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Peter Mallory's Blog


By pmallory - Posted on 18 March 2015

13 March 2015

I recently received the email below from the head boys’ coach at Buckingham, Brown & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts USA. I have asked his permission to answer his request through my newsletter.

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Hi, Peter,

I hope this finds you well. I'm wondering if you can point me to a complete but concise discussion of the Schubschlag stroke. While I myself have read your books and distilled it all down in my head, I can't ask my high schoolers to all do that, so I'm wondering if there's an online resource that lays it all out in like under 10 pages.

Best,

Adam Holland

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Adam -

What is the essence of Schubschlag? You ask a pertinent question, but I'm not sure if there exists online or anywhere else a short, complete and concise answer that will satisfy anyone. Let’s at least agree on a definition for the benefit of the other readers of this newsletter. Schubschlag is a term first used by the scientists and rowing coaches of the German Democratic Republic during the 1960s and ‘70s. It means “thrust stroke” and is contrasted with Kernschlag, which means “solid stroke with a hard beginning.” In essence, a Kernschlag rower emphasizes the front half, often exploding with the legs at the catch, while a Schubschlag rower emphasizes acceleration from entry to release. In practice, they are VERY different, polar opposites, in fact, each with distinctive force curves.

Throughout history back to the beginning, many coaches have taught or at least encouraged Schubschlag, but they usually saw it as the natural way that didn't need description, so they didn’t bother trying. In your own rowing career, you have been coached by some of the greats of our time, but for the most part they have also been short on descriptions of force application. I remember Mike Teti telling me that when he sends a boat out to race, he doesn’t want their heads filled with technique this and technique that. He wants them focusing 100% on racing. Harry Parker was famously a man of very few words, but he created a world of seat racing where his highly competitive athletes could figure things out for themselves, including the most effective way to pull. Mike Spracklen depends on intra-team competitions in pairs and lets the pairs do the teaching more effectively than any words from him ever could.

No concise discussions of Schubschlag from these guys! Another coach you were fortunate to work with, Charley Butt, now he’s a horse of a different color. To my knowledge, he doesn’t use the term Schubschlag, but he describes the concept at length to his athletes, and it is written all over the boats he coaches. You have confirmed this in our recent conversation.

Not everybody uses the term Schubschlag. Apparently, the University of Washington women call it “The Kevin Sauer Method.” Whatever you call it makes no real difference as long as you’re doing it.

Steve Fairbairn described Schubschlag without knowing the term – “water boiling aft!” – but I'm afraid he was the polar opposite of concise.

Karl Adam of Ratzeburger Ruderclub and Theo Körner of the German Democratic Republic were aware of the two alternatives – Schubschlag and Kernschlag – but neither was really in the business of proselytizing, and so they never dwelt much on the differences. What they did say I have presented in The Sport of Rowing.

I believe I have spent the most time and effort of anyone in history attempting to describe the advantages of Schubschlag, but I, too, have danced around the subject. Why? Because discussions of rowing philosophy are fraught with real and often caustic passion! I have received so much ridicule from those who believe in Kernschlag with their quasi-religious fervor that I tend to hide behind the words and examples of respected coaches of the past (The Sport of Rowing) or sugar coat the message with amusing stories and anecdotes (An Out-of-Boat Experience). But for you and your boys, let me try one more time.

Water. Getting through water is the greatest challenge a rower faces. How does one do that? Look at a fish, the thrust of its tail. Is that Schubschlag or Kernschlag?

I rest my case.

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Seriously. I could stop there. I probably should. But let me say just a couple more things.

Banging the catch is just so darn satisfying that there will always be rowers doing it and coaches advocating it. You’re 2 seats down with 200m to go, and somehow you want to act on your frustration. You want to make a difference RIGHT NOW! How much more forceful and assertive and aggressive can you get than banging the next catch?

The trouble is that they give no prizes for banging the catch, only for getting to the finish line first. How do you do that? By rowing the next stroke in such a way that the boat squirts ahead a little bit further and faster. You do that by surging and sending your puddle “boiling aft,” NOT by banging the catch.

Again, I rest my case.

Enough persuasion! If I have learned anything over the last half century, it is that almost nobody in rowing ever changes their minds about anything. Kernschlagers, please stop reading here. You are my brothers and sisters. You have my respect, and I wish you the very best. My next newsletter is bound to be more enjoyable for you.

If there is anybody still reading this who is actually interested in how best to row the Schubschlag stroke, I have a couple of suggestions:

Fairbairn once said to a teammate, “Look at your blade – row it through.” He told his crews to focus on what the blade was supposed to be doing, and subconsciously the bodies would figure out how to deliver that blade motion. Nowadays, you can make sure your rowers look at their force curve display every single stroke they are on a Concept2 ergometer. It should look like a symmetrical haystack.

How do you generate a symmetrical haystack? Legs, back and arms all begin pulling simultaneously at the entry, and the back and arms HAVE to finish absolutely simultaneously at the release. That is super important, but no time here to explain why. Just do it, and the result will satisfy all your doubts.

As for the legs, in reality they usually go flat at 80 or 90% of the pullthrough. If they finish at 50 or 60%, then you are a Kernschlager and you are not sending the boat. Period. Consider that like Newton’s Laws.

One last thing. It’s easy to pull effectively in the first half of the pullthrough. The boat is going its slowest, and the three muscle groups have their best leverage. It becomes increasingly difficult to hang onto the water and keep accelerating all the way to the release, so it can feel like you have to try harder and harder the closer you get to the finish. In reality, at each moment of the pullthrough you are trying as hard as you possibly can to keep adding acceleration to the handle.

Adam, if your boys understand and buy into the philosophy of Schubschlag, the rest is just tinkering with the details.

Warm regards, my friend,

Peter