Indoor Rowing Education For All

Rowers understand their sport to be transformative, laced with challenge and little reward beyond ephemeral personal satisfaction. The merits of the sport are not based on what a person gives in pursuit of mastery, but in what a person gains. This powerful synopsis by Up2Us summarizes what exactly an athlete can gain through sports in eight elements (self-awareness, positive identity, situational awareness, plan B thinking, future focus, discipline, social confidence, and social connections). Rowing has the power to offer all of these things to a huge spectrum of athletes, but its popularity in America lags far behind that of more mainstream sports.

Erg Ed students throw down at the Annual Erg Ed Games Event

From its beginning as an organized sport and for most of its history, rowing has traditionally only applied to a select group of people: you have to be rich, you happen to be white, you probably go to a school that costs as much to attend as the average American’s annual wage, and you most likely aren’t much under the age of 16 years old. Truly believing rowing has the power to teach some of the most important life skills and lessons, advocates for the sport are faced with the challenge of overcoming the barriers of tradition, socio-economic divides, finances, and age gaps. How can the sport of rowing grow beyond these barriers?

Thankfully, programs in America have begun to answer this question. A recent article from Row2k.com discusses the increase in “little league” rowing in many affluent rowing clubs across the country. The barrier of age is beginning to crumble, however, wide divisions still remain and youth sports are needed now more than ever.

In 2013, The Aspen Institute reported only 40% of American children between the ages of 6-12 play in an organized sport, a decrease of almost 5% from the previous year. This trend is an indicator, a warning sign: the benefits of youth rowing, especially for youth who need it most, will remain largely unseen unless we push our sport to reach out to new communities, broaden programs, increase points of access, and grow beyond the current mold.

Indoor Rowing Education: A Vehicle for Fun, Vigorous Exercise and Expanding the Horizons of Rowing

The George Pocock Rowing Foundation has been and continues to be at the forefront of the indoor rowing education movement with its first Erg Education program beginning in 2010. Each school year, “Erg Ed” teaches indoor rowing to over 10,000 public middle school students with a fleet of 60 Concept II ergometers and 42 trained physical education teachers in 21 different schools. This year the Foundation marks its fifth year of Erg Ed with new online ErgEd training courses for PE teachers, a revamped curriculum, and a pilot program in two different Seattle Public High Schools.

The five-year milestone of the Foundation’s ErgEd initiative in Seattle has been met with excitement and also a note of introspection. Heather Alschuler, the ErgEd Coordinator for the Row to the Future initiative of the Foundation comments, “The sheer growth of the program has exceeded my expectations. It is amazing to me that we are able to introduce every single middle school student within Seattle Public Schools to the sport of rowing.”

“The sheer growth of the program has exceeded my expectations. It is amazing to me that we are able to introduce every single middle school student within Seattle Public Schools to the sport of rowing.”

There are a few other rowing programs, mostly in urban areas across America, who also use indoor rowing education to reach out to kids and communities on a broader scale: Row New York in New York, NY; CRI in Boston, MA; Pioneer Valley Riverfront in Springfield, MA; and Row LA in Los Angeles. Rowing education in public school classrooms and gymnasiums means rowing is introduced to students alongside sports such as football, soccer, baseball, and basketball. This kind of exposure increases the visibility of our sport in a truly groundbreaking way.

The Foundation will take its first steps to quantitatively measure the success of the initiative this fall and coming spring, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Of the 35 middle school students enrolled in the first year of Middle School Rowing and Fitness Club at the Pocock Rowing Center, eleven are from public schools and almost all of those enrolled in public school learned to row in their physical education classroom. Bekah Haralson, a seventh-grader from Washington Middle School, is one of those eleven students. She joined the program after beating all her classmates, boys and girls, in the Erg Ed classroom challenge. Her father, Rev. John Haralson remarked how encouraged Bekah was to find that she was strong on the erg. When asked why they decided to actually sign Rebekah up for rowing this fall, Rev. Haralson said, “She has done other sports – soccer and volleyball, but none of them really captured her imagination.”

Rowing is definitely a new adventure for a lot of the students enrolled in the program. After her first day on the water earlier this September, Bekah carried the boat back to the bay with a smile on her face. When asked her how the boat felt compared to the erg, she responded with a sigh, “A lot tippy-ier!”

The Pocock Rowing Center Middle School Program is quite different than some of the programs Row2k mentions in its “Little League Rowing” article this month, where Middle School students row 5 to 6 days a week and compete through the year. The program is specifically designed to give kids a taste of rowing and fitness training in a fun, developmental atmosphere. The program only runs Monday through Thursday and doesn’t include any organized competition with other area teams. Briana Schulte, the operations manager at PRC, realizes the importance of a place of recreation for rowing and the careful balance between having kids work hard and letting them have fun.

Rebekah’s dad expressed appreciation for the balanced focus between rowing and fitness development: “It wasn’t some kind of insane, hard-core, ‘I’m going to be an Olympic rower’ kind of vibe. It was a gentle entry into rowing. It seemed more on building up people as people.”

“It wasn’t some kind of insane, hard-core, ‘I’m going to be an Olympic rower’ kind of vibe. It was a gentle entry into rowing. It seemed more on building up people as people.”

Erg Ed student surveys, collected from over 5,000 students in the ’13-’14 school year, indicate that students are eager to participate. Over 60% of ErgEd participants would like to continue rowing beyond their classroom experience. With the kind of growth that the city of Seattle has seen already, it is exciting to think of new possibilities that lay ahead for rowing education in America. Imagine communities nationwide taking on an initiative of this kind, reaching out to youth where they are at, in their schools, and with help from their teachers. The barriers to rowing begin to fall and the possibilities ahead seem boundless.

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