John Laurenson |

University rowers: tips for your first year of rowing

If you’re a novice university rower then read on for some top tips about enjoying your experience from John Laurenson, former chair of Bath University Boat Club, and a member of the Junior Rowing News team

While eager to get going and full of energy, starting a sport like rowing can be daunting, given most people come in with zero experience and a lot to learn. Couple this with the intensity and fast-paced nature of the first year at university, and novices can quickly find themselves battling to reap the rewards of this fantastic sport without having to sacrifice too much of their social lives – a central part of anyone’s university experience. 

In this article, I’ll use my experience and some words of wisdom from novice coaches across the country to provide some tips on having a great time in your first year of rowing.

University rowing

As the end of the first term is in sight, hopefully you now know all your new teammates and feel part of the fabric of the boat club.

Christmas socials at university can seem daunting, but they exist for people to have fun. Aim to attend as many as you can, you don’t have to drink alcohol, and you don’t have to go clubbing, but you can still have a good time, and may lead to strong friendships down the line.

“This year we’re focusing on creating a great culture, at the end of the day, we’re all here to have fun and a tight-knit squad will always perform better,” says Henry McLeod from Bath University.

Tom Bowles, from Hartpury University, agrees, saying: “My main piece of advice is to come to as many sessions and social events as you can.”

Depending on the club you’ve joined, you may or may not have a structured training programme. My advice on this is to do what you’re comfortable with. If you want to train every day, great; if not, no big deal. Work out what the critical sessions are – most likely the water sessions – and go from there.

Getting better

Picking up an oar for the first time is tricky; I often compare it to learning to swim for the first time, a fact quickly forgotten by those with years of rowing experience under their splash jackets. But, ultimately – as a novice – your technique will help you the most, and if you are diligent, you can improve quickly.

“Novice programmes are [often] massive and the coaching is always spread quite thin, so sometimes simply asking ‘what do I need to do to be better?’ will make you stand out from the crowd – and you’ll likely get more attention from the coaches,” says Tom.

Novice squads can comprise more than a hundred individuals, which presents a considerable challenge for those coaching. If you don’t feel like you’re getting much attention, hang back and speak to the coach(es) and express that you are motivated to get better, it might seem obvious, but it will make a difference.

“There’s a lot more to rowing than physical attributes,” points out Ellie Stevens, Lead Development Coach at the University of Surrey Boat Club.

“When selecting the novice squads at Surrey, the athletes’ temperament and attitude towards training and the people around them are arguably more important than physiological capabilities.”

At all levels, rowing is all about consistency and patience, no less so for a novice. So, keep plugging away, both on and off the water, and you will improve.

Keep the momentum going

With the term almost at an end, novice rowers reach a crossroads: what to do over Christmas? 

Depending on your course, you may be in for a care-free festive period or find yourself snowed under by reading lists and assignments. Either way, it’s essential to use the holidays to recharge – and that applies to rowing too. 

Novice programmes with more resources may have designed a programme to maintain your newfound strength and fitness over the break: if this describes your position, great! You can skip over the next paragraph. 

If, on the other hand, you find yourself without a solid programme but still want to utilise the Christmas period, there are a few things you can do.

Firstly, speak to your coach: they may have plenty of great ideas that just haven’t quite made it onto the squad Group Chat. If your coach has already jetted off, don’t panic. Instead, try to replicate parts of the programme you’ve been working through this term. Two circuits a week during term time? Try doing the same over Christmas.

You may have to work around limitations (not having an erg at home, for example), but see this as an opportunity to understand your body and the sport better. Maybe try a run instead of that UT2 erg or a swim in place of a water session. If you do have a rowing machine at home, our selection of Christmas rowing machine workouts might be right up your street. 

Whatever you plan to do over Christmas, make sure to enjoy the break and return to uni ready for a busy term…   

Racing – the serious stuff

After Christmas, things tend to heat up in the world of rowing. Events like BUCS Head loom into view, and clubs will begin to crank things up a notch. Rowing events can be the most enjoyable part of the sport, putting all that hard practice to the test and seeing if you can perform when it matters.

While you will undoubtedly want to do well, I would emphasise that as a novice, your experience is low. Don’t focus on winning or anything ‘outcome-oriented’; focus instead on the process.

If you’re travelling, make sure you pack everything you need, including your race kit and food. Make sure your equipment is in good condition, and always make sure your riggers are on properly before you boat!

Don’t forget to have fun

It’s easy to try and pigeonhole novices into a fixed mould of an ideal athlete, but in my mind, rowing can offer so much more than that. So, my main piece of advice to anyone taking up rowing for the first time this year is to make sure you are having fun.

Don’t get bogged down in your rowing machine scores or trying to get into the top boat; you have plenty of time for that later in life.

If you are loving it and want to see how far you can go, seek out advice from peers and coaches on a one-to-one basis, follow their advice, and be patient. You’ll get there.

So, good luck – and have fun!