Is Rowing Hard to Learn? (Coach’s Perspective)

close up view of a single sculler

Rowing is challenging, I’m not going to lie. I personally love the sport of rowing, having been a part of it for many years (albeit a few years back). I participated on a crew team in college and then worked with various clubs for years before settling on my professional career, which sadly, paid more than coaching rowing.

I don’t spend any time on the water now, but I can’t pass a river, lake, or other flat body of water and think about what it would be like to take a boat out on it.

As a coach (and having learned to row myself), I can say pretty definitely that rowing is hard to learn.

And here’s why.

rowing on a river in a double scull

Rowing well is about managing tons of different things at once

When you start learning to row, there is an overwhelming number of things you need to know how to do and pay attention to. You need to be thinking about balance, your posture, your hands, your oar and blade, keeping time and speed with your fellow boat mates and more.

So much more.

As a rowing coach, we try to reduce the number of things you have to think about as much as possible, so that you can learn a few skills at the time, get them to the point that they come automatically, and then move on to the next step or stage.

We may utilize rowing machines off the water to practice the unfamiliar rowing movements and timing. Some clubs use a “barge” which are one or many rowing spots attached to an old dock or converted boat that is impossible to tip.

I’ve off the edge of the dock, hanging onto a boat to steady it in order to give a brand new rower just a little bit of confidence and security.

We make it easier for rowers by asking the rowers to take turns, alternating practicing strokes and drills with balancing the boat by placing the blades against the water (“setting up” the boat or “setting” the boat).

A new boat of rowers (a group of four, or eight) who have absolutely no experience, may not take strokes successfully all together at the same time for months.

Unfortunately, learning some of even the most basic of skills (putting the flat part of the blade in the water and managing to take a stroke along with everyone else) can take days or even weeks.

Perfecting that skill could be the work of years.

Your physical ability needs to improve

I don’t care what sort of shape you are in when you start learning to row. You aren’t going to be in rowing shape. You can lift weights, you can ride a bike, you can run. But none of these activities use the same muscles that you use when you row.

There are some weight lifting moves that utilize similar muscles, but none of them incorporate the balance/stabilization that rowing requires.

And don’t forget your hands. Most oar handles are made of wood, but a growing number of made of plastic. You have to grab and hold and pull on those handles for an hour or two at a time. Think about grabbing a shovel and heading out into your yard for the first time a long time. Your soft callous free hands become blistered quickly. Your first outings in a boat are a bit like that.

Basically..be prepared to be really sore. Take it easy in the beginning, it is pretty easy to hurt yourself, especially if you are out of shape. This is yet another reason why the learn to row process is tough.

rowing in an eight on the river

Rowing happens outside….

Rowing requires a body of water. This means that weather is a factor. Wind, water, sun, heat, ice…you name it. The learn to row process is really hard because you constantly have outside influences acting on you. Even a boat on the other side of the lake doing donuts pulling a kid on a tube can make your session miserable (all the choppy water and unsettling waves).

Rowers have to learn to put up with the elements, and hold IT until the boat returns to land. This isn’t easy, and can take some time getting used to. (Can be the source of a lot of complaining/whining).

Teamwork is a key component

Rowing is about learning how to use the oar, to push on the foot stretchers, to pull on the handle and move the boat through the water.

But it is also about learning how to do that with a bunch of other people, who are probably strangers to you. (Unless you are going to be a single sculler (1x) then all you have to do is try not to hit anything).

It doesn’t matter how good of a technical rower you are. If you cannot find your place in the boat, fold in and fit in and work with everyone else, then you can’t be a successful athlete in the sport.

You’ll spend just as much time trying to match yourself up with the person in front of you, and all the other people who row on the same side as you do.

Unless and until everyone can work as a team toward a common goal, the boat will never move very well at all.

And while you might enjoy the struggles, it is when the boat really starts to fly that you really begin to have a lot of fun pulling hard.

Mental challenges push you

While rowing is physically challenging, and very technical, the mental part of it is almost more challenging in my opinion.

First, most people (especially adults or older folks) are used to being in control of themselves and their situation. When you are sitting in a boat as a rower, you are in control of almost nothing. The coach tells you what to do, and the coxswain (if you have one) tells you when to stop and when to start.

Everything you do must be done in coordination and in concert with your boat mates. If you do not follow along carefully, you risk damaging the boat, hurting a fellow rower, or even injuring your own self.

high up view of doubles scullers on a large body of water

Add in the fact that you as a rower are always facing backwards and can’t ever see where you are going…..let’s just say that you must learn to trust the coach and coxswain (and your mates as well) quickly or you won’t be a part of the team for long.

This is easier for kids and teens, or even college aged young adults to do, as they are used to following directions and not having control over their lives.

Next, you have to own the fact that you are really bad at something, and everyone knows it. Seriously, everyone can see what you are doing and how you are doing it. Not everyone is comfortable with struggling on a public stage.

If you are the kind of person who gets frustrated and loses control of their temper quickly….learning to row will be especially challenging (and your colleagues won’t like you all that much).

Rowing is terribly difficult to learn….and that’s why I love it. That’s why we all love it.

Rowers are a different breed of people. It takes a special person to learn to row, to stick it out through all of the challenges. People either hate rowing, or become obsessed with it. There seems to be no middle ground.

Rowing pushes you to the limit, especially if you give yourself over to it. We row in the sun, the rain, the wind, the snow. We struggle together through choppy water. We sweat, and we sometimes get up bruised and bleeding.

But at the end of the day, we do it altogether. As a team, we rise and fall. As a team, we have a good day or a bad day. We can’t do a single thing in the boat without our team members.

Over time….rowing becomes something special to you. I’m not sure how or why, but it just does.

And not only the sport or the activity of going to practice or racing, but also the people in it. We share something, a common goal, a common struggle. We are connected in a way that other people aren’t.

It’s hard to explain, not sure if I really did that part justice.

Rowing changed my life, as I know it changed my friends who joined with me. I have personally coached people through the learn to row phase, and watching them just bloom as they discovered the joys of rowing.

I think everyone should try out rowing, if they have a chance, even though it is hard.

People shouldn’t shy away from rowing because it is hard to learn. The rewards for those who stick with it are endless. I can’t speak highly enough of the sport and the people who have grown to love it.

Are you thinking about getting into rowing? Let me know in the comments section below. What are your questions about rowing? What has got you thinking about trying to learn?

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