After a rough few years with injury, distractions, and more injuries, the idea that making significant improvements in power, efficiency and technique without direct practice seemed out of reach.
In 2008, I represented Australia in the under-23 lightweight rowing world championships in Brandenburg, Germany. As a 20-year-old, this was clearly the highlight of my rowing career to date. It was a blur of lengthy selections, moving to Adelaide from Sydney, and then competing overseas. When I returned, it was back into Youth Cup (a national state-vs-state competition), followed by timetrials which counted towards the 2009 selections. I was travelling quickly and holding my own with most of the senior A women, which is how I was invited to the AIS for the December training camp. Attending this camp was a big step forward and one which I was very excited to take. A tour of the AIS, use of the recovery centre, contact with their coaches and support staff, it was all exciting. The water work and gym sessions were intensive and it was a wonderful challenge, which I thought my body was ready to handle...towards the end of the camp we took a bike ride around canberra and something didn't feel right. My bike has recently been adjusted to "fit me better", but my back and hips were not comfortable after about 50km. Knowing that 50-80km was usually okay for my body, I kept riding, thinking I was just fatigued.
The next morning, I couldn't move, couldn't get out bed, couldn't walk down the stairs, certainly couldn't row, without extreme pain all through my hips, my lower back and my butt. Somehow I managed to get to the dining hall and spoke shyly with one of the coaches, who suggested I drive to training (rather than ride), and see the physio. "Nothing serious, just a locked up QL" was the remain from the physio who helped free up movement in my hips with several treatments. And I was back on the water to finish the rowing camp.
With Christmas fast approaching, my usual physio was away, in fact all the physio practices seemed to be closed until the new year. So, as a naive 20-year-old, I stretched and kept moving a little over the break and then went to club camp in Jindabyne on the 2nd January. Feeling somewhat better, I trained hard and by day 6, my body NEEDED rest, and recovery. My hips had locked up again and this time the instability was excruciating. Needless to say, there was concern and many, many, many testings completed when I got back to Sydney.
The most frustrating part was that everything came back "normal" - the professionals could see that my movements were atypical, that there was instability, but no pathology, no tears, no breaks, no bulges. So, into the gym for "core stability rehab". My selection on the AUS team the previous year had allowed me the good fortune to access an NSWIS scholarship and their S&C rehab team who put together a core strength and stability program which say me holding a 7-minute centre plank within weeks.
"Back in the boat", they said.
"Ouch", I said.
"Back to the gym for more core rehab", they said
...this continued for the next 4 months.
I managed to attend the National Championship with large amounts of taping, heat pages and existing pain levels that saw me pass out at the end of my singles race into the freezing Tasmanian water. Climbing back into my boat was the fastest and most free movement I had experienced in months...and then there was the wild card into selections. Which, through many tears after the first race saw me realise, there was no point continuing with racing this season.
From here I tried another approach to my rehab with an Osteopath. Brilliant.
It also begun a partnership which continues today, with the talented club/state/national rowing coach, Ellen Randell. With my pain settling after 4-weeks on my new rehab program, which focused on allowing the overstretched SIJ ligaments to recover, I was training in the quad scull on Tuesday mornings with the Aussie Lightweight senior A double. I had the opportunity to see first-hand the depth of partnership between a coach and fulltime elite athletes.
I've been very fortunate to have been coached by, and coached alongside, many talented coaches who not only have a technical focus but a 'care-factor' for the human behind the athlete. These wonderful influences include -
- Raymond Brown* (StGeo) - love the sport of rowing because it helps you grow as a person
- Bronwyn (Roye) Porter (StGeo) - train with consistency and enjoy the friendships
- Greg Howell (StGeo) - train hard, and train with the racing in mind
- Ron Batt (StGeo) - be an independent thinker, you know your body best
- Steve Luker (StGeo) - trust in the program and the speed will follow
- Zoltan Shepard (under-23) - we do not race against each other, we race against the world
- Ellen Randell (UTS) - the best coaches are as invested in the result, as the athlete is
- LEVEL ONE QUALIFICATION - Nick Garrett
- LEVEL TWO QUALIFICATION - Mark Pratter, Alan Bennett, Lizzie Chapman
Two years passed and I finally got my thinking right again. I had wrestled with a sense of loss, the idea that a part of my identity had been lost because I was no longer doing what an "elite athlete" did. When you are so invested in a role, a set of activities done with routine and specific outcomes and expectations, and suddenly this changes without your control, there is a feeling of grief and a response to seek out ways to fill this gap. For me, that was to throw myself into finishing University (an undergraduate degree in Occupational Therapy) and then building a business (Early Links).
Finally in 2012 I was ready to race again!
I had completed a full off-season of training, my thought process was solid and my speed was back. I was excited and motivated for a return to elite racing and being an elite athlete again.
Until September, 2012...I got the flu, I got weak and fatigued, I sneezed...
And I ruptured two disc in my lower back (L4/5 mild tear, & S1/L5 severe annular tear). I have sensory changes in my legs, burning pains, weakness and decreased balance. I was shattered emotionally. I was recommended to have disc replacement surgery by a neurosurgeon, I was told it'd be unlikely that I'd row again. I didn't like the sound of those odds. Back to the Osteopath I went, who was able to relieve my symptoms very quickly and who recommended more core stability retraining to protect the injury and allow it the best chance to heal.
6-weeks passed and I had been walking, resting, following the osteopath instructions to-the-letter, and it had worked. The next scans showed the L4/5 completely healed and the S1/L5 with only a mild-moderate tear, progress!! At this point I started thinking that I could use this time wisely to repattern my core activation, as I'd been learning through Occupational Therapy with children that neuro-sensory development was key in strong, responsive movement patterns. All the movements in this intervention could be done lying down, kneeling, or standing in fairly typical daily movement positions, with no additional loading. Also, I learned that the sensory system, when stressed or deprived of regulating activities (for me, daily pain and intensive exercise, respectfully) can enter a state of fight/flight/freeze reactiveness (sympathetic overdrive). This knowledge prompted me to create and complete a sensory integrative therapy program, aiming to find self-regulation and manage/treat my existing sensory defensiveness, with the thought that improving the speed and accuracy of the sensory information entering my brain would lead to faster and stronger core activation which did not rely on my thinking to protect my spine.
My outcome... 5 months after the injury, I was back in the boat, at the start-line of the B-final in the womens SeniorA single scull, in which I placed 5th (overall that is 11th in Australia).
From there, as much as my body was ready to keep training and keep improving my speed, I'd become focused on building my business and coaching other younger and older rowers. The priorities in my life had shifted and as much as I love racing and competing, other aspects of my life had become my focus.
Over the last 3 -years, I have continued to build clinical knowledge and applications for improving core activation -which is separate to core stability which S&C coaches do a wonderful job improving, sensory processing, self-regulation, role and identity development, and more recently, the impact of primary emotions and the integration of the vestibular system.
This video was taken by Robyn Mackney (Drummoyne RC Coach) at a training camp on the Nepean River in January 2017. That day I decided to join the senior squad in a technical paddle and was surprised at the changes in speed, power and efficiency from my last training session 3-months before, but after weekly coaching sessions and a few intensive weeks of coaching.
From my personal experience, clinical application, and the literature I have been reading about neuroplasticity, role-identity and the benefits of strong sensory-neuro-developmental building blocks for movement patterns, it's certainly a worthwhile discussion to have for any coach managing an athlete in recovery transition, or reaching a plateau in performance.
Want access to the technical skills and drills that helped to build this skill on the water?
Enter your details below, we will send out the "rowing drills & skills" video in the coming days.
FYI - these videos will be for rowing specific technical gains, however, if you leave me a message below with your details, I will be contacting coaches locally (Sydney) to drop into your club/clinic for a complementary training session in return for recording new videos with your athletes...tell me why you'd like help to improve technique with your athletes
Plus more core activiation and sensory integration activities to follow in the coming weeks!