US Rowing Level 2 Recap

Will Ruth

In January, I attended the US Rowing Level 2 instructional clinic. Designed for coaches and competitive self-coached athletes, this clinic was a jam-packed 14 hours of rowing information. Our instructors were awesome, with close to 100 years of experience between the three of them. The two main instructors were Mt Baker Rowing Club’s Eleanor McElvaine (formerly of UW) and Ed Maxwell of Green Lake Rowing, with the unannounced guest appearance by former UW coach Bob Ernst. Day 1’s 12-5pm focused heavily on rigging, physiology, and water safety. Bob took the morning of Day 2 for a lecture and demonstration of instructing basic technique, then the afternoon session was heavy on group work developing training plans and practice plans to put it all together before the closed-note test.

Overall, I felt that this was a highly valuable experience and would really encourage any other rowing coaches to go to the next Level 2 clinic near you. The clinic comes with a 200-page manual (also available as a PDF) that has been useful in the month since the clinic to refer back to. The manual describes rigging, physiology, basic technique and basic errors, safety, coaching practices, and training strategies in just about as good depth and level of detail as you can with 200 pages.

With my background in kinesiology, I was happy to already have much of physiology under my belt before attending the clinic. Learning everything on the fly would have been difficult, but for those without the background, the manual is provided ahead of time in PDF form so you can start studying. The test is closed-note, so knowing that info is important. The rigging section was fairly helpful, and what I knew the least about coming in. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I at least know how to look at a boat, measure the pitch, spread, and height, and make some basic adjustments.

The most helpful part for me was the lecture and demonstration by Bob Ernst. I’m fascinated with how different coaches teach things to their athletes and I really appreciated Bob’s coaching philosophy and openness with information. A few main takeaways from my notes:

  • No athletes make mistakes because they want to. No one is rowing along thinking, “yeah, I’m gonna drop my hands at the catch, sky my blade, and Coach is going to be furious with me! What a great day!” If an athlete continues to struggle with a technique, it’s just as much your fault as a coach for not finding a way to get through to that athlete.
  • When giving feedback during a drill, keep the goal the goal. If the goal of the drill is the release and getting the body out of bow smoothly, focus on that. If you notice that 6-seat is skying at the catch during this drill, so be it. You can’t fix everything all at once, so sometimes you just have to let it go while they focus on the task at hand.
  • Talk to one single person in the boat when giving feedback. Use their name. Rather than holler at the entire boat, “EVEN HANDLE HEIGHTTTTTTS!!!!” address the single rower who is either doing it right or doing it wrong. “XYZ, make sure to bring hands up at the catch” or “ABC, great job keeping your hands up at the catch.” Bob made the remark that saying someone’s name is like “ringing their doorbell,” so you get their attention immediately instead of expecting them to think, “oh hey, maybe I’m the one he’s talking to.”
  • On drills, a point of emphasis in the clinic was only using the drills you need, not the drills you saw a national team do or a sexy drill from a youtube video just for the sake of doing something different. This is something I emphasize in the weight-room, so I was glad to see it as part of the on-water curriculum as well. Bob went further to explain that his philosophy is to only use drills that are part of a natural stroke cycle. According to him, drills that aren’t part of a natural stroke are just tricks.
  • During some Q&A time, I asked Bob who his mentors were as a young coach and some things they taught him. This is something I love asking accomplished coaches not because I’m looking to do reference checks, but because they almost always have a good story about starting out in the sport. Bob was no exception. I didn’t realize he had only rowed one year, coming to the sport from a varied athletic background. In his day, there was no US Rowing Instructional Clinic, so he said he traveled around the country to see anyone he could talk about rowing. One coach told him that coaches should expect it to take “about ten years before you can look at a boat and really know what’s going on.”

The curriculum strength training information was fairly typical of the conventional rowing methodology. Bodyweight circuits, calisthenics, sets of 30-80 reps for strength endurance, but it at least discussed some sort of max strength training and periodization methodology rotating between general strength, maximum strength, and strength endurance. I strongly disagree with the curriculum’s recommendations on strength endurance…one recommendation was for “older girls” (???) to be doing a set of 80 reps on bench pulls. You could not write a better recipe for compensation injury, burnout, hatred of training, and being really really sore than sets designed to take 1-4 minutes. This is exactly the type of training recommendations that I think are so damaging, an argument that you can read more about in the free preview of Chapter 1 of “Rowing Stronger.” I guess my fellow strength coaches and physical therapists should be happy for job security…

Part of the certification requirements that I really like is 20 hours of mentored coaching. I completed some of this with Ed Maxwell in February and look forward to completing the rest over summer. This is a great way to make sure that new coaches to rowing are getting exposed to other coaches outside of their own program, learning different things to look at, different coaching cues, and having an opportunity to make a connection with other coaches in the sport. This is the 3rd USA Sport certification I’ve done (Weightlifting and Lacrosse) and the only one that had this requirement. All in all, this was a great experience, I’m very glad I went, and I’d encourage any other coaches out there to go as well.

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