What’s the catch?

by Sara Bird

I know it’s slidey seat. Sorry. But oh they know how to backsplash.

If there’s just one moment in the stroke that I could perfect, each and every time I take the stroke, I would choose the catch. Why? Because:

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*it’s the start of the drive: get the catch at just the right depth and just the right position and you can hang off the oar and build the power and drive from there.
*it’s such a clear indicator of timing: if the whole crew gets the catch together there’s a greater chance of driving together, finishing together and winding up for the next catch together.

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But getting the catch right means being prepared before you even get there. So here’s my guide to the perfect catch, and some drills to help achieve it.

Preparing for the Catch
Preparation for the catch starts at the finish. If you leave your prep to the last moment before the catch it results in a jolting, rapid rush for the water just as the boat is travelling at its slowest and is most prone to upset.

So, at the finish, let your hands move smoothly down and away with the oar handle, and focus on getting your ARMS STRAIGHT as a higher priority than bringing your body up (which will happen anyway) (see blog entry no.2). Note the arms should be relaxed rather than locked out. This means you avoid ‘punching’ from your elbows at the catch because the arms are already straight, adds focus on achieving more rock over in order to lengthen the catch, and keeps the arms straight longer before the catch, resulting in a desire to keep them straight longer after the catch and avoid bending elbows too soon in the drive.

A great drill to improve this is the Pause Drill at Hands Away: pause on the recovery, with body at full lean back, hands away, shoulders back, arms straight until the coach has given feedback to crew or individuals and says ‘go!’. Coach gradually reduces this pause until calling for normal rowing when a marked improvement in holding lean back and sending hands away should be observed. Feedback usually concerns good posture, shoulders back, body lean position and how straight arms are.

N.B. Pausing at the finish can actively destroy good technique by encouraging hands to stop moving and the body to pop up too quickly as abdominals tire out: if you really have to do it always do the Pause Drill at Hands Away straight after to reestablish good technique.

The Knees are Key
Three things happen as, during the recovery, your hands (attached to already straight arms) travel over your knees.
1. The inner hand ROTATES the handle to square the oar ready for the catch (with a slight hood)
2. The outer hand starts moving UP to the catch
3. The outer hands starts SPEEDING up to the catch
Think about the rowing stroke as being like a bicycle chain. The finish is the big cog, slow as your hands move down and away, but the catch is the little cog, building up speed for the drive and a very quick change in direction from hands travelling forward to levering back.

A useful drill here is the Slap Drill: oar should be feathered as hands approach knees, so as hands pass over knees, at this point ask the crew to SLAP! their oars on the water. It’ll take time to learn to do this, so leave plenty of time for mistakes and make it clear it’s not easy. As the crew improves, call for louder slaps (really WHACK the water with the flat of the blade, slightly tilted forward), and better timing so they all slap together.

Then call for SLAP! and add in focus on rotating the inside hand to the catch. See how the feathering looks much more in time.

Then call for SLAP! and add in bringing the outside hand up to the catch, the blade down to the catch, smoothly from knees to the moment of the catch. See how this reduces dropping in from a great height at the catch. Ask rowers to aim for the person in front’s shoulder blade with their hands.

Then call for SLAP! and add in building speed up the outside hand to the catch, creating momentum and urgency for the drive. Ensure this is moving forward, to catch over the feet, rather than round and pushing the oar out, rather like a secretarial whack on the typewrite barrel to return it to the beginning of the line. Also ensure that speed is create by the chest moving forward and momentum from hips, rather than overreaching with rounded shoulders.

This drill is also useful for improving feathering technique and timing, and is best done on flat water.

The Catch Itself
The catch itself is the moment of placing the oar in the water, for good length of stroke and strength of drive. These trade off against each other – if you over reach you’ll have a weaker drive, but little lean over means less length through the water and so less overall power. So you are aiming for strong shoulders, good lean over from hips, catching over your feet.

A good catch will:
1. dip into the water at the furthest point of the stroke, when the oar is furthest back and the hands furthest forward. If taken too soon or too late you miss water and have a short stroke. Taking too late also means wasted time at the catch, ‘hovering’ above the water as it disappears under your blade.
2. engage the oar fully ready for applying power during the drive, at the right depth and right angle
3. see the body prepared to take the weight of the drive and apply power.

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This means the catch should happen as you hit front stops, which in gigs means aiming to go into the water rather than hit the pins, reducing the clunk on the pins at front stops. This improves timing (any hover makes the catch unpredictable), and ensures you drive as a crew.

The best way to achieve all this is counterintuitive but shown to create effective catches. It’s a core tenet of British Rowing’s sliding seat technique, and they are working in much finer boats. We’re talking about backsplash. Really you’re aiming for EQUAL splash on the back and the front of the blade (see video), but as many rowers have a deeply ingrained habit of creating splash only on the front of the oar we need to over-exaggerate the backsplash to begin with. It helps to think of the catch as the final part of the recovery, and to take the catch with the hands coming forward.

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Creating splash off the back of the oar ensures the catch is taken at the furthest point of the stroke, knocks the mildly hooded oar into the perpendicular, and the mild jolt that transmits up the loom and through the hands is the rower’s signal that the blade is engaged in the water and it is time to drive.

I, unimaginatively, call the drills to help with this, Backsplash Drills. With the boat not moving, ask rowers to create backsplash on the back of their oars by putting the oar in as they come forward. There should be no drive, simply place the oar, stop, reposition, place again, with backsplash each time. I encourage rowers to imagine the face of someone who has really annoyed the that week, just behind their oar, seems to work. Timing is not important, and provide feedback to individual rowers.

Then ask the crew to do in time, still without any drive. Ask them to listen to the splashes and over-exaggerate – attempting to splash bow pair (sorry bow pair, and best not done on a windy day unless you have cagoules).

Now, use single strokes, and add in the drive. Come forward to row, just short of catch, hold the boat up if moving. From standstill, ask crew to catch with backsplash, feel the jolt, pause in the water, then drive. Stop the boat, repeat. This separates out the catch and the drive. Reduce the pauses until you call normal rowing.

Over time you are aiming for even splash on back and front and ‘plop’ noise as you go in, and a tremor up the loom, so use these drills and start reducing backsplash until even. On the sea, you’ll need to predict wave height to achieve this, but the little tremor means you know when it’s okay to initiate the drive.

What’s the catch?
Common issues around the catch are taking it too fast and ‘snatching’ the catch, or taking it too slow and ‘hovering’. Just keep thinking about that bicycle chain, and the constant movement of the hands for smooth flow through the boat. When you get it right, slight backsplash and that little tremor up the loom lets you know when you’ve got the catch at front stops, and that it’s time to change direction of movement and drive through the feet. When the whole crew gets it right, you’ll hear that united catch, feel that tremor together, and then be able to hang off your oars and push through the feet for a drive that levers you past the competition.

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