As The vaccine roll out is gathering pace and a return to competitive sport is looking closer than ever, I felt it was time to reflect on my role as the lead coach of the UL Rowing Club (ULRC) during the COVID-19 pandemic. This blog details the good, the bad and the ugly of the whole experience.

6/7th March 2020: Despite rumours of a new virus from China, thirty-six UL rowers and 2 coaches (myself included!) travelled to the Lough Rynn training facility in Leitrim for a weekend training camp. This was my first season with the club and our first training camp outside of Limerick so I was keen that everything went well. It was an excellent weekend for both our high performance (HP) rowers and novices and was seen by many as a sign of great things to come, little did we know….

12th March 2020 (Lockdown number 1 begins): Luckily I decided on a whim to clear the whole boathouse out on the day of lockdown so I allocated every piece of equipment; from the smallest dumbbell to the best rowing ergometer, to every squad member. I felt it was a “training contract” of sorts. Other rowing clubs did not clear out their boathouse and ended up with their equipment locked away and outside of travel limits so as a coach this was a small win in my eyes.

16th March 2020: Not too sure where I got the idea from but I decided to make a Team Points Race Challenge for the squad as I was conscious they had abruptly changed from a very structured and social daily routine to a somewhat unstructured and isolating routine with COVID. The challenge lasted 6 weeks and really helped to get the HP/novice squad through this incredibly difficult period. It touched on many key values and attributes that I feel are important for any sports team – team work, routine, peer/coach support, fun and shared learning. The main rules are detailed below and I’ve included an image (Figure 1) of the scoring sheet. The competition each week was ferocious!                                                                                               

  • 1 prize per week
  • 2 team members will change each week
  • Each team will carry their points to the following week
  • Post picture in WhatsApp group or no points awarded
  • Only prescribed sessions on HP/novice training programme count                
  • All points will be recorded on Excel sheet and updates will be posted on Thurs and Sun every week
  • +5 points per team if all team pictures are submitted by 8pm every evening                                

Figure 1

Frank Picture1

Programming the S&C sessions during the first lockdown was quite fun from an S&C’s perspective! Figure 2 details a session for the rowers who were lacking equipment as some had good home set ups. I overloaded the athletes by increasing reps, increasing the duration of the eccentric/isometric phase, adding resistance (bands, rocks, steel, water, anything that weighed anything was used!).


Figure 2

Frank Picture2

27th April 2020: National championships moved to September so in order to prepare effectively the team had a 2-week off-season period.

May to June 2020: Some of the team were allowed to start back training outdoors for the national championships. In order to prepare for the high likelihood of another lockdown in the future, we decided to invest in more S&C equipment. In addition, the postural/injury concerns of “living with COVID” were becoming a real concern of mine. Our excellent club president Eugene O’Brien got busy designing and welding up 6 portable squat stands and 5 benches for the club while an order for more barbells, dumbbells, etc. was made. In the meantime, I was kept busy with the rowers trying to make up for the impact of >16 weeks without maximal strength training…which involved lots of >80% of 1 repetition maximum loads.

June to August 2020: This was a really enjoyable time…the sun was shining, COVID numbers were low, boats were moving fast and everyone was preparing for national championships.

3rd August 2020: National championships were cancelled! This was a real low-point for everyone involved.

21st Oct 2020 (Second lockdown begins): After an excellent pre-season training period from September onwards we were back in lockdown for the lead up to Christmas. Fortunately, we were even better prepared this time with new S&C/cardio equipment going out to everyone involved.

November/December 2020: We were back training outdoors again thankfully…

31st Dec (Third lockdown begins) to Present: Lots of erg testing but hopefully the end is in sight now!

So that’s it really! What does the data from March 2020 to March 2021 say? See Figure 3 below. So what was the good, the bad and the ugly of this whole experience in my eyes?

Average wattage for 2000m rowing ergometer tests

Frank Picture3

The good

  • Improved my innovative and motivational abilities as a coach
  • Myself and the team gained a full understanding of the term – “taking things for granted”
  • The team achieved many PB’s despite the challenges they faced

The bad

  • The many races that never happened
  • The admin load due to COVID was colossal
  • Not much else really as we were incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we love even though it wasn’t like before

The ugly

  • No novice rowers who joined ULRC for the 2018/19 season remain actively involved in the sport. It was incredibly difficult to keep them engaged with the sport through online activities and in truth I lost most of them at the end of the first lockdown. I suspect junior rowing will be similarly affected. The dropout from sport due to COVID-19 is huge from what I can see – will these people return? Hopefully.

I’d be keen to hear how other coaches managed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Feel free to contact me via email or Twitter and thanks for reading.

Frank NugentFrank Nugent is an assistant lecturer in Biomechanics (acting) at the department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences. He has a PhD in Exercise Physiology, is an accredited S&C coach through the UKSCA/Sport Ireland Institute and is the Lead Rowing Coach at the University of Limerick.  Twitter:  @FrankNugent10 
Research Profiles:  Researchgate   Linked-In


Tagged with: