When I rowed from 1965 to 1976, we used many methods of testing, including weightlifting tests, running tests, anatomical measures (e.g., height), rowing technique, and bicycle ergometer tests. In addition, coaches often used their intuition to set teams. For example, some coaches simply put the tallest or the most experienced athletes in the boat. One could accept such decisions out of respect for the coach, but it seems that there must be a better way.
When I began coaching in 1976, new rowing evaluation methods were developed, such as the rowing ergometer, physiological tests, and the Harry Parker seat-race model. This model is a system of races that uses two coxed fours. The crews face off against each other for 3-minute intervals at set stroke rates, and after each interval, the coach names two rowers to change opposite seats in the two fours and the race interval is repeated to evaluate which rower contributes most in moving the boat faster.
This method attracted my attention since it seemed to measure performance more objectively. As a young, motivated coach, I decided to develop my first model of seat racing, which is chronicled in the original Rowing Canada National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) level 3 rowing manual. I first used it coaching at the University of British Columbia. To this day, I apologize to those young men for having to race as many as 36 750 m intervals in coxed fours over 2 days to select the varsity eight! This model was set up so that each rower raced in every possible boat and with every possible combination. It is an ambitious example of how the desire to gain information and keep the process fair can lead to an extreme method that goes beyond the initial goal. However, one by-product of this procedure was that the rowers exposed to this selection method became very race ready. One could have called this a survival of the fittest selection model.
The best selection models are legitimate and based on solid criteria. In addition, they all start by letting rowers know the plan early and allowing them to practice the necessary test procedure as often as possible.
Selection has important implications for an athlete and the success of a rowing program. Therefore, coaches should consider the following criteria when planning and implementing selection models: objectivity, validity, reliability, and economy. Any good test procedure must be conducted with these in mind.
An objective test measures a variable independent of the people conducting the test and the circumstances of the test. In other words, the test has to be fair.
Objective selection methods guarantee unbiased measures of the rower’s ability. They all start with giving each rower the same information and encouragement. A good example of an objective test for selecting a single is all competitors racing off over 2,000 m in singles.
A test is valid if it measures a specified ability. It is a challenge to find valid test methods to select a crew from a group of athletes. Rowing requires a complex set of qualities that qualify someone as a valuable crew member.
For instance, an ergometer test measures power per stroke, ability to focus, certain aspects of good rowing (such as stroke length and proper sequencing), length, leg drive, and relaxation. Therefore, an ergometer test is a valid procedure to evaluate specific rowing skills, which is why it presents important information for crew selection. However, an ergometer test cannot answer all selection questions in rowing. For example, when it comes to assessing a rower’s boat-moving qualities, the most valid test would be an evaluation in the targeted boat because it accurately measures all of the variables in rowing. Though a race-off in a single is a valid method to select the single and to identify general boat-moving abilities, many would debate that selection races in singles are a valid method to select a double or quad as well. Therefore, no one method is completely valid for crew selection.
A test is reliable if it accurately measures a quality and is repeatable. In past years, USRowing introduced open trials in which crew selection is decided by whoever wins two out of three events. This is done to increase the reliability of the selection process, since crews have to demonstrate that they can repeat their performance. In this way, their win isn’t just a random occurrence.
Therefore, if one chooses to use seat races as a selection model, the results should be the same if repeated. Though the times of seat races can be measured accurately, the time over a certain distance may vary for a crew, especially if rowers are not experienced or row in combinations that they have not practiced before. Also, wind conditions could have an influence on seat-racing results. Consequently, one has to set up a seat race carefully to make it reliable for crew selection.
It is possible to ensure the reliability of a test by carrying out more than one assessment. If all goes according to plan, the results of the second test should support those of the first test.
A test is economical if its overall costs are manageable for the program. Those costs could be money but also include time involved, necessary equipment, and personnel.
This criterion is easy to understand, and in a practical rowing setting, this may be an influential consideration. To conduct seat races, for instance, one needs fair water conditions, equal equipment, correct preparation of the rowers, and a manageable number of rowers. Therefore, such a selection method becomes too costly if the program has, for example, 40 rowers with not enough fours or pairs of equal quality. One would need to buy or bring in boats and would likely need 2 weeks of racing. This method may cost too much money and take too much time, in which case it would not work in this situation. In other words, testing and selection has to be achievable.
Every test needs to satisfy all four criteria (objectivity, validity, reliability, and economy) in order to select the best rowers. To apply these guidelines, the following are required:
The testing process must be known to all rowers and coaches well in advance.All rowers must have sufficient preparation time and equal time to row in each combination that will be tested.All rowers must be equally encouraged and motivated during the whole process.Equipment must be the same for all rowers.Water conditions need to be the same for all crews.
Read more about Rowing Faster 2nd Edition by Volker Nolte.