms and back, ¼ slide, 1/2 slide, 3/4 slide, full slide, 3/4 slide, 1/2 slide, 1/4 slide, arms and back and arms only. This drill is a great timing and concentration drill. It is often used to allow a new combination to come together quickly like 2-’s or 2x’s before seat racing. It really forces them to get the timing and balance at the release together. Doing the whole sequence can take almost 2000m. Therefore, it is a great way to make the row go by quickly having a fun challenge.