Professional Rowing Training With Data Analytics

“Rowing is 90% technique, 10% physical.” It’s a common saying among rowers that the sport is 90 per cent technical, and 10 per cent physical. That may be overstating the case somewhat, but it does play to a long-standing notion in the sport that technique is paramount. It’s the reason so many rowers spend hours in a boat on a lake or in a gym maturing their stroke. It’s why almost every country in the world has performance centers, specifically designed to help rowers develop and maintain their technique. And it’s why so many rowers carefully study video footage of their performances, wiping the sweat from their brows as they stare longingly into the middle distance, searching for an elusive three-second improvement that may come with a twitch of the oar handle.

It’s a critical message, too, because if you’re rowing well then you’re rowing fast, right? Well, yes and no. While it’s true that a good technique is the foundation of any fast rowing, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Fast rowers work just as hard at refining their physical fitness, and it’s this element of their preparation that may be the real difference maker.

It’s why the New Zealand men’s eight enjoyed one of the best starts to a rowing season in recent memory with a win in the second World Cup regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland July. Their time of 5min 14.97sec was almost a second quicker than second-placed Great Britain, and it was just 0.6sec off the world record. A month later, and the Kiwis were back in top form, this time as one of the top two teams in the world, winning the final World Cup regatta in Poznan, Poland. They finished 0.5sec ahead of Great Britain.

It was an outstanding effort, especially given their relatively low-key pre-season, when the squad spent just four weeks together in training. It sent a clear message to their rivals – the New Zealand men’s eight are fast, and they’re getting fitter, too.

This year’s World Championships, held in Sarasota, Florida, are likely to produce similarly close results. New Zealand has won gold at two of the last three world titles, and while they finished runner-up to Great Britain last year, they beat the Brits convincingly in the two pre-Championship regattas.

“We’re not happy just being the best eight in the world, we want to be the best eight in history.” Their training leading into the Championships has been good, too, says cox Caleb Shepherd, who is the only member of the crew that remains from the world champion crew of 2011.

“We had a long lead-up into the World Cups and really got to work on the fundamentals of our game,” says. “But as soon as the World Cups were over we went straight back to work on how we could get faster. We spent three weeks in North Carolina in July and then had three weeks back in NZ before heading over to the States, so we’ve had a really good preparation.”

But the crew is well aware that other crews are getting faster, too, and Shepherd says the intensity of the training is ratcheted up with each passing week. “We’re not happy just being the best eight in the world, we want to be the best eight in history,” he says.

“Our coach, Dave Thompson, has that mentality and that’s what we want. We’re not looking to be the best eight in the World this year, we want to be the best eight that has ever rowed.”

The Kiwis have a legitimate chance to claim that title. It’s been eight years since the last World Championship title for a New Zealand men’s crew, and it was the coxed four that claimed gold. The men’s eight last triumphed in 2001, and they’re aiming to return to the top of the podium for the first time since then.

“It really is a whole new ball game,” Shepherd says. “It’s a new crew, a new system and a different coach, but we’re still aiming to go better than ever before.”

The coach, Dave Thompson, hails from Barwon Rowing Club in Geelong Victoria. He’s a four-time Olympian, and has been a senior coach at the Australian Institute of Sport since 2002. The Kiwis are fortunate to have his expertise at their disposal. He’s helped them to connect the dots between fitness and technique by developing a training method that pays homage to the power of the mind.

One session – called ‘The Chase’ – serves to illustrate the point. The crew gathers in a gym, and Thompson leads his group through some basic warm-up exercises, like jogging on the spot and some skipping. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, all conducted in a quiet voice, but then Thompson gets things going with a sudden burst of intensity. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” he shouts, and the crew is on its feet, racing to the first two exercise stations.

The first is a medicine ball throw, where the rowers throw a 3kg ball against a brick wall. Each throw is timed and recorded, and then the crew moves on to the next station. They pick up a medicine ball and begin a series of ‘get-ups’ – a demanding exercise that involves swinging the ball above their heads close to the ground, before dropping to the ground and lifting the ball over their heads from a prone position. Once they’ve done 15, the crew goes back to the wall for another medicine ball throw, before jogging over to the final exercise station. It’s here that the purpose of the drill becomes apparent. The rower will stand on one leg and hit a target, which is shaped like a boat, with a medicine ball. Every time the rower hits the bullseye, two points are awarded. An accuracy of 75 per cent is required to achieve a score of 50.

“We want to be the best eight that has ever rowed.”

It’s a tough drill, and the rowers are fatiguing as they do sprints on a set of water rowers. The crew is working at almost 90 per cent of its maximum heart rate, and the rowers are breathing heavily, but they carry on, and they don’t stop until they’ve achieved their score.

Their heart rates drop down as the session winds down, and Thompson takes the opportunity to explain the importance of his rigorous training sessions. He tells the rowers that they must be able to focus their mind at critical times during a race, even when they’re fatigued.

“We want to be able to get ourselves through the pain,” he says. “We can’t expect to get to the line and be fresh and smiling if we’ve been working hard. We’ve got to be able to pull ourselves through that pain and concentrate on what we’re doing. It’s about the difference between winning and losing.”

Thompson knows the difference between the aforementioned conditions, because he’s experienced each of them. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he was stroke in the Australian men’s eight that claimed gold. Then, two years later at the World Championships in Gifu, Japan, he was in the crew that finished second. Both crews won world titles at the preceding World Cup regattas, but in Japan, the Australians could only manage a silver.

The Brits were in that race, and proved to be the better crew on the day. Thompson admits that the loss hurt, but he’s determined that the same result won’t occur when the two crews clash at the World Championships in Florida.

“I still remember that day,” he says. “I’ll never forget being on the podium and seeing the Brits standing there. I was so angry and upset, and I thought about it for a long time afterwards. I think we were close, we were so close, but we couldn’t quite get there. I’ve always wanted another chance to get it right, and now I have it.”

The Kiwi coach says it’s been a joy to work with the crew, and he’s been impressed by their response to his training sessions. In particular, he’s been pleased by their attitude to everything that they do.

“Just watching the guys respond to day-to-day challenges is a real pleasure,” he says. “They really want to be the best, and that’s a great thing to see. It’s very easy to come to terms with the fact that you’re not going well, but when you’re going well, it’s so much rewarding.

“I had a good race a couple of weeks ago against the Canadian opposition, and it really is a feeling of satisfaction when you win a race like that. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the winning boat, and even though the race is only 1,000 meters.

A Rowing Career Like No Other

It was in 1999 when Australian Chris Lowe won a silver medal at the World Rowing Championships in Canada. But what made his achievement special was that at 23, he was the oldest competitor in the field. He was also at the time a medical student at the University of Western Australia and a volunteer firefighter.

“I was probably a little different, but I was happy to be different,” he says.

Since then, Lowe has graduated and moved back to Perth, where he combines his medical studies with a rowing coaching job at the WA Institute of Sport and being a member of the WA state team.

He was back in the saddle at the WA state championships in Perth last week, where he remarkably topped the field as the WA men’s champion single sculls.

He was also the last Australian to win a world championship race in Perth in 1997, when he was an unknown.

But this time round, he was the favourite. And he admitted to being nervous before the start.

“I am always nervous before a race, but I try and get rid of it as soon as possible,” he says.

But he was fitter than ever. Head rowing coach at the WA Institute of Sport, Peter Condos, said that Lowe was in the best shape of his life.

“For me, Chris is a very dedicated athlete,” he said. “He is always in the gymnasium after training and he is always doing extra training on his own.”

Lowe had a winning time of 6:48.70 as he beat runner-up Simon Gillett (6:51.44) and Michael Gunning (6:56.02) third.

And his age wasn’t the only thing that made him stand out from the crowd.

He is the first top male rower to sport facial hair in more than three decades.

“I am not sure about the facial hair, how it comes out,” he said. “I am not sure how it looks yet, but it will probably take a while to get used to it.”

Condos said that Lowe had sufficient years behind him to be able to cope with the demands of full-time sport and study.

“At 23, it is a young age to be a medical student,” he said.

And Lowe said that he had definitely learnt to deal with the stress of study and sport.

“It is not easy to do both but I have learnt to balance it out and it does work,” he said.

“I am in the best physical condition of my life, although I am not sure about the mental side of things.”

Lowe’s only concern is to continue to balance his sporting and medical studies.

“It is not easy to do both, but I have learnt to balance it out,” he said.

“I am in the best physical condition of my life, although I am not sure about the mental side of things.”

Condos said Lowe’s attention to detail was the key to his success.

“He has a great attitude to his training. He puts a lot of time and effort into it,” he said. “He is very positive and has a very balanced life with medical studies and rowing.

“He has a lot of ability and has had a lot of exposure in the sport. He has a lot of belief in his ability and he also knows what it takes to win.”

Lowe, who will study medicine at the Australian National University next year, said he was on track to win a place in the Australian rowing squad.

“I am shooting for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but there is a lot of competition,” he says.

“I will have to see how everything goes along the way and I will make my decision at the right time.”

Lowe said that the support of his family was essential to his success.

“My parents are both very supportive of my career and they have also given me a lot of experience in sport,” he said.

“They have also put up with a lot, especially when I was in Canada. I appreciated all their support.”

Data Analytics Is Our Biggest Opportunity As Well As Our Biggest Threat

The last two decades can above else be considered the age of data. Never before has there been so much data gathered, processed, and analyzed. The term “data lake” was never a thing until we started measuring and logging everything and anything.

Worldwide, we create 2,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data every day. This is an absolutely staggering amount when you think of it. This data includes everything from our shopping habits, to you friend requests, and email reads.

Businesses have shifted to using big data analytics for a many of their critical decisions. Governments are also increasingly using data analytics in their decision making processes.

So it’s clear that data has become hugely important in all of our lives. But as we base more and more critical decisions on data analytics, so does the impact of any errors or mistakes.

We almost never look at the raw data because it’s simply impossible to derive any meaningful trends from it. So we rely on processing and machine learning to make our data readable and understandable. This is where the first potential for errors comes from.

A tiny difference in processing or weighting can drastically change the output. If we are making million-dollar decisions, it’s extremely important to avoid mistakes here.