Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Gets Measured Gets Improved (Caveat)

When you're talking about optimizing the performance of groups of people, what gets measured gets improved. You can take that to the bank.

But you shouldn't necessarily measure the thing that you want improved.

What gets measured gets worked at, certainly, and probably gets improved as a result, but it might not be getting improved quite as much as if people were working at something related but different.

I used this to great effect when I was captain of a boat club. There's a device (called an ergometer) for measuring the power output of a rower. They're often found in gyms, but most boat clubs have a few. And some of the keener rowers have one at home.

Since most boat races are 2000m long, most serious rowing crews measure ergo performance over 2000m. They then work out special training programs to try to get this as high as possible, and because they have a large pool of competitive people trying to get in their boats, the people who can produce the best 2k times on demand get picked for the 2k races. This is probably entirely sensible.

Most semi-serious boat clubs measure the same thing, because it's the standard measure.

Rowing is a seriously elite sport. Which is to say that it's mainly practised by obsessive over-competitive nut jobs. I'm probably one of the least competitive rowers in existence. But most of my non-rowing friends seem to think I'm a psycho. Even in the most recreational clubs, the most serious people are probably practising every day.

In clubs where 2ks count for reputation, people are always practising their 2ks, trying to get better scores. They are also doing stuff like weight lifting and circuit training. Sometimes they do this instead of rowing.

I realized that most of the time, what I wanted was an improvement in people's 'base fitness', or aerobic capacity, and their rowing skill.

This would allow us to form competent boats which could be trained up to race fitness (anaerobic fitness) on a few weeks notice. Anaerobic fitness responds much more quickly to training that aerobic, but the good effects also fade much faster when you stop doing anaerobic training.

So on the basis that actually going rowing was both a fine way to build up aerobic capacity, and the only way really of improving rowing skill, I made that our only organized activity despite the fact that there's no real way to extract data about individuals from it.

But it's hard to get eight rowers, a cox and a coach together, so we couldn't do more than four outings a week. Most of us wanted to put more time into it than that, so we needed something else to do.

I decided that from the point of view of aerobic capacity, it would do us good to do half-hour ergos rather than the usual 2000m ones. They're about four times as long, and they actually have an aerobic fitness-improving effect, which 2ks don't. Theoretically, one-hour ergos would have been even better, but I personally find them so tedious that I wouldn't have been able to bring myself to do them regularly. A half-hour is at a level of intensity which is hard enough to be interesting, and limited enough in duration that it isn't boring, but it's not horribly painful and aversive like a serious attempt to do a 2k is.

Also, motivation must come from within. It's easy to keep attending a group activity such as regular rowing outings, where your absence will spoil it for everyone else, but I'd noticed before that attempts to centrally mandate that everyone also does one or two ergos a week always started well, but quickly failed, with only one or two people doing them. Even those one or two tended to stop once they realised they were the only people doing the training.

So I decided that I'd just keep a list of everyone's best recent attempts. That's all I did.

And it worked a treat.

We kept a public table of 30min ergo scores, and my friend Chris Metcalfe and I volunteered scores to get it started. There was no compulsion to do one, but a couple of the keener guys spontaneously put scores up as well.

We weight-adjusted the scores.

This was partly because boats really do go slower with more weight in them, and it's important not to measure the wrong thing.

But a side effect is to bunch them up and give the smaller guys a fighting chance. I am quite heavy myself, but I am also a bit Machiavellian. I would rather have the eighth place in a boat full of fit people than the fifth place on a table I don't believe in and a boat that hasn't trained.

My score was quite low in absolute terms, and also adjusted downwards because I'm overweight. However I was also captain. A fair number of people had a pop just to show that they were better than me. I quickly realized that it would be best if I tried to stay at 7th or 8th in the table.

There are eight rowers in a rowing boat. The captain's place in his crew should be unchallengeable on any grounds (and if it's not, then the captain should either work until he can make it so, or drop out). But beating the captain at something is a powerful motivator for people who are borderline.  As it happened, whilst initially I was underperforming deliberately, quite soon I found myself in the fight of my life to hold onto 7th place.

What really kicked things off was when Kate Hurst, a very good rower and serious athlete, who also happens to be quite startlingly beautiful, asked if she could add her time to the mix.

Without the weight adjustment she'd have been unchallenged at the top of the women's table, but distinctly second rate by male standards.

With the weight adjustment she'd overtaken half of our projected first VIII, and from a technical point of view she was easily good enough. She let it be known that she'd really like a row in the men's first division.

I was more than happy to let her come and play. At one point, in mid-Winter, she had the stroke seat as we set a new record time for our club over the local course. She got so keen that she bought her own ergo machine and kept it with her at work. At the time she was a professional sailor, so this can't have been easy.

This had a salutary effect. No matter how yoghurt-knitting and sensitive a new man he is, no man worth the bother is going to let himself be beaten by a girl in a physical competition, no matter how strong or brave she is. Those of us whose scores Kate had eclipsed were suddenly seen to be training hard. Those of us whom she was threatening also raised their games.

Finally, after many months, Kate was pushed into ninth place for good. Women are at a serious disadvantage compared to men, even taking into account their lighter weights. Kate was training at Olympian levels to stay with a bunch of second-rate club rowers.

But she left us a boat full of people who had really trained in order to beat her. Both she and we were much better as a result of the competition. We were still a fairly second-rate VIII even by local standards, but as soon as Kate saw that she wouldn't be able to force her way into our top eight against determined opposition, she changed tactic and walked into one of the best local women's VIIIs. Later that year they won the local competition outright.

So what sort of effect did all our half-hours have on our 2k times?

I have no idea! About one month before the competition we really cared about (The Town Bumps), I retired the ergo table in favour of doing the sort of training that will improve your fitness over shorter distances.

However by that time, we'd already decided who was going to be in our VIII, and everyone was so keen to do well that we could organize as much water time as possible. So we did all our short sprints in the boat either against our own speedometer or against other boats. There weren't any selection decisions to make, so I never asked anyone to do individual 2k tests at all. I didn't want them distracted by something that had become irrelevant.

The bumps is organized like a ladder. You get four races, in which you compete against the boats behind you and in front of you. There's a very steep gradient towards the top of the ladder. We won our first two races easily, our third narrowly, and drew the last one (rowed over).

This was actually fairly typical. We got better every year while we were running our ergo table, so we always moved up the ladder. The rather unpromising crew we'd started out with turned into a bunch of committed athletes who had the respect, if not the fear, of our much more naturally gifted competitors.

We tended to surprise people. Especially by the fact that we could hold our starting speed for a long time. Even boats that initially rowed away from us had a habit of becoming exhausted and dropping back into our waiting jaws. When boats came towards us off the start, we could raise our game and sit on them, knowing that they'd give up long before we did. It's a nice feeling to have. The will to prepare counts for a lot more than the will to win.

A couple of years ago was my last year as captain before I retired. A man should know when to quit and I'm getting old. In that last year, a couple of our key people were injured, and one was unavailable, and we actually managed to lose a bumps race (the second in about ten years).

Since then, my ex-club's results have been somewhat sub-optimal. Not long ago they set a new club record time for the local course, breaking the record that Kate set several years ago. But in the Bumps, which is still the only race that ever really matters to us, we're now down to 14th place from our high point of 7th. It's not clear why. It's mostly the same guys, the new captain's doing a fine job as far as I can see, and they've been a little unlucky in who their opposition have been.

But I was surprised to learn that they no longer know what their half-hour erg scores are.

Kate Hurst now has international ambitions, and has recently won a bronze medal at the National Championships. We learnt an awful lot from her. I hope she feels that she got something from us in return.

Kate's comment (by e-mail. Added here to put the record straight.)

Hey all,  

What a fab blog John, I'm sure I should have paid for something as flattering as this....;-)

I'd like to add my tuppence.

I didn't leave Chesterton first men cos I got beaten.  Cheek. As far as I know, not enough good scores were submitted by that time.   I left cos the day after Norwich head, getting spannered in the rad and sleeping in my car, my back had a dodgy afternoon and wasn't quite the same for 9 months afterwards, by which time City birds were getting pretty good, and I thought I wouldn't get to race any big London races or go to Henley with the Chesterton boys. not that it wasn't the most fun crew I've ever rowed with.

So there,


Footnote on weight adjustment

We weight adjusted the scores. This is a perenially controversial topic amongst rowers. Because they're not very clever. To use a car analogy, ergos measure the power of your engine. If you want to know how fast you're going to go, then you also need to know other things, like the weight of the vehicle. That's why motorbikes can be quite fast even though they have poxy little 600cc engines.

It's actually much more important in rowing, because the weight of the boat and rowers determines how much water you displace, and thus how much water you need to push out of the way.

So if you fail so badly that you're picking your boat on ergo score, then you really want to weight adjust those scores, because the river certainly will. And if you don't bother, then you're going to end up with a boat full of fatties and leave the fast guys on the bank.

But the real reason for weight adjusting the ergo table is that it moves the scores closer together.

In any boat club, there are big guys and small guys, fit guys and not-so-fit guys. Generally speaking, the big not-so-fit guys and the small fit guys will get roughly the same scores, the big fit guys will be out in front by miles, and the small not-so-fit guys will trail horribly.

There's not much point in the small guys taking it seriously, because if the big not-so-fit guys start training they'll overtake them quickly.

If you weight adjust it, which only makes a small difference, then the small fit guys will move slightly ahead. The small not-so-fit guys will get closer to the pack. This puts a certain amount of productive pressure on everyone involved.

I am a fairly heavy man, about 90kg when I was rowing seriously. Mostly muscle but somewhat overweight as well. Without the weight adjustment difference, I'd have been safely in our top eight without really trying. With it, my friend Chris Wood, who's taller than me, and used to be about 10kg lighter but 200m behind me over a half hour ergo, was suddenly right on top of me by my own formula.

So we both had to work very hard to stay ahead of each other. This led to a sort of ergo arms race, where both our scores improved out of all recognition. This happened to various pairs of people. Tom Watt and Chris Braithwaite, Chris Metcalfe and Andy Southgate.  Chris Wood, James Howard and I formed a close triple. Chris Smith was always far and away out in front, but since he had no one in our little club to push him, he was never under any pressure to improve.

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