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Starting a Para Rowing Program

Many coaches who have never worked with athletes with a disability feel that to be effective, they need highly specialized skills, knowledge, or training. But that’s a misconception. In fact, most coaches who work with rowers with a disability soon discover that there is fundamentally no difference at all compared to coaching an able-body rower. The challenge, as with all coaching, is to truly understand the individual, to focus on their abilities and to explore what they can achieve. The safety, comfort and enjoyment of the participant is paramount.

Key Messages

The sense of freedom of being out on the water and in control of a rowing shell is exciting and empowering for new para-rowers.

Ask and listen if you don’t know how the equipment will work for the new rower. They usually have a pretty fair idea of what’s going to work and how to achieve the most successful set-up. Take some time to have a conversation with your para-rowers to find out what they are comfortable with. Their input into problem solving will be a valuable aid.

Be prepared to improvise. No two athletes will be alike, so each athlete you coach will require a unique solution to ensure injury free and efficient rowing. Remember that unlike able bodied rowing, where athletes adjust rigging to suit their bodies, para athletes may in effect be part of the rigging solution. Various forms of strapping, foam padding and other modifications may be crucial in setting up a para athlete for success.

Wind and current will also be a factor in planning a new PR1 (Arms and Shoulders) session. If your rower is not using their legs to propel the boat, less force is available for them to combat weather conditions that may arise. Plan accordingly, especially in the early stages of their development.

Just like any prospective rower, starting everyone on the ergometer is a good start. It also enables you to offer this option to rowers who need a fixed seat for support, even if you don’t have the boat yet. The fixed seat attaches with a pair of simple clamps to the erg rail. It’s a great way to see just how much control your rower has over their body in a safe environment. This better enables you to work out some initial plans for getting the athlete on the water.

Treat all of your rowers equally. Do not assume fewer competencies in and around the water when you’re working with someone with a disability

Organizing a “Come and Try Day”

Check out the link below for an outline and some good hints for starting a ‘Come and Try Day’:

Below is an example form that your participants can download, fill out, and send back to you:

General – Coaching an athlete with a disability

First reactions 

  • Fear, worry about speaking inappropriately to the athletes
  • Doubting your own ability to provide adequate support

Making Assumptions 

  • Do not make assumptions as to what an athlete can or can’t do
  • There are no increased liability risks when working with athletes with a disability

Adapting the situation

  • There are few differences from the basic skills and techniques used to coach able bodied athletes
  • Focus on the athletes’ abilities

First contact 

  • Focus on the athletes capabilities 
  • Everyone has the right to participate  
  • (Sport is for All) 

Finding out more about the disability 

  • Different types of disability are grouped into broad categories such as mobility, sensory, and intellectual impairment
  • Disabilities are either congenital or acquired
  • Coaches should aim to develop a good understanding of the disability or disabilities of the athletes they coach
  • The athlete is the best judge of what he or she can or cannot do
  • Coaches should focus on the potential not the limitations
  • It is important for the coach to discuss with the athlete their goals and expectations, and how such goals will be established and realized

Assessing fitness, coordination and skill 

  • An assessment of the physical, cognitive and social aspects of the athlete is essential in order to provide them with adequate support and sound programming
  • Use a process similar to that used with able-bodied rowers, however you may need to be creative

Communication and Interaction 

  • Open communication is vital
  • The best questions are those that would normally be asked of an able-bodied rower
  • Honesty is key to successful communication with an athlete with a disability

Inclusion and Integration 

  • Rowing can open a whole new world of access for a person with a disability; they become stronger, gain more endurance, and are generally healthier and more confident as a result.
  • These benefits are not limited to the participant athletes; ultimately everyone gains from the inclusion of athletes with a disability in rowing programs
  • Rowing technique and equipment should be the only things being adapted, NOT the athlete
  • Discuss with the athlete and your club what program would be the best fit

Classification  What is classification 

  • The International Paralympic Committee states that classification is undertaken to ensure that an athlete’s impairment is relevant to sport performance, and to ensure that the athlete competes equitably with other athletes

Classification plays two important roles 

  1. To set eligibility criteria to determine what types and degrees of impairment are relevant to sport
  2. To group athletes for competition in order to minimize the impact of impairment and to ensure that competitive success is determined by the same criteria as in the able-bodied athletes; that is strategy, skill and talent.

The 3 rowing classifications for competition (FISA) are 

  1. PR1Women, PR1 Men
  2. PR2 Mixed 2x  
  3. PR3 Mixed 4+

Coaching Vision Impaired Rowers

General

Vision impaired athletes do not need any specialized coaching equipment to be included in a club program. Most importantly, assume that they can master a skill and keep challenging the athlete! The following tips might assist coaches who are working with vision-impaired athletes.

Getting Started

Consult with your athlete regarding their level of vision. For Example:

  • Is there some peripheral vision but no central vision?
  • Is there some central vision but no peripheral vision?
  • Do they have a sensitivity to light and need to wear dark glasses or avoid glare reflecting from the water?

Avoid being patronizing. The vision-impaired athlete does not necessarily think that what they are doing is inspiring. They are usually pursuing sport for the pleasure of competing just like any athlete. Always ask first if the person wants help. Don’t assume that they cannot manage.

In and Around the Boathouse

Take some time to guide the athlete around the boat-bay so they can understand the layout of the bay.

  • Allow the person time to touch things and familiarize themselves with the place and equipment.
  • Take time to let the person feel the different parts of the boat and to understand how they move.
  • Make sure you point out wet areas including areas that are likely to be wet (e.g. boat wash area)
  • Work with other crews to make sure that the environment is as obstacle-free as possible. Shoes, oars etc. should always be placed in a predictable place like the center of the dock or inside wall of the boathouse
  • Is club information available in alternate formats? i.e. Word/PDF? Large print?
  • Are signs clearly visible?
  • Edges of stairs/docks clearly defined?
  • Do oar handles/shafts have bright marking to identify which is port and starboard?

General Address

  • Address the person by name, especially if they are part of a crew boat.
  • Address the person as you approach and introduce yourself – they might not recognize your voice. Ex: “Hi John, it is Bill here.”
  • Introduce the person to a group. Let them know if someone has left the room or the group or has come into the room or the group.
  • Treat the person as an individual and talk to them, not to a third party!
  • Describe what is happening and explain what you are planning to do. For Ex: “John and Mark are putting the boat on the water,” “Peter, I am going to pass the handle of the ergo to you,” or “Phil, we will be going upstairs to the meeting room to discuss the plans for the training camp.”

Coaching

  • During the Learn to Row or Novice stage use a physical marker on the handle to identify when the oar is feathered or squared. A piece of tape or Velcro is sufficient. Over time, the athlete will recognize the difference by the feel of the oar in the oarlock.
  • Use balance exercises at the beginning of practice so the athlete can determine when the boat is balanced.
  • Involve the athlete in all crew activities (e.g. carrying the boat, taking to the dock oars, coach boat set-up, etc). Encourage all the crew members to communicate well to make full integration possible.
  • When working with visually impaired (VI) rowers, you might need to rethink your reference points for teaching, as you may not be able to demonstrate the stroke, depending on the individual’s level of visual impairment. Discuss with the athlete what amount of feedback they need.
  • During the first session, go over safety. It is of particular importance that you cover what to do in case of capsize, and emphasize the buddy system.
  • Make sure the rower can hear you from your coach boat over the noise of the motor.
  • Use accurate instructions when giving directions. “The boat is on your left” not “the boat is over there.”
  • Clearly specify the body part/s that are involved in a technique.
  • In a dangerous situation say, “STOP” rather than “LOOK OUT”
  • Give regular audible feedback. Eg. Confirm that they are on course every 15-20 strokes. In races, practice or erg testing give feedback every 20 or 30 seconds on rating, distance travelled, position in race etc.
  • Ensure feedback is specific – “Watch your timing!” does not clearly explain what is happening. “Two seat, you are catching late” and then calling out the correct timing of the stroke “And catch!…..And catch!” will be much more helpful. This applies both in and out of the boat. When moving the boat on land, commands such as “Swing the bow” or “Roll it towards the water” are vague (remember, someone who is visually impaired may not be able to see where the water is!). More specific communication would be “I’m standing to the left of the bow. I need the bow to swing towards me. Keep swinging, keep swinging, okay almost there – let it run.”
  • Try to give advance warning as to what is expected next as much as possible. Because people who are visually impaired often won’t see everything going on in their surroundings, they often end up reacting to things as opposed to proactively preparing for them as someone who is sighted can. “There is a wake coming in on the portside. You should feel it in about 10 seconds,” Or “In 2, we’ll do port to back, starboard to row. Ready, 1, 2, and back,…..and row”.
  • Lighting and glare are often a problem for people with vision impairments. Try to have light coming from behind or beside the person when you are talking to them.
  • Be aware that for rougher water, visually impaired rowers might have difficulty perceiving where the water surface actually is, depending on their level of sight.

Coach Education (for Coaches and Interested Club Members)

Sit with your eyes closed (better yet, blindfold them all so they can’t cheat!). Do you hear the fan? People talking? Boats on the water? Have them sit for a full 2 minutes in silence without talking. Start with a full minute of quiet and then, with them keeping their eyes closed, ask them, could you get back to the change room and get your bag? Up to the club office? Back to your car? Could you get to the boat bay and take a pair of oars to the dock? Ask them to keep their eyes closed a little longer and just feel what is going on around them. During this time, you can start moving around them and make subtle noises – close a door (did he just leave?), drop a book and say “Oh no!” (what just happened?) etc. Then ask them to open their eyes. How did that make them feel? Likely a little uncomfortable!

For people who are visually impaired or blind, activities may have to be planned – how many steps forward is it from the lower entry door before you turn left to go to the boat bay? How many steps to the boat bay door? Where is the fob access pad at? Once inside, how many steps is it before I turn right to get to the ergs? Don’t forget to step around that low beam! What erg is empty?

Blind/visually impaired people may take longer than someone sighted to do a task because of step-by-step planning. Leave extra time for getting ready, etc

Have coaches close their eyes again and ask them to do a specific skill. “Put your hand up please” or “Everybody wave at me!”. Ask them to hold the hand up or keep waving and open their eyes. Has everyone got his or her hand in the exact same position? Likely no. This reinforces the need to be specific on feedback. “Watch your timing!” is not specific. “Swing the bow” is not specific. “Two seat, you are catching late” and then calling out the correct timing of the stroke “And catch!…..And catch!” will be much more helpful.

Have coaches stand up with their eyes closed. Quietly walk among them and bump into them, enough to be a bit of a jolt and knock them off balance. Sighted people proactively adjust their body and what they are doing based on what they see visually. People who are visually impaired or blind generally don’t get that benefit, which is why you have to audibly tell them what is going on so they too can prepare.

Balance is a big issue – stand on one foot is easy with eyes open. Not so easy with eyes closed!

Have coaches get on an erg blindfolded. Ask them to row at a specific SPM rate, but have the screens covered so they have no feedback.

Guiding

  • Introduce yourself by name. Find out if assistance is required.
  • To guide, say “Here’s my left (or right) arm” and permit her to take your arm. The rower will then hold your elbow and walk slightly behind you with her shoulders parallel to yours.
  • When guiding a blind or visually impaired person, walk at a normal pace. Hesitate slightly before stepping up or down, or when the terrain changes (e.g. grass to gravel, or cement to wood).
  • Never distract or feed a dog guiding a blind or visually impaired person. Speak only and directly to the person. Ask the rower how the guide dog should be cared for during the training session.

Athlete and Coaching Aids

Radio headsets can provide direct communication between a coach and a vision-impaired rower. The equipment will generally include a handset for the coach and a helmet or headpiece with a built in speaker for the athlete.

Concept 2 has software called Erg Data, which provides verbal feedback on erg outputs. feedback on erg data. Information on Erg Data is available here.

Vision-impaired athletes might benefit from having tactile aids to assist with technique, such as electrical tape on the erg rail to indicate where to take the catch.

Considerations for Rowers with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Remember seating for SCI rowers is both for comfort and support. Athletes with a spinal cord injury will require an assessment of the seating used to ensure it meets their postural support requirements. The standard fixed seat with back support is adequate for beginner rowers, but athletes may choose to add strapping or padding to increase performance or stability. As the athlete progresses in rowing, the seating and postural support provided should be re-examined to ensure it is assisting the athlete to achieve optimal stroke mechanics.

Pressure sores are a concern here, both in rowing and in daily life. Due to partial or complete loss of sensation, sores can develop at points of high pressure, and decreased cushioning (sit bones, etc.), or at areas of friction. Discuss with your rower if they have areas of concern while in the boat. Ask them to identify points on the boat where there is risk of sores and make sure that any sharp objects (damaged gunwales, foot stretcher, slides etc.) are identified. These areas can be addressed with appropriate padding.

Remember that rowers with SCI cannot feel below the level of injury to their spine. Once pressure sores begin, they can be slow to heal. Rowers should be encouraged to do skin checks when they get out of the boat.

Ensure that all strapping of the trunk, legs and hands on the oars, will allow for quick release in the event of an emergency. The athlete should practice the release procedure to ensure that it is effective and quick. A planned and appropriate safety protocol should be place when athletes with SCI are training. This protocol should be developed with the athletes and should consider the type of rowing shell being used, the athletes’ swimming abilities, range of mobility and experience level with water sports. The precise procedures to be followed in the event of capsize or other difficulty being experienced should be reviewed and agreed in advance of the training session.

Consider the rower’s response to cold and heat. Rowers with SCI likely have an impaired capacity to control body temperature in very hot or cold weather. Discuss this with them to see if they have any concerns.

You may need to create a plan for how your rower will get from their wheelchair to the dock and then into the boat (transfer). For wheelchair users transferring from their chair to the boat can be very individual. Discuss whether the athlete uses a transfer box, or similar device. A yoga mat (or similar) is useful to protect the rower from abrasions while on the dock. Remember that SCI athletes may have no core function, so the boat must be kept completely stable while the rower is transferring to and from the boat.

Coaching Amputee Rowers

For rowers with an amputation consider whether or not to row with the prosthetic. Rowers with a single leg amputation can row full slide with one leg. This decision will vary by individual based on:

  • The ease of putting on or taking off the prosthetic;
  • The impact of the prosthetic limb in the rowing stroke;
  • Comfort using the prosthetic limb around water; and/or
  • The impact of the prosthetic limb in positioning or balance within the boat.

Athletes who row with a prosthesis could require modifications to the prosthesis to accommodate the demands of the rowing stroke. For example, a PR3 athlete with a prosthetic leg requires a flexible ankle joint to allow full range of motion during the rowing stroke. With a hand or arm prosthesis or grip aid, the decision needs to be made whether the athlete should row on the port or starboard side. The prosthesis on the inside hand will react differently than when it is on the outside hand. Modifications to the prosthesis or the oar handle may be needed to allow the handle to pivot in the prosthesis, or to feather the oar.

Athletes who choose to row with a prosthetic limb will need to inspect their skin to assess its reaction to increased activity and the repetitive friction and increased sweating that will occur with rowing. You may need to discuss issues with prosthetic slipping off in workouts due to sweating. Numerous products are available to assist athletes with an amputation to meet their activity level and excel in sport. Specialists in the design and construction of prosthetic limbs should be consulted for advice where necessary.

Rigging for Para Rowers

PR3 (Leg, Trunk, and Arms Rowers)

Rigging for PR-3 rowers is similar to regular sweep or sculling rigging with modifications suitable for these rowers. Use conventional club boats, rigging and oars. Visually impaired athletes who wish to row in a para program are classified as PR3 athletes. Naturally these athletes are welcome to row in regular club programs.

Amputees – if you are working with athletes who are single leg amputees, you may need to think about lateral boat balance, due to the missing weight of the leg. For arm amputees consider how their terminal device will both be able to stay in place on the oar handle, and be able to be released for safety.

Athletes with various impairments like drop foot or hand impairment will need to have specific solutions considered, depending on functional ability.

PR1 (Arms & Shoulders) and PR2 (Trunk & Arms Rowers)

The boats used for PR1 and PR2 rowers are wider to accommodate the fixed seat. These stable boats also make great additions to any club for new and recreational rowers.

Both PR1 and PR2 rowers use a fixed seat, so seat placement is crucial for effective stroke length. Take the time to adjust this correctly.

Strapping is an integral part of rigging for PR1 rowers, as it often provides core stability for athletes with no trunk function. It is important for the athlete to be aware of the value of strapping, and have the athlete provide feedback as to effectiveness and possible improvements as they become familiar with being strapped in. Typically strapping for PR1 rowers is used around the top rib, at the pelvis, and just behind the knee cap. However when PR1 athletes are learning, simply discuss what strapping they would like to use to start with.

A seat pad is essential to protect PR1 rowers from skin sores, and individual needs for athletes must be discussed prior to the first water session.

In a racing situation, PR2 rowers will need their legs strapped down to aid in functional stability. Keep in mind, however, that strapping is a safety concern for a new rower in case of a capsize. Think ahead to a strategy for escaping the strapping underwater for both PR1 and PR2 rowers.

If you have a PR2 rower who can use a conventional club boat, you simply need to immobilize the sliding seat.

Pontoons needed for PR1 and PR2 rowers are reasonably priced and can be fitted to all rowing shells. They are a simple way to get people of all types of ability rowing, and they’re a great asset for any new club program. Pontoons should be adjusted so they just touch the water surface, this ensures maximum stabilisation. Attach the water side pontoon before the boat is in the water, and the dock side pontoon prior to pushing off.

Rigging for PR1 and PR2 boats requires no overlap with the oars due to the fixed seat. Span, if your club has ordered the tighter-spanned riggers, is considerably narrower than regular measurements. Typical para-rowing measurements are as follows: (keep in mind that these are just guidelines; you’ll want to tailor measurements to each individual rower)

  • PR1 span 125-130 cm; oar length 250-255 cm; inboard 56-61 cm
  • PR2 span 137-142 cm; oar length 260-265 cm; inboard 65-67 cm

There is a simple formula for finding the inboard to create no overlap. This works with any span: measure the span, divide by two and subtract four centimeters. This will give no overlap.

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