The other day in our eight we were doing some pieces in which the coach didn’t think everyone was trying. She thought only two out of the whole eight was actually trying hard. She didn’t name, names but you could tell some people she believed weren’t doing anything. In the defense of the crew, the cox wasn’t saying anything, no motivation or anything. After the session I was talking to one of the ‘spare’ coxes who was in the speed boat with the coach. We discussed how she judged who was pulling and her main answer was that the coach was looking at peoples faces and at the puddles but mainly the faces. Personally, maybe I wasn’t trying my hardest (I know, but its hard when the whole boat seemed to be powered by only yourself) but I do not believe looking at faces would be the most accurate way of measuring who is trying as I can easily make faces, and I know some people whose face doesn’t change no mater how hard they are pulling. How do you tell?
Every coach has their own “way” but for me, the best way to tell is by looking for the bend in the oar throughout the drive. Assuming you’re getting connected at the catch, the amount of pressure you’re applying will translate into how much bend the oar gets. A good example is this photo of GB’s men’s four from the Olympics. If I’m not able to be directly beside the crew to look for this, I’ll look at other things like the puddles, the bodies, etc. (As a coxswain I’d go by feel and the puddles.) I hardly never look at the faces though, mostly because that never struck me as something that would accurately portray how much effort someone is putting in. Some people that I’m coaching right now can pull unbelievable splits on the erg but, like you said, don’t look like they’re exerting themselves at all. On the flip side, I’ve coached high schoolers who are barely pulling anything worthwhile but look like this guy every stroke. Can your facial expressions reveal how hard you’re working? Sure, but it’s not the most reliable way.
On a side note (and maybe a little off topic), I completely get what you’re saying about how hard it can be to row hard during a piece when it feels like you’re the only one doing something and/or the coxswain appears to just be along for the ride. This is why I find it so frustrating when I listen to recordings and the coxswain is either saying nothing or what they are saying is completely … stupid. As much as you might not want to pull hard in those instances, as a coach, I really encourage you to anyways. Not because that’s your job and what you’re there to do (even though it is) but because it shows me that you are stronger than the situations you’re put in. If you can tough it out through a piece like that it would make me think that you’re going to give 100% regardless who you’re rowing with and what boat you’re in. Having a not-very-good coxswain isn’t a 100% ironclad excuse to not pull hard because even though they should be talking to and motivating the crew, you, the rower, have to have some kind of inherent motivation that keeps you going if/when the coxswain stops talking. If for some reason you can’t think of something, use the standby of “my coach is watching me, this could be the piece that moves me up to (whatever boat you want to be in)”. When you’re seat racing, coxswains typically aren’t allowed to say anything other than time and the stroke rate which means that it will be silent except for the voice in your head telling you to keep going. If you don’t have that voice going when the coxswain is talking you most likely won’t have it going when they aren’t, which is when you need it the most.
I don’t know how supportive most coaches would be in this situation but I also wouldn’t be afraid to tell the people in your boat to start doing something once you’ve finished a piece. Typically I would discourage rowers from saying stuff like this because it’s more of the coxswain’s responsibility but if the coxswain’s not doing anything either, I think that opens it up for someone else to say something. (Please don’t all go and mutiny on your coxswain now…) I wouldn’t point out individual people and say “Yo Annie, PULL HARDER” but rather make a general statement like “come on guys, we were moving the boat really well earlier/the other day/whatever and now it feels like we’re dead in the water…”. Something that gets your point across without putting the blame on any one person. Even if you feel like you’re the only one pulling, avoid saying something like “I’m the only one doing anything” because that’s not going to help you out at all because it’s likely that the other seven people feel like they are the only ones pulling.
If your coxswain isn’t doing something that you need him/her to do, say so. Tell them that the boat as a whole feels unmotivated or whatever and that you need them to really get into it on the next piece. If there’s specific stuff you need to hear, tell them. (It might be best to do this before or after practice though.) Typically when coxswains aren’t talking it’s because they don’t know what to look for or say. If there’s something you’ve been working on over the last few practices tell them to focus on that and maybe two or three other things. For example, say you’ve been working on going into the water together – tell her to watch the boat’s timing at the catch and also make sure everyone is coming out together (finishes). In addition to that, have him/her watch your stroke rate (especially if it’s a capped piece) and communicate that every minute or two while also saying the usual motivational stuff, like where you’re at on other crews, what looks good, etc. (Reading all that might make it seem like I’m saying do their job for them but I’m really not. Hopefully everyone knows that by now…)