How a novice coxswain improves is really the same as how any level of coxswain improves – it’s all about goal setting and purposefully reflecting on those goals throughout the season.
I’ve talked about setting goals before but in addition to outlining some objectives for your season, here are a few other tips on how to continually improve your coxing prowess.
Be a student of the sport.
The thing with sports (or any hobby) is that you first have to learn their nuances before you get good at whatever it is. With crew, the best way to learn is to become a student of the sport. Listen to your coach (intently, purposefully, and diligently), learn the techniques they’re teaching (how they’re executed, their purpose, etc.), and get on the erg and practice. One of my biggest pet peeves with rowing is coxswains who don’t know how to row and worse, won’t make the effort to learn. In my opinion, you should be one of the most technically proficient people in your boat. Why? Because if you’re telling the rowers what to do and critiquing every minuscule movement they make you should be able to replicate what you’re telling them to do and do it pretty damn well
When you’re in school, you expect to learn from the best, right? What’s the point in learning differential equations or organic chemistry from someone who can explain it but can’t solve the equations or create the reactions themselves? I’ve had professors like that and my confidence in their abilities to teach me was pretty nonexistent. I and my classmates really suffered for it too. You don’t want your rowers to feel that way about you so developing a thorough understanding of the stroke, the drills, how things should feel, what it should look like, etc. will help you get better at communicating with your crew and invoke a sense of confidence in you from them.
Improvement #1: Instead of just “showing up”, learn everything you can about the sport – the more you do outside of practice, the more you’ll benefit during practice.
How to do it: Study. Look online for examples of things you don’t understand. Talk to your coaches. Listen to them when they’re coaching. Ask questions. Practice the drills you call on the water. Figure out what makes sense, what doesn’t, and how you can explain it better.
I’ve talked about this more times than I can count – at least in 75% of the questions I get related to coxing I say something about confidence – so to avoid belaboring the point, I’ll just say this: a confident coxswain is a trustworthy coxswain. There’s a big difference between being confident and cocky though so don’t get the two confused.
In talking with numerous novice coxswains, confidence is their biggest concern. Your boat has to believe you know what you’re doing, as do you. Establishing control the moment you step in the boat allows the rowers to focus solely on rowing without having to worry about whether or not you know what you’re doing. Your only option is to step up and rise to the occasion.
Improvement #2: Be confident.
How to do it: Regardless of how good you actually are (or aren’t), go out every day and cox your boat like you’re the baddest bitch on the water. Speak up and provide input to your coach or crew on a regular basis. Accept your responsibilities. Tell yourself you can do this and then do it. Congratulate yourself on a job well done and let mistakes go (but commit to learning from them).
Open and maintain lines of communication.
Communication is one of the many things that fall under the “#1 Responsibility” category. It’s important that you develop a relationship between not only you and your crew but also with you and your coach(es) and you and the other coxswains. The more communication there is between you and each of those groups of people, the better and smoother your practices will run, which results in greater efficiency all around. It also just makes the team environment a lot more tolerable for everyone when the coaches and coxswains aren’t pissed at each other for something that could have easily been cleared up if some had just said something.
One of the most satisfying things for me as a coxswain is when I tell my boat something during a drill or piece that I know our coach would say and then the next time we stop, our coach says exactly that. It’s great for you in terms of building your confidence but it’s also great for the boat because they hear you and your coach reiterating each other’s points, which means you’re both on the same page, which means the rowers don’t ever have to “choose” who they’re going to listen to.
Improvement #3: Communicate.
How to do it: Talk to your coach every single day. Find out what they expect of you, how they want you to do things, how they do things, why they do things a certain way, etc. Also talk to the other coxswains about where you’re meeting up if you’re going out together, where your points are when you’re doing pieces, how practice went that day, etc.
In school, we take notes and record our lectures so that when we’re studying for exams, we can go back and refresh ourselves on everything we’ve learned up to that point. We see the mistakes we’ve made on math problems and learn how to not make those mistakes again. We read about what strategies worked and didn’t work during times of war in our history classes. We study and study and study so that when the time comes, we’ve made the necessary tweaks and prepared ourselves to execute everything perfectly.
Related: Do you recommend carrying a small pocket notebook or having a regular size notebook for notes? I currently have a pocket notebook during erg pieces to jot down splits and times. How do you organize all your thoughts and coxswain information?
This is why coxswains (should) record everything. You have a recorder so you can hear the calls you make and the drills you do and you’ve got a notebook so you can write down lineups, the practice plan, what worked, what didn’t, etc. Combine the two and you have everything you need to make your crew the best one on the water.
Related: The best recorders for coxswains
Listening to your recordings gives you the opportunity to be your own best critic. It allows you the chance to hear yourself and then go out the next day and experiment with something new while continuing to do what you know works. Experimentation with your calls is critical; if you don’t practice it, you can’t execute it, and if you can’t execute it, what’s the point? Keeping a notebook gives you space to elaborate on what your thoughts were during practice and lets you go back and study what you’ve done in the past to determine what needs to be done to fix things in the future.
Improvement #4: Get a recorder and keep a notebook.
How to do it: Go to the store and buy one. Keep them in your coxswain bag and bring them with you to every practice/race. While on the water, make quick notes of things that are or aren’t going well by talking to the recorder and then once you’re off the water, spend some time elaborating on the details in your notebook. Share your recordings and notes with your coach on a regular basis. Get their feedback on your recordings and advice on how to deal with any issues you’ve made note of in your notebooks.
At the end of the day it’s up to you to identify the areas where you can improve (either through your own objective observations or through conversations with your coach) and then actually take the steps to get better. It’s one thing to say you want to get better, it’s another to actually commit and do it. Talk the talk, walk the walk, etc.