Coxing How To Racing Rowing

Race plans for practice pieces

Last week I was going over some audio with one of our coxswain’s from one of the race pieces she’d done during practice the previous week. On Fridays the two varsity eights go head-to-head, sort of, in a 7k race that begins at the 2k starting line in the basin and finishes at the HOCR finish line. One of the things I asked her was if she had a race plan going into the piece or if she just kind of “went with it” and coxed them without one. She said she just went with it, which I kind of figured based on her audio. I suggested putting something together for this week’s piece so that it would have a more organized and focused feel to it, rather than the focus of the entire 7,000 meters being on catching/beating the other crew that went out first.

Related: Hi, I am a exchange student and I joined our crew team. Since I am pretty small I am a coxswain. I am now moved up into our first boat but I never know what to say during a race. The problem is I am not a native speaker and so I have even more problems to make good/clear calls. Do you have any tips for Nationals (YES we qualified) and Stotesbury?

Having a plan for races is important, obviously, but so is having a plan for the pieces you do during practice. They don’t have to be meticulously planned out or even be that similar to the plan you use during actual races – just as long as you’ve got a couple specific things to focus on throughout the piece other than just beating the other crew. What’s down below is what I detailed to our coxswain as to how I’d do it if I was doing one of those pieces.

Related: HOCR: Landmarks along the course

What I’ve laid out is obviously going to be different for you since it’s unlikely you’re doing 7k pieces on the Charles but the goal is to get you to look at the pieces you are doing and thinking about how you could break them up into smaller, more manageable chunks. The way I broke up this piece, as you can see, is based entirely on the bridges. Remember, landmarks are your friend.


Starting line → Mass Ave. (1000m)

One of the other things we talked about was how to start this piece since they’re rowing right into it with just a few strokes to build into their rate (vs. taking a “high” 20 and a “settle” 10 to come down to their base pace). If you’re doing something like that, I’d treat it similar to a head race and do something like 3-5 to build to the line, 20 at rate, and then 5 or so to lengthen out and settle in. For the next ~750m your primary focus should be on establishing a rhythm.

Mass Ave. → BU (1500m)

This section should focus on making general technical calls to the entire boat based on what you’re seeing/feeling and working to incorporate some of the technical drills/changes that you’ve been working on over the last week. You should also be making calls that reference the rhythm you established in the first section.

Powerhouse Stretch (2000m)

Coming out of final 1000m of the 2k course, where you’ve just been talking to your crew as a whole, I would start to break down the boat and talk to the individuals (or if you don’t want to go person by person you can break it down to pairs). Here I’d spend 15-20 seconds per person (adjust the time to be a little longer if you go by pairs) and point out what I’m seeing with their stroke (good and/or bad) and remind them of any technical changes that they’d been working to incorporate over the last week. If your coach spoke directly to them when you were on the water about something, try to repeat what they were saying to reinforce the message.

If you aren’t seeing anything that needs correcting, let them know that their stroke looks strong/solid/consistent, great job backing up [whoever is sitting in front of them], I like that aggressive finish, etc. Positive reinforcement like that works wonders on a rower, especially when you’re doing a long piece. Normally I wouldn’t recommend doing something like this (talking to the individual rowers) during a “race” piece but because this one is so long and you’ve got the time/space available, I think it’d be beneficial. Plus, for those of you that have trouble coming up with things to say, this would help solve that problem.

Weeks → Anderson (500m)

This chunk right here is actually made up of two smaller sections; pre-Weeks and post-Weeks. Pre-Weeks is the first 100m of this section and is just for the coxswain because they’ve got to make sure they’re putting themselves in a good position to come through the bridge. And yes, I think out of the 7,000 or however many meters you’re rowing, the crew can spare a measly 100m to let you do your own thing. One of the things I was telling another of our coxswains was that you shouldn’t/can’t be afraid to take a few strokes off when necessary if you need to direct your attention to something else. If you’ve demonstrated that you’re in this just as much as the rowers are and have been coxing them accordingly up to this point, they’re not gonna care.

The second part of this, the post-Weeks section, is where I would call for the crew to take five strokes to sit up, recommit out of the turn, and mentally prepare themselves to start racing the other boat. (You’ll notice that up to this point I haven’t said anything about the other crew that’s out there with you – nothing at all about racing, telling your boat where they are, etc. Trust me, I did this for a reason.) During the second half of this part, as you’re coming into the bridge, is where I’d be telling my crew where they are on the other boat, how far ahead/back they are, and what your goals are for the rest of the piece in terms of where you want to be in relation to the other boat as you cross the line.

Anderson → Finish line (2000m)

This last 2000m is all about racing and where your tone should noticeably change from “practice” to “race” mode. This is also where you can start actively taking power bursts in the forms of 10s and/or 20s. Before this I’d recommend sticking to 3s and 5s since the primary focus from the start to Weeks is largely technical. Remember though, just because you can take them here doesn’t mean you need or have to. It’s a judgement call on your end so be smart and don’t dilute their effectiveness by overusing them.

Related: Race skills: All about Power 10s

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t say anything about racing until you get to the final 1/3ish of the race. Here’s what I think … I don’t think you should be trying to race from the very beginning (unless your coach explicitly says “treat this like a real race”) because you’re either going to be playing catch-up or keep-away the entire time and not actually using the time to focus on the adjustments you should be implementing from practice. I also think that if the rowers go into it thinking they have to race for 7,000m then they’re just gonna hulk on the oar the entire time and not think as much about their technique. The first 2/3ish should have a largely internal focus, meaning you and the rowers are concerned only with what’s happening inside your boat. The final part of the piece is where you should be maintaining the good rowing from earlier and incorporating the changes from earlier as you shift into pure race mode.

It’s important to know that during the earlier part of the piece, your tone shouldn’t be casual like it is during a regular practice when you’re calling warmups and drills. You want it to be firm enough that the rowers know this is a hard piece but not so aggressive that you forget the purpose of the beginning of your race plan. On a scale of 1 to 10 you should be at about a 6.5-7.

The final important thing to keep in mind are the goals you give your crew for the end of the piece – make sure they’re realistic! Don’t say “I want to catch them by the end” if they’re five lengths away and you’ve only got 1500m left. It’s likely not going to happen, your crew will probably see the whole piece as a failure because you didn’t catch them, and then they’ll get pissed at you. Just avoid all of that by being honest about where you are and where you wanna be. If you can reasonably catch the other crew in front of you and cross the line even with or ahead of them (or continue to hold them off/walk away if you went out first at the start) then tell the crew that’s what you’re shooting for.

If they’re far enough ahead that you don’t think you can catch them but you know you can definitely close the gap, tell them the goal is to close the gap from five lengths of open water to two lengths. Don’t go by seats because that’s too small for them to picture and you to visualize when the gap is that wide. It’s not a realistic unit of measurement unless you’re actually within a length of them and will be overlapping with them at the finish. You can also go by time (which you should be able to see because you started the timer on your cox box at the start … right?) and say “we’re X minutes into it, let’s try to break Y” or “they started 15 seconds ahead of us, let’s get that gap down to six…”.

Hopefully all that makes sense and you can easily apply it to the pieces you’re doing while preparing for head race season.

Image via // @rowingcelebration

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