Tag: coxswain

Improving your technical skills during winter training

Coxing Technique

Improving your technical skills during winter training

Next week is our last week on the water and then after that – it’s winter training time, baby.

A common question I get around this time of year is how to become a better coxswain when you’re stuck on land for 3-5 months. (For starters, scroll through the “winter training” tag.) It definitely requires a bit of creativity and a lot of initiative, particularly when it comes to improving and refining your technical eye. I’ll be the first to admit that my eyes tend to glaze over when I’m watching people erg so it takes more effort than usual to get/stay engaged but – and yes, I know this is beating a dead horse – having a loose plan of the skills I wanted to improve always made it easier because I could zero in on specific things to watch/listen for rather than just staring off into the void.

Related: Hi, I am a novice cox and was just wondering about what to do during the winter training. Thank you so much.

Below are a couple ideas to help you form your own plan for tackling the indoor season.

Get on the ergs

I talked about this in more detail in the post linked below so definitely check that out but when you’re off the water (and even when you’re not), one of the best ways to develop an understanding of the stroke so that you’re able to effectively coach the rowers from inside the boat is to get on the ergs or in the tanks with them. Nobody cares about your splits and nobody cares if you’re not as good as the top people on your team but you do have to take it seriously. Don’t be that coxswain that gets on the erg and just screws around because “haha I’m a coxswain, I’m so weak, I have no idea what I’m doing…”. Nobody thinks it’s funny, it annoys literally everyone that’s trying to do something productive, and it does nothing to help you earn the respect of the people in your boat.

Related: Coxswains, get on the erg

Listen to your coach

Don’t just hear what they’re saying – actually listen to and process it. Winter is a great time for note taking for this exact reason because there’s just so much content available right at your fingertips. Everything the coaches say is fair game, from the pre-practice run down when they’re laying out the workout, the goals for each piece, what the focus and takeaways are, etc. to what they’re saying when they get up right behind someone and are pushing them to get their splits on track. The former helps you develop and understand the nuances of the training you’re doing and the latter helps you go from a coxswain who says “get those splits down!” to one who says “alright Sam, sit up and find your length at the front end, get that 1:43 back now on this one…”.

Listening to what’s being said is half the work. You can easily – easily – fill up a page in your notebook with calls and things you’ve heard over the course of a single practice but before you start saying the same things yourselves, you’ve gotta make the connection between what the coaches are saying/asking for and what the rowers are actually doing. Our phones make this so simple now too because you can isolate each part of the stroke into 1-2 second slow-mo clips and really analyze what you’re seeing and how the feedback they’re getting initiates or impacts the changes they make. (Couldn’t do that in the dark days before iPhones, circa the early to mid 2000s).

Related: Row2k interview with Katelin Snyder on winter training

Learn how to call drills effectively

This was a mandatory part of winter training for the coxswains when I was in high school – we’d frequently do the same technical drills on the ergs that we’d do on the water and the coxswains were responsible for their execution. I remember being super intimidated when I initially had to do it but one of the varsity coxswains and said they all sucked and had no idea what to say the first few times they did it but this exercise is what helped them get comfortable coxing everyone on the team (not just their normal rowers) and allowed them to test run different calls, tones, ways of executing the drill, etc. with minimal backlash if something went wrong. I’ll say the same to you guys too – we all sucked at this stuff when we first started. None of us knew what to say and the stuff we did say made us cringe because we thought it sounded stupid AF. Persisting through and past the urge to crawl inside yourself is such a necessary part of this though – if you can do it on land, you can definitely do it on the water where and when it counts the most.

In addition to improving the call and tone side of drill execution, actually learning the purpose of the drill, what your coach is trying to accomplish by doing them, the important things to watch for, etc. were also a key component of this. Combine that with actually getting on the ergs and going through the drills yourself helps you improve your ability to explain what it should feel like to the rowers. “Hang your weight off the handle” might not always make sense to someone but “you wanna feel the lats engage as the blade enters the water and the leg drive begins” gives a bit more clarity to an otherwise arbitrary call. This is especially important if you’re coxing novices or other less-experienced rowers. In the more senior boats, attention to detail like that can be a difference-maker throughout the season when it starts to be less about how powerful you are and more about how well you move the boat.

Image via // @harvardheavies

HOCR: What to wear to race in

Coxing Racing

HOCR: What to wear to race in

I get this question a lot in the lead up to this weekend, especially from novice coxswains, masters coxswains, and everyone who isn’t from Boston/the Northeast. It’s not usually warm enough to wear just a long sleeve and trou or tights at HOCR but thanks to global warming, who knows – depending on when you race, this year it might be. I think I’ve worn a varying amount of layers each time I’ve raced (this year will be my sixth) but this might be my lightest year yet.

Related: Head of the Charles

Now obviously if you’re racing with your school club or team then you’ll have “official” gear to wear but if, like me, you can basically show up and race in whatever you want (#mastersDGAF), hopefully this will give you an idea of what to bring.

This year was particularly annoying because I’ve never had to actually pack for HOCR before, which is the downside to living 220 miles away from the river now instead of 6. The urge to overpack was strong. Above is what I settled on though – low 60s at race time, mid 70s during the day. This will obviously fluctuate a lot each year depending on the weather (maybe I’ll make this a recurring series…) so consider this only applicable for weirdly-out-of-season warm-ish temperatures like the ones we’ll be treated to this weekend.

Image via // WBUR

HOCR: How to call your race

Coxing How To Racing

HOCR: How to call your race

When coxswains think about Head of the Charles their first thought is about how they’re going to steer and navigate their way through the three-mile long course. A distant second is their race plan and maybe an even further distant third is how they’re actually going to call the race. The framework that a race plan provides can take a lot of weight off your shoulders but beyond knowing what to execute you’ve also got to know how you’re going to do it.

Related: Head of the Charles

When I think about how I’m going to execute my race plan at HOCR, I first break the race up into three sections and then think about what I want my baseline tone of voice to be throughout each of those sections. When I say “baseline” tone, what I mean is that it’s what I plan to fall back to in between the normal bursts I already have built into my race plan. With an understanding of what tone is in the context of coxing (how you use your voice to emphasize what you’re asking the crew to do), I approach each section with an idea of what I want the crew to be thinking/feeling and how I can use my voice to keep them on track. Here’s how I lay it out.

Section 1: BU through Riverside

BU Bridge is notorious for funneling any amount of westerly winds right through the arches and into the backs of the crews who have just come down off their high strokes and are starting to settle into their rhythm. My teammates are all seasoned pros so I know a little wind isn’t going to throw them off but I still want to emphasize staying relaxed in the shoulders and long through the back end in order to establish our rhythm early in the race. I want their relaxation and focus to mirror mine so my goal with tone throughout this section is to keep it calm and conversational but with just enough fire in my voice to keep them on their toes. On a scale of 1-10, I want to be around 6 – 6.5.

Section 2: Powerhouse through Newell

This mile-long stretch of the course is the make-or-break zone. If you can make it through here unscathed and with the crew’s focus still inside your boat, the next section is going to be a breeze (Eliot Bridge be damned). My goal for this section is simple: we’re not chasing other crews down, we’re just gonna push the pace and see who can hang with us. Keeping the rowers engaged and their focus internal is key here, especially given the number of distractions that present themselves through this stretch, which means the underlying tone of my calls is going to have a little more fire and “push” than the first section. On a scale of 1-10, I’m shooting for a 7 – 7.5.

Section 3: Top of the Eliot turn through the finish line

Through here our goal is to maintain our speed while fighting fatigue as we drive for the line. This is where I’m using my tone and calls to keep each individual connected to the crew and not let the frenzied atmosphere around us draw them outside of the boat. You have to fight the energy a little bit and not get spastic otherwise you’ll lose the crew’s attention at one of the most pivotal points in the race. The intensity is higher here, around an 8.5, but the ultimate backbone of this part of the race is composure. You can’t be effective at a higher intensity if you lack composure so you have to keep your tone crisp and clear as the fire builds behind your calls.

This race is an equal combination of fun and stress which makes it really easy to get overwhelmed once you’re in the thick of it. If you start sensing your tone going from composed to frantic, breathe. You have about three seconds, give or take, to collect yourself and get back in the right headspace. It doesn’t seem like a lot of time but you’d be surprised at how quickly you can turn it around if you just shake out your shoulders, take a deep breath, and tell yourself to “refocus”.

You’re the leader on race day and no race is more of a performance piece for coxswains than Head of the Charles. Do yourself a favor and take the time beforehand to lay out your plan so that you go into it knowing exactly what you want to accomplish and how you want to sound while doing it.

Image via // Reddit

Coxing Q&A

Question of the Day

I went to school to cox for guys but due to an incident that happened a few years ago regarding another coxswain, I only got to cox first semester a few times and not at all the next semester. The coach had me switch to the girl’s team, which is great but I feel very out of practice. I have had really great practices when I have gone with assistant coaches but the other day I went with our head coach and top 2 coxswains. I was in the middle boat (a boat on each side) and had a truly horrible practice. It started off badly when I bumped one of the other boats on the first couple of strokes because the power was uneven. Later, as I have just joined I did not know a drill so I was slightly behind the other coxswains because my stroke had to tell me the sequence. Then after we did a 15, as other coaches have had me done before, I stopped thinking out coach would want to weigh enough after it. Then when doing ss, he had us do a pause every stroke while the other coxswains went ahead, they ended up moving to the right but my boat was so far behind I didn’t see and just went straight. He ended up yelling at me because the other coxswains were in the other sides then he said stop moving that way and I only heard stop so I weighed-enough. Apparently he never yells.

After that the rowers began to tune me out completely and no one was really even “trying”. The whole team talked about how bad my coxing was after. One of the coxswains literally came up to me and said she heard from everyone how the coach never yells and how bad my coxing was. How do I recover from this? I felt very novice-y and I need to manage practice better, how do I accomplish this? Additionally, when I steer I feel like I am constantly moving the rudder slightly? This sounds so silly but how do I just go straight? Should I be making constant adjustments? I have coxed for over three years and while I have put every ounce of energy into working really hard to be the best coxswain (and even won my final at Nationals), I feel like I am still not a great practice coxswain and steerer. We also have 10 coxswains on our team and I have never not been able to work my way to the top. My coaches aren’t big on communicating/advising/teaching the coxswains so I am struggling to get guidance on how to achieve being a more effective and efficient coxswain. Thank you so much.

How much time did you spend prior to going on the water with the top two coxswains and/or the head coach to figure out what the practice plan was, how that coach likes to run practice, asking questions about drills/workouts you’re unfamiliar with, and gather intel on the boat you’d be coxing?

I get what you’re saying about coaches not being big on communicating or teaching coxswains and I’m not saying that that isn’t a valid problem but unless you’re actively and consistently taking the initiative to talk to them yourself and gather all the info I just listed before you go out (which is practically the bare minimum of what your communication with your coach should be anyways), you’re discrediting almost immediately any argument you make about why practice went poorly (in this context). It’s one thing if you do all that and you’re ill-prepared because they give you ambiguous, brusquely explained instructions but it’s another if you’re straight up unprepared because you didn’t make the effort to talk to them in the first place and then stepped in the boat unsure of 17 different things.

Related: Coxswain skills: Running a smooth practice

cannot stress this enough that you have to be the one actively seeking this information out because it’s rare you’ll find a coach who just freely offers it up to you. Some definitely do and they’re awesome for doing so but they’re also the unicorns of the rowing world. And especially if you’re feeling out of practice and/or are going out with a coach who you don’t normally practice with, that doubles – maybe even triples  – the importance of you communicating with them rather than waiting for them to come to you.

Recovering from this will probably be a long process if things went as poorly as you said. I say that because when I’ve worked with (or been coached by) coaches who “never yell” and then something happens that causes them to react uncharacteristically, that coxswain tends to stay on their shit list for awhile before that coach feels like they can trust them again (or at all, if they’re a coxswain they haven’t really worked with before). The length of time can be accelerated or prolonged too depending on the coxswain’s willingness to admit fault/responsibility (and then actually do something different) and the rate at which they do so. There’s a big difference between apologizing immediately after practice and waiting a few days to do it. Your situation might be different but that’s how it’s played out in my experience 99% of the time.

Moving past this starts with you apologizing to your coach, the other coxswains, and your boat for having a negative impact on the quality of practice that day. And not in that fake way where you emptily say “I’m sorry” 830592 times thinking the more you say it the more people will believe you. (See the “don’t apologize” bullet point in this post and the second paragraph of the post linked below for more on that.) From there, you need to get in the habit of talking with whatever coach you’re going out with (or at the very least, the other coxswain(s)) as soon as you get to practice every single day so you can hear what the plan is and ask any questions that arise before you launch.

Related: The overall point of this whole story are my questions: do you have any tips on how to improve my coxing over the summer (during which I’m not doing any sort of summer rowing programs)? And, are there any specific things you think I should do to help gain the varsity coach’s trust back? I want to prove to him that I’m good enough for second boat or for the lightweight V8 even as a junior with only a year of experience because I really think I’m not that bad of a coxswain now and that any sort of improvement could boost that. Anyway, thank you so much for this blog and for whatever answer or advice you can give!

As far as on-the-water practice management, there’s a lot of stuff in the “practice management” tag that I’d encourage you to read through. Obviously it’s impossible to incorporate everything that’s pointed out or suggested in there so start off by picking 2-3 things that are relevant to the areas you’ve struggled with and incorporating those changes into your coxing.

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering, pt. 2

For steering, check out the post linked above – it covers the exact question you asked about whether or not you should be making constant adjustments. One thing that I got in the habit of doing whenever I’d take out a boat I hadn’t been in before was just playing with the rudder and strings while it was still in the racks. This helped give me a good idea of how big or small my “small adjustments” needed to be in order to actually get the rudder to respond, which in turned helped me understand the difference between making constant adjustments vs. anticipating what adjustments needed to be made. I got into more detail and try to explain it a little more thoroughly in that post I linked to though so definitely check that out. I also find that how you hold the strings makes a big difference so check out the photo and middle few paragraphs in this post for an explanation on what’s worked best for me.

Coxing Q&A Racing

Question of the Day

Hi! I’ve been coxing in high school for 3 years and coxed Head of the Charles last year with my school team. This year however, I was told that I am going to cox an international team that had done well last year. I do not really know anything about them and I will only have the day before the race to practice with them. I was wondering if you had any advice about what I should do to prepare. Thank you!

That’s pretty cool, albeit definitely nerve-wracking. Your best bet would be to reach out to them via email (somebody has to have the contact info for one of the rowers) to introduce yourself and get a sense of their experience levels, if they already have a race plan in mind (or at the very least, certain things they want to do at specific points along the course), what they’ve been doing during practice, etc. The four I’ve coxed the last three years is from the PNW so I stay up to date with what they’ve been doing through an email chain that generally starts sometime in the late spring. Once we meet up to practice that Friday morning before HOCR, I’ve usually already got a good idea about what they want to do so all I’ve gotta do is fill in the gaps based on whatever I see/feel during that 90 minute practice. It’s definitely an unconventional approach but as long as you communicate beforehand, even if it’s only over a couple emails, you’ll pretty much have all the info you need to have a decent race.

If for whatever reason you can’t connect over email or Skype or whatever, just plan on asking those same questions before you launch. I get why coxswains are nervous about going out with a crew they’ve never met before but your job is still the same (steer effectively, don’t hit anything, etc.) so all you’ve really gotta do is just execute whatever practice/race plan they give you. And if they don’t have a plan (which is unlikely but still possible), just say “This is what I did when I raced here last year and it worked really well for us, are you guys open to trying it today and then we can tweak it if necessary once we’re back on land?”. That’s basically my go-to whenever I’ve encountered that situation and the crews are usually happy to default to what I’ve done in the past with minimal adjustments to fit the current lineup.

It’s highly unlikely you’re gonna have to come up with any sort of plan solely on your own though, which I think is what trips a lot of coxswains up. Nor should you, since you know nothing about them. Either they’ll already have something they want to do that they’ve been doing for awhile or you can just default to something you’ve done previously. When you’re jumping in a boat like this nobody expects “perfection” the way our actual crews do so don’t think too hard about all this.

Since you mentioned that they’re an international crew, I’m assuming there’s not a language barrier of any kind but even still, the best piece of advice I can give you is to make sure you use the terminology they are most familiar with when it comes to basic stuff like port vs. starboard, calling for them to stop or hold water, etc. I know in some places it’s more common to say “easy” or “easy oars” instead of weigh enough, port/starboard are more frequently referred to as “stroke side” and “bow side” outside the US, etc. I talked to a coxswain last year who collided with another crew on the course because the people she was coxing didn’t immediately process that when she said “ports, ease off” she meant stroke side (or whatever one it is, I really don’t know…) and when she said “weigh enough, hold water” she meant hard stop.

Related: Head of the Charles

Beyond all that, just prepare the same way you normally would. Review the bridges and turns, listen to your audio from last year, and … that’s pretty much it.

“Preparedness matters. Details matter.”

Coxing Rowing Technique

“Preparedness matters. Details matter.”

I was having a hard time this week trying to brainstorm ideas for today’s post (because at this point it feels like I’ve written all there is to write about head racing) but luckily one of the other Columbia coaches posted something in our team Facebook group that I thought was worth sharing.

Everyone needs to be prepared to use the drilling sequences to improve. That means knowing what they are, what you need to focus on, how you are going to focus on it, and what outcomes you want. Preparedness matters. Details matter.

I talk a lot about the importance of communicating with your coaches so you understand the drills/workouts you’re doing, their purpose, how it’s executed, what you should be taking away from it, the technical focus, etc. and then relaying that info to the rowers, either before they start the drill or while you’re warming up a just an overview of what practice will entail that day … and the quote above is why. Preparedness matters. Details matter.

This applies just as much to the rowers as it does the coxswains too – probably even more so, which means you also have to be communicating with your coaches and/or coxswains so that you have a full understanding of the drills you’re doing, particularly when it’s addressing a technical issue that’s been pointed out to you about your own rowing. It like that Lombardi quote says, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.” You can do drills or make technical calls every day during practice but if you’re only doing it because that’s what you’re supposed to do and not because you’re actually prepared to do it, with all the pieces of knowledge listed above at the forefront of your brain, you’re limiting what you take away from the work you’re doing.

Just something to keep in mind now that we’re fully into the fall season and gearing up for a busy few weeks of racing.

Image via // @mitmensrowing

College Coxing Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

I’ve been coxing for a little bit over a year now in my college crew, and we are currently working on prepping our guys for head race season. There are three coxswains, including me, but two boats so right now I’m fighting for my seat. I feel like all three of us have about the same collegiate coxing experience and have about the same capability of steering correctly for that race, so all that really differs are our styles. One of the cox’s is super happy and upbeat and really cheers the guys on to race better while the other one is really technically savvy and gets really aggressive whereas I’m pretty much smack dab in the middle of their styles. I have a feeling that my coach prefers them over me but I don’t want to change and be something I’m not. What should I do?

I get what you’re saying but I also think it’s important to point out that when you’re in the boat, even though you’re “in charge”, you’re still working for eight other people (nine, if you count your coach). If there’s something that’s preferred by the majority, you have to be the one to adapt, not them. I’m not a super peppy, cheery type of coxswain but I’ve coxed boats where that’s the style they’ve responded best to, so even though it’s not my style or personality at all, I had to incorporate some of that into my coxing because it’s what made the boat faster. I’ve also had coaches who pushed me to be a more technical, drill sergeant-y coxswain that I was prepared to be given that’d I’d only been coxing for a year or so. I wasn’t thrilled about adapting my style of coxing to be more of either of those things but I also had no right or reason to say “no, I’m not doing this”. Even now, I’ve been coxing for 15 years and I still adapt to whatever the crew wants (even when they say they’ll default to my style) because saying “I don’t want to change and be something I’m not” just fundamentally feels like I’m going against the most basic role of coxing, which is to serve the crew.

Anyways, to answer your question, you should talk with your coach. Say that you want to make sure you’re staying competitive for one of the two spots that are available and you wanted to see what observations they’d made about your coxing through the first few weeks of practice. If you’ve been working on stuff, like refining your steering or increasing your technical feedback during drill work, say that and ask if there are any other areas where they feel you could stand to make improvements that would give you a better shot at being placed in one of those two boats.

I don’t typically think you should bring up other coxswains in conversations like this but I do think a good question to ask every once in awhile is what they’re doing well that you could incorporate if it’s not something you’re doing already. At MIT our varsity coxswain the last two years was always great about keeping things running during practice, not wasting time, responding immediately when we’d ask him to do something, etc. and that was huge in ensuring we were using our time effectively. Our 2V coxswain was OK at this but still left a lot to be desired so this was something I talked about with her a lot, especially in the context of things she could do to make a case for being boated higher. Bottom line, if you get the feeling your coach prefers the other coxswains over you, talk to them and see if that’s the case … but approach it by asking what they’re doing to make things run better, faster, and smoother, not in a whine-y “why do you like them better than me” kind of way. (I’ve been in the room when college coxswains have done that and it just makes me roll my eyes so hard.)

I can’t remember what the context of this story was but a coach I worked with a few years ago said that one of the best things a new varsity coxswain asked him was “what did [the last varsity coxswain, let’s call him Jake] do that made your job easier?”. (He was similar to you, pretty much in between two other coxswains and was trying to figure out how he could get an edge over the other two in order to become the permanent 1V coxswain.) Obviously all the standard stuff applied but the primary thing was Jake’s coachability and adaptability, meaning that he took feedback, reflected on it, and found ways to immediately tweak his coxing based on what he was seeing/hearing from others. He also was able to get into any boat, be it the 1V eight or the 4V four and make it go fast, even when the boats varied wildly in the style of coxing they responded to. If you can get into a boat that likes cheerleaders and get them to respond and then get in a boat the next day with a crew who likes an in-your-face hardass and do the same thing (and steer straight on top of all of that), you’re basically worth your weight in gold.

Basically what you need to do is, one, like I said, talk to your coach and two, whenever you’re in the launch, observe the styles, presence, etc. of the other two coxswains to see what they’re doing well and then try to incorporate some of that into your own coxing the next time you go out. The absolute dumbest reason for losing your seat in a boat is “I didn’t want to change what I was doing”. You’ve only been coxing for a year so while I get that you’ve probably established a style of coxing, it’s definitely not going to be the one you stick with for your entire career so use this opportunity to identify the areas where you can ebb and flow a bit with your approach in order to give you the best shot at making one of the boats.

Coxing Q&A Technique

Question of the Day

Hi! I just finished my first season of coxing and am now on the varsity team. Due to a shortage of coxswains, I got put on a pretty good boat by default and the girls expect a lot. My novice coach didn’t really teach me how to spot and correct poor technique and my current coach has not been super helpful about it either. Do you have any advice on what to look for or any videos to recommend? The general problems in the boat are rush and set. Do you know any specific problems that could cause this that I could make corrections on? Thank you!

As far as what to look for, check out the post below. There’s a couple different issues addressed in there, including the set, that should give you a good starting point. A couple other posts that might be helpful are these three from the aptly-named “things that affect the set” series on handle heights, timing, and bladework.

Related: “So, what did you see?”

When it comes to rush, it starts with timing out of the back end – getting the hands and shoulders out together first so that when the slides start, people aren’t already behind and having to play catch up (which then checks the boat’s run). I’ve always found double pause drills to be a good drill to do because it gives you a couple checkpoints throughout the recovery to collect yourself as a crew and ensure you’re all moving into the next phase of stroke at the same pace. (I talked a lot more in detail about this in this post and the “top 20 terms” post linked below.) Definitely ask your coach if you can throw some pause drills into your warmup if you feel like the rush isn’t getting addressed elsewhere throughout practice.

Related: Top 20 terms: Rush(ing)

All of those links should put you on the right track to being able to spot and correct some of the basic issues you’re seeing but what’s going to help a lot more is keeping track of what you’re doing and seeing during practice, making note of any questions you have (either on what you saw, technical stuff you’re unsure of, etc.), and then spending a few minutes going over it with your coach a couple times a week. It’s unlikely that they’re gonna ask if you understand or have questions so you’ve gotta take the initiative and approach them yourselves in order to get the info/clarification you need.