Rowing with an Olympic legacy coach

Teacher: Shaun Ellis

From: Surrey

Lesson: How to row

Most hobbies or skills are easier to pick up if you start at a young age. The younger you start, the more chance you have of achieving success. This is especially true of sport, where those who dream of making it to the elite have such a small window of opportunity. This mentality can often be enough to prevent adults picking up new skills, or giving new activities a go. It didn’t stop Shaun Ellis though, who picked up rowing while in his forties, making him our kind of guy.

As Shaun explained, rowing is a simple sport. Nevertheless, it requires a lot of concentration and technique is crucial. Contrary to popular belief, the arms only do 10% of the work – the legs are the main source of power, followed by the core, which rocks the body backwards. It’s also a backwards sport, which makes navigating rivers and boat traffic pretty difficult. Unless, of course, you have an experienced coach on board who’s happy to do all the steering.

The teach us team take the tiffin boat club's boat out onto the water

Shaun Ellis teaches Alice from teach us how to handle a blade

Shaun told us he’d take us through the first six weeks of a standard introduction to rowing course in just two hours. True to his word, we were out on the water after 10 minutes after having the briefest of theory lessons. To our surprise, we weren’t all that bad. Apart from a few dodgy moments where our blades got stuck (it’s called crabbing), we made good progress downstream, away from the boat yard. We were focused on our hand movements, trying to get the feather and catch movement just right, without holding onto the blade handles too tightly.

It wasn’t until we turned the boat that our inexperience really began to show. As we got a little cocky and upped the pace, perfecting the movement began to feel like rubbing your belly and tapping your head simultaneously, while balancing on a tightrope. Crabs came every tenth stroke, and we embarrassed ourselves in front of some 10 year old pros. Nevertheless, Shaun put things right and got us back on track, focussing on each of us one by one until we were all rowing harmoniously. The last few strokes back into the boathouse as close to perfect as we could have hoped for, and as we took the boat out the water we were amazed at the progress Shaun had enabled us to make. While drying off, we took some time to ask him a few questions about how he found the sport, what he loves about it, and why it pays to be an old dog learning new tricks.  

Shaun Ellis from the tiffin boat club, our teach us rowing coach

What have you taught us today?

I’ve taken you through the basics of the wonderful sport of rowing. We’ve essentially done a six week course in two hours.

What level are you at?

I compete, so I’d say I am a master rower, but I’m also a relatively new entrant to the sport having only started in 2010.

How did you learn?

The boat club we’re at today is jointly run by Tiffin School and Kingston Rowing Club. My sons go to Tiffin School so I came down to watch them row here one day and got talking to the coach, Carol Cornell. I used to play a lot of football but needed something new, and she managed to convince me to join the parents’ rowing club. One thing led to another, and in 2011 I was told Ken Livingstone was sorting out Olympics legacy coaches for 2012 so I decided to become a British rowing coach.

Matt from teach us learns how to enter a rowing boat

Why do you love rowing?

When you get out there, there’s nothing else. It’s very simple, but you have to keep your concentration. The weather and water conditions can be incredibly challenging – the river’s never the same two days going. Rowing is something that brings my family together. It gives us a lot.

Who’s been the biggest influence on your hobby?

Our boatman is great. We did a sponsored row from Oxford back down to Kingston over two days, stopping at all the boat clubs we passed. He knew people in each, and has a depth of knowledge that I could never get to. Having said that, rowing is such an accessible sport that it’s easy to meet inspirational people. I’ve met Helen Glover, Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell, Mohamed Sbihi and Steve Redgrave over the course of the last two years. It seems like an elite sport, but it’s really not.

What’s been your proudest moment?

I live vicariously through my children these days. My youngest is on a development programme and might break the GB squad as a junior.


Shaun Ellis from the tiffin boat club teaches us how to row

How many people have you taught?

I’ve taught at least six people each year since 2011 who are new to the sport. Some drop out and some stay on to achieve great things. What I love so much about teaching is being able to pay it forward. I felt the same about being a football coach – I used to love teaching people how to kick a ball straight, because when it’s done badly it’s not great!

Could anyone learn how to row?

If they wanted to, yeah. We get some people who are completely mal-coordinated, which can be a challenge, but it’s understandable because it’s a backwards sport. Some pick it up quicker than others, and it’s often those who pick it up the quickest that get bored first because it’s less of a challenge. You’ll often find the boys who can’t catch a rugby ball to be the ones who make a decent catch at rowing.

What are the most common mistakes made by beginners?

Beginners often use the boating lake rowing technique. They try to draw with the arms and pull really strongly, but it doesn’t get them anywhere. The correct ratio is 70% leg, 20% bodyrock and 10% arms. The arms really just turn the blades. If you go into boating lake rowing mode and try to pull, you put so much tension in that you’ll get caught trying to get the blades out of the water and eventually cramp up. So one of the biggest jobs for a coach is teaching people to focus on the lower body.


One of the teach us rowing blades on the water

How were we today?

I said we were going to do the equivalent of a six week course and I was counting it in chunks. By the time we got out on the water we were three weeks into the course. We went from week three to week five in about 10 minutes, so it was a really good development! You didn’t make any of the classic mistakes until after we turned, which was a real surprise because normally it’s like watching somebody knit without wool – the blades clash together on the water, the boat feels unsteady and everybody’s getting wet. We actually covered a lot of water which surprised me. I didn’t think we’d do quite so many kilometres!

Do you have any super talented friends?

There’s a man I know up in the midlands who’s a fantastic blacksmith. He’s a nice, chilled and unassuming guy who just happens to be an artist with metal. He can sculpt beautiful flowers from steel, which blows my mind.

The teach us team with rowing coach Shaun Ellis from the tiffin boat club

The teach us team enter the water with the tiffin boat club in kingston

Matt from teach us straps into his rowing shoes

What we learned

  • Everything’s reversed in rowing. We face backwards to move forwards, and drive on the left and row on the right
  • Rules of the river state that experience gives way to inexperience, or manual gives way to power. (But no one argues with a men’s 8, just as a rowboat wouldn’t argue with a super tanker at sea).