Hi – I’m a relatively new coxswain (~6 months) for a master’s team in my city. We have a few head races coming up late August/early September, and I’ve been asked to cox the super novice master’s team. I haven’t coxed a head race before, and while your existing posts are really helpful, I was wondering if you could give advice specifically for coxing a less competitive boat (not necessarily less competitive in spirit, but definitely in rowing ability)? I worry that there will be a lot of boats passing during the 5k course and that I won’t be able to make any calls off of other boats without them ending poorly (like if a boat is coming up from behind, I know to make calls about pushing off of them etc., but if those boats keep passing us regardless of what we do, I don’t know how productive those “pushing off” calls will be if nothing comes of them). How would you approach coxing a race like this?
Also, do you have any good coxswain recordings where the coxswain is both doing a good job and the boat isn’t winning? I feel like a lot of the exemplary recordings on this website are of boats that are able to be super competitive and while there is obviously some transfer of tips/knowledge from that type of recording to my current coxing, it also doesn’t always feel relatable to my own coxing situation (where I’m coxing super novice masters rowers). I’m excited to have a chance to cox my first head race with lower stakes but I still want to do right by the rowers and prep just as seriously as any other cox in any other boat, which is why I’m getting nervous about having the right calls!
I think accepting that they’re a super novice team that is probably going to get passed a lot is important. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have a similar approach to coxing a normal crew but if our definitions of “super novice” are the same, you kinda have to match the complexity of your race plan to the skill level of the crew … which is to say you should basically go out with the goal of doing a few 10s/20s throughout the race but mostly row it for yourselves rather than as a competitive piece like you otherwise would, if that makes sense. I know that sounds kind of dismissive and negative but that’s the reality of coxing crews that are way below the skill level of the other people you’re racing against. You don’t have to change anything as far as intensity or spirit goes, like you said, but you do have to adapt your strategy and be realistic.
When I’ve coxed or coached novice crews in the past, being honest and up front with them has always been the key to them going into the race with a good mindset. If you say “yea, we’re probably gonna get passed a lot because we’re the least experienced ones out there” or “OK here’s the race plan (and then lay out something super unnecessarily detailed)” then they’re going to feel deflated, overwhelmed, or both before they even get in the boat. If you frame it as “yea, we’re the slow guys but we’re faster than we were a few weeks ago and we’re all getting our blades in at the same time now so let’s go out there and row our race … we already know other crews are gonna pass us and that’s fine but the primary goal is to focus on our boat and try to beat our 5k time from practice last week.” then they’re more likely to feel energized about the piece because you’ve neutralized the whole getting passed thing and given them something tangible to work towards (more tangible than passing another crew, finishing in XYZ position, etc.).
As much as I hate to say “be positive” because of how cheerleader-y it sounds, that is the tone you have to have when you have that conversation. (Keep in mind there’s a big difference between being positive but realistic and sugarcoating it because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not productive at all.) I’m not really an overly peppy person in that sense but I have a sarcastic, dry enough sense of humor that I can say “we’re slow AF” and still get people to loosen up and go into it with a smile on their faces. Whatever your personality dictates in those kind of situations, just roll with it.
You’re right that those “pushing off” types of calls probably won’t be super effective, especially if/when you know the crew is going to pass you. Them “ending poorly” is probably unlikely – at most you’ll have an undesired effect if the energy falls off – but again, it’s all in how you frame it. If you say “Sarasota’s walking, let’s hold them off, push them back, etc…” and then they walk through you in five strokes then yea, that’s pretty demoralizing. If you say “Sarasota’s coming up behind us, eyes on the guy in front of you, let’s keep it internal and make ’em work for it…”, again, that gives them tangible things to focus on and work for. If/when they’ve moved through you you can say “solid effort there guys, finishes looked cleaner and Sarasota had to call another five on top of their move just to get past us, way to fight…”.
When I coached my high school team a few years ago we’d have the novices do pieces against the lightweights and one of their goals was making it take longer for the lightweights to walk through them this time than it did last time – i.e. if it took them 18 strokes to walk through them last time, this time we’re gonna dig in and make it take 20. They knew they were gonna get walked through but their primary focus was less on holding them off and more on digging in, testing their own limits, and staying in their boat rather than getting caught up with what this other crew was doing. How long it took the lightweights to move through them was a secondary goal.
Don’t worry about the calls. Worry about steering effectively first and following the rules of the course. The nice thing about coxing a novice crew for a low-stakes race is that you really don’t have to prep as much or as hard as you would if you were coxing like, the Princeton 2V at HOCR. Basically my point is don’t overthink this. Look at the course maps ahead of time, familiarize yourself with the starting area and any tricky spots (i.e. anything marked by a buoy), and have a general plan (i.e. a couple spots where you wanna do 10s/20s) and a rough idea of the calls you wanna use based off of what’s been working during practice. Don’t listen to other recordings and try to implement calls you hear/like because it’s unlikely they’ll be right for a crew that’s “super novice masters rowers”. If you can adapt it to make it work, by all means go for it, but test it out in practice ahead of time so you know if it has the desired effect and if it’s worth using during the race. Don’t try to memorize a bunch of calls that sound cool because you will forget them, which will just cause you to freak out during the race because you’re drawing a blank and can’t think of what to say.
Related: Coxswain recordings, pt. 11
There’s probably others but the recording I immediately thought of is this recording of GW’s freshman eight in the petite finals at IRAs in 2013 (also found in the post linked above). I don’t believe they were ahead at any point in the race but he still coxes it really well and you can tell at the end that they’re not bummed about where they finished (5th ahead of Dartmouth, 11th overall in the field). I get what you’re saying about some stuff not feeling relatable but a) you’re coxing (super novice) masters so that’s to be expected (nothing against masters but it’s to be expected) and b) the relatable stuff shouldn’t be winning, losing, competitiveness, etc., it should be tone, execution, and communication. 10th grade tennis players probably can’t relate to Federer or Serena but the fundamentals of their game are still the same and that’s the important stuff to pay attention to and incorporate into your own style of play (or in this case, coxing).