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.
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.