Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Big Ergs = Fast Boats?

Unless a rower has a big erg score, that number is often a closely guarded secret (at least to the outside world). In Pitt's case, however, a reader posted the lightweight four's erg scores and they are what most observers would call modest. Only one rower is below 8 minutes for a 2k (she's at 7:52). Do you know why they don't mind letting the secret out? Because this fall, it no longer matters. What matters is on the water boat speed and that secret is already out.

Long time readers of FITD know that I consider the erg to be the best thing and the worst thing to happen to rowing in the past 30 years or so. Despite the fact that the NCAA doesn't believe the device is rowing specific, the erg's domination of rowing is complete. If you want to inspire awe, you don't talk about a boat's victories, you talk about it's crew's erg scores. Believe it or not, rowing existed Before Ergs. Back in those dark ages winter workouts consisted of lifting lots of weights and running many miles. No doubt there were coaches calculating indices from leg presses and 2 mile run times, but setting a boat was much more of an art. Now, setting a boat seems simple - line up your rowers' erg scores and cut off the list at the top four starboards and the top four ports. As they used to say about computers, no one ever got criticized for buying IBM. Well, no one ever got criticized for racing an erg boat. It's the safe thing to do, but it usually keeps you from breaking out.

What if baseball managers set their rotations by ranking pitchers by the speed of their fastball and taking the top five? Would that work? For sure you'd get a Randy Johnson out of that methodology, but you'd also get a Steve Dalkowski (left). You would not get a Greg Maddux. The truth is that an erg score, like a fastball's speed, garners lots of attention, but it only gives you a partial picture of an athlete. As the saying goes, ergs don't lie, but they don't float either. They are a very useful tool, but that's all they are.

Ergs hurt the sport of rowing when coaches allow the machine to do the coach's job. I think this happens much more in heavyweight rowing than in lightweight rowing, where some coaches aren't rowing coaches, they are personal trainers. They train their rowers on the erg in winter and then set their boats for good the first day on the water. Sure, they do the occasional pause drill, but their work is done in February. If erg scores are truly the way to set the boat, let me tell you how to train in the spring. For your spring training trip, only take your top 8 ergers (the 1V) and keep the rest at home. The way for the others to make the boat is with a better erg score, so don't waste their time on the water, keep them on the erg. During the spring season, put your 1V on the water every day, keep the rest on the erg, and test weekly. What's the point of putting a 2V on the water when the selection criteria is the erg? If they test into the boat, they'll pick up that technique thing.

If there are times to race erg boats the fall is probably one of them. If a coach can get her hammers to actually row well in the fall, she'll have the best of both worlds in the spring. Although you may be surprised to find that a boat of modest erg scores could do so well at HOCR, perhaps the more surprising notion is the idea that a boat pulled together a week or two before the race (as some of Pitt's competitors no doubt were) could beat a long-term crew. If boat speed = erg score (power and fitness) + technique (skill and chemistry) + heart, we know how Pittsburgh made up water on its rivals.

Look, all things equal, a bigger erg does equal a faster boat, but all things are never equal. A coach's job is to discover which things aren't equal and when a deficiency in one part of the equation is overcome by superiority in another. That's what a coach does, not a personal trainer.

One last thing - wouldn't it have been fun to see a Pitt eight, cloned from the Pitt four, race in the light eight event? Who do you think would've won that contest?


Anonymous said...

I agree that ergs don't float! My daughter, a lw junior, has left many a rower with erg scores 30 sec. better in the "dust".
At the jr. world trials prep camp, the top four fastest had some of the worse erg scores.
I think that coaches are putting way too much emphasis on the erg. Are track coaches judging their runners on their time on the tread mill?

I wish the erg would just go back to being a training tool and not a determining factor as to a rower's potential!

Anonymous said...

Yes, let’s choose our top riders for the Tour De France by putting them on stationary bikes. What other sport would do this? Rowing BC will extend invitations to JR development camps based on an ERG score to get them in the door. Meanwhile these rowers with the good ERG scores are being beat out on the water. Look at the rower, are they tall and light with big long arms? What is their potential? What this sport needs is torque meters in the ores, or simply seat race rowers. Otherwise we will continue to look over look some very fast efficient rowers.

Jenny said...

I agree whole-heartedly with this post. Not only does the erg not represent technique or finesse on the water, there's no competition to heat things up. I know many a rower who performs average on the erg but will rise to the occasion in a head race. For the fall season, my coach is currently boating the top 8 weighted erg scores, which opens up a whole other can of worms on whether or not that's going to give you the fastest boat. But I think for the sake of motivating the guys to give their all on the erg, weighted scores will get the smaller guys to work hard and push the bigger guys to work all the harder. I'm not sure what my coach's plan are for boating the varsity 8 in spring, but I have a feeling it may be erg-related, which could be a cause for concern. Then again, a coach's job isn't easy. I don't really blame him for using the ergs as a tool in seating boats. It's quite a complex process to boat an 8. Seat racing is imperfect, some guys work better with other guys, erg scores aren't tell-all machines, and some days, some guys just don't want to pull. But I do agree with you that some coaches are acting less and less like true rowing coaches and more like personal trainers. Rowing is an art and I think that some coaches and rowers are forgetting that.