Behind The Blues

Robert Weber

Chief Coach, CUBC Women

‘We have been talking a lot about what motivates the athletes, and what’s very heartening is that despite the difficulties they’re intrinsically motivated. They managed the lockdown well. We’ve said that there’s a lot of uncertainty, and you need to get value from the day-to-day process. Last year obviously showed there might not be a Boat Race, so we don’t want people to be waking up the day after the race should have been and saying this was all a waste of time. We don’t talk about Oxford or winning. We just try every day to get better.

When the last lockdown happened we said, “OK guys take some time, take a few weeks, regroup.” Which was a different approach to some other clubs. But I think we benefited. The athletes showed up in September fitter than they’ve been since I’ve been here.

For this second lockdown we also looked at mental health and wellbeing. We brought in a sports psychologist. She focused with the rowers on visualisation, motivation and goal setting. We got to the end of lockdown saying, “Let’s refocus, let’s get into it.” We’ve also tried to make the social connection stronger this time round. Obviously there have been changes in what we do for physiological training. We weren’t able to do the strength and conditioning programme. There’ve been a lot of Zoom-coached sessions on the ergometer, both over the summer and this November. We’ve made a lot of use of the technology to keep the training programme going.’

Sean Bowden

Head Coach, OUBC

‘We have had less time together as a team, so part of our focus is on teaching people to be better at managing themselves. We’re also concentrating on making the best use of the time available when setting training programmes.

For instance, when we’re educating the rowers, we’re asking what is the training about? What are the goals? What are they going to get out of it? What is good training for them? What is bad training for them? How are they making their own decisions? We’ve made it less coach-centric. More athlete-led. From that point of view it’s been quite productive.

We don’t have the same opportunities for physiological testing we’ve had. We’re working with the physiologist Filipe Salbany, and we’ve had to develop different tests for the rowers to do at home so we can get reliable training data. We’re also working with Stephen Feeney [who, through the Invictus Project, coaches teams in emotional intelligence and self-awareness]. That’s all dovetailing with how they prepare themselves.

Shifting the race to Ely is the best option we’ve got. Hammersmith Bridge is one issue, social distancing and crowd control another. Both of those make coming to London very problematic. The race will still provide a really good spectacle.

The thing that’s really interesting for me is to see the real hunger from the rowers to make this happen. Yes they want to live safe lives, and not get infected. But there’s a resilience there, and they will go to impressive lengths to make this work.’

Andy Nelder

Head Coach, OUWBC

‘I’m very aware that in the pandemic there’s been a lot of people having a far worse time than us. We’re very privileged to be able to row at all. That said, I think it was extremely difficult for everyone concerned when last year’s race was cancelled, and they will have felt the disappointment of that equally or perhaps even more strongly than what they’ve had to deal with since. Now we’re training again, we’re dealing with unprecedented limitations.

Oxford University had to put strict guidelines around extra-curricular activities, so this morning (December 10) was the first time we’ve been able to row together in months. Everyone’s had to change their behaviour. Young students just coming up to university are finding it especially tough, but people are being positive and supportive. The training has kept going though. Everyone has been using ergs so they’re in reasonably good shape. We’ve put together two eights and we’re starting to assess people over the next nine days.

“It was extremely difficult for everyone concerned when last year’s race was cancelled, and they will have felt the disappointment of that equally or perhaps even more strongly than what they’ve had to deal with since.”

We’re looking forward to having the race in Ely. There’s obviously a precedent from 1944 [when the race switched to the Great Ouse because of the V1 flying bombs]. I think irrespective of the problems with Hammersmith Bridge, it would be irresponsible for us to stage an iconic event with unregulated interaction between people during a global pandemic. The race won’t be fatally wounded by not being in London. The world has changed a lot recently. We should be grateful for being able to do it at all.’

Rob Baker

Chief Coach, CUBC Men

‘Covid - as with all problems you face in general life - is about trying to manage the different pieces well. Wellbeing is key - it’s important to make sure the rowers aren’t beating themselves up after, for instance, a bad performance or a tough day.

The first lockdown was difficult. We were lucky, in that no-one in the squad died, everyone’s health was fine. But they’d spent their whole year preparing for the Boat Race, and two weeks beforehand it was cancelled. Some of the rowers have come back, others have moved on from university and got a job. For the most recent lockdown we’ve done a lot of work on ergs, logging our scores; there are video sessions. I’ve also walked round town and exercised with some of the rowers, trying to make sure they stay connected.

Apart from this last month we’ve been able to go rowing. There’s obviously lots of Covid protocols which you have to go through. But when you get out on the water it’s all much the same. That’s the power of sport. It puts you in a place you want to be.

It’s taken a little bit to get my head round the shift to Ely. Everyone wants to row on the Tideway, but ultimately this decision means we have a race. The BBC is very interested. It’s going to be a real contrast. This time it will come down more to the rowing than the conditions or the bend. If it’s a close race it will be amazing to watch.’