Hi. I walked on half a year ago as a coxswain knowing absolutely nothing, and this blog was such a godsend for me. Thank you! I was the absolute worst when I started – steering all over the place and almost dead silent during practices because I was so nervous about what to say. I’ve come a long way since then. My steering is much more consistent and I feel pretty confident about the things I’m saying in the boat but I feel like I’ve plateaued in my progress because I don’t know how to bring personality into the boat. I can rattle off canned phrases and words, but I don’t know how to really MOTIVATE the boat and get the rowers riled up. I’ve been told that I’m “too nice” when I’ve asked for criticisms from the rowers. I am not an inherently sassy person – I am actually pretty calm and mellow and I’m not sure how to address an issue like temperament. Is this something I can fix or was I just not meant to be a coxswain in the first place? All of the successful coxswains I know are so outspoken and I feel like I have a more quiet intensity that I try to bring into the boat. Thanks!
You seem really self-aware which is a great quality for a coxswain. It’s a good thing to be able to recognize where you started, where you’re at, what you could work on, etc.
You don’t have to have an inherently sassy personality to be a coxswain, although I don’t think anyone would deny that a little sass now and then never hurt. It’s not even sass either, it’s just knowing when to be assertive to get something done. I actually think having a quiet intensity and a less “in your face” approach to coxing is better because it makes your race-day aggressiveness more genuine. I actually talked about this in one of the first questions I ever answered on the blog last year (linked below). It’s sort of the opposite issue that you’re experiencing but there might be a nugget or two of advice in there that resonates with you.
Related: My rowers told me after practice today that I should focus on the tone of my voice and not be so “intense” during our practices. I don’t really know how to fix that actually. Like I don’t think I am so “intense” but rather just firm and trying to be concise with the command I give out. They said that they really like how I cox during a race piece because my intensity level fits the circumstances. But they also said that if I cox in a similar tone to race pieces, they can’t take me seriously during the races. But my problem when I first started coxing was not being firm enough and getting complaints about how I should be more direct on my commands. Now when I am, my rowers say this. I don’t really know what is the happy medium. Like I listen to coxing recordings and I feel like I am doing fairly similar tones.
This is quickly becoming my go-to piece of advice but talk to your rowers. One of the best ways to figure out how to motivate them is to find out what they find motivating. Why are they there, what drives them, what do they want to accomplish, etc. If you find out stuff like this, then you can make calls specifically for that during pieces and races. For example, if Brad says that he’s been trying to hold onto his finishes and can feel that his strokes are stronger because of it, use that during the race to kick off a burst and motivate Brad/the crew at the same time. Bonus points if you involve the crew(s) you’re racing against. In a situation like this I’d say something like: “Columbia’s washing out on their finishes, let’s take 5 to squeeze it in and take a seat. Lead it Brad … on this one … now … go!”
Another thing you can do is take a five or ten or whatever number applies to rattle off your competition. Instead of saying “1…2…3…etc.” you’d say “Georgetown … Princeton … Navy … Wisco … Harvard … Penn … Cornell … Dartmouth … Yale … “. Hearing the names of the people they’re racing that are trying just as hard to beat you as your boat is trying to beat them will make them dig deep (literally and figuratively) and crank out some killer strokes. This is best used towards the end of the race, maybe right before the sprint or so.
Motivating your crew is not all about the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah calls. Stuff like what I said above is motivating because you’re capitalizing on something that the rower(s) have spent hours working on at practice. The best way to get them to reap the full benefits of their efforts is to remind them of what they’ve accomplished during the 6-7 minutes when it matters most. To really get under their skin and push them your tone of voice has to be there too. I took out one of our freshman eights the other day and did some 20s with them racing me in the launch. The coxswain is a freshman walk-on who is still learning the ropes and finding her voice. The first few 20s they did were good but something was lacking. At one point when the guys were getting a drink I told her to get aggressive. I literally didn’t even care if it was over-the-top yelling, I just wanted her to get in their faces and push them. It’s really hard to explain what I mean in situations like that … you sort of just have to “get it” and do it. She made some great changes in her tone which resulted in the next several 20s just being balls-to-the-wall on. Once we stopped to spin I asked her how it felt and she said “better” and “really good”, to which I replied with “why?”. She said a couple things about technique but I said that I thought it was because of the change she made in her voice, which the guys all agreed with. At some point you have to just let go and do something you haven’t done before.
Related: TED Talks, body language, and coxing
Don’t ask for criticism from the rowers, ask for feedback. Try to keep track of what they say (write it down) and make an effort to pick out one or two things to work on each day. Similarly to the rowers, most likely the changes you make are going to feel weird, uncomfortable, or silly but you’re definitely paying way more attention to that kind of stuff than the rowers are. Also work on becoming more confident in your role. Typically your coxing voice gets stronger as you become more confident with yourself. Forget about being “sassy”. Listen to some recordings to get a feel for what other coxswains sound like and use that to help you get a feel for you can do with your boats. When you’re at practice, try to keep everything but the hard pieces fairly conversational (like I talked about in the first post I linked to) but maintain that “quiet intensity” you talked about earlier. You’ll know the right time to bring the aggression based on what your coach has you doing.