Lee Willett talks to Shrewsbury School First Eight coach Sam Grant to see how technology helps school athletes and coaches balance learning and training timetables
With school students having to balance tough workloads in the classroom and strong emphases on extra-curricular activities, pressures on their time can be considerable.
In the rowing world, school competition standards continue to rise. More schools are taking to the water, and the long-established rowing powerhouses are pushing the speed envelope. In the UK, this progress is evident in the competitiveness at major races. One school that continues to feature at the tip of this competition is Shrewsbury.
Talking to Rowe.rs in October 2017, Royal Shrewsbury School Boat Club (RSSBC) First VIII coach Sam Grant said that about 170 students are rowing in total, across the various boys and girls squads.
The boat club trains five days per week. Wednesday and Saturday afternoons are games time (with water and gym sessions); extra-curricular activity time on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday afternoons is book-ended by lessons. Balancing academic and rowing commitments means that, in training terms, “being time efficient is quite important”, said Grant.
“I believe in being more effective with the time you’ve got – particularly in a boarding school environment where the students have got a lot going on,” he said. “The sessions you’ve got are the sessions you’ve got to make the most out of them.”
Managing time and programmes
In his rowing coaching career, Grant has used several different training technologies. In his two years at Shrewsbury, he has seen the introduction of the Rowe.rs performance, training, and data management product. Rowe.rs consists of a number of different functions from which coaches can draw to support requirements specific to their programme and athletes. Grant uses ergometer score downloads, the ‘Morning Monitoring’ heart-rate measurement function, and the ‘drag-and-drop’ process for selecting crews.
Grant argued that a primary benefit offered by Rowe.rs is the ability to individualise rowing training programmes for each athlete. There are several elements to this, he said.
First, he can shape individual student training programmes to maximise their ability to meet academic commitments, while also ensuring the athletes are accountable for completing the training set. Second, he can adapt programmes to give a student the right kind of training to help development in the right areas. Third, being able to adapt training allows coaches to introduce bespoke programmes for students recovering from illness. In this instance, setting and monitoring a training programme, including assessing athlete heart rates, enables the coach to say “‘OK, we need to bring it back’ or ‘you’re OK to push on’,” Grant noted. Lastly, holiday training programmes can be set: here, as training outputs can be viewed across the squad via the Rowe.rs system, this provides an element of competitive motivation amongst the athletes.
While such a structure can, of course, be built by other means, Rowe.rs enables all the information to be distributed via an email from the coach, with athletes viewing this information in one place, and with data entered by the athletes (including heart rates and ergometer scores) being monitored by the coach in one place too.
For student-athletes with extensive time commitments, Grant said “if I know some of them are tired or run down, or if they’ve got exams or something, [using Rowe.rs] allows me to gauge their overall lifestyle or stress, but also make sure that the rowing isn’t adding to that.”
Monitoring and analysis
The time-management element of using Rowe.rs is key to balancing study and training, Grant argued. With an email sent each morning via Rowe.rs providing training details for the day, the students “turn up knowing what the session is already and get on with it,” he added.
Setting and publishing crews beforehand boosts this efficiency, he continued, as the athletes will know what boat and blades to use before arriving at the boathouse. “If they all know what they’re doing, the first couple turning up it’s like ‘right, you get the blades out’ and we’re just speeding up that process [rather than] waiting for them all to get here and briefing them.”
“It’s like, ‘right, come down, crack on, and get it done’,” Grant said.
While Grant noted that writing the email takes more time for the coach, the overall time benefit enables the coach to concentrate on coaching.
In terms of students downloading ergo scores and heart rates, Grant said “I’ve now got it to the point where the students will record their heart rate on their phone with a strap, and that … gets sent into Rowe.rs.”
“At the end of each ergo,” he continued, “the student pushes a few buttons and … they get to see the heart-rate analysis and time-in-zone and all of that, which is quite cool for them, but also for my purpose I get it all into one place and I can look at all the different guys and give them feedback.”
As well as monitoring training data and loads, Grant uses Rowe.rs to shape the output of a session, including for individual athletes. “I’m very targeted,” he said. “Each session has a particular purpose or training adaptation that I’m after, so [using Rowe.rs] allows me to be able to do that on an individual level, and manage it more easily.”
One function Grant uses is the ability to upload video clips.
Grant often sends the students short clips, designed to provide a visual demonstration of the technical guidance or wider training point he is trying to convey. This enables the students to have a better sense of “roughly what it looks like”, he said, meaning his job “then becomes about coaching whilst they’re getting on with it, rather than me having to do demonstrations.” Even this, he said, “saves a little bit of time”.
Feedback and move forward
Despite the ease with which students today relate to technology, Grant acknowledged there is a mix within the school’s rowers in terms of how readily the use of technology is embraced. For Grant, the key issue here is creating a culture within the boat club where students are using the technology enough and are receiving the right feedback, demonstrating the benefits of shaping and monitoring their own performance. “It’s creating that vibe about it,” said Grant. “The capacity for things like uploading the videos … has helped a little bit.”
“For example, if I’ve taken two guys out in a pair, to be able to go onto their page and go ‘here’s a video from today; here’s a few comments; look at this, look at that,’ for them that’s kind of a personal thing.”
For the students, Grant continued, having all the information in one central hub is key. “They don’t want to be going ‘oh, I’ve got to click on to one drive to get the video and I’ve got to go on to this to get that document’.”
RSSBC uses Rowe.rs to support particular physiology elements, too.
One such element is ‘Morning Monitoring’, which is used to measure resting heart rate and thus (with daily monitoring) can indicate if this is higher than normal. Following any higher-than-normal reading, suggesting an athlete may be more tired from training than usual, a coach can adjust that individual’s programme.
The heart-rate functions and other Rowe.rs elements also help a coach see how individual athletes respond to particular training types, and to understand areas an athlete needs to develop.
“Particularly in a Sixth Form squad where I’ve got two-year groups, Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth, I have actually got a variance in how long they’ve been training, so actually you get a variance in how robust they are for training,” Grant explained. “So maybe some of the sessions I set to the group, I might set three lots of 20 minutes for the Lower Sixth guys and I might for the Upper Sixth guys, who are a bit more robust, give them a bit longer in the same intensity.”
Overall, Grant added, having access to all such information on a daily basis “helps me in my mind get this picture of somebody physiologically, and therefore how much I can push them and … also a sense of measuring how much they develop as well”.
Grant’s thoughts on training principles and processes mirror points made by UTS Haberfield RC (Australia) and multi-Olympic medal-winning coach Tim McLaren. (See Tim McLaren blog post here)
McLaren told a Rowe.rs seminar that school coaching can be challenging due to the time factor.
He also said that four of the most helpful words a coach can use are ‘it will feel like’, with the coach aiming to create a tangible sense of the outcomes of a technical change to help an athlete better understand what is required and how to do it, and pre-empting the need for potentially confusing explanations. “‘Feeling’ is one of the key words athletes talk about when giving feedback,” said McLaren: “By using that phrase and pre-empting what it ‘might feel like’, you are simply communicating your message on a better level.”