Tag: coach problems

Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi Kayleigh! I’m a coxswain coming out of my novice year into varsity (I’m a sophomore in high school). There’s 3 total varsity coxswains, one of whom came out of my novice year with me, and my coach told us that she’d be rotating us in and out of the 2V for some practices to see which one of us would be long-term coxing it. The first day of this, she put the other coxswain in, which at the time was no big deal as we’d be rotating, or so I thought. She has never rotated me into this boat or rotated the other girl out. Even this wouldn’t be a huge deal, but the boat I’m coxing, the ‘3V’ if you could call it that, is composed entirely of girls who row only scholastically (not for our actual club), and a few of the more advanced novii. A few girls in the 2V have mentioned that they prefer my coxing style and want me to cox them, but I have been given – quite literally – no chance. It’s really bothering me as I feel that I am capable and even if I can’t say right off the bat I deserve that boat, I was promised a chance to try and I know I deserve that much. Since the novices of the 3V will go back to racing novice once regattas start to strengthen that program, and the girls who row only scholastically will compete for their schools, I will be left without a crew. How should I handle this? Would it be too forward to discuss the matter with my coach?

Absolutely not. If she already told you that she’d be rotating you in then you should hold her to that. Talk to her before practice, remind her that she said she’d switch you guys out, and ask if you can take the 2V out today.

One thing I’ve always found to be helpful (not just in this context but whenever I have to remind people that they said they’d do something…) is to include as many details from the original conversation as possible and avoid making “you said” comments that could make you sound accusatory or impatient (though tbh you have every right to be impatient in this case). Rather than just saying “Hey, you said I could cox the 2V at some point, can I take them out today?”, say “Hey, during the first week of practice we’d talked about rotating the three of us through the 2V to determine who was gonna cox it for the rest of the season and I wanted to see if I could hop in there today or tomorrow since I haven’t had a chance to take them out yet. I’ve been working on XYZ with the 3V over the last few weeks and can see where I’ve made improvements that I think make me competitive for the 2V but I’d like the chance to show you and get your feedback before a final decision is made on who’ll be in the boat the rest of the fall.”.

The reason why I think this works (and this is just my own personal theory) is because it shows you were paying attention when that initial conversation happened because it’s something that is important to you and if you can communicate that by repeating back to whoever you’re talking to verbatim (or as close to it as you can) what was originally discussed, they’re much more likely to take your request(s) seriously and hold up their end of it. I also refuse to let people make me feel like a nagging asshole for bringing up something they said they’d do and haven’t done yet so if they feel awkward because they’re getting called out, even when it’s done in normal conversation with no negative or passive-aggressive undertones … *shrug*.

(Granted, I also fully recognize/admit that that’s because I’m in that phase of your late-20s where you realize some stuff is just not worth giving a shit about anymore. Thinking people are going to get mad or offended because I’m standing up for myself, in whatever aspect, is just not something I can allocate one of the few fucks I have to give towards.)

I’ve worked in tandem with enough coaches over the last four years that it’s become obvious when they’ve just gotten into a routine with one coxswain + crew and it’s slipped their mind that they said they’d switch someone else in there … and also when they’ve decided they just really like a certain coxswain and hope that the other ones will forget that they said they’d give them a shot (sometimes because they were never going to give them one in the first place). The former is mildly annoying but not at all malicious or ultimately that big of a deal. The latter is just a dick move and frankly, lazy AF on their part. I totally get why some coxswains are apprehensive about saying something too (in either situation – I’ve been in both and felt the same way) but you really do have to hold their feet to the fire if you’re serious about wanting a shot. If you’re not following up with them (in a timely manner), nothing I say is gonna help you.

If you’re getting a sense like they’ve already made their decision and are just hoping you forget or don’t notice that you never actually got to go out with the 2V then, again, talk to them before practice and say “I wanted to see where you were at with regards to who’d be coxing the 2V. I’ve been working on XYZ and would really like a shot to show why I think I’d be good in that boat. I don’t know if you’ve already made a decision but one way or the other, I just wanted to see if the opportunity was still there to go out with that boat for a practice.”.

The thing you have to remember – at practice, at school, at work, etc. – is that you have to be your own biggest advocate. This has always been one of the biggest lessons I took away from coxing too. I know that it’s awkward to feel like you’re calling out someone in a senior position but sometimes it’s gotta be done. It pays off in the long run too because if you can get over that feeling of thinking you can’t or shouldn’t do this while you’re young (and in relatively low-consequence situations like this), it makes it a lot easier to stand up for yourself (especially as a woman) when you’re older and in situations with actual real life ramifications, like salary negotiations, promotions … even stuff like harassment. Look at this as just another skill you’ve gotta develop and add to your arsenal. And hey, if you end up getting to go out with the 2V for a couple days, consider that a bonus.

Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches Training & Nutrition

Question of the Day

I was talking to my coach about what boats I was in consideration for going into the following year, and I got some really great news – he’s looking at me for our V8+ (top boat at my club)! The only bad thing is what came after that. Basically he said, “you could be coxing the V8+ … if you get your anxiety under control.” At first, I thought that was way out of line, but honestly, the havoc my anxiety wreaks on my overall mental health and well being is debilitating, and there’s really no way improving that could hurt in any capacity, so I’m realizing he’s probably got a point. How do you suggest dealing with overall rational requests of a coach when they entail changing something a bit more personal than technique like this?

This is a great question. I definitely see how your first impression was that it was out of line but if you’ve got a good (or at least cordial) relationship with your coach and they didn’t say it with any biting undertones then I wouldn’t take it the wrong way. I’ve said pretty much the exact same thing (with varying tones of empathy and frustration depending on the situation) to one of the MIT coxswains but we’ve had a great relationship for the last three years so even when she’d get pissed at me for saying it, she knew it was coming from a friend who genuinely had her best interests in mind.

I deal with anxiety too and agree that it wrecks havoc on pretty much everything … and the fallout from that just creates even more stress. When it comes to managing it in the context of coxing for example, it seems like a common mistake (that I’ve definitely made too, numerous times) is finding ways to deal with it only in the context of coxing rather than trying to identify and address the actual underlying causes/issues. Like, you can get better at steering or whatever if that’s something you’ve struggled with but if you still suffer sudden and intense bouts of anxiety when you’re on the water, basically all you did was the equivalent of putting a band aid on a bullet wound.

Here’s a couple suggestions – some traditional, some anecdotal – that you might consider.

The first approach is to talk to someone. Not just anyone either, someone who ‘s trained in dealing with stuff like this. If you’re in college, reach out to student health or whatever your version of student support services is and make an appointment. You typically get a certain number of free appointments each semester or year before your insurance takes over so take advantage of it. Similarly, most athletic departments will have a sport psychologist on staff or they’ll have a relationship with one in the local community that they can set you up with.

If you’re still in high school, on your parent’s insurance, etc. … basically if you’re in a situation where you can’t seek treatment without their consent/approval … that’s obviously tough. And yea, it’s probably tempting to not say anything at all because you think it’s embarrassing or whatever but you’ve gotta gauge your personal situation and make that call. Some parents are cool about working with you on stuff like this (and not making a big deal out of it, which is key), others not so much. I think most parents are decent enough though that they’ll get you the help you need if you talk to them about it (as frustrating or awkward as that conversation might initially be).

The second approach ties into the first but in terms of managing your anxiety, behavioral therapy or medication are two options. I know people who utilize CBT, others take medication, some do both, and a couple do neither. One of those friends was a coxswain and he took medication to manage the day-to-day symptoms while also working with a sport psychologist and doing CBT during the school year to help him develop strategies to deal with the rowing-specific symptoms.

Another friend (who didn’t row but did track & field for four years in college) takes a very #millennial approach and uses two apps – Headspace and Pacifica – to help her keep things under control. She said she’s been using Headspace since her senior year but just started using Pacifica after her anxiety got worse while studying for the bar exam two years ago. She didn’t have time to make regular appointments with a doctor or deal with any potential side effects from medication (on top of not having health insurance) so that’s why this approach made the most sense for her.

The bottom line is that stuff like this is just as much of a normal medical problem as any other illness we encounter and we should treat it as such. Have you ever gotten a cold and ignored it because “it’s not like I have pneumonia, it’s not that serious” but you were miserable as fuck for the duration of it, even though you could have knocked it out in two or three days if you’d just gone to the doctor? Whatever preconceived notions you might have about whether people will take you seriously, judge you for asking for help, or think you’re “just not tough enough”, you’ve gotta put that out of your head and not let that keep you from doing what’s best for you. Coxing only lasts for a short period of time but you’ve gotta live with yourself forever so, like you said, it’s not like taking steps to improve your overall wellbeing can hurt.

Below is an email I got from a college coxswain about her experience with anxiety, how she handles it, and how having less-than-supportive coaches can undermine your efforts to get better. There’s a whole “devil’s advocate” discussion to be had about taking someone out of the boat for a short period of time vs. actually kicking them out of it permanently that I won’t get into right now but for the coaches that are reading, seriously, don’t be dicks about shit like this. If your athletes are confiding in you, especially on the recommendation of their doctor, maybe work with them instead of kicking them while they’re down. I can’t believe that’s something that even needs to be said.

“I’ve been coxing at the collegiate level for over two years now..and I’ve had my current coach for two years. I was encouraged by the sports psychologist at school to tell my coach, as she said he couldn’t use it against me. Despite my better judgement, I went ahead and told him. Things were great at first, but I went from being with the top two boats to not having a boat.  He brings up my anxiety every time we talk, and I have come to feel as though he’s put me in a corner as a result. My psychologist at school is actually going to be talking to him about this because the fact that he always brings it up, makes me anxious. It sucks and it’s not fair.

I have really bad anxiety and have played sports competitively my entire life. I’ve always managed to “face my fear” and have learned that by doing so, it makes my anxiety a little more tolerable. It’s not something that goes away(even though I take medication for it and use various techniques as well), but rather something I’ve come to accept and make the most of. I try to remember that they’re only feelings, although easier said than done.

I don’t recommend telling teammates, as they have never been able to understand and basically have just used it against me and underestimate my ability to cox. Especially when it comes to racing, which is one of the times I know how to handle my anxiety best(from experience and sports background). I kick ass when it comes to racing, but it’s more so practices that are a bit of an issue. I tend to second guess myself a lot because of my anxiety, and don’t allow myself to take as much credit as I should. For example, I am notorious for my ability to steer a great course, however if I think about it too much, I start worrying and begin to snake.

Anxiety is a real bitch, but I’m learning to “stay in the present” which has been really helpful. There’s a super short and helpful book that I recommend to just about everyone (those who have anxiety as well as those who don’t) called “F*CK Anxiety; Hardcore Self-Help” by Robert Duff. He’s so funny and down to earth, yet helps you better understand your anxiety regardless of the type. He provides helpful tips for what to do when you are anxious and how to essentially prevent your anxiety from taking the joy out of things. For those looking to understand anxiety a little better, I highly recommend it. This book has changed my ability to cox and has helped me better cope with my shitty anxiety.

But as far as whether to tell coaches and teammates, that depends. Just know there’s a big risk in doing so, as I have learned the hard way. My last coach used it against me as well. I have one year of coxing left, and I’m determined to get a good boat. I wish someone had been able to provide me with this info back when I started, which is why I felt so compelled to share my experiences.”

A couple other coxswains (four collegiate, two junior – two guys, four girls) also emailed to say that they deal with varying levels of anxiety that have at one point or another kept them out of a boat they were in competition for. Even though the situations differed (coxing people they were unfamiliar with, feeling underprepared and overwhelmed, not feeling confident in a given skill (steering and technique being the main ones), etc.), the common symptom, side-effect, whatever you want to call it … was that they’d just shut down and not talk for the majority of practice. Two of them said they were actively taking medication and the others said they weren’t doing anything for it (either because they aren’t sure what to do, don’t want to bring it up to their coaches/parents, etc.).

So … you’re not alone in this. I think we all experience anxiety to some extent during our careers but not all of us know how to get help or handle it so hearing the perspectives of our peers can make a huge difference. Like you said, your coach’s request was a rational one that can only benefit you in the long run so I hope there’s something up there that helps. Feel free to shoot me an email though if you wanna talk more about this and if anyone else has any other advice they wanna share, please leave it in the comments!

College Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi! I’m in my third year of coxing in college. I coxed the 2V my first two years but this fall I was moved up to the 1V. There are a few other coxswains on our team but honestly, most of them don’t know what they’re doing and won’t put in effort to improve. I’ve noticed that when I’m occasionally put back into the 2V (which is mainly made up of the same rowers as last year’s 2V) for practice, the rowers have lost a lot of technique. Stroke seat (who was my stroke in the 2V last year) has told me that the other coxswains don’t know how to correct technique and will either ignore it or tell them to do the wrong thing. She has also said that the coxswains don’t know how to call pieces and aren’t helping them get to the stroke rate or split they need to be at. I also found out that several of 2V rowers no longer trust coxswains because the other coxswains have constantly lied to them about stroke rate, split, distance, time, etc.

What can I do for them? I love the 2V; it has a special place in my heart and I’ve had some of my best races and practices in that boat. I really want them to do well this spring, because we were amazing last year, but they don’t seem to be on that track now. Several rowers have talked to our coaches about how those coxswains are negatively affecting their boat but our coaches don’t seem to be very concerned and haven’t done anything to help. They’ve also talked to these coxswains but they get offended and defensive when the rowers ask them to change things. I really want to see the 2V do well this year but I don’t know what to do at this point for them.

I have a lot of thoughts on this so it’s gonna be kinda long.

First, this obviously doesn’t have anything to do with you but to any coaches who are reading, if you’re seriously that lazy or unbothered by your athletes coming to you and saying “this is a problem … help“, you really shouldn’t have to think too hard at the end of the season about why certain crews underperformed. You’re part of the problem.

I agree with the point you’re getting at, that the coxswains play a  role in how good (or not good) the rowers technique is, but I do think a line’s gotta be drawn somewhere. The rowers regressing in their technique can’t totally be put on the shoulders of the coxswains, regardless of how inept they are. There’s a lot of personal responsibility that has to be factored in there and if they’re not making some kind of effort off the water to work on whatever technical issues they’re having, then their own inaction is just as much to blame as the coxswains not taking their jobs seriously in pointing this stuff out.

As far as wanting the 2V to do well – I get that. I respect the fact that you want to help them but keep in mind that they’re not your primary boat anymore, even if you are occasionally switching between them and the 1V. I’ve been in that position before too, as I’m sure plenty of other coxswains have, and all that willing your old boat to do well does is distract you from coxing the boat you’re actually in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t help them but it should be less about the 2V specifically and more about helping the other coxswains get their shit together. You can’t complain about other people’s ignorance and then contribute to it by not sharing what you know. You’re in the 1V, presumably you know what your team’s top 3-5 technical focuses are, how to compare and contrast what you’re seeing and feeling vs. what you should be seeing and feeling, how to call a piece, how to get the crew on rate, how to earn your crew’s trust, and most importantly, how to check your ego and learn the difference between critiques and criticisms. So … share that.

And yea, I get that you and half the coxswains reading are probably thinking “…but if they have shitty attitudes and aren’t even gonna try, then what do I do?”, to which I say nothing. You do nothing. I say this to our coxswains all the time: if it gets to the point where I’m putting in more effort than you are to help you get better, I’m walking away and you’re on your own. I actually did that with one of our coxswains this past spring and it sucked and I felt like a dick but the  point was made pretty quickly that they needed to get over themselves and actually take the advice and feedback that was being given otherwise they were gonna continue to be perpetually disappointed with their standing on the team. It’s my job to share my experiences, explain stuff, and give you the “tools” to figure it out on your own. It’s not my job to will you to care, tell you what you want to hear, or spoon feed you so you can avoid having to do any actual work.

Before you approach them, go to your coaches and get them on board with you working with the other coxswains. Don’t ask if it’s OK or if they mind or whatever, just put on your assertive varsity coxswain adult pants and say “hey, I wanna meet with all the coxswains at X time on Y date at Z location to go over some of the technical stuff we’ve been working on this week, can you make that announcement at the end of practice?”. That’s literally – literally – all you need to say. Hopefully having them say something will get the coxswains’ attention and add an air of legitimacy to what you’re trying to do (since that can sometimes get lost when you try to organize it on your own).

Whenever you meet with them, rather than trying to do a deep dive right off the bat, just talk to them. Sure, there’s a chance that they actually are as apathetic and pissy as the rowers imply but in my experience, at least a third of them are that way because no one’s ever bothered to sit down and explain anything to them. So, start by figuring out where they’re at. I usually try to do this by asking what 2-3 things they’re struggling the most with and then follow up by asking what I can do for them, rather than asking what they need help with. That’s what works best for me personally because it feels less burdensome on the other person than if I were to just ask for help outright. Plus, if you ask me what I need help with, more than likely I’m not gonna have any idea how to respond because I’m too frustrated to have any coherent idea of the stuff I don’t know … I just know that I don’t know it.

Once you’ve got an idea of where their weaknesses lie, parse it down into more manageable chunks (i.e. the basics of bladework, body positioning, etc. instead of just “technique”) and find a time that works for everyone so you can meet to talk about it. This doesn’t need to be some super formal thing either – when I do this with our coxswains we either hang out in the boathouse lounge during practice while the guys are doing steady state or we’ll grab breakfast afterwards and talk while we eat. You should make it clear though that you want to help them get better, not just for their own sake but for the team’s as well, and that you’re happy to be a resource but the onus is on them to actually apply the stuff you’re helping them with. Like I said before, if you start putting more work in than they are, walk away.

If after all that nothing changes, go back to your coaches and have a serious sit-down conversation with them. Explain the issues the rowers have with the coxswains and that you attempted a solution without much luck so now it’s their turn to address the problem. Obviously you can rephrase the latter part of that to whatever you think will make your point the best. At some point though they’ve gotta take the hint that they need say something to the coxswains directly about their performance and it needs to go beyond the same half-assed, immediately written off “you need to do better” platitudes that tend to get thrown out in situations like this.

Q&A Teammates & Coaches Training & Nutrition

Question of the Day

Do you have any advice on dealing with a coach pressuring you to continue practicing through injury?

Three things:

Communicate with your coach

Most just want to make sure you’re not confusing discomfort with actual pain (which happens fairly often, hence the cautious skepticism on their part) so you have to actually explain what you’re feeling, how long it’s felt like that, when you notice it the most, etc. instead of just saying “my back hurts”. The more details you put out there the more likely your coaches are to understand that this is something serious and not just some lingering soreness.

Related: Hi!! I have a plica in my knee, I got the okay from our AT to row but it hurts a lot when I do. We’re in an erging stint right now and I don’t want to be seen as a slacker but I also don’t know if I can effectively do the workouts on the erg. I have no clue how to go about handling the situation.

Go to your doctor or trainer and get some professional feedback on what’s going on

Tell your coaches too that you’ve got an appointment set up so they see that you’re actively working on a solution to the problem. Most trainers on campus will directly communicate with the coaches to let them know that you came in, this is what they saw, etc. but you should still ask them if they can pass along the info to the coaches and then follow up a day or so later. They see a lot of athletes so do your due diligence and take the appropriate steps to ensure everyone that needs to be in the loop is actually in the loop.

Advocate for yourself

No one’s holding a gun to your head and making you erg, row, run, etc. If you’re injured and the trainer/doctor has said to take it easy for a few days then that’s what you’ve gotta do. I’m not blind to the fact that people want to keep their seat in the boat they’re in or they don’t want to sabotage their chances of competing for a seat in a higher boat but you seriously have to take a step back from that and look at the bigger picture. Is it really worth causing more damage, being out longer, getting sicker, etc. just to go out and half-ass your way through practice because you’re not feeling 100%? There are absolutely times when you should push through stuff but if you’ve got even a modicum of common sense you know the difference between those times and the times when you need to say (to your coach, not just in your head) “no, I need to take today off” or “I need to take it easy today”.

I know it can be hard to push back when your coach is pushing for you to keep practicing, (especially when you’re like, 15 years old) but if you don’t, especially after doing all the stuff I listed up above, then I honestly don’t know what to tell you. Like I said, no one’s holding a gun to your head and making you practice so if you know that rowing, erging, etc. isn’t the best course of action based on where your injury’s at right now, you’ve gotta stick to your guns and not be talked or guilt-tripped into doing something that’s gonna prolong the recovery process.

Q&A Teammates & Coaches Training & Nutrition

Question of the Day

Hi Kayleigh! I was just wondering in what universe does it make sense to increase work load a week before your championship race? We’ve been having one practice a day all year, then the Monday before our race we start going twice and by Wednesday we were all exhausted. The day before our race our coach has us do 14k of steady state rowing with some full pressure pieces thrown in. Then the day of the race our coach has us wake up early so we could do another 4K steady state before racing. How is this logical in anyway shape or form??

Hmm. I really don’t have a good answer because I don’t understand his approach either. Ramping up the volume the week of your race is the exact opposite of tapering, which is what you should have been doing going into the weekend. That’s what we did last week in the lead up to Sprints on Sunday – the intensity of the workouts was still up there but the volume steadily decreased as we closed out the week.

Did anyone ever ask your coach what his thought process was in doing this? Obviously you shouldn’t be all confrontational about it but if everyone is confused about the training plan and sore/exhausted 48-72 hours before your championship race, I think that at least justifies a conversation. I wish I had a better answer but I’m with you guys – this doesn’t make sense to me.

College Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi Kayleigh, I’m coming and asking you because at this point my team is desperate. I don’t want to give much away other than we are a college team with a head coach who is boarder line abusive with an assistant coach who doesn’t coach and knows way to much about our personal lives beyond way what we post on social media. Some people have gone to compliance and they didn’t do anything and when some went to the Title 9 office that ended badly for us. Do you have any advice on dealing with a bad coaching situation?

Yikes. If neither of those two things worked then you should probably consider escalating it to the athletic director or assistant AD. If things are that bad then there’s no way they wouldn’t want to know, not to mention the fact that they should know about it. Situations like this are always tough and the tendency to sweep it under the rug or side with the coaches over the athletes, even if there’s a valid reason to look into the coaches’ actions and behavior, can be frustrating (especially when the go-to response lately involves saying something about “entitled millennials” not being able to handle a coach being “tough” on you). That shouldn’t be a reason to not speak up though if you feel like lines are being crossed.

I’m not sure what you mean by “it ended badly for us” in terms of going to the Title 9 office but I feel like whatever it is, it’s probably not legal just based on what Title 9 is. For those not familiar, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Here’s an example of what a Title 9 policy looks like (this is ours):

“MIT is committed to providing a learning, living and working environment free from gender-based discrimination. Gender-based discrimination, including sexual misconduct (a term used to describe a range of behaviors including sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual contact/sexual assault, non-consensual sexual penetration/rape, and sexual exploitation), intimate partner violence, and stalking committed by MIT students, staff, or faculty will not be tolerated. This applies to academic, educational, athletic, residential, and other Institute operated programs.”

So … yea. Obviously I don’t know all the details but if the issue wasn’t addressed and you were retaliated against for speaking up (especially if it was by your coaches), that’s a pretty serious problem in itself. Like I said though, I’d start with scheduling a meeting with the AD or assistant AD and calmly, rationally, etc. explain what’s going on. Keep it as straightforward as possible (make a bullet-pointed list if you have to), don’t elaborate for effect or anything like that, just lay out the facts and let them deal with it. Don’t be afraid to stay on them about this too if you haven’t heard anything or it feels like things have stalled.

As far as how to deal with this during practice … tread lightly, get in, and get out. I’ve had bad coaches but nothing to this magnitude so I don’t know how helpful that advice is but whatever you do end up doing, try to keep a level head throughout the situation and just channel your frustration into your strokes.

Feel free to email me if you wanna share more details – sometimes understanding the context of the situation helps me come up with better advice. Definitely keep me updated though, I’m interested to hear how things turn out.

Coxswain skills: Working with a bad coach

Coxing How To Teammates & Coaches

Coxswain skills: Working with a bad coach

As a coxswain, having a good working relationship with your coach is crucial. It’s the same as what I’ve said in the past about your relationships with the rowers – you don’t have to like each other but for two hours every day you do have to be able to work together. There’s no foolproof way to do this either … some coaches just suck, plain and simple. What I’ve laid out below probably won’t work for you if you have a coach that is really disagreeable, has a huge ego, etc. but short of telling you to just quit and go join another sport, this is the best I’ve got.

Related: “Coach problems” tag

Most of this I learned the hard way my senior year when I had a coach who refused to coach my eight, constantly made disparaging comments towards me and my teammates, and refused to be questioned by anyone because he was the coach (which he reminded us of literally every chance he had) and there was absolutely no conceivable reason why we shouldn’t just blindly follow every instruction we were given. I, to the surprise of pretty much no one, rebelled hard against all of this because I thought it was bullshit and, to the surprise of pretty much no one, he responded by taking me out of the varsity eight, not just because I questioned him (which was my first mistake) but because I handled it with the same level of maturity that most 17 year old girls would … which is to say, in hindsight I could have handled it a lot better.

Like a lot of things I’ve put on this blog, I didn’t have anyone telling me “this is how you deal with this” and the only advice I got was everyone basically telling me to just keep my head down, do what I was told, and don’t do anything that would, for lack of a better phrase, rock the boat. That kind of “advice” doesn’t really work for me so below are the things that I eventually came up with (some during the season, some years after the fact) that should hopefully make working with or around a bad coach a little easier.

Do what you say you’re going to do

If you’re going to be a coxswain then you’re agreeing to a lot of rules and expectations that are often unwritten and unsaid. Even if your coach isn’t explicitly telling you what you need to do, you still have a pretty defined set of responsibilities that you know you have to execute on a daily basis. If you aren’t doing these things they’re going to draw a lot of attention and the target on your back is going to become even bigger, which is why it might seem like your coach is always picking on you. It’s up to you to go directly to them and ask “what are your expectations of me…” so that you know what’s expected since they’re probably not going to take you aside to tell you themselves. Don’t expect it to be spelled out for you either … you’re probably going to have to read between the lines of whatever vague non-answer they give you in order to figure out what they really want.

Be transparent

I’ve talked about this before but if you screw up, own it and don’t be that guy that tries to cover it up or make excuses. You can save yourself a lot of grief by taking responsibility right off the bat and avoiding the fallout that comes with a coach who not only has to deal with damaged equipment and wasted practice time but on top of that, a coxswain who’s lying about whatever role they played in the incident. If you have a coach who is prone to kicking people out of boats seemingly on a whim and that’s what you’re trying to avoid having happen, you’re playing yourself. If/when you screw up, say “this was my fault, I take full responsibility for it” and accept whatever happens without making it a bigger issue than it already is.

Provide solutions, not complaints

It’s really easy to complain when you have a bad coach but as the coxswain, you can’t get sucked into that and you sure as hell can’t be the one starting it. When my coach would purposely drive his launch close to us so he could wake us out during practice, my default response every time was “are you fucking kidding me…” because … who wouldn’t respond that way? During one of our many post-practice therapy sessions, our assistant told me that it wasn’t worth getting frustrated over when we could instead just focus on rowing better so that the next time it happened we could row through the wake like nothing happened.

“Rowing better” is obviously always the goal but for us it became “we’re gonna do it because we know that you think we can’t”, which isn’t always the best mindset to be in (I hate the idea of feeling like you have to prove something just to get people to back off) but it really worked for us. We doubled down on handle heights, body prep, carrying the blades six inches off the water, etc. and literally every single opportunity we had, we rowed square blades. There were practices where, if we were on the water for 90 minutes, probably 60 of them were spent rowing square blades, regardless of what we were doing. If the weather was bad, even better – we’d row square blades through white caps if we had to. Our bladework got so good that the next time we got waked by his launch we didn’t even flinch and he actually stopped to watch us row by. Our assistant yelled over to him, smile on his face, “lookin’ pretty good, huh?”, which to this day remains one of my favorite moments ever.

That whole situation was pretty defining for me as a coxswain and reinforced the notion that every challenge or hurdle is an opportunity to step it up and showcase your leadership skills. You can take the easy route and complain, which I’ll admit is really tempting to do sometimes, or you can be the one that provides a solution by saying “nope, we’re not settling for this, this is what we’re going to do to turn this distraction into a tool that makes us better rowers”.

Anticipate and over-prepare

This was something I learned early on in my career but it’s benefited me the most when I’ve had to work with erratic, unorganized coaches who thought “coxswain” was synonymous with “mind reader”. Getting in the habit of talking with your coaches before practice about what the plan for the day is, what drills you’ll be doing, and what the technical focus will be is just part of being a good coxswain but if they don’t tell you (or you just don’t ask), it’s gonna feel like you’re constantly being put on the spot.

One way to combat this is to pay attention to patterns. For example, on Mondays you do AT pieces and the drills are almost always catch/front end related. Tuesdays and Thursdays are steady state days and you’re usually left to your own devices. Wednesdays are sprint work and the drills typically relate to whatever you struggled most with during the race on Saturday and during steady state yesterday. Fridays you do a race walk-through. If you can recognize the patterns in your training plan then it becomes a lot easier for you to execute practice with little to no direction or instruction given by your coach. It also helps you prepare your calls ahead of time, familiarize yourself with drills, etc.

The best way to not be caught off guard is to be prepared for whatever might get thrown at you, which means you should know every drill, forwards and backwards, and the purpose of every workout (general rule of thumb: steady state = technique, sprints = power).

The final thing to keep in mind is that the most mature (and hardest by far for some of us) way to deal with a bad coach is to not talk back to them. You will be tempted but don’t. It might make you feel better in the moment to argue or get the last word in but in the long run it’s just gonna hurt you because you’ll essentially be undermining your own authority. Be cooperative, try to be cordial and pleasant (even when it means gritting your teeth to do so), and always, always be on top of your game. The lighter you keep the overall atmosphere by doing those three things, the better the rowers (and you) will be able to focus on the task at hand in spite of the fact that your coach is making it harder rather than easier.

Image via // @rowingcelebration

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College Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi! I am a freshman walk-on coxswain at a competitive D1 Ivy League program on the men’s lightweight team. We currently have 4 boats and I am the 5th coxswain, so in the coaches’ eyes I am obviously the worst although the rowers tell me they prefer me to the 4th coxswain (also a freshman walk-on) and the third is over the weight minimum by 10 pounds. The thing is, I am always messing up, always going to be behind because I never coxed in high school and never really learned (they put me in a boat the first day and told me to go) and I feel like I’m just never going to be good enough. I also feel like, no matter what I do, the coaches will never see me as better than the 5th coxswain even though I feel like I’m better than that and I’ve worked harder than the other coxswains and improved so much.

I love this sport and the team, but it has become such a negative thing for me. I often feel like shit after practice and I don’t feel valued or needed by the team or coaches. At this point the frustration is exhausting. I’m considering quitting, but I know that I would be ostracized by the team if I did, and I have become really good friends with some of them and don’t want to lose those relationships. Do you have any advice or have you ever been in a similar situation?

PS I can’t really talk to anyone about this because no one on my team understands, and I don’t feel comfortable addressing my concerns with my coaches because I feel like if they know I’m apprehensive, they’ll permanently “bench” (put me on the launch/kick me off the team) me–it has happened before.

Please help! Also I love your blog so thank you.

So … a couple things to start. Just because you’re the fifth coxswain  doesn’t automatically or obviously mean that you suck … and I don’t mean that in an “every kid should get a participation trophy so their feelings aren’t hurt” kind of way, I just don’t think you should assume you’re the worst just because you’re not being boated. That kind of mindset almost predisposes you to make more mistakes on the water because you feel like you have to prove yourself more and that can cause a lot of anxiety which in turn causes your confidence to take an even bigger hit every time something goes wrong. If there’s four boats and five coxswains obviously someone’s gonna draw the short straw but ultimately it’s up to you to make the decision as to whether or not you’re going to settle for the short straw or you’re going to work your ass off to get in one of the boats (lack of coaching and experience be damned).

Secondly, if you feel like quitting you should quit. I’m never going to be that person who tries to talk people out of quitting, mainly because if it’s something they’ve already thought about doing then their minds are probably already made up and they’re basically just looking for validation or someone to say that it’s OK for them to do it. I think your reasons for wanting to quit are pretty valid … it’s your reasons for not wanting to quit that I think are … less valid. I get not wanting to lose the friendships you’ve made but to counter that argument, if the guys on the team are really your friends and put an equal amount of work into the friendship as you do, do you really think they’ll just let it fall to the wayside if you’re no longer around? Real friends won’t/don’t let that happen. You know the time commitment all of this takes so obviously it’s going to take a little more effort to make plans to hang out but if I were in your shoes, I’d rather quit and have this weight off my shoulders all the while knowing that I might not see my friends as frequently than stay on the team and continue feeling shitty and undervalued just for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Also, you should talk to them about this. Maybe not the coxing part of it specifically but the social aspect of it. Like I said, if they’re really your friends then they’ll probably be able to dispense some insight/advice that I can’t as an outsider looking in.

OK, so on to the coxing stuff. I understand why you’d say that you can’t talk to anyone on the team about this because I’ve been in that situation too. I felt the same way in college about pretty much everything because that whole four and a half years was like Murphy’s Law for me – if it could go wrong, it did (epically). Every time I’d talk to my professors, advisors, etc. it just made me even more upset because their advice sucked and I attributed it to them just not getting it … which I still think is true but it’s really only been recently that I realized I wasn’t approaching the situation in the best way. It’s scarily easy to fall into that “woe is me, this is bullshit, why is this happening” mindset and if what you’re saying or the questions you’re asking communicate that vibe, then yea … no one is gonna get it because they’re not experiencing what you’re experiencing. If you want some legit feedback/advice you have to put all that aside and approach it with a “this is where I’m at, this is where I want to be, what in your opinion should I do to get there?” attitude rather than a “I have no idea what I’m doing and everyone thinks I suck, HELP” one. The latter’s not gonna get you anything more than a fake “what, nooo, nobody thinks that” response whereas the former might get you a few nuggets of gold that you can then mold into an action plan.

Assuming making your way into a boat is your goal, you should schedule a meeting with the coaches. Being in the launch – as boring as it can be sometimes – really isn’t the worst thing that can happen (our sophomore coxswain literally spent March-May (every day) this past spring in the launch and I honestly believe she’s a better coxswain because of it) and if they kick you off the team (which is easily the dumbest thing I’ve heard all week) … who cares. If you’re already on the fence about quitting then them kicking you off probably isn’t going to phase you that much.

Related: I’m a HS varsity men’s coxswain, but our club spends a lot of time sculling in quads and rowing small boats. As a result, I spend a lot of time sitting on the launch. However, I don’t exactly know what the best way to make use of that time is. Usually I just watch the rowers quietly and mention the occasional technique mistake if I don’t think my coach sees it, but I’m not really sure what the protocol is. Should I tell the rowers directly if I’m seeing something off? Should I try to talk to my coach about what lineups I think are working and what aren’t (he very occasionally asks my opinion on who should get seat raced and stuff like that)? Or is it better to just watch and note what’s going on so I can use it when we do row coxed boats?

Do you have to say you’re thinking about quitting? Well, no, obviously. I’d keep that to yourself, not out of fear of retaliation but because it’s not relevant. Neither is the rowers’ preference for you over the fourth coxswain or the fact that the third is 135+ pounds. You’ve already listed some good talking points so use those to drive the conversation and help you get what you want. If I were you, I’d go into this “spring season goal-setting” meeting (<– email subject line) prepared to say two things:

1. You’re the fifth coxswain now and while you know you still have areas to improve on, you’re really proud of the effort you’ve put in to improve over where you were when you started. [Confidence is key. If you feel like you’ve gotten better, own that shit.] Making your way into the fourth boat is your goal so what one or two things do they feel you should focus your efforts on so you can better compete for that spot?

Make sure you have a couple things on hand that you are already planning to work on, i.e. steering, practice management, etc., that way you can either pre-empt them by saying “I know I need to get better at managing practice when we’re on the water” so they hopefully don’t say the same thing or they can elaborate on it further. Additionally, if they ask you what you think you need to work on you can say XYZ. If I were your coach I’d take you a lot more seriously if you come prepared having thought about this stuff ahead of time.

2. You want to make sure you’re being a productive member of the team, regardless of whether you’re in a boat or not, so what can you do on land or in the launch that would help them out, help practice run smoother, etc.?

You can ask the rowers and coxswains this too, framed exactly the same way. Both groups will say different things so you’ll be able to get a ton of info out of one simple question. This addresses the whole feeling undervalued/not needed thing too without directly saying so and it makes you sound proactive instead of whiny, which is how saying you feel undervalued can come off to some people. Whatever they all say though, even if it’s the most mundane task possible, embrace it and execute it so flawlessly that Beyonce herself would be proud. Find situations where you can create value for yourself and eventually people will start appreciating what you have to offer. That’s what I did last year with working with our coxswains. It was already something I was planning on doing in addition to coaching the rowers but because we were such a small team, I didn’t have a boat to coach which meant I would have been showing up every day to essentially do nothing. If I wanted to be taken seriously and not be seen as that hanger-on wannabe coach who just rides in the launch every day, I had to create value for myself so that even if I wasn’t coaching the rowers I was still contributing to the team and helping to make them fast. Coxswains are obviously my thing so I tapped into that and now anytime something comes up with them, on our team or any of the other three, I’m the one that people go to. Find something similar that you can do for your team. It might not be glamorous but don’t underestimate how much rowers appreciate always having a full water bottle during erg workouts or being able to get started right away because the ergs, weight-circuit stations, etc. are already set up because you showed up early to take care of it.

So .. to summarize all of this (sorry it got so long), if you want to quit then quit but if you want to give coxing a shot then approach it proactively and come up with some goals and a plan. Get your coaches on board by discussing this with them and as I said, tell them where you’re at, where you want to be, and get insight from them on what you can do to get there. You’re a novice, you’re obviously not expected to know everything so use your teammates and coaches to help you fill in the gaps. At the end of the day if you want the right answers you’ve first gotta initiate the conversation and ask the right questions.

College Q&A Teammates & Coaches Training & Nutrition

Question of the Day

Hey, quick question: I’m a coxswain on a collegiate club team and lately we’ve been having some issues with sick people missing practices. Our (very old-school) coach’s opinion is unless you’re dying, you’re at practice, but some of my teammates want to stay home if they’re feeling a little sick because they think rowing while sick will make the illness a lot worse and take them out for longer. I’ve also heard that it’s safe to row if the sickness is below the neck but that you should stay home if there’s an issue with the head or throat, but I’m not sure if that’s medically accurate. So I was just wondering, at what point is someone “too sick to row” in your opinion?

I’ve got a post on this exact subject scheduled for next Thursday so keep an eye out for that. The “above the neck/below the neck” adage is pretty standard and what most athletes tend to follow (typically on the advice of their athletic trainers, coaches, or family doctors). Runny noses and sore throats are generally OK to practice with (just back off on your workouts for a day or two and you’ll be fine) but if you develop a fever or your cold makes its way into your chest (like with bronchitis), then you definitely need to take a step back and rest for a couple days.

We’ve got several guys on the team sick right now (one with mono who is out for the fall, one with bronchitis who I haven’t seen in like a week and a half, another who found out last week that his persistent cold is actually asthma (on top of him actually having a cold), etc.) and as tough as it can make putting lineups together, it really is in everyone’s best interest that they take time off to recover and get back to 100%. The guys that have a standard cold will come and erg, row in the tanks, bike, or go for a run in lieu of rowing so they’re still getting a decent workout in but they’re able to go at a more “relaxed” pace (or stop midway through if necessary) based on how they’re feeling. No one abuses the coaches understanding and generosity when it comes to giving them time off or an alternate workout when they’re sick and in return, the coaches trust the rowers when they say they’re sick and as such expect them to follow up with our trainers/doctors accordingly.

As far as what defines being “too sick to row…” … I don’t know if you can say what being too sick to row is because it’s going to be different for everyone. Obviously if you have a fever, a cough that’s making it hard to breathe, or something like that then you should definitely not be at practice but if it’s just a regular cold then I think you have to trust the person who’s sick when they say how they’re feeling. I would give them the benefit of the doubt if they say they need a day off because faking your symptoms just to get out of practice or whatever is just pathetic (especially as a college student/adult) and if they’re an otherwise committed member of the team, you don’t really have any reason to not believe them when they say they’re not feeling 100%.

Since you’re a club team, I assume that the majority of the policies in place are enacted by team-elected student officials…? It might be worth discussing with them some sort of official “sick” rule that lays out when people should and should not be at practice, what the alternative workouts/plans are if you’re not well enough to go on the water but still OK to practice, and then present that to your coach so that there’s no (or at the very least, fewer) issues going forward. Old-school coaches tend to be very set in their ways (I had two in high school and while they were great in so many ways, we did occasionally have issues similar to this) and of the opinion that if they can survive all the ailments and maladies they had to deal with growing up (without the benefits of modern medicine), then the rest of us should be able to do that too. Different times call for different measures though so sitting down with the team leaders and hashing out a “team sick policy” is probably your best long-term solution.

Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi I am a coxswain, my coach is not afraid to show his disdain for coxswains but the girls in my boat for the most part do make some backhanded comment or when needed, stand up to the coach. That being said I feel like coaches and novices should have some sort of coxswain sensitivity training. Like a portion on being a decent human being in the cheesy safety video. But seriously coaches need to remember that often these PEOPLE are young impressionable girls who will take what you say to heart.

Not just girls – guys too. Granted, I do get more emails about the stuff I talked about today from young women but I do get a handful throughout the year from guys (mostly college ones) too.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think coxswains are a bunch of super special snowflakes that have to be praised every second or are incapable of taking/handling criticism (and if they are, GTFO because this isn’t the role or sport for you). I don’t think they deserve any more or less respect than anyone else on the team either just because they’re a coxswain. What I do think they deserve is an equal amount of respect and it’s pretty clear that that’s not a common practice.

It’s ridiculous that you even have to make the suggestion of “coxswain sensitivity training” because it’s not something that should be necessary in the first place. The whole “being a decent human being” thing should come pretty standard, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a coxswain or another rower. Who it is shouldn’t matter. I know some people will read this and think “OMG suck it up, it’s not that bad” and I get that – there are times when I think coxswains take things way too seriously or personally (note, this isn’t one of those times) and I say the same thing in my head but like the other person who messaged me said, the overall attitude that coxswains don’t do shit and are responsible for everything that goes wrong is way too prevalent. It seems to be more of a thing at the junior level than anywhere else (although it’s not exclusive to them), which makes sense because you’re a teenager and teenagers aren’t the most socially graceful people on the planet but again, that’s why having coaches, captains, and other team leaders not let it get that far in the first place is important.