Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ergs Don't Float, Do They?

A FITD reader wrote about her dislike of erg season because on the water her lightweight four is equal to or faster than her crew's heavy four, but on the erg they regularly get beat by the same women. As depressing as this may be, the first thing to remember is that for rowers, the erg exists for one reason - to help you go faster on the water. Crossing a finish line first, in a boat, is all that matters. Nonetheless, a cult has built up around the erg because in the ultimate team sport it provides a chance for individual glory. It provides a way to objectively measure and rank rowers and gives coaches a starting point for setting boats. For the less competent coaches it provides the only measure they need to set boats. Twenty-five years ago erg scores were taken with a grain of salt because, as everyone knew, ergs didn't float. They cost thousands of dollars and crews with tight budgets didn't feel a real need to spend money on one. As they became a critical part of national team testing procedures, however, it became obvious to all that they were useful tools and that no serious crew could be without them. (It also helped that Concept II came out with a much less expensive version.) At a time when Mike Teti has been quoted as saying (I'm paraphrasing), "Just give me a big erg, I'll teach him to row," it's understandable that a rower's world seems to revolve around the erg.

The erg, though, has actually helped make some crews go slower. How? The erg has produced "meat" coaches. Meat coaches are women's heavyweight coaches who recruit based almost solely on size, because size generally equals bigger erg scores. (Interestingly, meat coaches seem to be more likely at schools with major football programs.) These coaches are unable to get beyond a girl's erg score and therefore don't so much coach, as simply test. They are like athletic proctors, giving tests, ranking rowers, and setting boats. When recruiting, they only ask two questions - what is your erg score and how big are you? This is the recruiting scavenger hunt - they believe that if they can find the biggest girls, they'll have the fastest boats. What they fail to do (or can't do), is coach. As a result they get beaten by crews who have been coached and actually know how to row. These are the people who give women's rowing a bad name because they simply eyeball girls and offer them scholarships. No wonder other athletes, who have been working at their sport since they were twelve without earning a scholarship, believe women's heavyweight rowing is a joke.

Lightweight coaches, however, don't have the luxury of trying to "out big" the opposition. Everyone weighs the same so they actually have to teach women how to row and row well. If you want to find a good undiscovered coach look for a good lightweight coach. Ergs are just as valuable for training and measurement for lightweights as for heavyweights, but lightweight coaches know that they can't rely on erg scores alone to set boats. They know that there is more to it - technique, obviously, but also heart, guts, and determination. A will to win. There are days when a heavyweight lines up at the starting line, looks over at her opponents, and based on size alone knows that she should have an easy race of it. That never happens to a lightweight. She can never count on winning a race through size. This means that champion lightweights have to be more scrappy, more gutsy, and have more heart. Champion heavyweights are champions because they race like lightweights.

But back to the erg. Yes, heavyweights should be able to pull a better score than lightweights. (This, by the way, is why the Midget Basketball League argument against lightweight rowing is flawed. As erg scores show, rowing is a strength sport, which always have weight classes.) So then, how could a heavyweight lose on the water to a lightweight? Technique is an obvious answer, followed by all of the intangibles discussed above. But there is another way to use erg scores - weight adjust them.

Weight adjusted erg scores started out as a way for lightweights to feel good about themselves. They were supposed to measure some notion of efficiency, but who really cared about efficiency if you still lost the boat race? No matter what your weight you have to pull along your own body weight plus the weight of the boat and the weight of the coxswain. If you don't take this extra weight into account you're kidding yourself with a weight adjustment. Concept II, however, has a weight adjustment calculator that does take these things into account. It also accounts for the additional drag a heavyweight boat has because it sits lower in the water. The next time you take an erg test run your score and the heavyweight scores through this calculator to see how you really did. Both scores have to be adjusted because the calculator tells you the time for an eight made up of rowers with your score. You may find you're still behind on the erg (remember those intangibles), but you'll have a better picture of who can really move a boat.

No comments: