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042 | Coxing Tank Sessions

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  • 00:00  Introduction - from the tanks!

  • 01:53  Universal elements of tanks

  • 04:18  The hosts describe their tank configurations

  • 09:42  Dealing with the terrible acoustics in tanks

  • 15:55  Benefits of tanks for coxswains and rowers

  • 24:41  How to run a tank session

  • 29:13  Closing

Podcast Transcript

BREANA: Welcome! I'm Breana and I'm coming to you from the echo chamber otherwise known as an indoor rowing tank. But let's not record the rest of the episode here. What do you think, Anne? 


ANNE: This is Anne and I'm at a different indoor rowing tank. Hey Breana, I totally agree with you about moving back to our usual locations to talk about coxing in this environment. Let's get out of here. 


BREANA: This is Breana again and here's how I sound in a normal environment. 


ANNE: This is so much better, Breana. 


BREANA: As experienced coxswains and co-hosts of the coxing podcast, CoxPod, we're exploring the topic of coxing at an indoor rowing tank facility. 


ANNE: Coxswains like us who've spent time in tanks are already familiar with what that environment can sound like. But if you haven't been there before, we wanted to give you a sample of what you're in for. And it's true that although the acoustics can be off-putting and pose challenges, we believe that tanks do offer unprecedented benefits for both coxswains and rowers. 


BREANA: I know that both you and I, Anne, really enjoy the times that we have been able to be in tanks and find a ton of value in those experiences. So if you're fortunate to have the opportunity to cox a tank session, we recommend that you say yes. 


ANNE: And to take advantage of all that tanks can offer, we need to approach this environment differently. When I first walked into a tank, I wasn't aware of all that was possible there or how I needed to adapt. 


BREANA: I had the same experience and that's why we felt compelled to put this episode together with specifics that can enable you to get the most out of tank sessions. 


ANNE: Before we dive into those specifics, Breana, I think we should start off with a description of what a tank facility can be like. So let's first talk about some of the universal elements that we’ve found in indoor rowing facilities. And first tip-off is that it's indoors, right? Think about a setting like a large gymnasium where there is all sorts of space which can lead to that echoing that we heard earlier in this episode. And knowing that it's indoors in a building. you really need to make sure that you know how to get in and out. Access can be something you'll have to work out in advance.


BREANA: Despite the fact that these are indoor facilities, the environment can still vary quite a bit. And if it's your first time at a tank, you might be wondering, how should I dress for this environment? I've been in tank facilities that are extremely cold when we're there during the winter season and I've been at others that are extremely warm and humid. So our best advice there is to ask a coxswain or someone on your team who's already familiar with that facility what their advice is as far as how to dress for that environment. 


ANNE: Another key element is that there are pools of water at indoor rowing facilities. These can be moved manually by the oars or they can be moved through mechanisms that are built into the tank. So it could be mechanically generated or rower generated. But those big pools of water are another feature. 


BREANA: You'll also find some familiar features that resemble the kinds of things we have in a boat or on an erg. So there will be oars, of course, attached to oar locks. And then the rowers will also have some sort of sliding seat on a rail for them to move back and forth. 


ANNE: And similarly, there are foot stretchers just as they are in an erg, although there are some fancier tanks that have actual shoes as they'd be in a boat. But the ones I've seen most commonly have the foot stretchers. One of the fun things about rowing tanks is that they are customizable. The organization that builds them can make them to their specifications so you might experience tanks that are vastly different in their configuration. I think that's awfully fun. And to the point of being customizable, we're going to describe the tanks that we're more familiar with to show you about differences in design. 


BREANA: I'll describe my current tank environment. And I think the best way to do so is considering it from the outside in. So in this large room around the outside of the tank, there is a walkable perimeter that you can walk the entire way around - kind of like the deck of a swimming pool. Interior to that space, we have the actual tank area where the rowers will sit. There are mirrors on both sides of that lining the length of this eight-person area where the rowers will be lined up so they can look on either side and see themselves in the mirror. And then internal to that is this central area running down the middle. That's where the rowers' bodies are actually going to be positioned. This is kind of like a plastic insert that holds all of those elements that we described as universals. The seats that are on rails … the shoes … and there's a pool of water on either side of that central area. Our tank has eight seats and there's the flexibility - because there's one pool on each side and all of the rowers are facing the same direction - to manipulate that in a variety of ways. So we have the ability to set that up as eight sweep seats. They could be all ports if you wanted to, four ports, four starboards, whatever configuration you want. And we can also modify those to be sculling seats as well. The last thing that I'll highlight about my own tank is how I'm able to continue to move around that space. So the oar locks are connected in this central insert to a gunwale almost, kind of a one foot wide area. And that is a wide enough space for me to very carefully actually get down to the level of the rowers while they are rowing and walk back and forth between them … very carefully stepping over moving oars, moving hands. But it is possible for me to get down there and crouch next to an individual rower and give them some personalized feedback. 


ANNE: In contrast to what Breana has just described, the tank that I am most familiar with has a different setup. And what it is, is that basically you can imagine a big pool of water down the middle. It's divided in halves. And so I have eight rowers on one side of that big divide and eight rowers on the opposite side. They cannot see each other when they're in their seats. Not only can they not see each other, but the rows of eight are facing in opposite directions so that when they row, the water moves in a continuous circle. So it's kind of like a lazy river round and round based on their movement of the oars. A little fun twist that we've put on the fact that the water is moving in a continuous cycle is that some of the crew have brought these little, shiny rubber ducks in and they push that around and we watch them go by. There are probably six or seven of them, all different colors, and they float around and around and around until we stop. Then we pick them up and take them home. And while the rowers cannot see each other, I have a better setup in terms of being able to walk around and be adjacent to each rower. We have a little wider walkway on the side and that gives me an opportunity to safely walk and not be obstructed by oars going back and forth. So on the perimeter, I can actually walk along, stand or squat comfortably right next to the rower, and actually talk with them as needed. So it's a little more coxswain friendly in my view than the one that Breana is at. So we've described a couple of different scenarios but consistent with them are mirrors. Each of our setups have mirrors. Mine has a whole lot. You've got them in the front and in the sides. We have different ways of water moving in that environment. The seat configurations we've described are different. And another interesting thing is that our oars are different. Turns out Breana does not have holes, but in our rowing tank... there are holes in the blades themselves. So if you encounter that when you walk into your tank, don't be alarmed. The holes can be a mechanical adaptation for the amount of effort that it takes to move that particular body of water. So they're not broken, they're just adapted. 


BREANA: And part of why we're describing our different contexts is that these configurations inform how we're going to execute the tank session. We gave you just two examples of our fairly different tank environments. We recommend that you ask people who are familiar with your tank environment if you can do that before your first session. Get that intel because any kind of configuration could be waiting for you there and it pays to have some advanced knowledge if you can get that. 


ANNE: And now that we've talked about some different configurations, let's go back to yet another universal and particularly pertinent thing about these tanks. That would be the challenges with acoustics. Now you've already heard some samples of that at the beginning of this episode. The faraway and echoing sounds that you heard are, of course, related to that gymnasium-like environment. That's enough of a challenge but then what can happen is you can add in all the additional elements that will make this even more challenging. So for example, add in the sounds of moving water, and then the clunk of the oar locks, and the seats sliding. 


BREANA: My tank is even next to the weight room in our facility, so you might have clanging weights nearby. You might have ergs nearby or even in the same room … bikes … other workout equipment. People might be playing music. There can be all kinds of additional auditory stimuli being added to that environment. 


ANNE: You're right, Breana. That auditory burden can add up and be quite complex. So in order to make the most out of the tank session, I always talk with the rowers prior to the session starting - before the water starts moving … even before they get into their seats. So for instance, we will huddle together and we'll discuss what the session is going to be. In my case, we generally have one hour session so I'll explain that we're going to be into four 15-minute blocks of time and what will happen generally during each block and that in our case, we stop at the 30-minute mark and allow people to switch to opposite sides if they want to switch sides (port and starboard). It can be a little difficult to get them to group together before the session begins because they're all anxious to get into their seats and get going. But I do find that this pause and conversation helps to truly make it a more efficient practice. 


BREANA: Yeah, once all of that noise gets going, it is a cacophony in that room. And one way that I deal with that is by trying to speak more slowly and loudly and really articulate what I'm saying to try to cope with the echo that's inevitably going to be a problem in these environments. I will say that I found at a certain point, more volume is not the answer. You can project to a room of 8 or 16 people and be loud enough but the problem I often encounter is the intelligibility of that speech. The rowers can tell that I'm speaking and they can hear something coming out of my mouth, but they can't necessarily hear what I'm saying. So help yourself out with that by being parsimonious with your calls. Make them as simple and straightforward as possible. I try to make my calls really predictable. I feel that with all the noise of the tank going on, this is not the time to try out something new and fun that you've never said before … that you heard on a recording from someone else that you listened to last week. That's not going to work well in the tank environment. The rowers need to rely on their expectations of what you usually say in this environment to help them predict and understand what you are actually saying. So you, as Anne said, hopefully had that conversation with them beforehand about what the workout's gonna entail. They realize, oh, this is the part where there's going to be a drill. I know that the drill is going to involve a pause at two different points. And I'm expecting that to be what the coxswain says and then you guys can successfully communicate. I also - because my tank configuration does allow me to stand in view of all eight rowers who are in there - I also have a practice of supplementing what I'm saying with hand signals wherever I can. So if I'm telling them ‘five more strokes’. I might say, “Last five” to make that as short as possible, hold up my hand with five fingers, and then count down the strokes so that the rowers understand what is coming up and can all act appropriately together. 


ANNE: I love that suggestion of also supplementing with hand signals because it is true that the rowers often cannot get precisely what you are saying. It's important to be brief with your calls and to articulate carefully. And to that point, we're going to include a sample of me trying to execute on those two principles. 


AUDIO CLIP – Anne in the tank. 


BREANA: Anne, that clip is a great demonstration of those things we were just talking about. Keeping the calls short, making sure that you articulate really well with your speech. If I do have a circumstance where I need to convey more information than a straightforward call can get across - like a technical point I want to give to everyone or a change from steady state to a particular drill - there's a technique that I'll use to just get myself some silence to convey that, which is calling a pause or an altogether stop for rowers to get water or something like that. But even just calling, “In two, we're going to pause at the finish” and the rowers hold that and then I say what I need to say while all the noise of the water and the oar locks and everything is quieted down. That's a strategy that you could take advantage of. 


ANNE: And strategies certainly are required because there is no getting around it - this environment has a lot of challenges as far as sound goes. But I'd like to transition to discussing benefits of tanks. And a very important one is the ability that we have in this environment to go directly to the rower to give individual feedback. 


BREANA: I especially love this as a strategy to cope with all of the noise in this environment. I find it better to walk directly up to the rower and crouch down to their level and speak to them so that it's obvious that I'm talking to them specifically as opposed to shouting at someone from the perimeter of the tank where as we said, rowers will struggle to understand what you're saying and they might not know ... is that for all of us … is that for me … are we changing what we're doing in some way? So I really love being able to get up close to someone and cut through the noise and talk directly to them. 


ANNE: The ability to be right next to a rower and not only quietly give them individual feedback but to see the entirety of their rowing stroke in action is so crucial. And this, I find, is one of the biggest benefits of coxing in a rowing tank. For example, I recently was able to observe a rower that I have had in a boat for years and years. I'd always wondered what was going on with her finish. When I was able to go right up next to her and observe her entire stroke, I noticed how much she was bending her outside wrist at the finish. We were able to have a quick conversation about that. She was able to also see what I was talking about. She corrected that and there we were. She was doing ever so much better. But me being able to finally observe her in her natural stroke was so informative and did, as I mentioned, help explain a lot of what I was seeing when we were out on the water. 


BREANA: That’s such a perfect example, Anne, of one of the many benefits there are for us as coxswains and for our rowers in this tank setting.  Yes, you could have gone out on a launch to maybe observe that rower from a vantage point you don't usually get. But even in that environment, an individual rower is embedded in a much more complicated context and might be reacting to the set … to the wind … to something that someone else is doing. But the tank offers this really beautiful opportunity to isolate just that rower’s movements and really see this purified version of their stroke so that you and that rower can work together in hopes that those insights that you gain about their stroke do translate to the water. 


ANNE: And you might be thinking, ‘Hey, it's a stable platform when we are working with rowers on ergs’. That is true. But this is a whole new, wonderful world because the rowers are actually rowing with their oar. And being able to execute on that normal rowing movement and not just straight back and forth on an erg is a tremendous benefit. And as you point out, Breana, in this environment, we are unaffected by all the things that happen when we are out in the boats or in the launch bouncing up and down in a moving object - trying to watch another moving object, which is what - Influenced by all those other factors. We now have that rower up close and personal in a stable environment and we're able to stand there and watch them. So both of us are stable and this stability enables us to do a whole bunch of other things that we can't in our usual coxing and boat environment. We've mentioned two of them already. One is that we can be right next to the rower to talk with them and two, we can also see every aspect of their rowing stroke unaffected by those multiple factors that come into play once we're in a boat. We can also get more precise and break down the rowing stroke in ways that we absolutely could never even dream of when we are in motion. For instance, at a recent session, I ended up having the eight rowers that were in my lineup actually bring the stroke rate down to - it must have been a four or a six - and I did a triple pause drill. And so the way this worked was we were pausing at the release, at arms away, and body over. And at each one of those pauses, I would pause and then I would give them the instruction, “Look”. And ‘look’ - we had agreed upon - was going to be for them to actually turn their heads and look at the side mirror so that they could get a visual of what their body looked like and how it was positioned. We couldn't have done one of those in the boat and had that feedback - that immediate feedback - to me and to them about what they were doing at that time. And we could do it slowly enough so that they could then make adjustments. So again, we would pause at the release. I would look at them and assess them individually and as a group. And then I would say, “Look”. They would turn their heads, look … some of them made adjustments, some of them didn't. I would ask them when they're in the release position, what do you think of your lay back? Is that where you actually think your finish position is? And you'd see some of them making adjustments to their swing. And then we would go to hands away. I'd say, “Look”. They would make other adjustments. And same thing with bodies forward. It was very powerful. I hope it's coming across that the stability that's inherent in a tank environment and the ability to be up close to the rower and for them to utilize the mirrors is really fundamental to improving their strokes and also getting insight into what that individual's rowing stroke actually involves without all the extraneous elements that exist in the moving boat environment. They can take that information with them back into the boat and understand what part is in reaction to the rest of the boat. So understanding their own stroke … what they are responsible for … how they normally perform … and take that information back into the boat with them. 


BREANA: And as coxswains, we can do the same thing in the tanks. We can use this environment to our advantage - this stable platform where everything else has faded away. We don't have to deal with the weather. We don't have to deal with the presence of other boats. We don't have to be focused on our typical number one job of safety where we're steering and avoiding obstacles and all of those things that take away our mental energy when we're out on the water. Those are erased in the tank environment and we can take that opportunity to advance our own coxing skills. If you want to, you can spend a whole practice just watching blade work in the tanks. You don't have to worry about the boat running into something because you are hyper focused on one aspect. That is a really beautiful feature that we can take advantage of when it comes to tanks. 


ANNE: Having that additional bandwidth available because we don't have to execute on those other coxswain responsibilities is super helpful in my opinion, Breana. I totally agree with you. And I have spent a lot of time just watching one aspect of one rower in a tank session. It's so helpful. 


BREANA: We can also use this environment to really hone our calls. It's kind of required by the acoustic challenges of the environment that we've already been discussing. But another environment that requires us to be really precise and really succinct in our calls is racing. So tanks offer a beautiful opportunity to practice getting your calls as short as possible while still maintaining their impact. And you can also use it to develop a shorthand with your rowers so that when they hear you say something again when you're back out on the water, they remember what that meant when you were in the tank environment and you guys can achieve your objectives more quickly together. 


ANNE: We hope by now we've convinced you to say ‘yes’ to getting in the tanks because of their advantages. So let's say a little bit more about the mechanics of running a tank session. Like, what could an actual session look like? 


BREANA: Well, as with all things we do as coxswains, it's really important for us to understand the purpose of the tank session and align our behavior accordingly. Is the point to get a really tough workout in? Is the point to just have fun? Is the point to give a really intense technical focus for the day? All of those are different objectives that a tank practice might have. So understanding that is really important. To further define your role, it's helpful to know - if you can - whether your coach is going to be present. And if they are, how are your roles differentiated? What are they responsible for doing? And what are you responsible for doing? 


ANNE: I'm glad you reminded us of the importance of understanding the intent of the tank session because that can help to inform how the practice is executed. For instance, if the session focus is on technique, you might even have the opportunity to separate an individual rower from the other rowers and leave an empty seat in between and they can just do whatever they need to do individually as they might on an erg. However, again, the advantage being: this is the entire rowing stroke with the oar. And we know that there's a lot more involved than is experienced on an erg. So again, you could put in empty seats for that individual to be working on something without interfering with other rowers. 


BREANA: Anne already mentioned this a bit earlier and it's something that I like to do as well - you can use the tank as an opportunity to let rowers try out different sides. Let sweep rowers who are usually on the port side try out the starboard side in this safe, more stable environment. Or I sometimes like to do a little musical chairs with the seats and have rowers rotating so that different people get to experience stroke seat … they get to experience following different people. The view that they get from the mirrors might vary based on the seats. This is a perfect opportunity to try out all kinds of different configurations of the rowers and let them learn from that. 


ANNE: I'm so glad you mentioned mirrors again and their importance. It is one of the elements of the rowing tanks that is so beneficial for both us and the rowers. And I think that it helps to encourage the rowers to use those. With the crews that I have been with, some of them have been reluctant to actually look and watch themselves in the mirror. So it might take some encouragement on your part. And again, you might even, as I've said before, need to give them a verbal reminder, “Look - use the mirrors”. Sometimes I give them five minutes of quiet time where I'm not doing anything. They are just rowing steadily. And during that time, they have been instructed to watch themselves to see if what they think they're doing matches what they see. And again, they need that encouragement because this is not something that happens when we're in the actual boat environment. They would not be allowed to look at the water level on their blade shaft, for instance - or out of the boat. So tell them not to be afraid. Use the mirrors to the fullest extent possible. 


BREANA: Another factor to be aware of when you're running a tank session is that you have a lot less data available than you might be used to in a boat provided by a cox box or another piece of equipment. So you won't have specifics about the rate that the rowers are at or the split that they are collectively rowing. Then that might shape the types of calls that you're able to make. But some of that data can be replaced through other means. So if rate is really important to the workout that you are responsible for calling, you can use a timer on your phone, on your watch, using the clock that's in the room already to substitute that information manually if you need it. There are still tons of interesting things you can do in the tank environment … lots of informative calls that you can make. They might just not be as reliant upon certain types of data as they are when you're in a boat. 


ANNE: As I think about coxing a tank session, I sort of think about three things. I think about flexibility, visibility, and stability. And by flexibility, I mean that the rower configurations can be different. Rowers can try different seats, possibly different sides. And by visibility, I'm thinking about the mirrors and also how we can get right close to the rowers and watch all of the nuances of their rowing stroke. And by stability, I mean not only the rowers being able to observe and correct their rowing stroke - unaffected by all of those other complicating aspects that occur when we're in motion on a boat - but also for us as coxswains because then we have been relieved of those other typical responsibilities that go along with managing the boat and safety and have that bandwidth to advance our own skills. 


BREANA: I love those features of tanks. And in my own context, I also find them to be really helpful for new rowers where the tanks can serve as a transition between the erg and actually getting into the boat. The rowers have the opportunity to learn the stroke in a less stressful environment with fewer distractions and things for them to have to worry about. And then I can really get in there and provide that individualized, more hands-on feedback at a slower pace. That ability to provide individualized feedback has other functions as well. I have used the tank as almost a refresher session for an athlete who was coming back from having missed several weeks of training and wanted to (kind of) get themselves back up to speed before joining their crew again. We know a coxswain who offers this opportunity and calls them her office hours. So this is a time when I'm in the tank and you as a rower can stop by and we can have that one-on-one interaction to workshop your stroke. 


ANNE: And on top of that, I want to point out that tanks can provide a great rehabilitation environment in particular because boat check is not an issue and people don't have to lift and carry the boats and get them down to the water. So it can be a nice (again) transitional tool. And personally, an advantage of tanks is that where I live up in the north, it's very dark and very cold during the winters and tanks can provide a way for us not to lose our minds and also help to continue to hold us together as a team. So tanks have a very special place in my little coxswain heart. 


BREANA: We dream of a rowing world where everybody has access to tanks. We really think that the amount of valuable information that you get by being there outweighs the downsides of the acoustics. This simplified environment lets us hone our coxing skills. And then because we can see every aspect of the rower's stroke, we can take that knowledge with us into our future together with those individuals and as a team. 


ANNE: Right! And I’m back at the tank to close this episode. The benefits do outweigh the challenges. Thank you for listening and we're signing off for now.

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