Category: Novice

How to shorten the learning curve

Coxing How To Novice

How to shorten the learning curve

Around this time of year is when I start getting questions from coxswains (both novice and varsity) about how they can learn everything they need to know faster … which I totally get, you want to get up to speed and not feel like you’re the behind the eight ball. That’s valid but … you have to respect the process. This stuff takes more than a single practice (sometimes more than a single season) to really nail down and that’s OK as long as it’s not taking an inordinate amount of time simply because you’re not willing to do the work. (“The work” isn’t listening to recordings every free second of your day either, for all the coxswains out there who think pouring over YouTube videos is the best/only way to get better.)

Below are a couple tips that I’ve picked up over the years from my coaches, coaches I’ve worked with, other coxswains I’ve talked to, or just from completely unrelated things I’ve read or seen online that can help you shorten the learning curve and gain the knowledge/confidence you need to be an effective coxswain.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

This is something I’ve had to remind myself of many times since I started my job at Columbia. Don’t be stubborn about asking for help. You can save so much time (and stress) by talking to someone who’s already done the thing you’re trying to do and using their insight/advice as a framework to go off of. “Model those who have already forged the path” is how I saw one article describe it. For me, that’s meant heavily relying on the head coaches to explain the processes they already had in place so that rather than coming up with something entirely new on my own, all I have to do is tweak what they’ve done to fit what works best for me or, if I do need to scrap it, use what they’ve done as a template to create something that fits my/our needs better.

The same goes for coxing. An example is when I was a novice, I leaned hard on the varsity coxswains to help me learn how to steer because I knew it was a skill I needed to pick up quickly. I asked a ton of questions (the same ones multiple times to each of the older coxswains) and used bits and pieces of the advice they gave me to shape my approach to steering … and that’s held fast for the last 15 years. I’ve integrated new things over the years as I’ve gotten ideas from other coxswains but the foundation is an aggregate of my teammates experiences in learning that same skill. This probably saved me weeks (and a few busted bow balls) because rather than starting completely from scratch and trying to do it all on my own (without actually knowing where to start), I modeled the coxswains who’d already been where I was at.

Seek feedback

If you wait for feedback you’re only ever gonna get it when you’ve fucked up. That’s just a fact of coxing. It’s not a bad thing when someone points that out either but you’re going to be able to process it a lot better (emotionally, strategically, whatever) when you acknowledge it yourself and ask for advice on how to improve vs. an annoyed, frustrated rower actively seeking you out to say “dude, you did XYZ wrong…”. This is also why I stress the importance of coxswain evaluations any chance I get because you will not get better if they are not part of your approach to self-improvement.

Related: Making mistakes

You can’t go on the water just to cox either … by which I mean you can’t go out there and just go through the motions because you have to be there and you assume that somehow by osmosis, just sitting in the boat will make you better. That’s not what “putting in the time” means. You’ve got to go out with a purpose (beyond whatever the team’s actual plans/goals for the day are) and be able to go to people at the end of the week and say “hey, I’ve been working on trying to call the drills better this week and incorporate more technical feedback into my calls, do you have any feedback on how that’s gone, if there was any calls you thought worked really well or didn’t work at all, etc.?”. Less generality, more specificity when it comes to soliciting feedback.

Take advantage of every opportunity

You just started coxing last month and you hear the masters that row out of your boathouse need a coxswain this weekend for practice. Volunteer to cox them. Your coach wants to switch another coxswain into your boat for the day and have you ride in the launch. Instead of blankly staring at whatever the boat’s doing for 90 minutes and silently fuming about being switched out, engage and have an actual conversation with your coach about what you’re seeing, what he’s seeing, his goals for certain drills/pieces, stuff you’ve been working on yourself, your personal goals for the season, etc. Your boat (the 1V) is doing a land workout today and the 3V coxswain has a dentist appointment so their boat might get stuck on land too. Ask if you can take them out since you’ve never coxed that crew and you haven’t been on the water with your assistant coach in awhile.

The more opportunities you seek out, the more they’ll be presented to you in the future and the more chances you’ll have to practice and refine your skills. Don’t just cox the crews you’re assigned or the ones you’re comfortable being with and do not avoid volunteering to cox a crew because you think they’re beneath your skill level. None of us are that good that we can’t take out the 5V for a day. There’s something to be learned from every boat you get in and if you limit yourselves to just the lineups your coach puts you in, you’re really restricting your capacity for getting better.

Deconstruct the skill you’re trying to learn

When it comes to getting through my to-do list, I break each task down to its individual components so I can get a better sense of what that task entails and how long it’ll take to complete (based on the number and/or complexity of each of its components). It also helps ensure that nothing is overlooked along the way. I do this all the time, especially now, (you would not believe how many moving pieces there are to scheduling an official visit…) but I did it a lot while coxing too. I say “respect the process” a lot and this is one of those things that helps you become comfortable doing that, even if it is a little daunting at first seeing every. single. thing. written out in front of you.

Related: Top 20 terms (these posts are a good example of this “deconstruction”)

For example, saying you want to “get better at steering” is fine if you just want to alert yourself that it’s something you need to do. If you’re trying to actually develop a plan of attack to improve that skill though, you have to break it down to each of the things that goes into maneuvering a 53 foot long piece of equipment, ranging from how you’re positioning yourself in the boat (broken down further to how you sit and how you position your hands) to understanding how your point is effected by a technical issue (and what to say/do to fix that first) or the elements. Once you know all the individual components that make up steering in general, then you can pinpoint the ones you didn’t know played into that, the ones you already know you need to improve, etc. and start working on them one by one. As you improve each of those things, you’ll notice over time that your steering is getting better … not because you’re just broadly “working on your steering” but because you’ve determined and are addressing each of the underlying elements that comprise “steering” as a whole.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

This is the only time I’ll tell a coxswain that being repetitive is a good thing. If you want to learn how to do something, that requires doing it often and persisting in doing it over and over and over and over and over again until it becomes second nature. “Expert-level performance is the result of expert-level practice”. Rarely, if ever, is a coxswain good at something purely due to innate talent. It might be like, 3% of it but the bulk of their success and mastery of a particular skill is more a result of their stubborn dedication to committing each of its fundamental components to muscle memory than it is anything else.

This is one of the few things that doesn’t fall under the “it’s worked for me but it might not work for you” caveat that I try to remind people of with the advice I give. Each of those things up above will work for you if integrate them into your routine. Like I said at the beginning, you’re not going to pick up all the nuances of steering or how to cox a 2k in a single practice but if you’re following the advice I laid out above and making it work for you, the learning curve, especially as a a novice, won’t feel nearly as steep.

Image via // @nickmdanielson

Coxswain skills: Running a smooth practice

Coxing Novice

Coxswain skills: Running a smooth practice

There’s a lot of things you can do to make yourself invaluable to your team and one of the highest ones on the list (top five, easily) is being able to run a smooth practice. Since most of us are only a few days into the fall semester and haven’t been on the water too many times yet, now is when you should be communicating with the other coxswains and coaches about how practices are gonna run this year so that you can maximize the amount of time you have on the water. Varsity coxswains, you should be familiarizing the new coxswains on your team with whatever your “best practices” are for running/managing practice so that they’re up to speed and can start getting used to the way things work on your team (rather than trying to figure it out on their own because they’re afraid they’ll look stupid if they ask).

Below are some quick bullet points on what you should be doing on a daily basis to ensure practice runs efficiently. I’ve touched on or elaborated on several of these in a variety of previous posts so if you want to check those out you can visit the “practice management” tag.

Have a practice plan before you launch

If you don’t know what the plan is, ask your coach. Ideally if/when possible you should arrive a few minutes before the rest of the team so you can talk have a few uninterrupted minutes with your coach to go over what you’ll be doing that day and ask any questions you have. The practice plan should entail where you’re meeting once you launch (especially important if multiple crews are going out together), the primary focus/purpose of whatever drills you’ll be doing (this is a good opportunity to get clarification on how the drill is executed if you’re unsure or unfamiliar with it), what pieces you’ll be doing, and anything in particular from the last few days of practice that you should be watching for or carrying over (i.e. incorporating in the technical work you did yesterday into your calls during the steady state piece today).

If you’re going out with another crew, keep the boats together

Communication with the other coxswains is imperative so that you’re not getting too far ahead or behind or drifting away from each other. From a pure safety standpoint, your coach should be able to see you in his direct line of vision if he’s behind both crews in the launch – one of you shouldn’t be 300m to the left of the launch and the other 100m to the right. It’s impossible to actually watch the crews and coach when the boats are really spread out so make it a priority to work together and communicate so that you know where the other is pointed. If you’re doing drills or something and one crew gets really far ahead or behind, know what the protocol is for that – does your coach want you to keep going, if you’re really far ahead do they want you to drop the drill and replace it with a pause so the other crew can catch up, if you’re the one behind do they want you to row continuously at 3/4 pressure until you catch up and then continue on with the drill … etc. All that stuff needs to be ironed out and communicated amongst the coxswain corps before you launch. Ideally it should be a start-of-the-season “this is how we’re gonna handle XYZ situation” type of conversation but it never hurts to discuss it amongst yourselves again each time you go out together.

Shut up

You would be amazed how much you learn and accomplish when you stop. talking. The mic is a privilege, not a right. Listen to your coach, don’t be having side conversations when they’re trying to coach (adjusting your point and other safety issues are obviously the exception to the rule), and whatever calls you’re making, make sure they’re something that will have a positive effect on the rowers and the boat. That especially applies to novice coxswains. You do not have to and should not talk for the entire practice. There’s a lot that has to be learned and understood before your calls will be effective so don’t be afraid to just focus on your steering and soak in the knowledge bombs your coach is dropping throughout practice. You’ll pick up the nuances of coxing a lot faster that way.

Be in control

Safety is your first priority. Think out your actions before you do them and always be looking and thinking ahead of where you currently are. Follow directions but don’t pass go, do not collect $200 if you don’t understand what you’re being asked to do. You’ll save more time asking for clarification than you will by making assumptions. Make your calls clear and concise, communicate commands immediately, (i.e. when your coach says “OK let’s get started”, don’t spend 30 seconds monologuing to the crew about whatever you’re about to do before you actually say “sit ready”), and speak with authority. Own your fuck ups as soon as they happen and move on. You will make mistakes and that’s fine, just don’t make the same one twice and don’t be that person that says “it wasn’t my fault”. It might not have been but it’s your crew, your equipment, etc. and you’re the coxswain, thus whatever it is is your responsibility.

Ultimately a smooth practice is a collaborative effort between you, the other coxswains, and your coach(es), which means a) you’ve all got to be on the same page and b) you’ve gotta be able to adapt at a moment’s notice if/when something changes or derails the original plan. This is where being in control and maintaining your composure can really make you stand out in a positive way, not just to your coach but your crew as well. “How do I earn my boat’s respect” is a frequent question that I get asked and one piece of that 1000 piece puzzle is being able to do all the things above really well.

Image via // @bill.bcqt

Coxing Masters Novice Racing

Question of the Day

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).

Coxing How To Novice

Making mistakes

It’s not like it’s any big secret that our generation doesn’t know how to fail at things. It’s definitely something I struggle(d) with but over time coxing helped me reframe it as a skill that can be developed rather than as some defining characteristic. You can’t be a coxswain – not even a good coxswain, just a coxswain – and not be OK with making mistakes. It’s going to happen, especially when you’re just getting started, and how you respond to those moments (and their aftermath, in some cases) can set the stage for how easily you adapt to adverse situations in the future.

Also, note to all the parents that are reading … public shaming in this context is a good thing. There’s no need to be traumatized for your kid (who, by the way, is a young adult and should be able to handle critiques and feedback by now) because they had to go a whole four days without being praised for walking upright and breathing without being told to. If the only thing you take away from them telling you about their camp experience is that “public shaming” is a thing they participated in and you subsequently focus on that in a negative way instead of asking them what they learned and took away from it, you. are. not. helping. them. Ask them questions about what they did wrong, how they reacted to getting called out for it, what they did differently next time as a result, etc. and help them learn that making a mistake is not some apocalyptic event that is going to derail their entire career. Be supportive but don’t coddle them – I promise, they’ll survive.

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

Coxing Novice Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Any suggestions for how to handle differences in rower-coxswain experience levels, i.e. when the coxswain is more experienced than the rowers or the rowers are much more experienced than the coxswain? I’m a rower in a boat in the latter situation currently and want to be able to give the coxswain suggestions on what to do specifically but because all the rowers are new to the team (and because I’ve never coxed), it’s a little hard.

I’ve touched a bit on this previously in the post linked below. That question wasn’t exactly the same but it’s similar enough that I think most of what I said there can apply here too.

Related: Thoughts on stroke seats yelling at coxswains and telling them to do things during pieces?

If you’re an experienced rower in a crew with a novice coxswain or one who is inexperienced by comparison, I do think that you should feel a sense of responsibility to help get them up to speed. Obviously it’s not solely your responsibility (let alone a primary one) and you shouldn’t interpret it as such but if you want them and by extension, the boat/team to get better, taking the initiative to help them out will go a long ways. (That being said, this is a lot easier to do when you’re the stroke vs. if you’re like, 3 seat because you can talk about this stuff in real-time on the water vs. having to wait to talk about it off the water to avoid yelling from one end of the boat to the other.)

Think of it like a wide receiver and somebody who just started at quarterback. The WR might not be able to help much with some of the more nuanced QB skills, like moving inside the pocket, scrambling to escape a blitz, or the proper hand placement to ensure a clean ball transfer from the center but they can help with the broader foundational stuff, like running through passing drills to help them work on their accuracy and spending time talking through the playbook so they can learn the plays, coverages, etc.

The same thing applies here – you might not be able to help them with coxswain-specific stuff like how to steer but you can help them understand the purpose of the drills you’re doing (and how to execute them) and the basics of the rowing stroke and general technique. Even if you’ve only been rowing for a year, you should have a decent enough understanding of those three foundational things that you can communicate the bare minimum of each one.

This is what my coaches in high school did with us and I still credit it as being a big part of why I and the other coxswains were always able to pick up coxing so quickly. Novice coxswains went in varsity boats and the experienced strokes would guide us through how to call a drill or explain how on that last piece they felt X which translates to Y so on this next piece, try to look for Z with the blades and see if you can make the connection between what you’re feeling and seeing. It wasn’t like they were holding our hands either, the majority of the responsibility was still on us to make the effort (and make mistakes) in an attempt to learn how to do stuff but on the water they were our biggest resource if/when we needed it and the ones we relied on to hold us accountable if we screwed up (without being dicks about it).

If you have trouble doing that, for whatever reason, then talk with the experienced coxswains and explain to them whatever it was that you wanted to say and see if they can bring it up with your coxswain. I wouldn’t get in the habit of doing this because you’re the one in the boat with them so you should get comfortable communicating with them (and it gets super frustrating having to be the middle man for a boat you’re not even in) but if there’s something that you can’t figure out how to explain that they might be better able to do, by all means ask for their help.

Best advice I can offer to you or anyone in a similar situation though is to get over feeling like you can’t say something because of some arbitrary reason like “I’ve never coxed”. Don’t get me wrong, I fully get where you’re coming from when you say that and I can see how that might make you apprehensive about speaking up but you don’t need to be a coxswain to explain why certain tones of voices are more effective in different situations or that if the boat is falling to starboard, XYZ needs to happen. Be humble enough to know when something is out of your “area of expertise” and what’s best left to other coxswains to explain but don’t be so concerned about stepping on toes that you inadvertently hold them (and your boat) back just because you don’t think you’re qualified enough to offer up a suggestion.

What it means to be a “walk on”

College Coxing Novice Recruiting

What it means to be a “walk on”

Now that the start of a new school year is fast approaching, I’m getting a lot more questions about being a walk-on. Based on emails I get throughout the year it seems like something that not a lot of people are aware of or know is an option … despite the majority of college programs being made up of walk-ons. Today’s post is going to quickly highlight what it means and how it compares to being a recruit.

There are two types of walk-ons: the ones that have no prior experience with rowing and pick it up for the first time in college (a good number of the rowers in Rio right now did this) and the ones who rowed/coxed in high school but weren’t supported by coaches throughout the admissions process (meaning you can be actively recruited and still be a walk-on) or didn’t go through the recruiting process at all.

Related: I am currently a senior in high school and have been rowing for a while. If I am interested in walking on to a team in the fall, should I fill out the questionnaire on the website?

Athletes who do this are also sometimes known as “preferred walk-ons” or “experienced walk-ons”, which basically just means that they get lumped in with the recruits once the coach knows you’re interested in the program. A lot of coxswains tend to fall into this category since most coaches use their available slots on rowers and their grades are typically good enough that they don’t need that boost from the coaches. The only disadvantage in not having the coaches support you is that you don’t get that extra boost that could get you into your reach/”dream” school if you’re on the bubble.  In most cases though after talking with the coach (and doing a pre-read, if that’s an option) you’ll have a good idea as to whether or not your reach school is actually within reach, so it’s not like you’re applying while being completely unsure of where you stand.

Related: College Recruiting 101

It’s important to keep in mind that coaches can only support so many people. An example is one of the (Ivy League) coaches I worked with over the last couple of weeks. They’ve got 350+ athletes in their current recruiting database and of the 200-250ish that remain once those without the grades or erg scores are eliminated, only 14 will be offered slots. That doesn’t mean that their incoming class will only have 14 rowers, it just means that anyone outside of those 14 will need to have the grades to get in on their own. If they’ve got a strong academic resume then they’ll probably be told that they’re wanted on the team but there’s not really a point in using a slot on them since they don’t need the help, whereas someone who has a more “average” academic resume (accompanied with big ergs and a solid rowing background) might be offered a slot so the coaches can wield their influence (I use that term very loosely and borderline sarcastically) to ensure they get who they want.

Related: How do you respond if you aren’t chosen to be recruited?

If you already know as a junior or senior that you want to row in college but don’t want to go through the recruiting process, don’t have the erg scores, etc. you should still loosely go through the process anyways. All that entails is reaching out to the coaches once you’ve been admitted and saying that you’re interested in walking on to the team. Not only does this help them get a sense of what their numbers will look like, it can also let you get a lot of your NCAA compliance paperwork out of the way sooner.

Related: As a coxswain are you treated differently as a recruit to a D1 college as opposed to a varsity cox who walks on the team? Or is it rare to have someone walk on a crew team who coxed through high school?

The last two years I’ve helped manage the walk-ons at MIT and one of our walk-ons emailed me in July last year to say he was interested in joining the team. Reaching out early like that allowed us to get him set up with the athletic department at the same time our current guys were filling out their paperwork, which we have to do every year. It all has to be completed by a certain date in order to guarantee everyone is cleared to practice at the beginning of the year otherwise you get moved to the very bottom of the list behind all the other teams, which means it’ll take for.freaking.ever. to get cleared. Two to three weeks is about how long it’s taken since I’ve been there and most of you know how brutal it is to miss out on that kind of water time. Moral of the story/pro tip, if you know you want to walk-on, even as someone who’s never rowed before (like the guy on our team I just mentioned), the sooner you reach out, the better.

Related: How hard is it to just start rowing in college, especially at a D1 or Ivy League school?

I anticipate getting a lot more questions about this as we get closer to September so I’ve kept this post kinda vague in order to just cover the basics and leave room for another post in the future that answers your more specific questions. If you think of anything, leave a comment or shoot me an email!

Image via // @kmillerottier
How to cox (and coach) novices

Coxing How To Novice Rowing

How to cox (and coach) novices

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat

Coxing novices when you’re all novices isn’t that hard but doing it as an experienced coxswain  … that can be tough (at first). There aren’t many things you’ll encounter during your career that tests your ability to communicate quite like working with novices will. There’s a quote from Einstein that says “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough” and you realize how true that is when you’re trying to explain the stroke sequence or the nuances of the catch to a group of people who are completely new to the sport.

Related: My coach has enlisted the help of the rowers who’ve finished their last season at school to help with a learn to row program for the new recruits. We’ll be taking them out in quads for a couple of weeks. Do you have any advice on how to teach them to get the basics down? My learn to row experience is just a big blur now!

Twice in my career I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned if I actually knew anything about rowing – once as a senior when I coxed our novice eight and again four years ago when I started coaching. I’d think that what I was saying was clear and made perfect sense and it’d only be after the fact when someone would say “I knew what you were saying because I’ve rowed for ten years but they didn’t understand it at all…” that I’d realize how ineffective my communication style  was given the audience I was working with.

Below is some of the advice I’ve gotten over the years that has helped me improve how I cox (and coach) novices.

Consider your audience

Not only are they not rowers, some of them aren’t even athletes. You have to tailor your language so that it makes sense to everyone, regardless of whatever previous exposure they have to rowing or sports in general. Rowing itself has a pretty intense nomenclature that doesn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with it so before you say “sit ready at the catch with the handles off the gunnels and the blades buried”, take the time to explain what all the sport-specific terminology means. Don’t be that person that tries to impress people with big words just to make it seem like you know what you’re talking about – nobody cares what you know if you can’t communicate it to the masses in a way that everyone can understand.

Compartmentalize

Have you ever sat through a 90 minute long lecture and just had no idea what’s going on because the professors are throwing so much information at you? Trying to absorb all of that in a short period of time is hard and you tend to leave more overwhelmed than when you arrived. It’s the same here – you can’t try to teach the entire stroke in an hour-long practice and expect them to get it. (I naively tried once, it was a disaster.)

An analogy that I heard a coach use once was that you have to look at novices like babies who will choke on their food if it’s not cut up into small enough pieces. Rather than trying to feed the rowers the entire stroke at once, break it down … and then break it down even further … and then for good measure, break it down again.

I’m a visual learner so one of the things I did when I started coaching (at the suggestion of another coach) was I’d write out whatever it was I wanted to cover during practice (the recovery, for example) and then I’d make branches from there of what all that concept entailed. It can get pretty involved but it makes it really easy to see each “bite” (and how many there actually are), in addition to helping you organize your thoughts better so you’re not bouncing around from idea to idea to idea while you’re on the water.

Keep your delivery simple

Keep the focus on one or two points at a time and try to only comment on those things. This is something I have to remind myself of all the time (more so when I’m coxing, less so when coaching) because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything you see wrong instead of focusing on improving one specific thing at a time.

If your coach is working on body prep, for example, make sure your calls relate to that and ignore (for now) the fact that the timing is off, 5-seat isn’t burying his oar all the way, and 7-seat is coming out way early. The time will come when commenting on all that will be appropriate but for now when they’re just learning how to take a stroke, keep your focuses narrow.

This also applies when you’re not really focusing on anything and are just trying to get some strokes in. It’s OK to just let them row without getting hung up on every little thing you see that’s “off”. (This is in the same vein of “it’s OK to not talk sometimes”.) If you do want to make a correction, make it something “big picture” so that they don’t get too overwhelmed trying to process what you’re saying.

Give them actionable takeaways

As we as coxswains all know, it’s a lot easier to work on something when you’re given a tangible piece of feedback vs. something vague (i.e. “steer straighter” vs. “hook your pinkies over the gunnels so you’re less inclined to use your whole hand and end up oversteering“). 

A typical way to end practice for most coaches is to recap what you did that day and then give the crew and/or specific individuals a takeaway that they can continue working on tomorrow. I got in the habit of doing this as we were coming in to dock, usually because everything was fresh in my mind and if for some reason our coach wasn’t able to meet with us, the rowers would at least get some feedback that they could use during the next practice (while it was all still fresh in their minds too). “Keep working on the timing” is too vague but something like “Sam, timing looked better today. Keep working on getting the body set sooner on the recovery so you’re moving right with Matt…” gives them feedback on the “big picture” (timing) while giving them somewhere specific to focus their efforts (body prep).

My lack of patience is one of my biggest weaknesses and it is tested when I cox novices. You will have to repeat things numerous times, you will get frustrated when they keep doing whatever it is you just said to stop doing, and there will be times where you wonder if there are any neurons firing at all in the heads of the novices in your boat. I got a couple emails this spring asking how to deal with that and the best advice I can offer is to take a deep breath and, like I said above, find where you can break things down further. Being able to take a step back, analyze what you’re seeing, and then simplify it from there can/will alleviate that frustration because you’ll almost always pick up on something that you didn’t before that you can then communicate to the rowers.

If you have the chance to cox a learn to row camp this summer or if your coach throws you in with the novices in the fall, don’t begrudge the opportunity. It’s a great chance to work on your communication skills and really test how well you understand the technical aspects of the stroke. If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a plateau it can also help you get out of it by forcing you to abandon auto-pilot and start thinking again about what you’re seeing and the calls you’re making.

Image via // @david_watts_

Novice Video of the Week

Video of the Week: Novice boat handling skills

This is a great instructional video for novice rowers (and coxswains, but mostly rowers) because it walks you through the entire process of getting the boat out of and back into the racks, how to carry the oars, adjusting the foot stretchers, getting in/out of the boat, etc.

Related: Coxing a boat in and out of the house

In the moment of trying to do all these things it can be kind of confusing and this video does a good job of showing what each part of the process looks like, as well as demonstrating what the applicable commands are.

Advice from a former novice

Coxing Novice Racing

Advice from a former novice

Back in late June I got an email from a coxswain who had just finished her novice season and wanted to share some of what she’d learned and what she wish she’d learned throughout the spring. Here’s what she had to say (the italicized text is mine).

“Now that I’m no longer a novice, I can reflect on my time on the novice team and also add in all the new things I’m learning at a competitive camp. My hope is that I can help the novices that look at your blog with all my mishaps and experiences, so here are two lists:

Things I wish my coach told me while I was a novice:

When you’re rowing it up after your sprint race, if you see boats coming down the course about to pass you, weigh enough.

For those that don’t know, this is a sportsmanship thing and also so that the wake from you rowing doesn’t impact the crew in the lane closest to you. You’re not always required to stop (the officials will tell you if it’s something you must do but if they don’t, ask to confirm) but it’s just one of those things you should do regardless. It also gives the rowers a chance to grab a quick drink or make any needed adjustments, not to mention cheer on their teammates if a race your team is in is on the course.

When you have a bad day/bad row don’t let it stay in the boat with you. Let it go and be patient.

Don’t expect rowers to do what you say just because you’re their coxswain. You have to be their leader.

When steering, less is more.

Related: How to steer an eight or four, Oversteering, and “Small adjustments

If you need to clear your skeg of weeds in an eight, you need to turn all the way around, lean over the stern deck on your stomach, and get both hands down on the skeg.

Unless it’s 80 degrees out this is rarely an enjoyable activity but if you’ve got a lot of weeds/leaves wrapped around the rudder or a stick caught between the fin and the rudder (had that happen at HOCR two years ago) then reaching into the water and loosening it up manually is your best/fastest option. Just make sure that you’re pulled over to the side out of the way of other crews that are practicing or racing. 

Things I’m so glad my coach told me when I was a novice:

Your warmup is this, your race plan is this, and when I raced in college, it helped when my coxswain said this.

With regards to the first two, if these aren’t things your coaches tell you, ask them yourself. They might forget, they might think you already know, or they might think that one of the other coaches already filled you in. If you don’t know ASK. These are not dumb questions, these are critical parts of your race day preparation.

Don’t panic, and have fun.

This is how you stake boat. (She showed us a video and then the next day we practiced it on our dock.)

Related: Spring season pre-race prep (includes videos on how to get into a stake boat)

When coxing an eight, instead of staring at one oar at a time, stare at a point in the air in front of your stroke, and your peripherals will bring everything to you. (Tricky to do, but when practiced, super helpful.)

Being a few pounds over the limit is okay. It’s called the minimum for a reason.

So, as a message to all frustrated novice coxswains (and rowers!), here are my words of advice: Hang in there. You never stop learning but it does get better.”

Image via // @gramulho