Record broken three times in one second. What’s going on?

On 15th March, Shiplake College did something incredible. They won the Schools Head of The River race, over the Championship course from Chiswick to Putney (roughly 7km with the stream) in a new record time. Not only did they set a new record: they were one of a group of three who finished within a second of each other – all of them beating the previous course record – with the rest of the world a full twenty seconds behind. Twenty seconds – that’s more than 7 lengths of clear water ahead of the 238 other school eights in the race.

The victorious Shiplake College crew with coach Hugh Mackworth-Praed

Why is this so surprising? Let’s look at the details.

16:36.6 Shiplake College
16:37.1 Eton College
16:37.5 St. Paul’s School

St. Paul’s has nearly a thousand boys, Eton over 1300. But Shiplake has only about 470 pupils, including girls in the sixth form – so they are minnows in talent-pool terms. Yet they managed that extra half second of speed which put them ahead. How?

This year, all three crews had to cope with strong winds and difficult conditions. But so did all the others, and the fourth finisher, Radley College, followed by all the other great rowing schools with crews from Ireland, Italy, Sweden and throughout the UK, came in with very normal times.

So there’s no doubt about it: these three crews are something special. What’s their secret? Here’s my own assessment.

What these three have in common is that they start with sculling, and when they are older they do a lot of small boat work, much of it in pairs. This pattern of preparation makes rowers more competent, confident, and aware of their technique – and it makes them more responsive to conditions when they transfer to the bigger boats.

Eton of course is famous for having the best and biggest rowing facilities of any school, anywhere in the world. They even have their own Olympic course (which hosted the London 2012 Olympic rowing), where they can start the boys off sculling. They’ve been dominating the school rowing scene for much of the past 150 years – and with sculling-fanatic (and fantastic masters racer!) Guy Pooley as head of rowing, that situation is unlikely to change.

Incentive bottle

St. Paul’s advantages are less obvious, but still formidable. They are right on the river with their boathouse a short walk from the main school, and can make use of their long lunch break to fit in extra training. When they start the boys off sculling, they do so with a high standard of coaching; and for the last five years or so, they have been following a rigorous work ethic driven by their relentless coach Bobby Thatcher.

When I was coaching London Oratory in 2013, we beat St Paul’s in J15 Championship 8’s at National Schools Regatta by just 0.08 of a second – a major upset at the time as state schools didn’t normally win anything at this level. We got the bronze medal; they came fourth.

Bobby was disconcerted, but knew what to do: he quietly wound up the pressure – one of his psychological ploys being a label on crew member’s water bottles, simply with the number 0.08 prominently displayed to provide a constant reminder. A reminder of the absolutely tiny margin between a medal and none, a margin they had been on the wrong side of. Each of them had a choice. Could they have given that little bit more, with a better core, technique, power or just fitness? That 0.08 said it all. Find that 0.08 in each training session. We never beat them again!

The St. Paul’s crew was particularly impressive last year, when they broke the record at Henley Royal Regatta by an astonishing eleven seconds. They went on to set a new record of 16:40.6 in the Schools Head, and were widely acknowledged as one of the best schoolboy/junior crews of all time. Certainly they were the best I have ever seen.

How did Shiplake win a major race against these two giants of rowing, when they are such a comparatively minor force? Again, let’s look at the details.

Although only founded in 1959, Shiplake had a strong history and culture of rowing from its early days. Being located on the riverbank near Henley was one plus factor. Another was the late Nick Bevan, their previous headmaster, who was a well-known and highly-regarded coach – known in particular for always making his crews brush their teeth before races! Gregg Davies, the current head, is also a first-class rower, having gone to Kent School in the USA for sports and helped their crew win the national title in 1980.

On the training front, they’re currently doing a lot of things right. Their coach is Hugh Mackworth-Praed, a powerful rower himself who leads by example, loves his sport and still competes successfully. As at Eton and St. Paul’s, they teach their pupils to scull first; then they put them into pairs.

Cat out of bag?

Kara’s yoga teaching is specifically geared to rowing objectives

And here we come back to the secret-weapon question. The one training tool that neither Eton nor St.Paul’s currently uses, but which Shiplake College does, is Yoga.

Hugh knows a lot about yoga, and has been using it for years as part of his core strength program. He has told me about two exercises which he finds particularly beneficial: one is a sequence of single-leg balance movements which help build thigh-muscle strength and balance control. The other is a sequence of handstand exercises which, among many other advantages, develop stability and strength in the shoulder. Hugh is a proficient exponent of these exercises, but his own demonstrations are enhanced by regular input from Yoga teacher Kara Wirt who also teaches rowers at Upper Thames RC and at Tideway Scullers’ School. Like many other teachers who do both rowing and Yoga, Kara has discovered how well they go together, and her teaching is specifically geared to rowing objectives.

Could it have been the Yoga which brought in that extra half-second of speed, winning Shiplake their place in rowing history? It could well be: don’t rule it out.

Finally, one more forensic fact to bear in mind. For the last few years Shiplake have taken their rowers to south-west France for their Spring training (at Temple-Sur-Lot, a pleasant three-hour cycle ride from Bergerac) where they do a huge amount of core strength and awareness work, as well as having a marvellous time. Don’t rule that out either!

Speaking of which, we still have some places available on our own summer programme of Sculling and Yoga in Bergerac from June to August: take a look at the Calendar and send us a message if you’d like to discuss joining us.

3 thoughts on “Record broken three times in one second. What’s going on?

  1. Had to respond to this as I did Vets Head yesterday and felt so different having taken up yoga earlier this year. It has been transformative!

    When is your yoga and sculling programme?

    Clare Delmar Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point Davion – these scholarships will certainly help offset the small-talent-pool handicap. They should also compensate to some degree for the tribal edge enjoyed by these old institutions. (I’ve been told that it’s not uncommon for top rowers at SPS and Eton to have fathers and grandfathers who did the same in their time. An old-school network of families with rowing in the blood and Leander as their club.) So hats off to Shiplake for offering them.

      But the scholarships can’t be the whole explanation for their success. In the end it will always be the little details of race preparation – technical, physical and mental – which make the difference.


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