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April Masters Feature: Relax!

by Charlotte Hollings | Apr 01, 2013
While the calendar says it’s spring, it sure doesn’t feel like it here on the east coast! Despite that, I’m sure many of you are beginning to venture out onto the water to begin the 2013 season. There are so many things to think about during those first few weeks back in the boat, but none more important, I believe, than staying relaxed. Nervousness leads to tension; tension leads to bad rowing; bad rowing makes the boat less stable, which makes us more nervous and the cycle just escalates.
While the calendar says it’s spring, it sure doesn’t feel like it here on the east coast! Despite that, I’m sure many of you are beginning to venture out onto the water to begin the 2013 season. There are so many things to think about during those first few weeks back in the boat, but none more important, I believe, than staying relaxed. Nervousness leads to tension; tension leads to bad rowing; bad rowing makes the boat less stable, which makes us more nervous and the cycle just escalates.

Often the tension starts in the grip, so check first that you’re not over gripping. Try to keep your fingers loose and hook the oar handle rather than grip it. Make sure the wrist is flat during the drive and that the palm does not have any contact with the handle. If your forearms tighten up, that’s a sure sign of over gripping, but there are also less obvious signs. Blisters can crop up faster and holding on too tight can also make you overreact to a balance problem.

Another place one tends to feel tension is in the neck and shoulders. This happens when we try to do too much with our shoulders. We lift the head and shoulders as we put the oar in the water and then continue to lift during the drive. Instead, we want to lightly drop the oar in the water at the catch, allowing gravity to do the work and keeping the body still. This will help keep the arms loose and the elbows low, allowing the hands to stay level and, therefore, the blade to remain level. We want the blade to stay just under the surface of the water all the way through the drive. This has the added benefit of making the boat more stable and perhaps more importantly, making the drive more efficient.

We can also ease tension by relaxing our posture. This always seems to be a controversial subject, but you do not want to arch your back when you row. When sitting at the finish, you should not feel any tension in the hip flexors, which will occur if you try to “sit tall” at the finish. Relax! Let the pelvis roll on to the back of the seat and discover how much less effort that position requires. It’s not that we’re trying to slouch; we’re just trying to stay relaxed and horizontal in the boat.

One last controversial pet peeve, don’t bother with square blade rowing. Maybe there are a few people out there who can row square blade without tensing up, but they are few and far between. There is nobody out there who can row square blades without cutting off the finish. We want to stay long and we want to relax, so leave off this drill. And while you’re at it, don’t worry about getting the blades off the water. It will happen when you’re ready, but first you need to build the muscle memory of level hands – easier to do that leaving the blades on the water. When you’re ready, start to gently push down on the oar handle at the release to lift the blades off the water, but never more than an inch or so off the water. Keeping them close to the surface means less rock and roll, which will make you less nervous and help keep you relaxed.

Be smart this spring – the water is colder than usual. Don’t row alone and be sure to put into practice all the safety rules.

Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Va. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.net.
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