Continuous State of Flow

 In News

The more that I see of contemporary elite sculling with its usual squared blades above the water at the entry, the more I see the need for an alternative method of entry and the sculler’s entry is the answer. However this would require an open mind on the part of the contemporary athlete.

They would have to have an inquiring mind. They would have to appreciate the history of the sport and read back into the racing and training and thoughts behind the sculling of one Ned Hanlan. You cannot find a picture of Hanlan with his blades squared above the water. His blades are always in the water or feathered in the horizontal position.

If we don’t go back as far but stop at the Thames Watermen we find the same signature characteristics. The blade is always in close proximity to the water, two or three inches. There is no up movement of the blade it is simply a drop and in. Two moves to the entry, the entry and the pull. This entry involves a feeling in the shoulders of the immediate impact of the water taking hold of the water at blade depth – the Bernoulli Effect.

This keeps the shell in a continuous state of flow. In contrast with the blade squared above the water results in a pause of the shell running. We see this with the contemporary scullers.

What must his contemporaries thought of his practice of the continuous swing similar to the pendulum clock and the quick entry from the horizontal blade position? After all he had 300 wins against much larger competitors. Twenty or thirty years later the Thames Watermen would follow with the same practices. Only the university types at Oxford and Cambridge would come up with the stilted practice of square blades above the water. The exception to this rule would be Fairbairn at Cambridge who admired Hanlan.

If we could let our imagination drift back hundred and fifty years to the Toronto Island home of  Ned Hanlan and on a sunny September afternoon after a morning at Mass as a good Irish Christian, young Ned was now out on the lagoon preparing to make his shell excursion to the Toronto mainland for groceries f or the Hanlan family. He would have to cross  a wavy and rough Toronto harborer. But he was well versed in the vicissitudes of the weather.

He was a self taught sculler who understood water, the run and balance of his shell, his use of a magnificent trunk swing, and his impeccable athletic bladework. He thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of the open bay with its rough waters and strong winds. He was self taught with his numerous excursions into these less than ideal conditions. He thoroughly understands the mechanics of great sculling. He knows how to keep the shell in a continuous running pattern and how to keep the shell perfectly balanced. He learned this understanding over years of practice on Toronto Harbour. Everything was trial and error for the young Hanlan. He would come to be admired by great coaches and athletes of his time as he sculled to over 300 victories. He was quite versed as to how the body should function confined the shell and coping with various water and wind conditions. He was masterful.

Here are a few thoughts on the bow run. Begin your thought process by sitting tall with the legs don firmly and the belly button in. The hands and arms are at a comfortable angle to the trunk wall. Try to sit lightly  with the thought of keeping the bow deck high and continuously running. Look sternward over the rear deck. The trunk is about 15 degrees beyond the perpendicular. The hands never cease their inward and outward movements. The trunk only pauses momentarily before it starts forward for the next entry. The blades are extracted at a 45 degree angle and quickly go to the feather position about 3 inches off the water. The body quickly shifts from statured poise at the moment of the release to changing relaxation on the full recovery. The full recovery becomes an integral part of the Bow Run. With specific, exact movement the bow run continues throughout the recovery.

However, each of the movement phases must be exact and well timed including the whole of the trunk action. It begins with the blade going from the vertical position to the 45 degree extraction to the  horizontal resting position. The arms go from flexion to relaxed extension. The trunk moves through the perpendicular to begin its changing angle action to the Nexus point. I can remember the feel of the impact at the Nexus; point from my sculling on the Canadian Henley course in Port Dalhousie. It was felt in the shoulder girdle. This is derived from the quick, clean entry. So that at all points on the recovery and on the drive, the bow deck runs level.

The other critical part of this technical training is the extensive development of the mind’s eye for consciousness of all the details of the various movements so that the technical movements become deeply imbedded in our consciousness. Our movements become automatic and intuitive. This is especially true for the movement of the trunk and the seat. The trunk moves a little with the angle of the torso changing and the seat moves forward a little. The trunk at the hips controls the movement of the seat moving forward towards the entry.

Hanlan was operating in a different level of consciousness. He was fully aware of the path and reason for each of his movements.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
– Albert Einstein

His consciousness was one of childlike wonder and inquisitive scrutiny. He carefully explored every part of his shell including the seat and slide movement – his pendular swing. This has to be a major ingredient to his winning days usually against much larger opponents.

All of this exploration originated from his island home and his daily excursions into the wildness of the Toronto Harbor. He learned how to use his shell effectively despite the wind and water turbulence of the harbor. The shell and Hanlan’s water time became his playground. He was the inspiration for the paper on the nexus point, the trunk swing and other mental excursions of my mind. He employed his imagination and his child mind. He was unimpeded by formal education so his mind was a clean slate and allowed to explore the deep reaches of his inner self.

The arms, the legs, and the trunk all move in synchronization with the movement of the shell. It is an unhurried continuous flow. It is a complete and whole movement of the shell and the body. Everything is integrated, the body, the mind, and the shell and blades.

It is very important to realize that Hanlan’s consciousness developed along with his skill development. He became more aware of the smallest movement of the shell along with the smallest movement of his mind. It was all a case of interruption of the inner and outer processes.

Hanlan was successful at integrating the spiritual, mental and physical training into a whole approach. The spiritual was covered by use of his pendular swing. He learned this swing from the pendulum clock swing. On the drive through the swing he was able to put his muscular shoulders arms to good use. On the recovery he was able to bring his seat forward with great ease.

The swing was the foundation of his stroke. It was his spirit at work. It was the factor that allowed him to defeat much larger opponents. Through the use of the swing he was quite aware where he was in space at all times relative to the track. He was able to keep the shell level and continuously  running as though drawn by a string as one observer at the time characterized his shell’s movement.

It would be about 50 years before European educator and mystic, Rudolf Steiner would expand on bringing the aspects of the spirit, the mental and the physical into a whole. His legacy was the Waldorf School. So Hanlan in the 1870s was well ahead of his time. He self learned and self taught himself on the waters of Toronto harbor. This approach of integration is still very relevant today for training the young sculler.     

The introductory lesson for Hanlan may have taken place on the beach of Toronto Island. He straddled his legs, reached forward with his arms, and bent forward from his hips. In this position he took an imaginary stroke. This could be performed on any dock as well  before the novice enters the shell for the first time. His or her imagination is challenged. Words from the coach are kept to a minimum. In drawing the arms, swinging from the hips and shifting the weight from the forward to the rear foot the only thought is of the feeling of the movement of the part parallels the feeling of the whole.


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This is a composite image of all of the books covers from the books mentioned in the article.Photo of the side of a rowing hull in the water with the blade in the water on the drive