The Importance of Club Rowing in the US
As the Head Coach of the US Junior National Team, my role is to develop young athletes into Olympic rowers. So, I’m thrilled to see the growth of rowing clubs in America. For several reasons, I believe that continued growth in club rowing is critical to the long-term success of our young rowers and US Rowing, overall.
Rowing small boats makes big boats go fast
Most high-school programs row eights and fours. Given limited school budgets for equipment and coaching, these “big boats” are the only way to get a large group of young athletes on the water.
Yet, rowing “small boats” is a more effective way to learn how to move a boat. Athletes develop a sense of boatmanship. They quickly learn about set, swing and the subtleties of blade work. They develop a sense of ownership, too—there’s no one else in a single to blame for the set! It is exponentially more difficult and time consuming for young rowers to develop these skills sitting in a 200 lb., 60’ eight with a 12’ oar in their hands.
Unfortunately, most of our high-school rowing programs don’t have access to small boats like singles, doubles and pairs. In contrast, European rowing is mostly club based. Their young rowers begin by sculling. As a result, Europeans own the small-boat events at international regattas. They get their fair share of wins in the big-boat events, too!
Technique is just as important as power
The US training program is second to none. On the Junior National Team, for example, we have U19 boys that can pull a 2k erg test under 6:00 and girls under 6:50. You’d think, with that kind of horsepower, winning races is a slam-dunk. It’s not. Rowing technique is just as important as power. Proper technique allows crews to harness their horsepower.
In the US, we put a premium on power and fitness. This mindset needs to be tempered with developing a range of technical skill sets. Rowing clubs provide a great environment for young rowers to experience and deeply learn proper technique.
Competition actually slows us down
As with many sports today, kids are rushed to compete. A lot of emphasis is put on success and earning scholarships for college. This is true with rowing, especially considering the tempting Title IX funding of female athletics at NCAA schools. This is not realistic for most athletes and perpetuates the problem.
Often, when young rowers race, technique goes over the gunwales. Boats slow down, as does the development of our young rowers. If I could clean-slate the present youth rowing model, I would start high-level competitive rowing at the U-17 level. Giving young rowers time to learn proper technique is consistent with various Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) models. Until my clean-slate dream becomes reality, I encourage young high-school rowers to get involved in club rowing in the off-season.
The benefits of balanced athletes
US Rowing needs more balanced athletes, both technically and physically. Ideally, rowers should be able to scull and row both port and starboard. We look for these skills when selecting Junior National Team members. Unfortunately, focusing on success at a young age forces specialization. Athletes row port or starboard in an eight. Period.
This is dangerous, too, for young athletes whose bodies are rapidly growing. A more balanced rower creates a more balanced body. It minimizes overuse issues such as muscle imbalances, lower back injuries, forearm or wrist injuries and intercostal strain or rib fractures.
Club rowing offers critical, small-boat experience in an environment that promotes a deep understanding of how to move a boat. Rowing clubs have a welcoming culture, relaxed atmosphere and make rowing a fun, inclusive sport for everyone to enjoy. Clubs are critical for the growth of our sport, long-term development of athletes and provide a strong foundation for the young rowers who dream of competing at the Olympics.
Steve Hargis is the father of two former rowers. For 12 years he coached rowing at the collegiate level, including a period at the US Coast Guard Academy. From 2004 to 2008 he served as Junior Women’s National Team Head Coach. Since 2008 Steve has been the Head Coach for Junior National Team Development responsible for the growth and long-term planning of Junior National Teams. Left: Pictured with NRC members at an NRC annual meeting.