More fun “they were coxswains??” trivia – Stephen Hawking coxed at Oxford and Dhani Harrison (son of George) coxed at Brown and Leander.
St. Joe’s Prep 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Alumni 8+
Like most HOCR recordings, the biggest takeaway is gonna be getting a look at the course and observing how each coxswains takes the turns and bridges. There are some gems in here as far as calls goes but what you’ll really want to pay attention to is how he handles the clusters of crews between Weeks and Anderson. He pretty savagely cuts in front of a crew right before Anderson and I’m pretty sure the only reason he was able to do that without more than a minimal clash between his stroke and the bow man of the other boat is because he committed to it early and never hesitated. (As I was watching it I was thinking “where is he steering … oh damn, he’s doing that…”.) That’s kind of the name of the game with steering HOCR too – commit or get screwed.
Circling back to the beginning, when they’re passing bow #46, they’re close enough to them that you could probably signal to your bow man to yell at them to yield as well if they’re not responding to you. Granted, you have to be projecting your voice loud enough for them to hear you in the first place but if your bow seat if right beside or off of the coxswain, having them yell “yield to starboard” can be helpful. This is something that you should discuss with them during practice and/or before you launch though, not something you should spring on them during the race. Just give them a heads up that if you’re close to another crew and they’re not yielding, you’ll say something like “Ben, yield!”, which is their cue to tell the coxswain to yield. And – ahem, junior men – not in a rude way either. Don’t yell “fucking move!” or anything like that. Repeat whatever your coxswain is saying, which shouldn’t be any more complicated than “46, yield to starboard”.
At 3:56 he says “picking up the buoy line again, get ready starboards…”, which I think is a good call just to alert the starboards that they might bump a buoy as he shifts back over. Obviously if you’re taking that tight of a course you want to make sure the buoys are either under the oar shafts or just off of the blades … you shouldn’t be hitting the buoys on every single stroke. That defeats the purpose of being on the buoy line.
When they’re in front of Riverside, you hear the stroke say “we need to yield”, after which the coxswain turns around, sees where the other crew is, and then makes and adjustment. This is good communication between the two and, for the stroke seats in the back who have missed this the other 30,480 times I’ve said it, your responsibility since your coxswain doesn’t have eyes in the back of their head. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t have their head on a swivel but you’re looking at what’s behind the boat, just give them a heads up if they need to yield. See the video below for more on this (different regatta, same principle).
Related: Disqualifying Sydney Rowing Club
At 6:55 he says something about taking advantage of the fact that the crew beside them (Columbia, ironically) was taking the wrong arches. The Columbia eight was going through the Cambridge arches, which you are allowed to use in the Powerhouse Stretch, and in some cases can actually give you a strategic advantage if there’s a lot of crews going through the middle arches. Your “plan A” should always be to take the middle arches but if you come around Magazine Beach and see that there’s just a cluster of crews down the center of the Powerhouse, by all means, go for the Cambridge arches if they’re clear and use that to your advantage. This is one of those “split second, in the moment” decisions so you’ve really gotta be paying attention here.
As far as meters go, if you line yourself up right coming down the Powerhouse and positioning yourself into Weeks, it should only add one meter to your course based on measurements done by the HOCR organizers. It should still be your “plan B” but it’s a good option to have in your back pocket and if it does tack on a couple extra meters, it’s nothing you can’t make up by having solid turns through Anderson, Eliot, and Belmont Hill.
Other calls I liked:
“Get on the gas, let’s go!”
“I’ve had it with these amateurs!” (Same, dude. Same.)
University of Michigan 2016 Head of the Charles Men’s Collegiate 8+
This was a recording that Michigan’s coxswain sent me after the race last year. They started 15th in a pack of 37 and were the highest finishing American crew, coming in second overall in the collegiate 8+ event behind a Dutch crew. Below is what I said included in my email reply.
” I think one of your strengths throughout this race was your ability to maintain your composure and focus while steering through what sounded like a decent amount of traffic. (Side note, he said: “It was definitely a hectic race starting so far back. We went into Anderson four across with Wesleyan, Holy Cross and BC, suffice to say that did not work.”) It’s easy for coxswains to get overwhelmed and just completely shut down when that happens but you did a good job of continuing to communicate with your crew without losing the rhythm or intensity in your calls. I also liked how you gave them targets and said who you were passing, who you were moving through, who the next crew ahead of you was, etc. On an easier course that’s a simple thing to do but the Charles can get so chaotic that it becomes a lot tougher and requires a lot more awareness to be able to do alongside everything else. You nailed your management of the race though and there’s no question that it played a huge part in how well you guys did.”
Hi Kayleigh! I’m a coxswain coming out of my novice year into varsity (I’m a sophomore in high school). There’s 3 total varsity coxswains, one of whom came out of my novice year with me, and my coach told us that she’d be rotating us in and out of the 2V for some practices to see which one of us would be long-term coxing it. The first day of this, she put the other coxswain in, which at the time was no big deal as we’d be rotating, or so I thought. She has never rotated me into this boat or rotated the other girl out. Even this wouldn’t be a huge deal, but the boat I’m coxing, the ‘3V’ if you could call it that, is composed entirely of girls who row only scholastically (not for our actual club), and a few of the more advanced novii. A few girls in the 2V have mentioned that they prefer my coxing style and want me to cox them, but I have been given – quite literally – no chance. It’s really bothering me as I feel that I am capable and even if I can’t say right off the bat I deserve that boat, I was promised a chance to try and I know I deserve that much. Since the novices of the 3V will go back to racing novice once regattas start to strengthen that program, and the girls who row only scholastically will compete for their schools, I will be left without a crew. How should I handle this? Would it be too forward to discuss the matter with my coach?
Absolutely not. If she already told you that she’d be rotating you in then you should hold her to that. Talk to her before practice, remind her that she said she’d switch you guys out, and ask if you can take the 2V out today.
One thing I’ve always found to be helpful (not just in this context but whenever I have to remind people that they said they’d do something…) is to include as many details from the original conversation as possible and avoid making “you said” comments that could make you sound accusatory or impatient (though tbh you have every right to be impatient in this case). Rather than just saying “Hey, you said I could cox the 2V at some point, can I take them out today?”, say “Hey, during the first week of practice we’d talked about rotating the three of us through the 2V to determine who was gonna cox it for the rest of the season and I wanted to see if I could hop in there today or tomorrow since I haven’t had a chance to take them out yet. I’ve been working on XYZ with the 3V over the last few weeks and can see where I’ve made improvements that I think make me competitive for the 2V but I’d like the chance to show you and get your feedback before a final decision is made on who’ll be in the boat the rest of the fall.”.
The reason why I think this works (and this is just my own personal theory) is because it shows you were paying attention when that initial conversation happened because it’s something that is important to you and if you can communicate that by repeating back to whoever you’re talking to verbatim (or as close to it as you can) what was originally discussed, they’re much more likely to take your request(s) seriously and hold up their end of it. I also refuse to let people make me feel like a nagging asshole for bringing up something they said they’d do and haven’t done yet so if they feel awkward because they’re getting called out, even when it’s done in normal conversation with no negative or passive-aggressive undertones … *shrug*.
(Granted, I also fully recognize/admit that that’s because I’m in that phase of your late-20s where you realize some stuff is just not worth giving a shit about anymore. Thinking people are going to get mad or offended because I’m standing up for myself, in whatever aspect, is just not something I can allocate one of the few fucks I have to give towards.)
I’ve worked in tandem with enough coaches over the last four years that it’s become obvious when they’ve just gotten into a routine with one coxswain + crew and it’s slipped their mind that they said they’d switch someone else in there … and also when they’ve decided they just really like a certain coxswain and hope that the other ones will forget that they said they’d give them a shot (sometimes because they were never going to give them one in the first place). The former is mildly annoying but not at all malicious or ultimately that big of a deal. The latter is just a dick move and frankly, lazy AF on their part. I totally get why some coxswains are apprehensive about saying something too (in either situation – I’ve been in both and felt the same way) but you really do have to hold their feet to the fire if you’re serious about wanting a shot. If you’re not following up with them (in a timely manner), nothing I say is gonna help you.
If you’re getting a sense like they’ve already made their decision and are just hoping you forget or don’t notice that you never actually got to go out with the 2V then, again, talk to them before practice and say “I wanted to see where you were at with regards to who’d be coxing the 2V. I’ve been working on XYZ and would really like a shot to show why I think I’d be good in that boat. I don’t know if you’ve already made a decision but one way or the other, I just wanted to see if the opportunity was still there to go out with that boat for a practice.”.
The thing you have to remember – at practice, at school, at work, etc. – is that you have to be your own biggest advocate. This has always been one of the biggest lessons I took away from coxing too. I know that it’s awkward to feel like you’re calling out someone in a senior position but sometimes it’s gotta be done. It pays off in the long run too because if you can get over that feeling of thinking you can’t or shouldn’t do this while you’re young (and in relatively low-consequence situations like this), it makes it a lot easier to stand up for yourself (especially as a woman) when you’re older and in situations with actual real life ramifications, like salary negotiations, promotions … even stuff like harassment. Look at this as just another skill you’ve gotta develop and add to your arsenal. And hey, if you end up getting to go out with the 2V for a couple days, consider that a bonus.
Steering through wake is a pretty common thing you’ll have to deal with while coxing. Whether as a result of the elements, other coaches, or powerboats, you’ll probably encounter some form of wake a couple times per practice (at least). It’s also dependent on the time of year – Canadian Henley week on the Charles is a lot different than early October or mid-May when it comes to wake generated by launches and other crews. It’s something you should always be on the lookout for though so your crew’s not caught off guard when the boat starts to roll with the waves.
Related: Coxswain skills: Awareness
If you think back to your earth science class in middle school, you’ll recall that there are two parts to a wave – the crest, which is the top, and the trough, which is the bottom. The larger the distance between the crest and trough, the bigger/taller the waves and the tougher they’ll be to steer through. The general rule of thumb is that if you can see both at the same time (i.e. they’re spaced out, lower than the gunnels, etc.) you can continue rowing. It might still be a little bumpy but nothing too distracting – it’s important though to give the rowers a heads up though by saying “little bit of wake on starboard side on this next stroke…”.
If you can’t see both/when in doubt, you should stop. The reason why is because if the boat is suspended on the crests of the waves, that empty space between the crest and trough isn’t providing any support to the hull and could cause it to crack or snap. Basically, if you could see daylight under the hull at any point, you need to stop and wait for them to pass. If the waves are due to the weather and stopping isn’t an option and/or would be unsafe, you’ll want to position yourself as close to shore as you realistically can (you can always go another oar’s length closer than you think though) and avoid turning the boat whenever possible, even if that means rowing agains the traffic pattern (which is another reason why you want to be super close to shore and something I talk about more down below).
In normal, quick-to-pass situations (like a launch zooming past you at a close range), you’ll want to stop and position the shell parallel to the wake so that you’re minimizing the surface area of the hull that isn’t supported by the water (going back to what I said before about it being suspended on the crests of the waves). In most cases you have enough warning time, especially if you’re just sitting there between pieces or listening to your coach, that all you’ll need to do is tell bow + 3 (for example) to take a couple strokes so you’re angled with the waves. Tell the rowers to “lean away” (not drastically, just enough that the water’s not going to end up in the boat) and keep the oars flat to provide as much stability as possible until it passes.
If you weren’t already rowing you’ll probably need to readjust your point and/or row back out from shore since the waves will push you in but otherwise, this ultimately isn’t something to worry about. It’s annoying and can be disruptive if you get waked out in the middle of a piece but it’s one of those things where I just roll my eyes, think “dude, seriously??”, and move on within a stroke or two once the wake is past us. If we’re stuck in the waves and have to stop to allow them to get ahead of us or flatten out, that’s even more annoying but again, not a big deal and not an excuse to let the focus/power completely fall off.
In not-quick-to-pass situations like strong winds and whitecaps, you don’t want to stop, like I said before, because that could potentially pose an even bigger safety threat. I always defaulted to my coaches here rather than making a call on my own (which I could do in situations like the previous one I mentioned) – if they said “keep rowing, angle across, row by sixes and do not stop“, I kept rowing, angled across, went down to sixes, and didn’t stop … even if it made me wince every time a wave would hit a rigger. Rowing through wake like this is the ultimate test of staying cool under fire though and even though it can be challenging, there’s nothing to do except do it.
I’ve rarely encountered this type of wake from other boats, it’s always a result of the weather. If you’ve been in the basin in early spring, you’ll know what I mean – once you get past the BU bridge going downstream it’s a shitshow. That was one of the very few downsides of our boathouse being by the Mass Ave bridge because the Charles is, for the most part, relatively protected but once you get past BU, you’re out in the open and there’s not much you can do other than limp through it and take it one stroke at a time. I can recall a couple specific instances where we’d come out of the bridge and just get smacked by insanely strong wind gusts and waves and in order to avoid swamping the boat, we’d have to angle across in front of BU from the Boston side to the Cambridge side and row against the traffic pattern until we got to the MIT lane (all without stopping) rather than rowing up the Boston side to the crossover point (near-ish the finish line), stopping, turning, rowing across, spinning again, and then rowing up the MIT lane.
(If you’re not familiar with the Charles, check out the maps in the post below to see all the landmarks I just mentioned and get an idea of what I’m talking about.)
Related: Navigating the Charles River
This morning on Twitter I saw a sculler call out a coach for waking people out in the Powerhouse (he actually @’ed them, which I love) and that’s what gave me the idea for today’s post. I’ve said this before but if you get waked out by someone, don’t flip them off or yell at them or whatever else … just let it go, especially if you’re a high school coxswain. College coxswains can probably get away with it more often but still, don’t engage. It doesn’t make you (as a program) look good and if your crew is already questionable about your ability to maintain your composure, this isn’t gonna help your case (I see this come up on evals a lot). If it’s a big enough issue then your coach can/will handle it (by either saying something to them or flipping them off themselves … I’ve been in the launch with coaches who have done both) but you should pick the “really??” GIF of your choice and just imitate that instead.
Two most important takeaways from this (for everyone but novice coxswains in particular): don’t use adjustable wrenches on your top nuts (unless they’re literally the only option available) and follow the two-finger rule, especially when putting the riggers on the hull. To see why, check out this post and to see some of the basic wrenches you’ll need to rig your shells, check out this post.
Around this time of year is when I start getting questions from coxswains (both novice and varsity) about how they can learn everything they need to know faster … which I totally get, you want to get up to speed and not feel like you’re the behind the eight ball. That’s valid but … you have to respect the process. This stuff takes more than a single practice (sometimes more than a single season) to really nail down and that’s OK as long as it’s not taking an inordinate amount of time simply because you’re not willing to do the work. (“The work” isn’t listening to recordings every free second of your day either, for all the coxswains out there who think pouring over YouTube videos is the best/only way to get better.)
Below are a couple tips that I’ve picked up over the years from my coaches, coaches I’ve worked with, other coxswains I’ve talked to, or just from completely unrelated things I’ve read or seen online that can help you shorten the learning curve and gain the knowledge/confidence you need to be an effective coxswain.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
This is something I’ve had to remind myself of many times since I started my job at Columbia. Don’t be stubborn about asking for help. You can save so much time (and stress) by talking to someone who’s already done the thing you’re trying to do and using their insight/advice as a framework to go off of. “Model those who have already forged the path” is how I saw one article describe it. For me, that’s meant heavily relying on the head coaches to explain the processes they already had in place so that rather than coming up with something entirely new on my own, all I have to do is tweak what they’ve done to fit what works best for me or, if I do need to scrap it, use what they’ve done as a template to create something that fits my/our needs better.
The same goes for coxing. An example is when I was a novice, I leaned hard on the varsity coxswains to help me learn how to steer because I knew it was a skill I needed to pick up quickly. I asked a ton of questions (the same ones multiple times to each of the older coxswains) and used bits and pieces of the advice they gave me to shape my approach to steering … and that’s held fast for the last 15 years. I’ve integrated new things over the years as I’ve gotten ideas from other coxswains but the foundation is an aggregate of my teammates experiences in learning that same skill. This probably saved me weeks (and a few busted bow balls) because rather than starting completely from scratch and trying to do it all on my own (without actually knowing where to start), I modeled the coxswains who’d already been where I was at.
If you wait for feedback you’re only ever gonna get it when you’ve fucked up. That’s just a fact of coxing. It’s not a bad thing when someone points that out either but you’re going to be able to process it a lot better (emotionally, strategically, whatever) when you acknowledge it yourself and ask for advice on how to improve vs. an annoyed, frustrated rower actively seeking you out to say “dude, you did XYZ wrong…”. This is also why I stress the importance of coxswain evaluations any chance I get because you will not get better if they are not part of your approach to self-improvement.
Related: Making mistakes
You can’t go on the water just to cox either … by which I mean you can’t go out there and just go through the motions because you have to be there and you assume that somehow by osmosis, just sitting in the boat will make you better. That’s not what “putting in the time” means. You’ve got to go out with a purpose (beyond whatever the team’s actual plans/goals for the day are) and be able to go to people at the end of the week and say “hey, I’ve been working on trying to call the drills better this week and incorporate more technical feedback into my calls, do you have any feedback on how that’s gone, if there was any calls you thought worked really well or didn’t work at all, etc.?”. Less generality, more specificity when it comes to soliciting feedback.
Take advantage of every opportunity
You just started coxing last month and you hear the masters that row out of your boathouse need a coxswain this weekend for practice. Volunteer to cox them. Your coach wants to switch another coxswain into your boat for the day and have you ride in the launch. Instead of blankly staring at whatever the boat’s doing for 90 minutes and silently fuming about being switched out, engage and have an actual conversation with your coach about what you’re seeing, what he’s seeing, his goals for certain drills/pieces, stuff you’ve been working on yourself, your personal goals for the season, etc. Your boat (the 1V) is doing a land workout today and the 3V coxswain has a dentist appointment so their boat might get stuck on land too. Ask if you can take them out since you’ve never coxed that crew and you haven’t been on the water with your assistant coach in awhile.
The more opportunities you seek out, the more they’ll be presented to you in the future and the more chances you’ll have to practice and refine your skills. Don’t just cox the crews you’re assigned or the ones you’re comfortable being with and do not avoid volunteering to cox a crew because you think they’re beneath your skill level. None of us are that good that we can’t take out the 5V for a day. There’s something to be learned from every boat you get in and if you limit yourselves to just the lineups your coach puts you in, you’re really restricting your capacity for getting better.
Deconstruct the skill you’re trying to learn
When it comes to getting through my to-do list, I break each task down to its individual components so I can get a better sense of what that task entails and how long it’ll take to complete (based on the number and/or complexity of each of its components). It also helps ensure that nothing is overlooked along the way. I do this all the time, especially now, (you would not believe how many moving pieces there are to scheduling an official visit…) but I did it a lot while coxing too. I say “respect the process” a lot and this is one of those things that helps you become comfortable doing that, even if it is a little daunting at first seeing every. single. thing. written out in front of you.
Related: Top 20 terms (these posts are a good example of this “deconstruction”)
For example, saying you want to “get better at steering” is fine if you just want to alert yourself that it’s something you need to do. If you’re trying to actually develop a plan of attack to improve that skill though, you have to break it down to each of the things that goes into maneuvering a 53 foot long piece of equipment, ranging from how you’re positioning yourself in the boat (broken down further to how you sit and how you position your hands) to understanding how your point is effected by a technical issue (and what to say/do to fix that first) or the elements. Once you know all the individual components that make up steering in general, then you can pinpoint the ones you didn’t know played into that, the ones you already know you need to improve, etc. and start working on them one by one. As you improve each of those things, you’ll notice over time that your steering is getting better … not because you’re just broadly “working on your steering” but because you’ve determined and are addressing each of the underlying elements that comprise “steering” as a whole.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
This is the only time I’ll tell a coxswain that being repetitive is a good thing. If you want to learn how to do something, that requires doing it often and persisting in doing it over and over and over and over and over again until it becomes second nature. “Expert-level performance is the result of expert-level practice”. Rarely, if ever, is a coxswain good at something purely due to innate talent. It might be like, 3% of it but the bulk of their success and mastery of a particular skill is more a result of their stubborn dedication to committing each of its fundamental components to muscle memory than it is anything else.
This is one of the few things that doesn’t fall under the “it’s worked for me but it might not work for you” caveat that I try to remind people of with the advice I give. Each of those things up above will work for you if integrate them into your routine. Like I said at the beginning, you’re not going to pick up all the nuances of steering or how to cox a 2k in a single practice but if you’re following the advice I laid out above and making it work for you, the learning curve, especially as a a novice, won’t feel nearly as steep.
Image via // @nickmdanielson
There’s a lot of things you can do to make yourself invaluable to your team and one of the highest ones on the list (top five, easily) is being able to run a smooth practice. Since most of us are only a few days into the fall semester and haven’t been on the water too many times yet, now is when you should be communicating with the other coxswains and coaches about how practices are gonna run this year so that you can maximize the amount of time you have on the water. Varsity coxswains, you should be familiarizing the new coxswains on your team with whatever your “best practices” are for running/managing practice so that they’re up to speed and can start getting used to the way things work on your team (rather than trying to figure it out on their own because they’re afraid they’ll look stupid if they ask).
Below are some quick bullet points on what you should be doing on a daily basis to ensure practice runs efficiently. I’ve touched on or elaborated on several of these in a variety of previous posts so if you want to check those out you can visit the “practice management” tag.
Have a practice plan before you launch
If you don’t know what the plan is, ask your coach. Ideally if/when possible you should arrive a few minutes before the rest of the team so you can talk have a few uninterrupted minutes with your coach to go over what you’ll be doing that day and ask any questions you have. The practice plan should entail where you’re meeting once you launch (especially important if multiple crews are going out together), the primary focus/purpose of whatever drills you’ll be doing (this is a good opportunity to get clarification on how the drill is executed if you’re unsure or unfamiliar with it), what pieces you’ll be doing, and anything in particular from the last few days of practice that you should be watching for or carrying over (i.e. incorporating in the technical work you did yesterday into your calls during the steady state piece today).
If you’re going out with another crew, keep the boats together
Communication with the other coxswains is imperative so that you’re not getting too far ahead or behind or drifting away from each other. From a pure safety standpoint, your coach should be able to see you in his direct line of vision if he’s behind both crews in the launch – one of you shouldn’t be 300m to the left of the launch and the other 100m to the right. It’s impossible to actually watch the crews and coach when the boats are really spread out so make it a priority to work together and communicate so that you know where the other is pointed. If you’re doing drills or something and one crew gets really far ahead or behind, know what the protocol is for that – does your coach want you to keep going, if you’re really far ahead do they want you to drop the drill and replace it with a pause so the other crew can catch up, if you’re the one behind do they want you to row continuously at 3/4 pressure until you catch up and then continue on with the drill … etc. All that stuff needs to be ironed out and communicated amongst the coxswain corps before you launch. Ideally it should be a start-of-the-season “this is how we’re gonna handle XYZ situation” type of conversation but it never hurts to discuss it amongst yourselves again each time you go out together.
You would be amazed how much you learn and accomplish when you stop. talking. The mic is a privilege, not a right. Listen to your coach, don’t be having side conversations when they’re trying to coach (adjusting your point and other safety issues are obviously the exception to the rule), and whatever calls you’re making, make sure they’re something that will have a positive effect on the rowers and the boat. That especially applies to novice coxswains. You do not have to and should not talk for the entire practice. There’s a lot that has to be learned and understood before your calls will be effective so don’t be afraid to just focus on your steering and soak in the knowledge bombs your coach is dropping throughout practice. You’ll pick up the nuances of coxing a lot faster that way.
Be in control
Safety is your first priority. Think out your actions before you do them and always be looking and thinking ahead of where you currently are. Follow directions but don’t pass go, do not collect $200 if you don’t understand what you’re being asked to do. You’ll save more time asking for clarification than you will by making assumptions. Make your calls clear and concise, communicate commands immediately, (i.e. when your coach says “OK let’s get started”, don’t spend 30 seconds monologuing to the crew about whatever you’re about to do before you actually say “sit ready”), and speak with authority. Own your fuck ups as soon as they happen and move on. You will make mistakes and that’s fine, just don’t make the same one twice and don’t be that person that says “it wasn’t my fault”. It might not have been but it’s your crew, your equipment, etc. and you’re the coxswain, thus whatever it is is your responsibility.
Ultimately a smooth practice is a collaborative effort between you, the other coxswains, and your coach(es), which means a) you’ve all got to be on the same page and b) you’ve gotta be able to adapt at a moment’s notice if/when something changes or derails the original plan. This is where being in control and maintaining your composure can really make you stand out in a positive way, not just to your coach but your crew as well. “How do I earn my boat’s respect” is a frequent question that I get asked and one piece of that 1000 piece puzzle is being able to do all the things above really well.
Image via // @bill.bcqt
Hi – I’m a relatively new coxswain (~6 months) for a master’s team in my city. We have a few head races coming up late August/early September, and I’ve been asked to cox the super novice master’s team. I haven’t coxed a head race before, and while your existing posts are really helpful, I was wondering if you could give advice specifically for coxing a less competitive boat (not necessarily less competitive in spirit, but definitely in rowing ability)? I worry that there will be a lot of boats passing during the 5k course and that I won’t be able to make any calls off of other boats without them ending poorly (like if a boat is coming up from behind, I know to make calls about pushing off of them etc., but if those boats keep passing us regardless of what we do, I don’t know how productive those “pushing off” calls will be if nothing comes of them). How would you approach coxing a race like this?
Also, do you have any good coxswain recordings where the coxswain is both doing a good job and the boat isn’t winning? I feel like a lot of the exemplary recordings on this website are of boats that are able to be super competitive and while there is obviously some transfer of tips/knowledge from that type of recording to my current coxing, it also doesn’t always feel relatable to my own coxing situation (where I’m coxing super novice masters rowers). I’m excited to have a chance to cox my first head race with lower stakes but I still want to do right by the rowers and prep just as seriously as any other cox in any other boat, which is why I’m getting nervous about having the right calls!
I think accepting that they’re a super novice team that is probably going to get passed a lot is important. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have a similar approach to coxing a normal crew but if our definitions of “super novice” are the same, you kinda have to match the complexity of your race plan to the skill level of the crew … which is to say you should basically go out with the goal of doing a few 10s/20s throughout the race but mostly row it for yourselves rather than as a competitive piece like you otherwise would, if that makes sense. I know that sounds kind of dismissive and negative but that’s the reality of coxing crews that are way below the skill level of the other people you’re racing against. You don’t have to change anything as far as intensity or spirit goes, like you said, but you do have to adapt your strategy and be realistic.
When I’ve coxed or coached novice crews in the past, being honest and up front with them has always been the key to them going into the race with a good mindset. If you say “yea, we’re probably gonna get passed a lot because we’re the least experienced ones out there” or “OK here’s the race plan (and then lay out something super unnecessarily detailed)” then they’re going to feel deflated, overwhelmed, or both before they even get in the boat. If you frame it as “yea, we’re the slow guys but we’re faster than we were a few weeks ago and we’re all getting our blades in at the same time now so let’s go out there and row our race … we already know other crews are gonna pass us and that’s fine but the primary goal is to focus on our boat and try to beat our 5k time from practice last week.” then they’re more likely to feel energized about the piece because you’ve neutralized the whole getting passed thing and given them something tangible to work towards (more tangible than passing another crew, finishing in XYZ position, etc.).
As much as I hate to say “be positive” because of how cheerleader-y it sounds, that is the tone you have to have when you have that conversation. (Keep in mind there’s a big difference between being positive but realistic and sugarcoating it because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not productive at all.) I’m not really an overly peppy person in that sense but I have a sarcastic, dry enough sense of humor that I can say “we’re slow AF” and still get people to loosen up and go into it with a smile on their faces. Whatever your personality dictates in those kind of situations, just roll with it.
You’re right that those “pushing off” types of calls probably won’t be super effective, especially if/when you know the crew is going to pass you. Them “ending poorly” is probably unlikely – at most you’ll have an undesired effect if the energy falls off – but again, it’s all in how you frame it. If you say “Sarasota’s walking, let’s hold them off, push them back, etc…” and then they walk through you in five strokes then yea, that’s pretty demoralizing. If you say “Sarasota’s coming up behind us, eyes on the guy in front of you, let’s keep it internal and make ’em work for it…”, again, that gives them tangible things to focus on and work for. If/when they’ve moved through you you can say “solid effort there guys, finishes looked cleaner and Sarasota had to call another five on top of their move just to get past us, way to fight…”.
When I coached my high school team a few years ago we’d have the novices do pieces against the lightweights and one of their goals was making it take longer for the lightweights to walk through them this time than it did last time – i.e. if it took them 18 strokes to walk through them last time, this time we’re gonna dig in and make it take 20. They knew they were gonna get walked through but their primary focus was less on holding them off and more on digging in, testing their own limits, and staying in their boat rather than getting caught up with what this other crew was doing. How long it took the lightweights to move through them was a secondary goal.
Don’t worry about the calls. Worry about steering effectively first and following the rules of the course. The nice thing about coxing a novice crew for a low-stakes race is that you really don’t have to prep as much or as hard as you would if you were coxing like, the Princeton 2V at HOCR. Basically my point is don’t overthink this. Look at the course maps ahead of time, familiarize yourself with the starting area and any tricky spots (i.e. anything marked by a buoy), and have a general plan (i.e. a couple spots where you wanna do 10s/20s) and a rough idea of the calls you wanna use based off of what’s been working during practice. Don’t listen to other recordings and try to implement calls you hear/like because it’s unlikely they’ll be right for a crew that’s “super novice masters rowers”. If you can adapt it to make it work, by all means go for it, but test it out in practice ahead of time so you know if it has the desired effect and if it’s worth using during the race. Don’t try to memorize a bunch of calls that sound cool because you will forget them, which will just cause you to freak out during the race because you’re drawing a blank and can’t think of what to say.
Related: Coxswain recordings, pt. 11
There’s probably others but the recording I immediately thought of is this recording of GW’s freshman eight in the petite finals at IRAs in 2013 (also found in the post linked above). I don’t believe they were ahead at any point in the race but he still coxes it really well and you can tell at the end that they’re not bummed about where they finished (5th ahead of Dartmouth, 11th overall in the field). I get what you’re saying about some stuff not feeling relatable but a) you’re coxing (super novice) masters so that’s to be expected (nothing against masters but it’s to be expected) and b) the relatable stuff shouldn’t be winning, losing, competitiveness, etc., it should be tone, execution, and communication. 10th grade tennis players probably can’t relate to Federer or Serena but the fundamentals of their game are still the same and that’s the important stuff to pay attention to and incorporate into your own style of play (or in this case, coxing).
Mount baker men’s v8+ Steady State
This is a quick clip of some steady state with Mt. Baker’s varsity eight from 2014 and is just another good example of how to cox your crew through low rate pieces like this. The tone of voice, calls, etc. are all solid and there’s a good mix of positive reinforcement, technical pointers, and calls for individual adjustments.
Penn AC Junior Men 2016 Practice Recording
Bart sent me this recording last year and I ended up sharing it with several other coxswains (including a couple at MIT) so they could see what I meant when I talked about being more engaging, active, assertive, etc. when calling the warmup and drills. Because we tend to do the same warmup and drills most days of the week it’s easy to kind of zone out and just go through the motions, which can translate to you sounding super monotonous and bored.
Here’s part of the reply I sent to Bart after I listened to this: “My one suggestion would be to slow down what you’re saying. I like the conversational tone you have (that’s how I cox too) but there are times when you’re saying so much and you’re saying it so quickly that it can hard to process it all, especially when you’re doing stuff that’s so technically focused like you were here. Everything you’re saying is good and exactly what you should be communicating to the crew, just try to slow down the pace of your speech so that the rowers can take the feedback you’re giving them and incorporate it without first having to redirect their focus to try and figure out what you said. Tone, annunciation, etc. were all excellent throughout though.”
Rather than write out every technical call he makes as a “call I like”, just take note of pretty much everything he’s saying. Between bladework, body positioning, timing, acceleration, picking the boat up, etc. there’s like, 50 easily discernible calls in here that you can take in the boat with you. Note how he says things too – tone and enunciation is key.
You can find and listen to more recordings by checking out the “Coxswain Recordings” page.