“Whoaa that lovin’ feelin.”
When I wasn’t yet a coach, I remember ALWAYS being seated in rows 5-7. I felt good because I felt like I was part of the engine room…you know, that part of a vehicle that makes it go? It was like no other part of the boat mattered. Power decided everything and power was what we had with a bunch of beefy dudes farting and smelling up the middle of the boat (sorry rows 8+). We always were trying to bump the rate and just go faster. At every rest break, we’d get yelled at by folks in rows 1-4. It became bad for the team inter-personally and performance-wise to have such segregated sections of the crew; each with their own apparent roles and lack of empathy for each other. At the time, all I thought was that the timing box was a place to chill out and just paddle easily in time like a drone, never changing, rigid and inflexible. Rate nazis….
After becoming a coach, I suddenly had the whole crew looking to me to address things and the best way I could was to realize that, yes, certain areas of the boat had advantages and disadvantages to making the boat perform better. I had to establish clear roles and responsibilities to sections of the crew while also giving the crew common goals and guidelines to being tighter as a whole.
This post is an ode to the timing box and what I feel it takes to create a good one.
What is the timing box?
It’s traditionally the front section of the boat involving rows 1-2 or even to row 4. I always likened the section of the crew to the “brains” of the boat, not just because they were typically female paddlers (no offense fellas) but because there are several unique reasons why they control the way a boat races and runs while also having some unique limitations to how they cannot control the boat.
Generally speaking, the benches of the timing box are occupied by physically smaller and more experienced paddlers. If you’ve never sat up there, try it some day at a practice as it can be eye-opening. The gunnel curves inwards acutely as you get to row 1, forcing you to rotate your body WAY more to get good paddle attack angle. The floor also slopes upwards slamming your thighs/knees into your chest, limiting your reach. Smaller paddlers often can cope with the cramped space better with less compromise to their stroke technique. Weight distribution of the boat fore/aft is also a consideration, especially when there may be a drummer basically sitting on the very bow of the boat. Too heavy up front and you might be taking on a bunch of water at speed due to the wake, too heavy in back and paddlers up front can’t even bury their blades in the water fully in addition to plowing the boat through the water like a swimmer with their feet low and head bobbling above the surface.
It’s a section of the boat where a paddler may only get visual feedback on timing from 1-3 paddlers, if at all. Timing almost entirely becomes a task that falls upon inter-row communication and proprioceptive feel (your body sense). Everybody behind the timing box sees what they do and any fluctuations in paddling rate or technique ripple backwards through the crew, causing either amplified chaos or unified modulations. On race day, their connection to the drummer helps to further unify the boat based on the crew’s chain of command (hmm, future post maybe?). Clearly, experience goes a long way in managing a group of 16 other paddlers through a crazy game of telephone.
Back when SFL was in its hey-day, crew rostering was always being tweaked from rows 3-10 but rarely in 1-2. At practices, I’d always be chatting with the timing box during rest breaks between sets for feedback on how the boat felt to them, what they thought we could change, and how they felt we could execute those changes. The reason for putting the timing box feedback first was that they knew when changes were happening in the boat without them initiating it. Their feedback gave great insight into various cause/effect issues we’d run into (eg rushing, clean settle into race pace, acceleration on finish). Our timing box was so used to being with each other, row 1 was even occupied by identical twins! Now that takes being on the same page to a whole new level. (I’m not saying you need identical twins on board just to make things work, but it certainly worked for us!).
An experienced timing box is like the carburetors or fuel injection system of your car. They signal for more, the engine pours on the power. They ease off, the engine eases off. This is where experience and feel of the timing box make a huge difference in team performance. The novice timing box is numb to how the boat is running, how the race conditions are, and what needs to be actually run to get max performance. They will execute the pre-programmed rate jumps just as in practice (if you’re lucky). Acceleration is notchy at best on the start because all they know is that they must get from 0 to race pace via X many total strokes and the rate changes every Y count.
Compare that to a great timing box that has 4 paddlers working as one mind to feel the race conditions and pace the start in a progressive way to accelerate smoothly and quickly to race pace. Progressive is the key word. Say the start is a simple 5-10-10. The 25 strokes will feature variable stroke technique and variable rate changes between 1-5, 6-15, and 16-25 to drive the boat off the line. In this level of crew, the start count is almost irrelevant besides the fact that counting for a short period helps unify the crew during a highly technical and highly important part of the race. The reason why this scenario gives superior performance is that it relies upon the feeling and judgement of the timing box to avoid the crew wasting time, energy, and speed on paddling in a way that fails to accelerate smoothly to race pace. The same can be said about the settle into race pace. That rate drop should depend entirely upon the timing box’s decision on how the boat is running once the start count is completed.
Who can’t be in the timing box?
Nobody. Like I said earlier, the demands of race day may dictate practice arrangements where the timing box is always kept intact and up front, but the front of the boat is a trippy place to be (trust me, I’ve fallen off the bow a handful of times to take a dunk or crowd surf). Seriously, though, the experience that can be gained from being in rows 1-3 can really help ALL your paddlers develop better skills that can help the entire crew on race day.
Those skills are (in no particular order):
- how to establish solid timing with less visual feedback
- how to drive the boat for best performance
- feel how the crew responds to changes you make (also how long does it take? what is the limit to changes the crew will respond to?)
- how to paddle well in water that is more “virgin” and undisturbed from others’ paddles
- how to communicate with people behind you (without flatulence)
If you have the luxury of practice time to spare (what team actually does, I don’t know), try having all of your paddlers spend some minutes up there at some point during the season. You will have a crew that understands each other as they never had before and your race results will show it. Guaranteed or I’ll personally refund your blog view.