When many people think of Seattle, they think of it in terms of water.
Lake Washington, Lake Union, and the Puget Sound are all prominent features of this perpetually wet city. Scattered on these waterways on any given morning are armadas of rowing boats, some of them smoothly clipping along, and some laboriously plowing through the waves. Rowing is a staple of Seattle in the same ways as coffee and fish markets. However, even in a city with ample opportunities to try rowing – only a specific, small community usually has access to the sport and its waterways.
What makes rowing unique is the unavoidable and tremendous amount of teamwork that is necessary to row a boat well. Every person must work together, in unison, to make the boat move. The many benefits of rowing are touted by many clubs and participants of the sport as rowing teaches teamwork by inherently forcing each athlete to row with their teammates needs above their own. One person in a boat who does not pull their weight can make eight other teammates lose a race. Rowing teaches athletes how to set a goal, make a plan, and overcome hardship through the practice of training, racing, and facing losses. Sports psychologists have analyzed the positive effects that sports like rowing have on teamwork and team bonding. The benefits of tight-knit and supportive team environments, like that of a rowing team, are extremely important to the development of children and adolescents (Beachamp & McEwan, 2015).
Rowing, with all its many benefits to its participants, has its barriers too. A 2019 report by The Aspen Institute, in partnership with the University of Washington and King County, found that organized sports are often both culturally and economically exclusive. Many students retire from sport by age twelve and only 19% of youth in King County meet the recommended 60 minutes of activity per day. Rowing, in particular, is costly to participate in, with expensive equipment and the need for water access, and can be culturally inaccessible for a variety of reasons, from discomfort or inexperience around water activities to simply feeling out of place with the current demographics of the sport.
Due to these factors, rowing is typically thought of as a sport exclusively for white, affluent people, and this perception is a contributing factor to the lack of diversity in many clubs and teams. A decade ago, most public school students never got the opportunity to even decide if they wanted to row, because the barriers were too high and, in many cases, they didn't even know the sport existed.
Enter Erg Ed.
Erg Ed is a program of the George Pocock Rowing Foundation that was created with the purpose of bringing rowing into classrooms. While rowing, traditionally, has always been done on the water, Erg Ed brings rowing to the student where they are: at school. Using rowing machines (called ergometers or “ergs”), students participate in a weeklong program to learn the basics of the rowing stroke and participate in goal setting and teamwork oriented activities. PE teachers are empowered to teach a new sport to their students through a weeklong, super adaptable curriculum.
In providing students with different sporting opportunities at a young age, when they are in danger of dropping out of athletics entirely, there is a chance to help them find a place to belong in organized athletics. Further, by taking rowing indoors, Erg Ed is able to reach groups of people who have never seen, heard of, or thought about accessing the sport previously. Erg Ed helps to bridge the gap between classrooms and rowing clubs, helping students who previously never imagined themselves on the water or in a boathouse feel more comfortable in a new environment.
Many teachers have fallen in love with rowing and Erg Ed in the years since it was first launched in Seattle in 2009. “It appeals to those who want to try something different,” said Jen Hendrickson, the Instructional Coach for Physical Education in Seattle Public Schools. Hendrickson taught Erg Ed in her own Physical Education class for many years and is a big advocate for the program. “It gives you a lot of options in terms of the types of teams you can participate in,” she said. “You can be a part of a team of 8, a team of 4, a team of 2 or you can participate individually.”
What started as a program aimed at sharing the sport of rowing to Seattle Public School students and the PNW, is now a national program that spans across the United States. Erg Ed, while rowing based, is primarily a program geared towards teaching fitness, teamwork, and goal setting skills. Not every student is destined to be a competitive rower, but perhaps one might find a new interest in exercise, exceed their expectations of themselves, or re-discover the sport down the line.
We have a lot of work to do to create true equality in sports, but access is the first step.
Learn more about Erg Ed here.
Dosil Joaquín. The Sport Psychologists Handbook: a Guide for Sport-Specific Performance Enhancement. John Wiley, 2006.
Mcewan, Desmond, and Mark R. Beauchamp. “Teamwork in Sport: a Theoretical and Integrative Review.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 229–250., doi:10.1080/1750984x.2014.932423.
Seattle State of Play, Seattle-King County. The Aspen Institute, 2019, pp. 1–52.