An Excerpt from “The Wonder of Sculling” by James C. Joy

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James C. JoyThe following is an excerpt from my new book The Wonder of Sculling. Copies of the book will be on sale at the upcoming Joy of Sculling Coaches’ Conference on December 13-15, 2019.

Stop by the registration desk to chat and to purchase a copy. See you in Saratoga!


Jean Giono’s opens his beautiful little book, The Man who Planted Trees, with this remarkable paragraph addressing the human potential, “For human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.” The book is a study in simplicity and conservation in a number of ways, including the value of tree planting as a solitary pursuit, the resultant effect on the environment and the towns, and most importantly, how the old man conducts his simple life. This is the other message from Giono, the importance of simplicity in developing economy in the movement. Simplicity is a first principle and in this case, it is our deep bond with our environment. Our immediate landscape is our body and beyond the body is our touching the earth through our bladework. Beyond this still is our awareness of the environment surrounding the shell.  The athlete has to feel the conservation activated in working his movements. This is a deeper sense of being, and it provides a host of feelings such as awareness, patience, control and confidence. In watching the skilled athlete, these qualities are very apparent. It is either a part of your being or not.

He avoids the entanglements of the affairs of man that is very reminiscent of some contemporary sculling coaches. The skilled coach pours his heart and soul into teaching sculling. He insists upon mastery of each movement with the purpose of achieving flow and economy of movement. His humble bearing and  dedication to the art of sculling never fails to impress anyone who was fortunate to spend a few hours with him. The parallels between the old coach and the Giono protagonist resonate with me. The one restores and heals the immediate environment of the body. The fictional person heals  and restores the extended environment of the rivers, streams, the desolate villages and the inhabitants. Both work with their hands; the coach to demonstrate effectively the rowing stroke in the single and on the ergometer, and the old man to plant trees. Both men lived similar lives as planters of seeds.

It is critical that we look at the whole man observing our lives both in and out of the shell, in order to evaluate the degree of simplicity in how we conduct ourselves, “the truly simple man is an intense unity: he is complete and whole-hearted, not divided against himself.” Should we not consider doing one thing well in our lives? And should this one thing be something that betters the welfare of others? The Buddhists refer to such a pursuit as Right Livelihood.

The coach lived simply. His home was modest and his tastes were plain. He found great comfort and purpose in his dedication to rowing and his stroke concept mirrored his Spartan lifestyle.

Therefore, simplicity and smooth actions are emphasized, especially in the early stages of sculling training. The sculler practices to master the various movements of the stroke to achieve cohesion between the body, oars and boat. Every detail in the stroke cycle must be considered and come under scrutiny by the coach. The perfection of the individual movements come through patient practice.The movements are never rushed. Every movement has a logical and economical foundation. For the athlete, to have simplicity as a goal in the shell, requires a lifestyle commitment out of the shell. Our age is a materialistic one and the sculler and the coach has to reject this way of life and choose in its place a life of consciousness and the inner way.

The sculling technique resulted from the coach’s ingenuity, and creativity. He was always open to change, especially if he discovered something effective. It includes some of the old English Orthodoxy, some of Bob Pearce, the incomparable sculler, and some of Steve Fairbairn’s wisdom. The final product is a masterpiece of creative composition that has endured. The coach employs a “Beginner’s Mind” in his coaching; he observes, analyzes, listens, and forges the various movements into a simple composition.

In the Beginner’s mind there are many possibilities: In the expert’s mind there are none.

In modern society, we pride ourselves in being busy. In addition, the modern advertising industry has bombarded our minds with supposed needs. Our lack of simplicity in living along with our preoccupation with doing prevents us from being. This type of lifestyle, with its high consumption levels, remains a challenge in the west for those who want to live simply. It requires that we stay vigilant. Fifty years ago, the old coach did not face these demands, partly because of his personal choice and partly, because he did not possess great financial resources for distractions. Possibly, to counteract this cultural trend, we should consider doing one thing well in our lives. Moreover, ideally, this one thing should be something that improves the welfare of others; coaching sculling certainly fits this criteria.

Coaches make a life choice to live simply, to focus their energies and to devote a major portion of their lives to assist young scullers become proficient in the skills and art of sculling.  The beloved 18th century Japanese poet, Ryokan, pinpoints probably the major source of our problems – our lack of simplicity in living and our preoccupation with doing:

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe:
When the moon comes out, I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing
after so many things

It is critical that we look at the whole man observing our lives both in and out of the shell, in order to evaluate the degree of simplicity in how we conduct ourselves, “the truly simple man is an intense unity: he is complete and whole-hearted, not divided against himself.”Should we not consider doing one thing well in our lives? And should this one thing be something that betters the welfare of others? The Buddhists refer to such a pursuit as Right Livelihood.

Living in the Finger Lakes region of western New York with its proximity to the beautiful and bountiful farmlands , I witness this type of integrated being in the Mennonite farmer as he works the lush soil with is team of horses. The Mennonite’s complete immersion of mind, body and spirit into all aspects of this simple approach to life and farming provides an excellent reminder and model for living well. These farmers are an indispensable part of the fabric to this beautiful region.

Western man is rational and Eastern man irrational; the scientific thinking of Europe is founded in rational thought. In the East the foundation is in the heart and its inspiration, which to the which to the Western mind, with its emphasis upon the intellect, must appear very strange, for Eastern man jumps to his conclusion wings of intuition, whereas Occidental man arrives at his by a steady progression of intellectual steps. From this causation, man of the West brought the age of the machine, while the man of the East is still largely dependent on the hand.

There is little doubt that for the athlete and especially for oars people, the skillful hand is of critical importance. However, we must move beyond this destructive attitude of cultural and educational imperialism on the part Western man. The Dalai Lama observed that the East needed our technological advances and the West needed their 2500 years of mind training. Yes, for most contemporary coaches this missing other half of Western man’s education appears as strange. Ironically, many athletes have discovered this invaluable source of information well in advance of their coaches. This accounts for the practices of Tai Chi, Yoga, Aikido and other Eastern practices as forms of supplementary or cross training.

To conserve energy, the intangible qualities are the starting point for the development of effective movements.  From the outset such qualities as patience, slowing down, observation, and attention, listening, feeling and controlled movement, when inserted into the training sparks the development of the internal athlete. These important inner qualities in the athlete are immeasurable, and have such a significant impact on their performance. The ancient Chinese Taoists understood the importance of our inner dimension:

Thirty spokes converge upon a single hub. It is on the hole in the center that the use of the cart hinges. We make a vessel from a lump of clay. The empty space within the vessel makes it useful. We make the doors and windows for a room; but the empty spaces make the room livable. Thus while the tangible has advantages, it is the intangible that makes it useful.

It stands to reason that this intangible quality  is found only in the skilled athletes and  because in the modern era, we are obsessed with winning, measurement, definition, analysis, and the external, at the expense of the internal and the quality of the experience, so that our inner selves become neglected. The intangibles include the quality of the movement, especially economy and our personal development – courage, integrity, persistence.  Many times the athlete is striving with too much direct effort for a goal that is usually winning. “All of our discipline, sheer grit and the lust to win”  may yet get in our way”.

It is critical that the athlete maintains his focus on the process. This is never as evident as described by Herrigel in that beautiful little book, Zen in the Art of Archery. In his Archery training, he focuses solely on the result, the hitting of the target and loses sight of the important goal of learning to shoot correctly. By doing so, he also overlooks the real target that is he. The Master archer dismayed by this, wants him to stop shooting. Herrigel petitions to remain in the school under the Master’s tutelage. For the rower this is translated into a serious preoccupation with the ergo score. Fitz, also believed that the process of achieving the movement was of prime importance.

Thus, stress simplicity, relaxation, concentration and mindfulness at the outset of training. Both the coach and the athlete must be aware of this powerful factor in high performance. It can be an objective for the coach but for the young athlete this is a stage in his development achievable only in the future, unless there are periods of concentration, quiet sitting, relaxation, visualization and mindfulness inserted subtly into the training program. Then the awareness of this quality will begin to take hold in the athlete’s mind. Obviously, by the incorporating meditative practices into the training process accelerates the learning curve. Athletes only a few years ago were suspicious of Yoga and now all flexibility training utilizes Yoga based movements. If the coach is comfortable with this concept then he can introduce it early on in the training. Nevertheless, yoga, weights, ergometer, rowing and sculling running, jump roping, and cycling all must be closely monitored for technique and inserted with careful planning into the training program. Specifically the timing, the focusing and concentration, the relaxation of the movements are all factors in developing smooth efficient movements and the subsequent conservation of energy. Training approached in this fashion is an integrated whole. The variety and the attention to detail by the coach and the athlete will lead to a skilled performance involving the efficient use and conservation of power. From our careful study, it seems that the conservation of energy derives from the following: relaxation, concentration and mindfulness. To be relaxed utilize only the required muscles; to be concentrated the mind develops a strong focus; and to be mindful the attention remains in the present moment. With this approach to training, an underlying softness or the feminine is lacking in most athlete preparation.

Hence Laotzu’s emphasis on softness. Softness means the opposite of rigidity, and is synonymous with suppleness, adaptability, endurance. Anyone seeing a t’ai chi or aikido master doing not – doing will know how powerful this softness is.

The practice of sport entails elements of conservation in all the various movements of the body, it is definitely possible to be more efficient in the mind, in the physical body and in our spirit. Movement encompasses both the production and saving of energy. For rowing, as with other sport movements, it means emphasizing both qualities, producing and conserving, throughout the stroke cycle. It is also possible to be more efficient in the mind as well as in the body.

For example, in order to conserve physical energy, the athlete develops simple, fluid movements. To conserve the mind, the athlete improves his concentrative ability. To conserve the spirit, the athlete becomes more patient, and controlled. There must be intensity of effort in the form of Mindfulness or staying in the present in all three of these major areas of our Being – the mind, the body, and the Spirit. This quality of Mindfulness is a major objective for all practice sessions; it requires preparation for practice in order to reset the organism.

The single-minded effort establishes the mind set of staying in the present. This quality of mindfulness emerges as the major objective for all practice sessions.  A helpful step for developing this heightened attention requires slowing the pace of our life. This goes back to selecting a simpler lifestyle; walk more, read more, take time for quiet reflection. Both the quiet sitting and the slow motion rowing fostered these qualities. The quiet sitting originated from both Eastern and Western sources. Parmenides, the Phoenician philosopher, employed this practice as an effective healing process over 2500 years ago. For the athlete, quiet sitting is an excellent method for stress reduction and focusing. Too often, we reject or dismiss the Eastern practices because of our lack of exposure to this ancient knowledge and because of our cultural imperialism; supposedly, our education contains all the answers.

The simple man is an accurate description of both the coach and the famous Canadian sculler, Ned Hanlan regarding their approach to sculling. Hanlan demonstrated this simplicity with the quality of effort and efficiency in his approach to sculling. His lifestyle on Toronto Island reflected his personal qualities and nature as one of the first great spirits and masters of flow in sculling. He lived, played and rowed on the Island. The location, a quiet place, was an ideal site for him to perfect his sculling skills, as well to enjoy a slower paced life from the bustle of the city. This successful athlete possessed a oneness of body, spirit and mind, not only in the shell, but also in life. This non-dual approach completed the athlete, and the athlete became more efficient in his movements because the distinctions disappeared between sport and life.

This simplicity practice today is many times more difficult due to the complexity of our lives. However we must be eternally vigilant not to succumb to the demands on our time and our interests must remain simple. It is a constant struggle. The daily meditation helps immensely to keep one focused.

I am investigating the simple life. It does involve a reread of Thoreau and Harlan Hubbard. Hubbard ’s life of 40 years on the bank of the Ohio River is most engaging. He deeply believed in simplicity of thought and of living. His credo was much in little. The British Scholar said, the truly simple man is an intense unity: he is complete and whole hearted, not divided against himself. The simple man does not accept contemporary society with its pervasive advertising and consumerism.Consequently he feels estranged  from those around him. He does not fit into this society.

My wants are quite limited and I try to lead a frugal life in our small apartment with its one window looking out onto the world.

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