Interpersonal and extrapersonal coordination in high-performance rowing

Millar, Sarah-Kate
Oldham, Tony
Renshaw, Ian
Hume, Patria
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Rowing presents a unique perception–action problem. The challenge is not for rowers to try to couple their actions together, as thought by many, but rather, it is to coordinate their actions with that of the boat. This thesis reveals how high-performance rowers exploit visual regulation in a novel way to achieve interpersonal coordination, by timing their movements with the water and the boat. The objective of this thesis was to expand knowledge regarding the role of timing in high-performance rowing and understand the perceptually driven solutions in successful performance.

Previous literature surrounding timing in rowing has been predominately biomechanical and has focused on the rower or the boat in isolation from each other. In contrast, this thesis takes an ecological dynamics perspective, viewing the rower’s relationship with his/her environment as one system. In this approach, emergent behaviours are tightly coupled with perceptual information perceived by the rower.

Involving experts in making judgements about performance in order to understand the rower–boat relationship was a fundamental approach adopted in this thesis. This idea is based on the premise that methods adopted by expert coaches have emerged through constant testing in the harsh world of high-performance sport; meaning that only successful ideas that have stood the test of time are utilised in the performance environment. An initial qualitative study with expert-level rowers and coaches was undertaken to establish the importance of timing and how it was achieved. The original findings from this study shaped the remainder of the thesis. Specifically, expert rowers and coaches stated that while interpersonal coordination between rowers is crucial for performance, it is not achieved by direct coupling to each other’s actions as generally thought, but indirectly through individual rowers timing their movements with invariant information provided by the boat and water. The connection with the boat and water was termed by experts “rowing with the boat”. Hence, if both rowers can row in time with the boat, then they will be in time with each other; but they do not actively seek to row in time with each other. An additional important finding from this study was that experts also identified the catch section of the rowing stroke as strongly influential on timing success.

This thesis used an innovative method to distinguish successful strokes from less successful ones. While performing in the boat, rowers identified nominated strokes as either Yes or No strokes. This was based on their perceptions during the performance environment about the speed of the boat and the success of the catch. This technique proved to be an accurate method for measuring performance variables, and Yes nominated strokes were found to reflect that the boat was travelling more quickly/better than it was when rowers identified No strokes.

Quantifying what experts termed “rowing with the boat” was an important outcome from this thesis, where it was found that rowers coupled their speed to that of the boat on the recovery section of the rowing stroke. Specifically, rowers were able to cancel out the rate of change in boat velocity by varying their approach speed towards the catch. This strategy allowed little or no change in the rate of optic flow, and thus maintained perceptual constancy. In order to achieve this coupling, high-performance rowers made early adjustments in their oar angle speed on the recovery to slow them down. Consequently, these early adjustments allowed more time for continuous perception–action coupling between rower and environment, rather than making last-minute adjustments close to the catch, as was the case in No strokes.

The concluding section of this thesis focused on understanding what a successful catch is in rowing. An alternative method of measuring the catch was established; based on rowers’ qualitative comments, and this was compared with three existing biomechanical measures. The alternative catch measure had a larger impact on performance than the previously established measures. This result highlighted again the value in using rower-based judgements about performance; as what is good and what is fast might not always be the same thing in rowing where water conditions can vary.

In summary, the thesis has established that timing in rowing is crucial for success and this is determined by the relationship between the rower and the boat. Temporal coordination between the rower and the boat emerged as a result of the rowers’ movements, which was coupled to specifying perceptual information. Therefore, successful timing is a result of continuous coupling of perception and action via attunement to key perceptual information.

Rowing , Psychophysics , Coordination , Ecological dynamics , Interceptive tasks , Behavioural dynamics
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