Sport can play a fundamental role in improving health, communication skills and relieving stress. This is especially important for children and teenagers, as exercise has been proven to improve physical and emotional health and so is mutually beneficial to their school work as well. Sport encourages learning, dedication, discipline, goal setting and teamwork, all of which have obvious benefits for education. It can also bring together people from different backgrounds, nurturing trust and respect that can lead to lifelong friendships.
In my (quite biased) opinion, rowing is the best of all sports. From a health perspective, every stroke uses every muscle in the body and, being an outdoor sport, it raises vitamin D levels due to exposure to sunshine. Exercising has well known physical benefits, from improving fitness to delay the onset of non-communicable disease like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise is proven to improve mood and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. This importance is recognised by Sport England’s £8.2 million investment in mental health projects, and their partnership with mental health charity, Mind.
As well as the friendship and support network that comes from being part of a team, there is a biological reason for the wellbeing benefits of sport too. Peptide hormones, known as endorphins, are released in response to pain caused by exercising, and their release can trigger a state of happiness, giving rise to a phenomenon known as “runners’ high”. In fact the effect can be so beneficial that GPs now often prescribe exercise for managing mental health conditions.
But rowing is more than simply the health and fitness benefits. Teamwork is crucial, as boat builder and rowing philosopher George Pocock said, ‘It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one’. Members of a crew need trust and respect for each other to find that elusive, addictive feeling of flying over the water, and this fosters a special bond between rowers that extends even beyond training and racing.
However in rowing, a sport commonly associated with elitism, this opportunity is not available to everyone. Funding is the most obvious problem. Equipment is expensive, coaching costs money, and racing (including travel, kit and race fees) is not cheap either. As a result, well-funded, longstanding rowing clubs (think Leander) and boys’ private schools (think Eton, Radley etc.) have dominated competitive rowing. Schools have the benefit that training time is scheduled into the week (rather than nine different schedules for every member of the boat), that their boathouse and equipment belongs to them and is of an adequate standard, and there is the knowledge that there will always be enough rowers to form crews.
For smaller clubs without these advantages, offering similar facilities can mean high membership fees and over- reliance on volunteers for coaching and management of the club. While volunteers do amazing work in rowing across the country, they will not have the same time, experience and resources as a professional coach. For clubs only working with juniors, there are no adult athletes to lend a hand either, so the problem can become more pronounced, making it harder for their crews to attend competitions at the level they may aspire to.
While rowing may not deserve the ‘elitist’ label it is given, it is not perfect either. While some clubs aim to make it possible for anyone to row, whoever you are and wherever you are, the access of rowing is in reality still very limited. There are so many benefits to rowing, and so it is so important that these are available to as many people as possible.
But this can change. Gender disparity is less of an issue now, with the transition of the women’s Boat Race to the same course as the men’s marking a significant shift, especially in public perception. Girls’ schools such as Headington and Lady Eleanor Holles are leading the way in offering well resourced, successful rowing programs for girls. However, the recent exclusion of WJ15 girls from racing at Schools Head whilst the J15 boys were allowed to race shows there is still a way to go in recognising their participation as equal. And junior rowing is no longer dominated just by private schools, clubs are becoming increasingly successful, shown by Henley RC who this season (and previous seasons too) have led the way in girls’ rowing. All of Team GB’s rowers at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games were from clubs. Yet the most successful clubs are long established with adult and junior squads, who often have long waiting lists and high membership fees.
Progress is being made in widening accessibility, although that change can’t come fast enough. Involvement in rowing, or any sport, has many proven benefits that should be available to everyone.