Tag: boat feel

Coxing Q&A

Question of the Day

Hi! So I’m a collegiate coxswain with about 8 years of experience and I’ve been struggling with fours for a while now. I’m pretty good in eights and have great boat feel, but as soon as I hop in a four everything goes south. I struggle to diagnose problems, stumble over my words, become repetitive, steer poorly, etc. etc. It also doesn’t help that I’m in eights most of the time, so it’s near impossible to fix problems for next practice as the next fours practice might be 8-10 practices away. Do you have any advice?

This is how I feel whenever I get into a four too. The ratio of time I’ve spent in eights vs. fours is pretty lopsided and even now (especially now) whenever I hop in a four, whether it’s filling in for one of the coxswains or actually racing, it feels like it takes forever for me to get in a groove with feeling what’s going on, making calls, etc.

When I was just learning to cox in fours my coach’s advice, which I still rely on today, was to not look at it like you’re starting from scratch anytime you go from an eight to a four, especially since we were also in them infrequently. In my experience that’s what tends to trip coxswains up and cause them to get overwhelmed – that was definitely the case for me. I’d get in the boat and immediately overwhelm myself by thinking about not being able to see anyone instead of just slowing down and using everything I knew about the rowers from being in the eight to guide whatever I was saying or interpreting via boat feel.

That’s why whenever I’m in fours I talk a lot less than I do when I’m in eights. Rowers (at every level I’ve coxed) have pointed it out too and my response is always that it’s not because I’m zoning out or not paying attention, rather it’s the exact opposite – it’s a different environment so I’m trying to focus, feel, process, etc. more and I can’t do that if I’m talking all the time. If I’m talking the same amount in a four that I am in an eight, that’s a pretty clear sign that I’m just completely bullshitting my way through practice.

When it comes to diagnosing problems, I heavily rely on whatever’s been going on in the eight to act as my “baseline” for the four. Before going out or while we’re warming up I’ll usually say something like “We’ve been working on ABC in the eight so now that there’s just four of you, let’s really hone in on XYZ today – the less time we spend worrying about setting the boat the more time we can spend on just moving it.” and then quickly run through one or two individual things that I want them to focus on. By this point in the season  you know what’s going well, what’s not, etc. which makes it a lot easier to narrow the scope of practice vs. “starting from scratch” where it seems like every technical issue known to man could be the problem. Plus, the smaller the boat you’re in the more noticeable technical issues are going to be. If you know what to look/feel for based on the stuff you’ve already been working on, that makes things a lot easier for you.

If I knew we were gonna go out in fours I’d talk to my coaches about the lineups, anything in particular I should focus on (i.e. 3-seat in the eight isn’t used to being in stern pair so now that he’s 3-seat in the four, making calls about syncing up with the stroke would be beneficial in the first half of practice), stuff they’ve seen from the launch, etc. – pretty much the same stuff I’d talk about with them normally anyways. Taking the feedback I got from those conversations and meshing it up with my own observations from the eight made getting into the fours a lot less stressful because, like I said earlier, it helped narrow my focus.

Stumbling over your words and getting repetitive is usually a sign that you need to take a step back and (re)focus. You also just need to be honest with the boat. If I know something feels off but can’t figure out what the problem is then I’ll just say that and ask them what they’re feeling. I know a lot of coxswains are kinda timid about doing this because they think it’ll make them look bad but it really doesn’t. Making useless calls and being ineffective in general makes you look bad … admitting you’re off your game today and can’t figure out if what’s throwing the boat off is X or Y demonstrates a level of self-awareness that far too many coxswains lack.

Steering poorly, you can’t really justify or make any excuses for that. You’ve got an unobstructed view and technically that should be your primary focus anyways. If you’re steering is bad/unsafe then that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to slow down, stop talking, and get that sorted out before trying to do anything else. It also baffles me when coxswains come off the water complaining about how practice didn’t go well because the boat was unset all morning and nothing they said fixed it … did you ever consider maybe not touching the rudder every three seconds? That’d probably help.

Anyways, my advice is to talk less (way less), incorporate in your observations, the rowers’ known tendencies, etc. from the eight rather than starting from zero every time, and when in doubt, crowdsource ideas from the boat if you’re stuck on something. Last piece of advice is to talk with the other coxswains regularly enough that you at least have a basic idea of the strengths/weaknesses of the rowers in their boats, that way if you end up coxing them in a four instead of the people who are usually in your boat, you won’t be in the dark about what they’ve been doing or where they’re at technically. This will benefit you regardless of the boat you’re in and it helps make you a more versatile coxswain.

Coxswain Skills: Boat Feel

Coxing Rowing Technique

Coxswain Skills: Boat Feel

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  

“Boat feel” is something that you’ve gotta understand regardless of who/what you’re coxing. It most often comes up when we’re talking about bow loaders since instead of seeing what’s happening you’ve gotta feel it but everything below is applicable to any boat you’ll ever be in.

The way my coach approached it and how some of the best coaches I’ve worked with lately have approached it is that you should ideally spend your first season learning the basics of rowing, meaning you focus on just the bodies and blades. The following season, that’s when you start to really tie in the associations between what’s happening with the bodies + blades and what your body is feeling. That’s not to say that you can’t think about what boat feel is/means your first season but like they say, you can’t construct a building on a weak foundation. Plus, if you’re in boats with novice crews it’s pretty likely that nothing is going to feel good to the point where you’ll really be able to develop any sense of real boat feel anyways.

Related: Hi, I never know what it means when someone asks me what the boat “feels” like. Like the rush for example. I’m not sure what that feels like vs. a boat with no rush. Just in general, I’m not sure how to gauge whether a piece felt good or bad. I feel like the only things I can see are blade height, square up timing, catch timing, and if bodies are moving together, and I can tell if the boat was really moving and if there was power. But what else should I be aware of?

Once you’ve developed a fairly solid understanding of the basic mechanics of the stroke, then you should start asking yourself how your body reacts to these three things: the movements of the boat, changes in the stroke, and technical adjustments made by the rowers. That (the italicized) is boat feel if you were to define it.

The first thing you should do to give yourself a baseline to go off of is figure out what your body is doing when the boat is running well and things feel good. What that means is consciously thinking about how every part of your body that is in contact with the shell feels (i.e. feet, legs, hips, core/back, hands, etc.). I like to think about all of this when we’re doing steady state because I have more time to focus on each of the three things I mentioned before. I think about it when we’re doing drills and stuff too but it’s a mid-level priority since my main priority is actually executing whatever we’re doing. I also like to force myself to think about it when we’re doing high rate stuff (30 stroke pieces are great for this) so I can get used to feeling how the boat moves in racing situations and managing doing that while my brain is trying to process fifteen other things at the same time. (This helps a lot when you’re actually racing because it takes less effort to do once you’ve practiced it a lot.)

Once you know how your body reacts to the boat moving well (which basically means it’s balanced, you’re getting good run, and the rowers are taking effective strokes) it’ll be easier for you to pinpoint when something is off. From there you can address the issue by reinforcing whatever your coach has been teaching lately or by making the call for the appropriate technical adjustment (hence why you need to have a good base understanding of the bodies + blades).

Once you’ve done that, give the rower(s) a couple strokes to make a change. During this time you should be feeling the boat again and asking yourself if and why it feels different, i.e. did the rower(s) make a positive change or a negative change. If it doesn’t feel any different or it feels worse then maybe the call you made didn’t fully address the problem or the rower was unsure of how to implement the change. This is something to bring up to your coach the next time you stop. If the boat feels good, meaning your body’s hit that baseline feeling again, then reinforce the change by giving the rower(s) some positive feedback.

Developing boat feel requires two main things – time and focus. The more time you spend in a boat consciously working on this, the better you’ll get at developing it. Same with focus, the more time you spend processing what you’re feeling instead of just spitting it back out at the rowers, the better you’ll be at understanding the relationship between what they’re doing and how the shell responds.

Image via // @henryfieldman

Coxing How To Q&A Technique

Question of the Day

Hi, I never know what it means when someone asks me what the boat “feels” like. Like the rush for example. I’m not sure what that feels like vs. a boat with no rush. Just in general, I’m not sure how to gauge whether a piece felt good or bad. I feel like the only things I can see are blade height, square up timing, catch timing, and if bodies are moving together, and I can tell if the boat was really moving and if there was power. But what else should I be aware of?

Rush is something you need to communicate with your stroke about because they’re usually going to feel it more than you will, unless it’s really bad. You’ll know if the boat is rushed (without your stroke telling you) when you’re getting thrown back and forth in the seat. When you’re rowing normally you can sense the rhythm and see/feel that one part of the stroke lasts longer than the other but when it’s rushed you can’t see a difference in the ratio, which is a good indication that the boat is just spinning its wheels.

Related: Coxswain skills: “So, what did you see?”

This is what I wrote in response to an email how to develop better boat feel:

“There’s no substitute for being in the boat so try to get out as often as possible. Experience on the water is key. By now you should have a good sense of technique, what the blades should look like, what the bodies should be doing, etc. so now’s the time to start applying that to their respective effects on the boat. When you’re on the water, commit to feeling every stroke the rowers take. Pay attention to their effect on how the boat moves in response to the calls you or your coach make.

To feel how the boat moves, the best way to do this is to become “one with the boat”. You want to position yourself in the coxswain’s seat so that if someone were to pick the boat up and flip it over, you wouldn’t fall out. Have your feet flat against the footboards on either side of the cox box, slide your hips into the back of seat, and brace your arms against the gunnels. You want your body to be tense enough that you can feel every movement of the boat but not so tense that you feel like you need a massage afterwards to get rid of all the kinks. You don’t necessarily have to sit like that for an entire 90 minute practice but getting in that “coxswain’s stance” every so often throughout practice does a lot more for you than just sitting there and letting the boat move you around like a rag doll. When I’m in this position, I aim to focus on four things: the kick at the catch, the surge on the drive, the acceleration at the finish, and the relaxation on the recovery.

Personally for me, I see what’s wrong almost always before I feel it, especially during a race. I can feel when the power is off, when someone is catching early, or sometimes when there’s a lot of rush, but the really nitty-gritty technique stuff is more noticeable to me just by watching the blades rather than trying to feel it out.

Having a good sense of boat feel is a big part of being a good coxswain and it’s most definitely a skill that everyone should learn but I think some people put too much weight on it sometimes. Just like different people have different learning styles, I think coxswains have different ways of knowing what needs to happen in the boat – some operate more on what they feel, others more on what they see. It’s all very philosophical if you think about it. I don’t think one is right, wrong, or better than the other though. I’m a very visual person so I go off what I see because it’s easier for me to convey what’s happening to the rest of the crew.

Even though the crew should be going off what you say and not necessarily what they think is happening individually, I think boat feel is very much open to interpretation. Unless the rowers understand and feel the same thing you’re feeling, it can be hard for them to make the necessary adjustments, even if you’re telling them exactly what needs to happen. I’ve heard and read boat feel be described as being similar to the concept of love – you can explain the concept to anyone but until that other person feels it too and really gets it, there will be a gap, similar to a language barrier, where things get lost and/or are misunderstood. This is more of an occurrence with younger crews compared to more experienced ones though, which reiterates my point that time on the water is everything.

Feeling the boat requires a lot of concentration. A lot. There are a lot of subtle hints that you might naturally not pay attention to but when you do pick up on them you’ll be able to recognize the part they play in developing (or hindering) the boat’s speed. Sometimes when we’re doing steady state, especially if we’ve spent the past few practices doing a lot of drilling, I’ll just not talk for a few minutes at a time and instead focus on what the boat’s doing.

In addition to sitting properly in the boat, total silence is another thing that helps me feel what’s going on. As long as we’re in a straight section of the river (sometimes few and far between on the Charles) and I’ve got a good point, I’ll close my eyes for 3-5 strokes and base my “observations” off that. I listen to the oarlocks, the slides, the catches, the water, the rowers breathing, etc. Sometimes I’ll have the rowers do that too, except we’ll do ten minutes of eyes closed or two minutes closed, one minute open. Not only does this help them feel out the rhythm but it also helps me later on because when I ask them for feedback on how the boat felt, they can tell me exactly what they felt, what they thought was working, what felt off, etc. Whenever somebody says “that felt good today” ask them why it felt good, make note of it, and see if you can replicate that same environment tomorrow.”

Knowing whether a piece was good or bad is something inherent, I think. You just know when a piece is bad and you just know when a piece is good. One of the first ones I ever did as a coxswain was when I was a novice and it’s something I think about every time one of my boats has a good piece. I knew nothing about technique, what I should be looking for, or anything other than how to steer at this point but at the end of it I just smiled and said “that felt good” because it did. I swear it was the closest I’d ever been to flying at that point because the power was there, the strokes were clean, and there was this quiet intensity that encompassed the boat…it just felt like we were gliding over the water. My coach did the best thing I think a coach can do though after that because instead of responding with “good” he asked “why” knowing full well that I had no idea why. He made me think really hard about what I saw and felt, and then let me struggle with trying to come up with the words to explain it. He told me to think about it for the rest of practice and have an answer for him when we got off the water.

This was all in the spirit of teaching me something – he didn’t say it like he was annoyed that I didn’t know what to say. Once we got off, he sat with me and listened to me explain what I thought and then went over everything I said in actual rowing terms so that I could tie together what I felt vs. what I saw. It was one of the best teaching moments I’ve had as a coxswain because that really kickstarted my education on the rowing stroke.

Don’t be afraid to talk to your rowers, specifically your stroke seat, and ask them what they thought and how it felt to them. Sometimes they feel things you don’t but finding out what that was lets you look for what could be contributing to that (positively or negatively) on the next piece.