Four ways to determine if someone is a rowing expert

This is an excerpt from Rowing Faster-2nd Edition by Volker Nolte.

What Are Experts, and What Can They Tell Us About How Athletes Learn?

What is an expert? This seems to be an easy question, but from a research standpoint, how you define expert is an important consideration. Is a world champion an expert? Consider the story of Graham Little, an Irish sports journalist who is also a member of the amateur world championship elephant polo team (seriously!). With no prior experience in the sport, Little and some friends participated in a week of competition in the Nepalese jungle, emerging with the amateur trophy. If we were to use world champion as our criterion of sporting expertise, the Irish elephant polo team would be experts, which is a bit of a problem in this case. Given the long-storied history of rowing coupled with the refinement of rowing technique and skill over time, using this type of system for defining rowing expertise is not such a problem—generally speaking, the Olympic or world champion in any rowing event represents an extremely high standard of achievement.

Another method for defining expertise is based on whether a person has met specific criteria. In current explorations of expert performance in sport, two general rules are often used to classify whether someone has attained expert status. The 10-year rule (Simon & Chase, 1973) and the 10,000-hour rule (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993) are both grounded in the notion that expertise results from extensive devotion to quality training.

The notion that training is king is grounded in considerable scientific evidence. Models that explain exceptional performance as a result of high quality training have flourished since the classic studies by de Groot (1965) and Simon and Chase (1973). Prior to this research, most believed that performance at the highest levels was governed by genetic factors. The work by de Groot and Simon and Chase was the beginning of the end for the view that biology preordained one’s destiny. Their research revealed that differences between chess experts and nonexperts were related to knowledge of chess positions gathered over years of training and not superior cognitive functioning in general (i.e., expertise is domain specific and not general).

The researchers had players view chessboards with the pieces either displayed in a chess-specific structure (e.g., the King’s Knight defense) or randomly placed on the board. The nonexperts performed similarly with both types of boards (around seven pieces could be recalled). Expert players, on the other hand, were able to recall much more information from the boards that were organized in a way that made sense in the world of chess. This finding showed that expert chess players are skilled at recalling chess-specific information but not information in general, which led the researchers to propose that cognitive expertise results from learning, not innate talent. This superior recognition of structured scenes by experts has been replicated in the sport domain by several studies (Allard, Graham, & Paarsalu, 1980; Allard & Starkes, 1980; Helsen & Pauwels, 1993; Starkes, 1987). From this initial research, the field of expert performance developed.

In 1991, Ericsson and Smith presented the expert-performance approach as a conceptual framework (for a recent review see Ericsson, Nandagopal, & Roring, 2009). Within this conceptual framework, examining expert performance in a given domain (rowing in our case) involves three steps (figure 3.1). In the first step, tests need to be found that capture expert performance. This is easy in rowing because at the end of a race there is a clear winner (i.e., the first boat over the line), but in other sports (e.g., sports with an aesthetic component such as figure skating or diving) the best performer is not so easy to identify.

The second step is to identify the mechanisms underlying this superior performance. Common techniques in sport expertise involve tracking experts’ eye movements or asking them to describe their decision-making process, and coming from a cognitive psychology perspective, this is reasonable. However, for rowing, others factors might be more appropriate.

Studies on expertise in rowing have concentrated on four fields of sport science. First, researchers have considered whether expert and advanced rowers differ in anthropometric measures, or the dimensions of their bodies (e.g., Desgorces, Chennaoui, & Guezennec, 2004; Purge, Jürimäe, & Jürimäe, 2004). In a recent study, Kerr and colleagues (2007) compared anthropometric measures of rowers from varying expertise levels and noted significant differences between open-class and lightweight rowers and a control group of healthy young adults.

Second, researchers have examined differences in biomechanical patterns. Smith and Spinks (1995) showed differences among novice, good, and elite rowers in propulsive power per kilogram of body mass, stroke-to-stroke consistency, stroke smoothness, and propulsive work consistency.

Third, considerable attention has been paid to physiological aspects of rowing performance. Studies by Steinacker (1993); Ingham, Carter, Whyte, and Doust (2007); and Mikulic, Ruzic, and Oreb (2007) differentiated experts from novice and advanced rowers by oxygen uptake (V?O2max). Additionally, Huang, Nesser, and Edwards (2007) noted a range of strength and power variables associated with rowing performance, while others have investigated biochemical parameters for rowing performance (see Mäestu, Jürimäe, & Jurimäe, 2005, for a review).

Fourth, psychological skills that underpin successful rowing performance have been investigated. Raglin, Morgan, and Luchsinger (1990) noted significant differences between successful and unsuccessful rowers on measures of mood and self-motivation. More recently, Connolly and Janelle (2003) investigated attentional strategies and found that rowers were significantly faster when employing associative attentional styles (i.e., performance-related focus) compared with dissociative (i.e., distraction) or natural attentional strategies. Although more research is required in the four fields just described, this evidence reveals a number of parameters that distinguish expert rowers from their nonexpert counterparts.

Once distinguishing factors have been identified, the third step within the expert-performance approach considers how these factors can be explained: Are they innate capabilities or do they result from training?

Read more from Rowing Faster 2nd Edition by Volker Nolte.

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