Advanced Sculling Technique
by Dan Boyne


"Three Releases"

I suppose every coach has their own particular technical focal point, from which most of their other directives evolve. It is one of my basic beliefs that the construction of a good stroke begins at the finish, with a clean release of the blade from the water and a smooth movement of the scullers body out of the bow. Why? Most everyone knows the general rationale. Without a good release, one where your blades leave the water smoothly and the hull remains stable, you can't come up the slide and into your next catch with entire confidence. Without a seamless movement of the body out of the bow, the glide of the shell can't be sustained.

As with all technical aspects of sculling, the basic concept of the release and the recovery process is easy, but its execution on the water can be elusive. I'm actually less concerned with bladework here, and more with the subtle mechanics of how the body can come out of the bow so as not to check the glide of the shell. As such, I'm going to assume that everyone who is reading this article has mastered the elements of a taking their blades out of the water! Even if you haven't, however, and you are still getting stuck with your hands in your lap, or your blades on the water, read on. The first part of this piece may be of some use to you.

As I wrote in my book "Essential Sculling", most beginners learn the release and recovery process as a series of very mechanical steps. Step 1, the hands push the blade out of the water/ Step Two, the hands feather the blade/ Step 3, the arms extend over the knees/ Step 4, the body folds forward at the waist/ Step 5, the knees are lifted, bringing the body up to the catch.

Naturally, it helps to break the whole process down like this initially, to get the steps right. But of course no good sculler really rows this way. Rowing should be as natural as walking down the street, and if you walked this mechanical, stepwise fashion, you'd look like a tin soldier!

The release and recovery process of a good sculler blends these steps into a more organic movement forward up to the catch. Thus, the blade is feathered in conjunction with the push-down of the handles; the shoulders start moving out of the bow in conjunction with the extension of the arms; and the knees are lifted before the shoulders are fully "forward" at maximum body angle (or at least kept soft). This overlapping concept helps integrate the whole movement of the body forward, rather than render it as a jerky, mechanistic one in which each body part follows the next in a strict, step-wise fashion. I've begun to use the concept of "Three Releases" as a way to better explain this organic effort up the slide, and help my scullers conceive of it as a "relaxing" or "releasing" process of certain muscles, rather than one that adheres to the old mechanical model above. Mechanics are fine initially, especially from a coaching standpoint, but in trying to learn to scull well it ultimately helps to "feel" your way through the stroke through more internal means to gain a better and better awareness of when certain muscles are flexed and when they are released. The focus here, then, is to consider the process of coming up the slide in terms of three points of relaxation - the three releases.

"Releasing the Hands"

The release of the hands is the first place to focus on. A good finish in advanced sculling should be executed not as a studied manipulation of the oars, but as an easy opening of the hands which allows the oar handles to roll forward into the fingers. Again, if you are still struggling to get the oars out of the water, you should stop and address this problem immediately. While I can't go into all the aspects of a correct finish here, I can review a few of the basic principals and highlight some typical problems which prevent people from gaining a sense of ease at this part of the stroke.

-First, remember that you need to sustain a certain amount of pressure on the oars just before the release. Maintaining this pressure helps sustain the cavity or "divot" of water just behind the blade from which it can be easily plucked from the water.

-Second, make sure you are finishing with the oar handles at the right position both in relation to the boat and to your body. Remember that there is an ideal angle from which the oars can be easily taken from the water. Beyond this point the oars will feel like they are getting stuck, or caught, by the moving water behind the blade. If this is happening, you should try moving your foot stretchers further away from you, toward the stern.

-Lastly, remember that if you are doing both of the above correctly, you dont need to execute a "square blade" finish one where the blade comes out of the water completely before it is feathered. For some rowers and coaches, this statement may be somewhat sacrilegious, but this is my personal observation. While you certainly shouldn't feather while the oar is still under water, the blade really only needs to be past the halfway point of clearing the waters surface before you can start feathering. Along these lines, its also my opinion that the endless square blade drills coaches put upon their athletes (in both sweeping and sculling) better serve to develop a good catch than a correct finish. Needless to say, if you are still thinking about your hands making a "box-like" movement around the waist, give it up!

The other misconception concerning the hands at the finish is the notion of whipping them quickly around and away from the body. This is more of an intermediate scullers sin, especially with those who have done a lot of double and quad rowing. Thrusting the arms away from the body in a forced fashion like this doesnt solve the larger issue of how to get the rest of the body out of bow in one smooth, seamless fashion.

Instead, relaxing the hands as the blade emerges out of the water should be followed by the next "release"with the abdominal muscles.

"Releasing the Stomach"

Imagine yourself standing upright, by the edge of a cliff, when suddenly you lose your balance and start falling backward. You can't very well step back with one leg and use your feet, but luckily someone throws you a rope. Using your arm and shoulder strength, you pull yourself back up to standing. You have found your center of gravity again.

Now apply this image to the second half of the drive. You are leaning back, hanging on the oars. So how do you change directions and come forward again instead of falling out of the boat. No, you shouldnt pull on the foot stretchers! Instead, think of the oars as "the rope" that you can use to draw your shoulders back over the oar handles, thus regaining the center of gravity on your seat.

The "release" you are trying to feel here is in the abdominal muscles, which start tensing as you lay back further and further. But contrary to what they've told you at the local health club, you shouldnt be sitting back looking pretty at the finish, trying to develop a washboard stomach. Instead, you should use the final forearm pull on the oars to "unweight" your abdominalsto take the tension off. A curved back, with the shoulders used as a counterbalance to the overall layback, helps execute the correct motion. When you get it down right, your body moves out of the bow with ease, with no need to pull on the foot stretchers.

With this type of finish motion, you'll actually feel your shoulders moving out of bow before your arms are fully extended. Your may even feel like the shoulders are helping to guide the arms forward if you keep your handsand arms relaxed.

"Releasing the Legs"

Like me, you may have been taught to "hold the legs down strong!" Strong legs are indeed a good thing on the drive, but you also have to know when to relax them, and how. Once your arms and torso have "unlocked" and are in motion, you should identify and release the tension in your quads and hamstrings and let the "floating," easy motion toward the stern continue.

How much body angle do you need before releasing the leg tension? Come forward to a position that is comfortable based on your strength and flexibility. You should definitely try to get past horizontal with the torso, but don't lean forward to the point that your hamstrings are actually tensing, or your lower back muscles are working hard to hold you erect. You should maintain a sense of fullness and relaxation in your upper body as you move forward, toward the catch, and stiff legs arent going to help. Holding the legs down too long also often produces the effect of making a sculler "slingshot" quickly forward up the slide as if the seat needs to catch up with the torso which has gotten ahead of it.

Again, the goal is to integrate the body as it moves stern ward - not break down the body parts in a rigid, jerky fashion. With this in mind, anything that feels rushed or jerky in your movement out of the bow should be questioned.

Putting it All Together

When you take to the water and start practicing these three release points, you should follow the sequence I've presented above. Get the hand release down first (with no use of the wrist, ideally), then unweight the abdominals, and finally learn to release the hamstrings. Do this as you would do most technique work, at a very low rating and a slow movement up the slide. Then, when you think you've got them all down, you can begin taking the rating up and playing with the concept that as the strokes per minute rise, these three releases become stacked in space and time they seem to happen all at once!

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the general theme of "Three Releases" is to try and internalize the recovery process to feel it instead of thinking your way through it. If you are successful with this practice, your movement out of bow will become more natural and relaxed. It will also keep your body moving through the water more efficiently (i.e. faster). As coaches, we spend a fair amount of time trying to get a rower to feel "connected" on the drive portion of the stroke, but very few seem to articulate the more subtle muscular connections on the recovery. I hope this article helps shed some light on this neglected area.



Dan Boyne is the director of recreational rowing at Harvard University and the author of two books on rowing: Essential Sculling and The Red Rose Crew.


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