Coxswain Skills: Awareness

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  || Boat feel || How to handle a negative coxswain eval || How to cox steady state workouts || How to cox short, high intensity workouts || Race steering || Steering a buoyed course || Evaluating practices || Evaluating races || Coxing erg tests

If you’ve ever been asked what the most important skill is for coxswains, what was your answer? The common one for inexperienced coxswains is “motivation” (can’t even eye-roll it anymore, it’s that ubiquitous), whereas coxswains who have been at it for a few seasons will usually say “safety”, which is both right and wrong because you need this dynamic skill first if you want to be safe.

The title of today’s post should give it away – it’s awareness. 

The basic definition of awareness is being able to identify, process, and comprehend information about the situation you’re in. To get better at doing all three of those things, there’s a couple things you can do:

Learn to anticipate rather than react

Think ahead about how future actions (of yourself, other coxswains, the conditions, etc.) will affect the environment around you.

Go with your gut

If your gut says “don’t try to cross in front of that eight that is 200m away and rowing at full pressure”, don’t do it.

Avoid situational overload

This can be tough when you’re just starting out but educating yourself on what you don’t know/understand and learning how to prioritize information so you’re not going on a needle-in-a-haystack search through your brain to figure out what needs to happen will make your life a lot easier.

Don’t get complacent

The times I’ve screwed up the most during practice have been on slow days where it’s easy to just go through the routine motions rather than deliberately execute each action. Cockiness also plays a big part here. If you start assuming that everything is under control it becomes easy to stop paying attention to anything that isn’t right in front of your face.

Be alert

You know how they say don’t drive when you’re tired because it impairs your reaction time? Same goes with steering a 53 foot long shell. It’s your responsibility to minimize how fatigued you are by managing your time outside the boathouse well enough that you’re able to get an adequate amount of sleep in order to be rested and ready for practice. College freshmen with early morning practices tend to learn this in “trial by fire” fashion (guilty).

If you’ve ever asked me what you need to do to make it at “the next level” you know that I’ve said that being a good JNT coxswain, a good college coxswain, a good U23 coxswain, or a good national team coxswain is all about getting incrementally better at executing the basics. That starts with doing each of the things listed above. You’d be amazed at how drastically more competent and skilled you can become just by being aware of the little things and doing each of them well.

With all that said, what do you need to be aware of on any given day? Have you ever actually thought about it? Here’s a short, minimally detailed, and not even remotely comprehensive list to get you started.

Bridge arches (which ones can you use/not use and when)

Obstacles or obstructions on the dock

Other crews (on land and on the water)

Your surroundings



Noise levels of your environment (since this will impact your communication with your coach, other coxswains, and maybe your own crew)

Expectations and goals for practice/the race

Your language (what you’re saying and how you’re saying it)

Health of yourself and the athletes

The practice/race plan

Practice management

Coaching styles and the terminology used (different coaches do/say things in different ways, which is important when you’re at summer camps and with coaches you’re not familiar with)

Matching your tone with practice (not coxing steady state the same way you cox drills)

The purpose of drills, practice, pieces, etc.


Steering (boat responds slower with less people rowing, will be affected by conditions, current, skill level of yourself and rowers, etc.)

Your level of understanding/comprehension of your coach’s instructions (if you recognize you don’t know what’s going on, say something)

Bladework, balance, timing, and general technique of the crew

Nearly every skill you could possibly want to work on this season – whether it’s steering, identifying technical issues, etc. – starts with awareness. It encompasses everything we do. If you still haven’t identified any specific areas for improvement for this spring, start here. When you do come up with your list of things to work on, you’ll have a leg up if you’ve already spent a few practices doing everything listed above.

Image via // @audrey_stras

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