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 misperception. 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 abled 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 Arms & Shoulder (AS) 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.

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:


Vision impaired athletes get just as much pleasure from sport and competition as any other member of a crew. They 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

Many vision-impaired athletes have enough vision to be able to walk and travel without aids. Ask questions to understand the athlete’s 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 memorize the layout of the bay.

  1. Allow the person time to touch things and familiarize themselves with the place and equipment.
  2. Take time to let the person feel the different parts of the boat and to understand how they move.
  3. Make sure you point out wet areas including areas that are likely to be wet (e.g. boat wash area)

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.”

Clarity of Instructions

  • In a dangerous situation say, “STOP” rather than “LOOK OUT”.
  • Use accurate instructions when giving directions. Ex: “The boat is on your left” not “the boat is over there.”
  • Clearly specify the body part/s that are involved in a technique.

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.

Provide audible cues, avoid using hand signals to indicate starts or changes in direction.

In training give regular audible feedback. Example:

  • 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”.
  • Discuss with the athlete what amount of feedback they need.

Lighting and Glare

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 a shifting water level that they may or may not be able to perceive, so their perception of where the water’s surface actually is may be affected.

Coach Education (for Coaches and Interested Club Members)

Sit with your eyes closed (better yet, blindfold them all so they can’t cheat! – we use buffs). 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, every activity has 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?

Even those who have some sight have to constantly be planning what they are doing – where is that rubber lip on the dock I tripped over last week? Unfamiliar places are challenging because a lot of memory mapping is needed – sighted people can see where the oars are stored whereas someone who is visually impaired or blind likely won’t notice where they are stored. Someone who is visually impaired or blind just navigating through life does a lot more mental work on a daily basis.

Blind/visually impaired people often take longer than someone sighted to do a task because of this step-by-step planning. Leave extra time for getting ready, etc. For erg workouts, give them a head start on getting their adaptive equipment set up so they can start a workout with everyone else (they may need to set up an iPad for instance.)

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!

Even if you ask someone who is visually impaired if they can see you and they say “YES”, they are sometimes going to be lying! No seriously! Yes, we can see you, but we likely can’t see the fine detail of what you are doing. Being as descriptive as possible is helpful, especially out on the water when the coach cannot get as close as will sometimes be needed.

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.

Teach coaches how to guide:

  • Introduce yourself by name. Offer help.
  • Athlete chooses which elbow they want to hold. Not a death grip, but light touch with thumb towards the guide’s hip and all other fingers on the outside of elbow. Guide is ½ stride ahead so athlete can feel changes in grade, etc.

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 free software called ErgChatter, which provides verbal feedback on erg outputs. Also available is an app called Erg Buddy, which can link to an erg with a PM4 monitor, and turn your iPad into a larger, high contrast screen monitor. ErgBuddy will also provide verbal feedback on erg data.

Note: You’ll likely need to update the PM4’s firmware in order to get it to communicate with the ErgBuddy app. For more information visit the Concept 2 website.

Some vision-impaired athletes might benefit from having tactile aids to assist with technique, such as using matchsticks or a tactile indicator taped to the grips to help sense square and feathered oar positions.

Other things to consider:

  • 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?

Considerations for Rowers with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Pressure sores are a concern here, both in rowing and in daily life. Discuss with your rower if they have areas of concern while in the boat. These areas can be addressed with appropriate padding. It’s important to catch these pressure hot spots early! Also make sure that any sharp objects (damaged gunwales, foot stretcher, slides etc.) are identified. 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.

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. A yoga mat (or similar) is useful to protect the rower from abrasions while on the dock.


Leg, Trunk, and Arms Rowers (LTA)

Rigging for LTA rowers is similar to regular sweep or sculling rigging with modifications suitable for these rowers. Use conventional club boats, rigging and oars.

Arms & Shoulders (AS) and Trunk & Arms Rowers (TA)

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

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

In a racing situation, TA 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 TA and AS rowers.

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

Pontoons needed for AS and TA 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.

Rigging for AS and TA boats requires no overlap with the oars due to the fixed seat, and the 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)

  • AS span 130 cm; oar length 255 cm; inboard 60.5 cm
  • TA span 140 cm; oar length 266 cm; inboard 66 cm

To start with, your club may not be able to provide specialist equipment. Therefore, if using a 160 cm span, use the shortest oars you can find with a 76 cm inboard to create no overlap.

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.