Category: College

College Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

I’ve been coxing for a little bit over a year now in my college crew, and we are currently working on prepping our guys for head race season. There are three coxswains, including me, but two boats so right now I’m fighting for my seat. I feel like all three of us have about the same collegiate coxing experience and have about the same capability of steering correctly for that race, so all that really differs are our styles. One of the cox’s is super happy and upbeat and really cheers the guys on to race better while the other one is really technically savvy and gets really aggressive whereas I’m pretty much smack dab in the middle of their styles. I have a feeling that my coach prefers them over me but I don’t want to change and be something I’m not. What should I do?

I get what you’re saying but I also think it’s important to point out that when you’re in the boat, even though you’re “in charge”, you’re still working for eight other people (nine, if you count your coach). If there’s something that’s preferred by the majority, you have to be the one to adapt, not them. I’m not a super peppy, cheery type of coxswain but I’ve coxed boats where that’s the style they’ve responded best to, so even though it’s not my style or personality at all, I had to incorporate some of that into my coxing because it’s what made the boat faster. I’ve also had coaches who pushed me to be a more technical, drill sergeant-y coxswain that I was prepared to be given that’d I’d only been coxing for a year or so. I wasn’t thrilled about adapting my style of coxing to be more of either of those things but I also had no right or reason to say “no, I’m not doing this”. Even now, I’ve been coxing for 15 years and I still adapt to whatever the crew wants (even when they say they’ll default to my style) because saying “I don’t want to change and be something I’m not” just fundamentally feels like I’m going against the most basic role of coxing, which is to serve the crew.

Anyways, to answer your question, you should talk with your coach. Say that you want to make sure you’re staying competitive for one of the two spots that are available and you wanted to see what observations they’d made about your coxing through the first few weeks of practice. If you’ve been working on stuff, like refining your steering or increasing your technical feedback during drill work, say that and ask if there are any other areas where they feel you could stand to make improvements that would give you a better shot at being placed in one of those two boats.

I don’t typically think you should bring up other coxswains in conversations like this but I do think a good question to ask every once in awhile is what they’re doing well that you could incorporate if it’s not something you’re doing already. At MIT our varsity coxswain the last two years was always great about keeping things running during practice, not wasting time, responding immediately when we’d ask him to do something, etc. and that was huge in ensuring we were using our time effectively. Our 2V coxswain was OK at this but still left a lot to be desired so this was something I talked about with her a lot, especially in the context of things she could do to make a case for being boated higher. Bottom line, if you get the feeling your coach prefers the other coxswains over you, talk to them and see if that’s the case … but approach it by asking what they’re doing to make things run better, faster, and smoother, not in a whine-y “why do you like them better than me” kind of way. (I’ve been in the room when college coxswains have done that and it just makes me roll my eyes so hard.)

I can’t remember what the context of this story was but a coach I worked with a few years ago said that one of the best things a new varsity coxswain asked him was “what did [the last varsity coxswain, let’s call him Jake] do that made your job easier?”. (He was similar to you, pretty much in between two other coxswains and was trying to figure out how he could get an edge over the other two in order to become the permanent 1V coxswain.) Obviously all the standard stuff applied but the primary thing was Jake’s coachability and adaptability, meaning that he took feedback, reflected on it, and found ways to immediately tweak his coxing based on what he was seeing/hearing from others. He also was able to get into any boat, be it the 1V eight or the 4V four and make it go fast, even when the boats varied wildly in the style of coxing they responded to. If you can get into a boat that likes cheerleaders and get them to respond and then get in a boat the next day with a crew who likes an in-your-face hardass and do the same thing (and steer straight on top of all of that), you’re basically worth your weight in gold.

Basically what you need to do is, one, like I said, talk to your coach and two, whenever you’re in the launch, observe the styles, presence, etc. of the other two coxswains to see what they’re doing well and then try to incorporate some of that into your own coxing the next time you go out. The absolute dumbest reason for losing your seat in a boat is “I didn’t want to change what I was doing”. You’ve only been coxing for a year so while I get that you’ve probably established a style of coxing, it’s definitely not going to be the one you stick with for your entire career so use this opportunity to identify the areas where you can ebb and flow a bit with your approach in order to give you the best shot at making one of the boats.

Coxswain recordings, pt. 44

College Coxing Racing Recordings

Coxswain recordings, pt. 44

St. Joe’s Prep 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Alumni 8+

Like most HOCR recordings, the biggest takeaway is gonna be getting a look at the course and observing how each coxswains takes the turns and bridges. There are some gems in here as far as calls goes but what you’ll really want to pay attention to is how he handles the clusters of crews between Weeks and Anderson. He pretty savagely cuts in front of a crew right before Anderson and I’m pretty sure the only reason he was able to do that without more than a minimal clash between his stroke and the bow man of the other boat is because he committed to it early and never hesitated. (As I was watching it I was thinking “where is he steering … oh damn, he’s doing that…”.) That’s kind of the name of the game with steering HOCR too – commit or get screwed.

Related: Everything you need to know for Head of the Charles

Circling back to the beginning, when they’re passing bow #46, they’re close enough to them that you could probably signal to your bow man to yell at them to yield as well if they’re not responding to you. Granted, you have to be projecting your voice loud enough for them to hear you in the first place but if your bow seat if right beside or off of the coxswain, having them yell “yield to starboard” can be helpful. This is something that you should discuss with them during practice and/or before you launch though, not something you should spring on them during the race. Just give them a heads up that if you’re close to another crew and they’re not yielding, you’ll say something like “Ben, yield!”, which is their cue to tell the coxswain to yield. And – ahem, junior men – not in a rude way either. Don’t yell “fucking move!” or anything like that. Repeat whatever your coxswain is saying, which shouldn’t be any more complicated than “46, yield to starboard”.

At 3:56 he says “picking up the buoy line again, get ready starboards…”, which I think is a good call just to alert the starboards that they might bump a buoy as he shifts back over. Obviously if you’re taking that tight of a course you want to make sure the buoys are either under the oar shafts or just off of the blades … you shouldn’t be hitting the buoys on every single stroke. That defeats the purpose of being on the buoy line.

When they’re in front of Riverside, you hear the stroke say “we need to yield”, after which the coxswain turns around, sees where the other crew is, and then makes and adjustment. This is good communication between the two and, for the stroke seats in the back who have missed this the other 30,480 times I’ve said it, your responsibility since your coxswain doesn’t have eyes in the back of their head. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t have their head on a swivel but you’re looking at what’s behind the boat, just give them a heads up if they need to yield. See the video below for more on this (different regatta, same principle).

Related: Disqualifying Sydney Rowing Club

At 6:55 he says something about taking advantage of the fact that the crew beside them (Columbia, ironically) was taking the wrong arches. The Columbia eight was going through the Cambridge arches, which you are allowed to use in the Powerhouse Stretch, and in some cases can actually give you a strategic advantage if there’s a lot of crews going through the middle arches. Your “plan A” should always be to take the middle arches but if you come around Magazine Beach and see that there’s just a cluster of crews down the center of the Powerhouse, by all means, go for the Cambridge arches if they’re clear and use that to your advantage. This is one of those “split second, in the moment” decisions so you’ve really gotta be paying attention here.

As far as meters go, if you line yourself up right coming down the Powerhouse and positioning yourself into Weeks, it should only add one meter to your course based on measurements done by the HOCR organizers. It should still be your “plan B” but it’s a good option to have in your back pocket and if it does tack on a couple extra meters, it’s nothing you can’t make up by having solid turns through Anderson, Eliot, and Belmont Hill.

Other calls I liked:

“Get on the gas, let’s go!”

“I’ve had it with these amateurs!” (Same, dude. Same.)

University of Michigan 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Collegiate 8+

This was a recording that Michigan’s coxswain sent me after the race last year. They started 15th in a pack of 37 and were the highest finishing American crew, coming in second overall in the collegiate 8+ event behind a Dutch crew. Below is what I said included in my email reply.

” I think one of your strengths throughout this race was your ability to maintain your composure and focus while steering through what sounded like a decent amount of traffic. (Side note, he said: “It was definitely a hectic race starting so far back. We went into Anderson four across with Wesleyan, Holy Cross and BC, suffice to say that did not work.”) It’s easy for coxswains to get overwhelmed and just completely shut down when that happens but you did a good job of continuing to communicate with your crew without losing the rhythm or intensity in your calls. I also liked how you gave them targets and said who you were passing, who you were moving through, who the next crew ahead of you was, etc. On an easier course that’s a simple thing to do but the Charles can get so chaotic that it becomes a lot tougher and requires a lot more awareness to be able to do alongside everything else. You nailed your management of the race though and there’s no question that it played a huge part in how well you guys did.”

Coxswain recordings, pt. 42

College Coxing Racing Recordings

Coxswain recordings, pt. 42

George Washington University 2015 V8+ IRA C/D Semi-final

I’ve posted quite a few of GW’s recordings over the years, not just because they’re good but because I think they are easily some of the best examples out there of how to cleanly and assertively execute a race plan. Of all the audio I’ve posted, when you listen to Connor’s specifically, that should be one of the main takeaways as far as “what is this coxswain doing well that I can/should try to emulate”.

One call I liked in particular was “keep tappin’ it along”. This is such a universal call because it works for literally any situation – racing, steady state, drills, etc. The biggest thing it conveys is to maintain consistency. In the past I’ve used it as reassurance if it feels like the crew’s starting to second guess how well the boat’s moving – you know, like when it’s felt too good for too long and you’re like “is this a fluke or…?”. Most of the time this’ll happen after we’ve had a few questionable rows or pieces and we’ve finally started hitting our stride again and reestablishing our confidence. Similarly, nearly every coach I’ve ever had or worked with has said this during drills, especially when doing the pick drill or reverse pick drill when you’re working with a shorter slide and the propensity for having wonky a wonky set or slide control is a bit higher.

Green Lake Crew vs. Tideway Scullers 2015 Henley Royal Regatta Thames Challenge Cup Heat

This is a decent recording (tone and intensity throughout are pretty good) but the primary takeaway should be to put some daylight between your calls and not have your race sound like a seven minute long run-on sentence. You’re just not as effective if it sounds like you’re running out of breath every few seconds and rushing to get out what you want to say before you have to replenish your oxygen stash. Slow down, breathe, and speak clearly.

This is probably dependent on your crew but saying whatever split you’re at isn’t gonna cut it when you’re a length or more up on the other crew (aka you’ve clearly been doing something right) is probably not the most effective way to get them to hold off a charge or keep increasing their lead. Obviously you should always be on alert and not too comfortable with whatever lead you have but phrasing can make a big difference. “1:46, we’re a length up, let’s keep moving out and pushing that split back down to 1:45…” or “Three seats of open, sitting at 1:46, 1000m to go … let’s not get comfortable, we’re gonna take five to press together and hit that 1:45 with the legs, ready … now” says pretty much the exact same thing but in a more focused, unified (and positive) way. Granted, there are definitely situations where you need to get in their faces and be like “this is not good enough, we need to do better now” but having a couple seats of open water on the field typically isn’t one of them.

Also, I’ve beaten this horse to death multiple times but stahhhp with the “I need”, “you guys”, etc. Once in awhile is whatever, fine but not every single call. It’s not “I” and “you”, it’s “us”, “let’s”, “we”, etc. You’re part of the engine moving the boat so stop making calls that make it seem like you’re sitting behind some invisible barrier that separates you from the work.

Other calls I liked:

“Take us to Thursday…” When you’re in a multi-day race situation like Henley, Youth Nats, IRAs, etc., a call like this is a solid one to start a move off with. It’s one I’d probably save for the latter half of the race, especially if it’s close, but I like how she used it here.

You can find and listen to more recordings by checking out the “Coxswain Recordings” page.

These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. We have come here today to make clear how unprotected we are, to show graphically what we are being exposed to. On a day like today, the rain freezes on our skin. Then we sit on a bus for half an hour as the ice melts into our sweats to meet the sweat that has soaked our clothes underneath ... No effective action has been taken and no matter what we hear, it doesn't make these bodies warmer, or dryer, or less prone to sickness ... We are not just healthy young things in blue and white uniforms who perform feats of strength for Yale in the nice spring weather; we are not just statistics on your win column. We're human and being treated as less than such.

Christ Ernst & the 1976 Yale Women's Rowing Team

College Racing Video of the Week

Video of the Week: Harvard vs. Yale

Both crews had a great race on Saturday but Yale, predictably, came out on top. They stayed pretty patient throughout the entire piece but lit it up at the end and never looked back. This is a good example of trusting your race plan, your teammates, and your coxswain to keep the focus on your boat and not let the crew get too rattled just because the other boat is trying to make a move.

College Racing Video of the Week

Video of the Week: Eastern Sprints 2017 – Harvard vs. Yale

If you caught my Instagram story yesterday then you saw the last 50m or so of this race from the beach where we were all watching from. That sprint by Harvard was fantastic and they should definitely be proud of that race. Congrats to Yale – can’t wait to see them throw down at IRAs.

I was talking to someone who said they thought the Harvard coxswain didn’t celebrate, rather the splash at the end was from him throwing his cox box in the water because it didn’t work during the race. “Big if true”, as they say. But seriously though, that sucks if that was the case but let that be a cautionary reminder to everybody – check your cox boxes before you launch and always have a spare on hand).

Advice from a former novice, pt. 2

College Coxing High School Novice

Advice from a former novice, pt. 2

This is an email I got at the end of the 2014 spring season from a (then) novice coxswain at a D1 men’s program here on the East Coast. I’d included it within another post at the time but felt it warranted it’s own post, particularly since the first “advice from a former novice” post (linked below) got a lot of a positive feedback.

Related: Advice from a former novice 

“Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you all a couple of things that I learned after I walked on to my team as a novice coxswain. No experience at all in anything crew related. All I knew how to do was compete (I had been a varsity athlete in high school). In fact, I didn’t even know how to say starboard or skeg properly. The point is, I learned a lot along the way and ended up in the third varsity boat of a silver medal winning crew for a division one program, so anything truly is possible.

For the novices (and more experienced coxswains) out there, I have a couple of things to say that I feel are sometimes overlooked or forgotten.

Your job is to steer

I think this always bear repeating and it is certainly something that my coach harped on many times. You can’t let your emotions or competitive spirit get in the way of your main priority. And, I would say to not worry too much about your calls until you can steer, because steering takes up most of your focus. Calls will always be secondary to steering straight in a race since snaking adds meters and time to your crew’s efforts. Guys know how to motivate themselves, so really the best thing you can do is give them the shortest course, which occurs when you steer straight.

Tone matters

This is something that I didn’t realize I was missing until I listened to a recording of myself (which is why you should record yourself). When my coach gave me feedback, he said that I at times sounded frantic or doubtful, which not what you want your crew to hear. If I don’t know something, I either don’t say anything at all, or I just make something up (not always the preferable thing to do, but sometimes necessary). But no matter what, I’ve learned to sound confident in the decisions that I am making on the water. Also, when you get into a race, it shows that guys that you are just as invested as they are in winning, which is important for their mentality. They also appreciate it when you care just as much as they do.

You win some, you lose some

Sometimes you put in a lot of hard work and come up short. Other times you win by a foot. Just know that when you have done the best job you can do, there might be times when another crew rowed better. The sport is about working hard and always improving. You should always appreciate the work that you do, and strive to improve so that you have no regrets. It goes for coxswains just as much as it goes for rowerscoxswains can always improve as well.

I know this sounds simple, and it might not mean much coming from a novice rower, but as a coxswain looking back on my first year, I feel like these three things come up in a lot of the races I was lucky to be a part of. Listen to your coaches, work with your rowers, and best wishes to all.”

Image via // @pittsfordcrew