The View from the Stroke Seat

We’ve already been in Chungju for a week!  We’re sleep-adjusted, weather-acclimated, and able to predict the lunch and dinner menus with incredible precision, meaning: we’re nearing race day.  My crew has been getting some good training strokes in on the Lake over the past week, and one thing is for certain–we are learning more about the boat and our crew every day we go out.  In a boat with a variety of experience levels, that’s an important – and good – thing.  Continuing to iron out when and how to communicate about how to work together, and how the boat is or is not moving are going to be invaluable tools for us as we transition out of training and into racing over the last few remaining days of the season.

It’s no great surprise to anyone that we have a variety of communication styles, ideas about boat feel, and personal approaches to training and racing in this year’s quad.  Between the four of us we have Susan, the most veteran athlete with multiple medals in the 8+ and 2-; Esther, an experienced sweep medalist out of the 8+; Kara, a much-younger sculling medalist who has spent most of her rowing career in collegiate 8+s; and myself, the only real sculling specialist in the group.   I’ve spent the last four seasons in the women’s quad, and during that time I have learned a lot about rowing the quad.  I’ve also learned a lot about myself as an athlete in the quad versus myself in the double or the single (or sweep boats… lightyears ago).  And beyond even that I have learned about myself in different seats within the quad.  For this regatta I am in the stroke seat, and revisiting the ups and downs of that position that I experienced stroking the US quad in 2011.

The bottom line is:  when I get in to the stroke seat of a team boat, I become a diva.  Not like, a whiny princess, but like a full-on raging mashup of Diana Ross, Lady Gaga, Mariah, Whitney and Tina Turner on a day with no bottled water, bad lighting, high humidity and no blue M&Ms.  Some of it is just my personality – I am strongly a Type A perfectionist and when it comes to rowing and training I am also an Alpha.  At best, I take it upon myself to shoulder most or all of the responsibility for the success or failure of a race or workout.  At worst, I express my frustration either very vocally -or- through icy silence (sometimes the worse option).   I’ve written before about some of the things that make me difficult to deal with as an athlete and a teammate, so this isn’t anything new.  But I do find that the work I have done over the past several years as part of the US Team to control those negative qualities  is tested every time I get into the boat as a stroke more than in any other seat I’ve rowed.

In this case, I’m finding that the boat class is also to blame for some of the struggles we have had to find balance and to come together as a crew.  The quad has an interesting and sometimes delicate dynamic to it; it’s a big, fast, team boat with no coxswain and so no clearly defined leadership seat.  In crews I’ve rowed in in the past, crew leaders tend to reveal themselves through practice and time together, not just by a butt being on a seat.  For athletes with only some or no experience in the quad and with primary experience in the eight where the cox is the dictated leader, it’s definitely a transition to understanding who can and should say and do what without pissing off yourself and the other three people in the boat.  It’s very much about expectations and authority, because no one likes to be surprised when it comes to the decision-making process for the boat.  Whether it’s avoiding a collision, choosing a lane, lining up a point or running a workout, working together in the quad to come up with the best plan for the boat at that moment is what makes for good crews that trust each other, and who can continue to work together in the worst of circumstances.

In my case, I know I don’t always make it easy to find that balance.  When I row bow seat in the quad, I expect others to do as I say.  When I row stroke seat in the quad, I expect others to do as I do AND as I say.  And I think in this case particularly because I do have a background in the quad and probably more general comfort with sculling than my crewmates, I have taken it upon myself even more than usual to try to bring to the boat the best qualities from the fast crews I’ve been in, and to try to eliminate the bad qualities I remember from my less successful crews.  And, perhaps most importantly, I am the only athlete different from the 2013 World Cup III lineup, so it is my job to make sure that we find a better finish here at the World Championships than we did in Lucerne.

As I am coming out of the jet lag haze and my snide diva-esque remarks and apparent impatience in the boat can no longer be attributed to the side-effects of trans-global travel, I am remembering (slowly) the techniques I employed in 2011 to keep things light and focused:

  1. Shut up.  Yep.  Any time you want to fire off a passive-aggressive, passive, or aggressive comment about anything during practice, shut up.  If it is not about making the boat faster, it doesn’t matter and will not help.   This goes for body language as well.
  2. Focus on the positive.  Remember, no matter how good the boat gets or how much you improve, it’s probably never going to be perfect or feel as amazing as you want it to.  Just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it’s bad.   Focusing on improvement, however small, will only help everyone in the boat.
  3. Stay humble.  You’re not as great as you think you are.  You’re definitely making mistakes, and your teammates are not actively trying to mess up your row (by the way, it’s everyone’s row, not just yours). Everyone in the boat wants to get better and be fast.
  4. Do your job.  Don’t do other people’s jobs.  You might think you’re helping, but remember how much you hate it when other people try to do your job?  Stop it.

The stroke seat brings out the most ferocious aspects of my athletic personality, sometimes to the misfortune of my teammates.  But if they can endure it, on race day those energies are channeled into a nasty, relentless race animal, and with my crew behind me there is nothing I wouldn’t do to get them across the line first.  Because also unlike any other seat, racing in stroke adds a subtle layer of expectation that my crew is depending on me to get us where we need to go to beat as many other crews as possible.  In stroke I have to lead and take risks to push us to the edge of our comfort zone in order to get faster and be tougher to beat every day.  Initiating those steps is an awesome feeling, and I love the challenge of finding the next level with, and for, my teammates.

We’re back at it tomorrow for some speed work on the lake.  Let’s take some risks and do some work!

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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5 responses to “The View from the Stroke Seat

  1. Wow. This is by far THE BEST article of yours!!!
    You always inspire me. But now, i’m just blown away!
    Thank you so much for sharing all of your experience and feelings about rowing and living a rowers life! I truly enjoyed every minute of reading!
    PS- Good luck in the races!!!

    • Thanks for the superlative comment Laurie! I’m lucky to be here and have these experiences, and to have a job where I am always discovering new ways to learn about myself and what I do. More to come.

  2. Beautifully written and wise advice. Channel it all in the Finals this weekend, and congratulations on a gutsy and mighty race to get there. Wishing you and your crew the very best!

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