Coxing Drills Q&A Rowing Technique

Question of the Day

Hi! My coxing has gotten to the point where I can see the technical problems in my rowers, but sometimes I’m not sure how to call a correction on them. For instance, I know if someone is skying at the catch I can call the boat to focus on direct catches and “hands up at the catch” and things like that for stability…but there are others I’m less sure about. Would you please touch on good ways (positive reinforcement, they hate the word “no” in the boat) to call for the following problems in a rower?

Yanking at the finish

Swinging early

Rush on the last 1/3 of the slide (and she doesn’t respond to ‘patience up the slide’)

Inside arm bent

Washout (I know one call is to ‘lean into the rigger at the finish’ but is there anything else I can say?)

Drop-off in power due to lack of focus (focus calls help her, but I can’t do that every minute)

Thank you so much for your blog! I started coxing this year and this has been my go-to resource for improving, watching videos, and asking questions!

I’ll give you some pointers and things to look for but you’re on your own with working it into calls for your crew. It’s no fun for anyone if I do all the work (although feel free to email me with whatever you come up with and I’ll definitely give you some feedback). The best way to figure out what calls to make is to learn as much as you can about technique and then tell the rowers exactly what they’re doing vs. what they should be doing if what they’re currently doing is wrong. Until you have a thorough grasp of all the technical aspects, it’s better/easier for everyone to just explain it in it’s entirety during practice before chopping it all up into smaller, more monosyllabic calls. Plus, it reinforces for both you and the rowers how the stroke should look and feel.

Pretty much all of these are better to understand when you can actually show the person what you mean so try hopping on the erg with them or grab one of the better technical rowers on the team to help demonstrate what you mean. Unless you’ve got impeccable technique yourself, I would get a rower (or your coach) to assist you. If you get a coach to help you (which I would recommend over a rower but it’s your call), talk to them beforehand and ask them to let you explain everything and not to interject unless what you’ve said is 100% completely wrong. This gives you an opportunity to test your own knowledge and abilities to communicate that to your rowers without having someone else jump in, cut you off, or undermine you. This is also a chance for you to assert yourself and let your coach know that you’re trying to use this as a learning opportunity too so that they understand why you’re telling them to not try and take over what you’re doing. (Key word here is assert yourself. Most coaches are totally cool with backing off in situations like this but you have to let them know that’s what you need them to do.)

Doing this really helped me when I was learning how to spot technique errors when I was a novice. Afterwards, my coach and I would go over what I said together and they’d give me feedback on what/how I explained something, if I left something out, if there was a better or more efficient way of explaining something, etc. While I was explaining it though, if I made a mistake they let me make it because that helped me learn a lot better than if they constantly butted in and corrected me. Letting me explain things on my own, make mistakes if necessary, and then talking with me about it afterwards also helped me build a lot of confidence in what I was doing. If I knew I was going to have to explain something differently to my boat as a result of explaining it improperly the first time, I’d just tell them that I made a mistake earlier and this is what you actually need to do. Making mistakes is a natural part of the process when you’re learning something new so it’s OK to make them as long as you make an effort to not make the same ones again.

Yanking at the finish

Finishes are like relationships: you can’t force them, you’ve just gotta let it happen. Remind the rower(s) that the majority of the power on the drive should be coming from the legs (via the quads and hamstrings) and that the acceleration that occurs should be smooth and consistent. The legs and hands should be in sync so once the first part is completed, the back and arm motions should be seen as a continuation of the leg drive, not separate movements, if that makes sense. When you’re yanking the handle you’re separating the back and arms from the legs. What tends to happen when you have a jerky finish like that is you complete the first half of the drive (legs flat, back perpendicular to the hull, arms still out straight) and try to get the same amount of power out of of your back and arms that you got out of your legs, which isn’t possible thanks to the smaller muscle groups of the upper body.

The second half of the drive usually looks something like this as a result: pulling the handle up (creating an arc-like motion) instead of straight into the body (thus burying the blade deeper than necessary, making them think they’re doing more work than they actually are) and finishing the stroke in their lap (resulting in them washing out and having an incomplete stroke).

Try rowing with the inside arm only if you can; it’s pretty much impossible to keep the blade completely submerged and yank it into the finish if you’re only rowing with one arm. Another thing you can do (this is actually probably the better option) is to get on the ergs and pull up the force curve on the monitor (just press the “change display” button until it comes up on the bottom of the screen). I don’t recall if PM2 monitors have this so this may only work if you’ve got the newer PM3 or PM4 ones. If they’re yanking the handles they’ll see their force curve will have two peaks instead of one. You can see in the photos below what that’ll look like. The way they change this so that it shows only one peak is to adjust where and how they emphasize their legs, back, and arms.

Swinging early

I don’t know if you mean swinging on the drive or swinging out of bow so I’ll start with out of bow. I  really don’t know what to say about that other than to just pay attention. Watch the shoulders of the person in front of you, anticipate (key word there … anticipate) their movement, and match their timing. You can usually see this if you watch their oars on the recovery – they move faster than the one(s) in front of them. Since the body swing comes after getting the hands away I’d also remind them to control the hands coming out of the bow and match them to the speed of the boat.

If you’re talking about swing on the drive, they’re opening their backs up early. This means they’re trying to use the backs before their legs are completely flat. This usually results in them laying back too far, rushing out of the finish (because they have to come up so much farther than everyone else), and not getting the bodies set on the recovery.

This was happening with one of my novice rowers last week. Her problem was that she’d have good body prep on the first stroke but as she was coming into the catch she’d let her butt come under her shoulders instead of keeping the shoulders in front, which meant that at the catch her upper body was perpendicular to the boat (as opposed to being at an angle with the body over). From the catch, she would push off and at half slide start to open her back, which would then make it hard for her to get her legs down with everyone else because the weight of her upper body moving towards the bow (plus the run of the boat) was pushing her butt, which is on wheels, towards the stern of the boat.

One of the things I told her was to imagine a brick wall at the end of her slide (not the end of her stroke, the end of her slide). As you go through the first part of the drive with the legs, you want the part of your body that hits that wall first to be your butt. If your shoulders hit it first then you know you’re opening up too early. The shoulders must stay in front of your butt (and over your quads, if that’s easier to visualize) until the leg drive is completed. Reminding them to engage their glutes (aka squeeze their butt) on the drive has also been something that’s helped some of the rowers I’ve coxed. If you sit in a pseudo-catch position right now and squeeze your butt you can kinda feel your core (abs + low back) tighten as well. Tight core = better posture = stronger back = less likely to open up early.

Another thing to focus on is direct catches. If you dive into the catch (hands physically down by your feet) your blade is going to be way up in the air, which means that when you push off at the catch there’s no resistance to keep you from opening your back up. Timing is key here, as is keeping the hands up and level on the recovery. When the slide is about an inch or so away from the catch, that is when you should start lifting the hands to put the blade in the water. If you don’t start lifting the hands until you’re already all the way up your slide, you’re gonna be late, you’re gonna miss water, and you’re probably gonna open the back too soon.

One of the issues that people tend to have with this (or as a result) is they think of the stroke as being a pulling motion rather than a pushing motion. I know we use the word “pull” a lot when trying to explain certain things but pulling really only applies to the very last part of the stroke (with the arms). The majority of the stroke happens because you’re pushing off with your feet. If you’re pulling on the handle right from the start you’re not getting any suspension (or hang) on the handle. In order to do that you’ve got to have the shoulders forward and your back supported (no slouching, sit up tall, contract your core, chin up, shoulders firm but relaxed). This allows you to push the boat rather than pull the handle.

One of the drills that really helps with this problem is rowing with the feet out. If you’re opening up the back early it is highly unlikely bordering on impossible that you’re maintaining any connection with the foot stretchers, which means that if you open up the back before you’re supposed to you’re going to fall backwards and into the lap of the person behind you. Rowing with the feet out (during warmups is a great time to do this) forces you to really think about the sequencing and not shifting your weight before you’re supposed to. The reverse pick drill is another drill that focuses on the sequencing on the drive – legs only, then legs and back, then legs, back, and arms. For someone opening their back early, your focus is going to want to be on emphasizing those first two progressions.

The other thing you can do to help them understand the concept of suspension is to get on the erg with them and have them come up to the catch. (Make sure they’re where they need to be and are in a good position – if they’re not, correct them.) You then go stand directly in front of the erg and grab a hold of the handle in between their hands. (Brace yourself against the erg if you need to but make sure you have a firm grasp on the handle.) On your call, tell them to drive back (not all the way, just the first inch or so) and feel the resistance you’re putting on the handle. What should happen is they should feel their weight come just slightly off the seat. That is the hang you’re looking for on the water. If you have mirrors in your boathouse, set the erg up parallel to them so you can watch their bodies and ensure that they’re driving back properly.

Rush on the last 1/3 of the slide

Pause drills. I did this with the eight I took out the other day for like, 30 minutes and I swear it made such a difference with their slide control. We did a two-part pause at hands away and 1/2 slide and started off doing it by pairs, then fours, then sixes, then all eight so that each group could get a sense of what the recovery should feel like without being rushed up the slide by another group.

Starting with the pairs let me focus on the individuals and (attempt to) correct whatever I was seeing that was contributing to them rushing the slide. It was honestly much (much muuuuch) more of a focus issue than it was anything else (as it is most of the time) but breaking it down and really forcing them to think about getting the hands away together, coming up the first half of the slide together, stopping at what is actually half slide (not 3/4 slide or full slide), having room to come the rest of the way into the catch, and doing so in a controlled manner was really the most effective way I think we could have gone about it. We spent a good amount of time finding where 1/2 slide is (never as far up as you think it is) and that helped a lot.

Related: In the boat, when you’re calling a rower out to make a change, is it better to call them by their seat or name? A rower told me that by using a name it puts them on the spot – but isn’t that the point to make a change?

Talk to your coach and see if you can spend some time doing this during practice. Since he’ll have a much better view of the bodies and slides, listen to what he says (since you can’t see either of those things) and try to work the things he’s saying to the rowers into the calls you make. If you know specifically who the girl is that’s rushing, don’t be afraid to specifically call her out and say “Amanda, I need you to focus on slowing your slide down on the recovery between hands away and the catch…”. The calls I tend to make for stuff like this are “control”, “patience”, “relax”, “feel the recovery”, “stay long”, etc. but when it comes to fixing specific problems I just repeat whatever I’ve heard the coaches say since I can’t see anything that’s happening with their bodies or slides.

Related: Today our novice boat was SO rushed! No matter what the stroke, they’d hit it for like 3 secs before flying 3 or more SR than was supposed to be. Stroke told me that she and 7 seat were trying to control it but middle 4 on back kept rushing. I tried to say “lengthen, ratio shift, control, etc.” while still saying their SRs. Nothing I said changed it, if anything SR went higher. I gave up by the end of it, since they weren’t listening. Coach didn’t help, just said follow stroke. Help?

Inside arm bent

This isn’t something you should have a call for, it’s just a bad habit that needs to be broken. The only way to do that is to explain why they shouldn’t do it and then show/explain what they should be doing instead. Some coaches actually do teach you to row with a bent inside arm, which I don’t understand at all (please explain down in the comments if you do), but I’ve never had a coach teach my crews that and the coaches I’ve worked with that have taught that have gotten in such hot debates with the other coaches over whether it’s effective or not that, at the end of the day, it’s really just not worth it.

If you think of the arms as an extension of the oar handle, a bent elbow disrupts the transition of the load at the catch (resulting in not-as-strong of a hang). In order for you to have a good hang at the catch and not end up with elbow tendonitis later on in the season, the arms need to come away and get completely outstretched before the bodies come over and then stay that way until the final part of the drive when you bring the handle in. If, on the flip side, they’re having trouble getting the arms out with everyone else on the recovery, a) they need to practice everything at a slower pace so they can get the proper sequencing down and b) they need to be quicker (obviously … it’s really that simple). (Those things might sound counter-intuitive but I promise they’re not.)

Having the arms bent (on either the drive or the recovery) puts you in a vulnerable position too because it makes you less stable against anything that would offset the boat. One of the things I worked on with a four I took out yesterday was keeping the arms straight because whenever the boat would go offset it was partially made worse by one of the rowers having bent arms that would buckle as soon as the boat started tipping. This caused her hands to collapse down into her lap nearly every time which then exacerbated the set problems. Once we corrected the bent arm issue, the set problems were somewhat alleviated. It didn’t fix them but it definitely made a noticeable difference.

Washing out

This goes hand in hand with what I said about at the beginning about yanking the handle. If the rowers are washing out, they’re not finishing with the handle high enough on the body, rather they’re finishing with it in their lap. This is easily noticeable because there will be a lot of whitewater being thrown around as their blade comes out and the boat will likely tip over to that side a bit as the hands and rigger are forced down. They’ll also most likely have a shorter stroke than everyone else, leading to them extracting the blade early.

One of the ways I’ve explained it while coxing is that they’re pulling the blade down instead of through the finish. I tell them to make sure they keep the outside elbow up throughout the drive and through the finish, while focusing on using the lat muscles to draw the handle in to the lower rib. Another thing I’ve said (when all the “technical” rowing explanations aren’t working) is to imagine someone you really, really, really don’t like sitting directly behind your outside arm. Every stroke you take, your want your elbow to be up high enough for you to be able to elbow that person in the face. In order to do that, you’ve got to pull straight through, not down, and with a solid amount of force. I don’t know what it is about that analogy but it has helped fix so many problems related to washing out.

If after working on their finish position, drawing through, etc. you still notice the rower having a problem, talk to the coach about maybe looking at the rigging at that rower’s seat. If it’s rigged too high (less likely) or the pitch is off (more likely), that could be contributing to the problem. Work on technique first though before looking into this.

Drop off in power due to lack of focus

Yea, I lack the patience to constantly try to draw a rower’s focus back into the boat. Some coaches and coxswains are like “whatever, it’s part of the job” but I am so. not. one of them. If I have to say it more than once or twice in one practice (or every day, if it’s a habitual thing), I very sternly remind them that I am not there to babysit them and they either need to get their eyes and head in the boat or get out.

Even with novice crews, I get that you’re young and new to the sport and whatever but still, this is a skill you need to work on. I can’t (and refuse to) be held responsible for your inattentiveness. I’m not going to spend my time constantly telling you to keep the pressure up, stay focused, etc. when there are umpteen hundred other (more important) things I need to be paying attention to. The rowers can hear me telling that person to match up with everyone else too so it’s very likely that they’re going to start getting annoyed that this same person is constantly finding things outside of the boat more worthy of their attention. That’s happened before and trust me, you would much rather me harshly tell you to pay attention than have seven rowers get on your ass about it.

If I notice that it’s a continual problem with one specific person then I’ll pull them aside after practice, ask them what’s going on, and reiterate that I can’t constantly be telling them to stay focused and match the pressure of everyone else. I try to remind them that I’m not trying to be a bitch about it but they’re really not leaving me any option, especially if something has already been said to them multiple times. One on one conversations like that have always been more effective in my experience than any random call I could make in the boat.

If you’re getting tired midway through practice and that’s why your power is dropping off then you need to start running, biking, lifting, etc. on your own time to increase your cardio base and overall strength. If your power is dropping off because you’re getting bored or whatever, sorry but I don’t know what you want me to tell you. I explain too that there’s a reason why I’m always talking when I’m coxing and that’s to keep the rowers engaged and focused (I’ve found with my boats that the less I talk, the more unfocused my crews become). They should be listening to what I’m saying and evaluating themselves, what the boat is doing, etc. on every stroke.

I’ll also ask them if there’s something specific that I can say to help them refocus and over the next week or so, if I notice them starting to fall off or lose their focus, I’ll say something like “Allie, lemme feel that drive, big push, refocus heeere annnd send … good, now let’s maintain this pressure, making sure everyone is equally contributing to the boat speed, no passengers, pick it up and send…”. A huge part of being a rower (and coxswain) is understanding the concept of personal responsibility and this is one of those things that falls under that category. You either get it or you get left behind but in the end, whatever you do is your choice.

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Comments (6)

  1. Hi again!
    Just following-up, in appreciation of the great loong response I got! Thank you!
    1. For yanking early, I talked to this rower and she spent a lot of time on the Row Perfects. Using the keyword “fluidity” when I called her out in the boat seemed to help, after discussing it together.
    2. The girl was opening her back up way early. She gets her legs down super fast too. I noticed when she ergs, even her steady state is hovering at a rate 26-ish. I honestly haven’t had much luck…this is also the girl for #3.
    3. Like I mentioned, the rate is just so high all the time and I’m not sure if that’s even something I can help with via coxing…I came up with a ton of ways to talk about it though, including your “control”, “patience”, “relax”, “feel the recovery”, “stay long”, as well as “breatheee thru”, “let the wheels come up”, “glide along”, “making a distinction” between drive and recovery, and ratio shifts. Also in racing season, the stroke rate is high so this wasn’t quite as bad a problem!
    4. I totally agree, it was a quick fix for the rower. I call for “hang” about 2/3 of a piece thru for the boat, just as a reminder.
    5. This one improved over time, especially since I wasn’t the only person to notice it. And when people race, all of the sudden they feel like listening.. 😛

    Thanks again! I appreciate your blog so so much!