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Rowing 101: Seat Racing

As promised, the second entry in the Rowing 101 series deals with seat racing.  The first entry, Erg Testing, deals with one piece of information we use to evaluate athletes.  Seat racing comprises another, and often the last piece of information we use.

First, a story.

The origins and details of this story are lost in time, and is most likely an urban myth, but it has survived to illustrated a point.  A coach has two boats out on the water doing pieces.  Frustrated with the performance of a particular athlete (I’ll call him Joe) who seems to be unable to make the most basic of improvements, he switches Joe out for what he happens to in his launch at the time: a twinkie.  Lo and behold, the boat with the twinkie goes faster on the subsequent piece.  Joe just lost his seat race to a twinkie.  The point being illustrated is that Joe’s output did not exceed the drag he placed on the shell either by his mass, or by severe technical flaws.  For an interesting read on the history of this story, check out this excerpt from The Compleat Dr Rowing.

The story also serves as a basic way to understand the seat race; it is evaluation by comparison.  While we don’t normally replace rowers with inanimate objects, we do swap athletes between boats.  Seat racing is as close as we get to on the water laboratory testing conditions.  In short, we are conducting an experiment, changing a variable, and repeating that experiment to see the difference.

The purpose of such a process should be immediately obvious: despite our apparent omniscience, coaches aren’t always sure which athletes are moving boats better than others.  We often make very educated guesses, but sometimes we simply don’t know.  Other times we may simply want more data to back up our hunches.  For the athletes, it provides the most concrete evidence of effectiveness on the water.

Seat racing is simple.  A coach will line up two or more boats, row a measured piece (either distance or time), note the difference between the boats at the end, then make a switch.  The coach will then row an identical piece, and note the difference again.  Theoretically, any change in the differences between the boats should be attributed to the personnel change.  It is very important that coaches keep detailed notes about each switch, the results, and note any irregularities.  I also require each coxswain to take notes as well regarding stroke rate, steering, and how the feel of the boat may have changed.

An athlete is given information only on a “need to know” basis.  The athletes never know who is being switched on the next piece or how many pieces they are doing.  Athletes are motivated to push by the fact that they don’t know if they will be the next athlete switched.  The adage of the seat racing athlete is this: pull as hard as you can, and hope you get switched.  The athlete wants their absolute best effort to be used for comparison.  If a coach senses that an athlete has lost that sense of urgency, you can bet that athlete will be the next one switched.

While it may seem pretty straightforward, seat racing is an inexact process.  We may be able to control certain variables such as stroke rating, equipment, steering, and coxswain input, there a number of possible confounding variables which can adversely affect the outcome of a race.  Athlete motivation, variable rates of fatigue, environmental conditions, or inconsistent technique can all have an impact on boat speed which cannot be accounted for.  This is where the notes of the coaches and coxswains can help point out inconsistencies.

Sometimes, seat racing can serve to confuse decisions rather than simplify them.  A coach can end the day with numbers that simply don’t add up.  We might end up with a “rock, paper, scissors” situation where the results for three or more athletes creates a circular chain of superiority.  It is up to the coach to try to unravel these situations based on their notes and the notes of the coxswains.  Sometimes this means the coach simply needs to start over, or they may find that seat racing cannot be accurately conducted with the athletes he or she has on hand.

The only way to minimize these confounds and Escher-like results is by having athletes and coxswains who are skilled, fit, and committed enough to give consistent results.  The coach needs to go into the seat racing process with a good understanding of the strengths and limitations of their athletes, and allow for a margin of error which takes these confounds into account.  Simply put, the better the athletes, the more a coach can rely on close results.

Each coach has to decide for themselves how much seat racing plays a role in their overall selection process.  While it can be a powerful tool to evaluate athletes in a race-like environment, the coach has to understand the limitations of the information and how to interpret the results.  Likewise, the athletes have to be absolutely committed to their absolute best effort because their seat may be on the line, and their success rests upon having the best people in their boat possible.

Next up in the Rowing 101 queue: Race Tactics.