Tag: novice

How to cox (and coach) novices

Coxing How To Novice Rowing

How to cox (and coach) novices

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat

Coxing novices when you’re all novices isn’t that hard but doing it as an experienced coxswain  … that can be tough (at first). There aren’t many things you’ll encounter during your career that tests your ability to communicate quite like working with novices will. There’s a quote from Einstein that says “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough” and you realize how true that is when you’re trying to explain the stroke sequence or the nuances of the catch to a group of people who are completely new to the sport.

Related: My coach has enlisted the help of the rowers who’ve finished their last season at school to help with a learn to row program for the new recruits. We’ll be taking them out in quads for a couple of weeks. Do you have any advice on how to teach them to get the basics down? My learn to row experience is just a big blur now!

Twice in my career I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned if I actually knew anything about rowing – once as a senior when I coxed our novice eight and again four years ago when I started coaching. I’d think that what I was saying was clear and made perfect sense and it’d only be after the fact when someone would say “I knew what you were saying because I’ve rowed for ten years but they didn’t understand it at all…” that I’d realize how ineffective my communication style  was given the audience I was working with.

Below is some of the advice I’ve gotten over the years that has helped me improve how I cox (and coach) novices.

Consider your audience

Not only are they not rowers, some of them aren’t even athletes. You have to tailor your language so that it makes sense to everyone, regardless of whatever previous exposure they have to rowing or sports in general. Rowing itself has a pretty intense nomenclature that doesn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with it so before you say “sit ready at the catch with the handles off the gunnels and the blades buried”, take the time to explain what all the sport-specific terminology means. Don’t be that person that tries to impress people with big words just to make it seem like you know what you’re talking about – nobody cares what you know if you can’t communicate it to the masses in a way that everyone can understand.


Have you ever sat through a 90 minute long lecture and just had no idea what’s going on because the professors are throwing so much information at you? Trying to absorb all of that in a short period of time is hard and you tend to leave more overwhelmed than when you arrived. It’s the same here – you can’t try to teach the entire stroke in an hour-long practice and expect them to get it. (I naively tried once, it was a disaster.)

An analogy that I heard a coach use once was that you have to look at novices like babies who will choke on their food if it’s not cut up into small enough pieces. Rather than trying to feed the rowers the entire stroke at once, break it down … and then break it down even further … and then for good measure, break it down again.

I’m a visual learner so one of the things I did when I started coaching (at the suggestion of another coach) was I’d write out whatever it was I wanted to cover during practice (the recovery, for example) and then I’d make branches from there of what all that concept entailed. It can get pretty involved but it makes it really easy to see each “bite” (and how many there actually are), in addition to helping you organize your thoughts better so you’re not bouncing around from idea to idea to idea while you’re on the water.

Keep your delivery simple

Keep the focus on one or two points at a time and try to only comment on those things. This is something I have to remind myself of all the time (more so when I’m coxing, less so when coaching) because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything you see wrong instead of focusing on improving one specific thing at a time.

If your coach is working on body prep, for example, make sure your calls relate to that and ignore (for now) the fact that the timing is off, 5-seat isn’t burying his oar all the way, and 7-seat is coming out way early. The time will come when commenting on all that will be appropriate but for now when they’re just learning how to take a stroke, keep your focuses narrow.

This also applies when you’re not really focusing on anything and are just trying to get some strokes in. It’s OK to just let them row without getting hung up on every little thing you see that’s “off”. (This is in the same vein of “it’s OK to not talk sometimes”.) If you do want to make a correction, make it something “big picture” so that they don’t get too overwhelmed trying to process what you’re saying.

Give them actionable takeaways

As we as coxswains all know, it’s a lot easier to work on something when you’re given a tangible piece of feedback vs. something vague (i.e. “steer straighter” vs. “hook your pinkies over the gunnels so you’re less inclined to use your whole hand and end up oversteering“). 

A typical way to end practice for most coaches is to recap what you did that day and then give the crew and/or specific individuals a takeaway that they can continue working on tomorrow. I got in the habit of doing this as we were coming in to dock, usually because everything was fresh in my mind and if for some reason our coach wasn’t able to meet with us, the rowers would at least get some feedback that they could use during the next practice (while it was all still fresh in their minds too). “Keep working on the timing” is too vague but something like “Sam, timing looked better today. Keep working on getting the body set sooner on the recovery so you’re moving right with Matt…” gives them feedback on the “big picture” (timing) while giving them somewhere specific to focus their efforts (body prep).

My lack of patience is one of my biggest weaknesses and it is tested when I cox novices. You will have to repeat things numerous times, you will get frustrated when they keep doing whatever it is you just said to stop doing, and there will be times where you wonder if there are any neurons firing at all in the heads of the novices in your boat. I got a couple emails this spring asking how to deal with that and the best advice I can offer is to take a deep breath and, like I said above, find where you can break things down further. Being able to take a step back, analyze what you’re seeing, and then simplify it from there can/will alleviate that frustration because you’ll almost always pick up on something that you didn’t before that you can then communicate to the rowers.

If you have the chance to cox a learn to row camp this summer or if your coach throws you in with the novices in the fall, don’t begrudge the opportunity. It’s a great chance to work on your communication skills and really test how well you understand the technical aspects of the stroke. If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a plateau it can also help you get out of it by forcing you to abandon auto-pilot and start thinking again about what you’re seeing and the calls you’re making.

Image via // @david_watts_

Novice Video of the Week

Video of the Week: Novice boat handling skills

This is a great instructional video for novice rowers (and coxswains, but mostly rowers) because it walks you through the entire process of getting the boat out of and back into the racks, how to carry the oars, adjusting the foot stretchers, getting in/out of the boat, etc.

Related: Coxing a boat in and out of the house

In the moment of trying to do all these things it can be kind of confusing and this video does a good job of showing what each part of the process looks like, as well as demonstrating what the applicable commands are.

Advice from a former novice

Coxing Novice Racing

Advice from a former novice

Back in late June I got an email from a coxswain who had just finished her novice season and wanted to share some of what she’d learned and what she wish she’d learned throughout the spring. Here’s what she had to say (the italicized text is mine).

“Now that I’m no longer a novice, I can reflect on my time on the novice team and also add in all the new things I’m learning at a competitive camp. My hope is that I can help the novices that look at your blog with all my mishaps and experiences, so here are two lists:

Things I wish my coach told me while I was a novice:

When you’re rowing it up after your sprint race, if you see boats coming down the course about to pass you, weigh enough.

For those that don’t know, this is a sportsmanship thing and also so that the wake from you rowing doesn’t impact the crew in the lane closest to you. You’re not always required to stop (the officials will tell you if it’s something you must do but if they don’t, ask to confirm) but it’s just one of those things you should do regardless. It also gives the rowers a chance to grab a quick drink or make any needed adjustments, not to mention cheer on their teammates if a race your team is in is on the course.

When you have a bad day/bad row don’t let it stay in the boat with you. Let it go and be patient.

Don’t expect rowers to do what you say just because you’re their coxswain. You have to be their leader.

When steering, less is more.

Related: How to steer an eight or four, Oversteering, and “Small adjustments

If you need to clear your skeg of weeds in an eight, you need to turn all the way around, lean over the stern deck on your stomach, and get both hands down on the skeg.

Unless it’s 80 degrees out this is rarely an enjoyable activity but if you’ve got a lot of weeds/leaves wrapped around the rudder or a stick caught between the fin and the rudder (had that happen at HOCR two years ago) then reaching into the water and loosening it up manually is your best/fastest option. Just make sure that you’re pulled over to the side out of the way of other crews that are practicing or racing. 

Things I’m so glad my coach told me when I was a novice:

Your warmup is this, your race plan is this, and when I raced in college, it helped when my coxswain said this.

With regards to the first two, if these aren’t things your coaches tell you, ask them yourself. They might forget, they might think you already know, or they might think that one of the other coaches already filled you in. If you don’t know ASK. These are not dumb questions, these are critical parts of your race day preparation.

Don’t panic, and have fun.

This is how you stake boat. (She showed us a video and then the next day we practiced it on our dock.)

Related: Spring season pre-race prep (includes videos on how to get into a stake boat)

When coxing an eight, instead of staring at one oar at a time, stare at a point in the air in front of your stroke, and your peripherals will bring everything to you. (Tricky to do, but when practiced, super helpful.)

Being a few pounds over the limit is okay. It’s called the minimum for a reason.

So, as a message to all frustrated novice coxswains (and rowers!), here are my words of advice: Hang in there. You never stop learning but it does get better.”

Image via // @gramulho

Coxing Drills Novice Q&A Rowing Technique

Question of the Day

Hi! So I am in my fourth season of crew, and my second season of coxing. Our season started Monday and the novices were already on the water. I was not with either of the novice boats that day but I coxed one today. I found it really difficult to teach them everything. Do you have any advice on how to teach the novices? Also, our first race is in 4 or 5 weeks, so the novices need to get the hang of it as soon as possible so that we can get “normal” boats put together. My boat today was able to row all 8 (6 novices and a 2nd season rower and stroke) fairly well. Any and all advice would be super helpful. Thanks so much!!! I love your blog- I’ve used it since I started rowing.

Therein lies the problem – you can’t teach them everything all at once. Imagine you’re sitting in math class and your teacher starts the day by teaching you to add two numbers together and finishes 90 minutes later by trying to get you to do differential equations … that’s what most coxswains (and new coaches – I was definitely guilty of this) try to do when they’re in charge of a novice crew. You have to start really simple and build from there once you’ve established a solid foundation. 4-5 weeks is plenty of time to get them rowing well enough to race so don’t rush through everything or try to pile on too much in a short period of time just because it feels like you don’t have that much time to work with.

I run our walk-on program in the fall and what we always start off doing (both on the ergs and in the boats) is a super basic pick drill. We’ll start off doing arms only for awhile (like, 15-20min) and I’ll walk around the ergs adjusting peoples’ form and making sure they’re getting the motion down. It’s obviously not going to look great but if it’s like, 75% there I’m happy. From there we’ll take a break and then do arms + bodies. Same routine, I’ll walk around and coach people as necessary but for the most part I want them to just focus on getting the motions down. Even though there are like, a thousand things I could say to them I try to err on the side of letting them figure it out for themselves (unless it’s so egregious that I have to say something) since I think that’s goes a lot further than if I were constantly in their ear nitpicking everything they’re doing.

Once they’ve got arms + bodies down we’ll go back to arms only and blend the two together, so 10 strokes doing that and 10 strokes adding in the bodies, and then we’ll repeat that once or twice more. The next day we’ll start with what we finished with the day before, cycling through arms and arms + bodies before adding in the slides. We’ll start with determining where half-slide actually is, what it should look like, feel like, etc. and then I’ll have them row at half-slide for a bit, similar to what we did the day before with arms and arms + bodies. Most of the coaching I do here is just reminding them to get the hands away and bodies over before the slides start and to not go too far past where half-slide should be.

Another point of focus is feeling what it’s like to drive off the footboards with the legs at the catch, although I don’t bring this up until I feel like they have a comfortable grasp on the recovery sequence. After they’ve got half-slide down we’ll lengthen it out to full slide and repeat the whole process again. Points of emphasis here are, again, hands away/bodies over before the slides start and not flying up the slide just because your butt is on wheels.

Assuming our first practice is on a Monday, we’ll do all of that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (with Wednesday just being a “review” type day of everything up to that point … nothing new gets added) and then on Thursday/Friday we’ll start off with the pick drill (15-20 strokes each) before going into 3-5 minutes of continuous rowing (ideally in the tanks if they’re available). After that we’ll take a break and then do some kind of drill – like cut-the-cake or a pause drill or something relatively simple like that – before going back to a few minutes of continuous rowing.

Once we get on the water (and after spending the first day doing “admin”-type stuff – i.e. how to set the boat when you’re rowing and not rowing, what stern four, bow six, etc. means, how to spin, and all the other basic stuff) we’ll repeat what we did on the erg, either by pairs or fours depending on if we’re in a four or an eight and what the weather is like. The more stable you can make the boat, the less frustrating practice will be for them and you so always lean towards having less people rowing when it’s safe to do so. Oh, and don’t even think about rowing on the feather for at least a few days (or longer…). Stay on the square while going through the stroke sequence, rowing by 6s, etc. and get them comfortable with figuring out blade heights, setting the boat, etc. before you teach them the feather. Keep in mind that square blade rowing is a pretty useful drill in itself.

Related: Hi, I was wondering about coxing brand new novices. I’m in boats right now where most, if not all, people are still learning how to row and working on figuring out technique so I haven’t been making very many calls other than if the balance is terrible or if people aren’t rowing together because my coach is talking individually to people to work on body form and things I can’t see. I feel bad about not saying very much, but I don’t want to interrupt the coach or focus on things not important right now. Other than steering straight and paying attention to explanations for correcting form, what should I be doing to improve my coxing?

What my coaches always did (with us as novices and as an experienced crew) and what I try to do with the walk-ons is once we were able to row by all eight (and not have it be a total shitshow), we’d row 20ish strokes by sixes and then all eight for 10 on the feather, rotating through the sixes for … probably 30ish minutes or so. A couple practices later we’d do the same thing except reverse it – 20ish strokes by all eight on the feather and 10 by sixes on the square – before eventually making our way to all eight on the feather (at which point we’d eventually work in varying rates and pressures to keep things from getting too boring).

All in all, everything I just said could be covered in roughly three to four weeks, depending on how quickly you moved through it all, which gives you a week or two to introduce them to racing and how all that works.

Related: Managing novice coxswains

All that aside, the best advice I can give you is to talk with your coach and figure out what their plan is for coaching the novices. If they want you to be in charge of coaching them while you’re coxing (which isn’t uncommon) then at least discuss with them what you should cover each day so you’re not trying to come up with stuff on the fly. If you’re going out with your coach then let them do the bulk of the talking/coaching while you act as the reinforcer of what they’re saying as necessary. Make sure that whatever you are saying is communicated as clearly and in the most simple manner as possible too. If it can be broken down into simpler concepts, do it. You’ll end up saving a lot of time in the long run when you don’t have to go back and re-explain something that you didn’t cover initially because you thought it was obvious or assumed. (I touch on that in the post linked above – it’s about coxswains but the ideas behind the first three bullet points could all easily apply in this situation too.)

Novice Q&A Racing

Question of the Day

Hello! I was wondering if you had any advice for not panicking during a head race? I’m a novice rower who usually rows stroke in doubles. During practices everything is fine. Mock races are great, good start, ratio, and pressure … but during the last two actual regattas I started panicking when the head race started and my rate was too fast with no pressure and I felt like it was endless and I couldn’t push … it almost felt like I had to give up! Do you had any advice?

If things are good during practice then the issue is more likely you just letting your nerves get to you rather than you getting to the starting line and panicking because you feel unprepared (which is another reason why people freak out at the start). I used to always get really nervous before the start of a race too so before our boat would meet to start our land warmup I’d find a quiet spot well away from the boats, other people, etc. and just sit for 10-15 minutes to try and relax. Sometimes I’d go lay in our trailer if it was a short walk away and other times I’d go into the boathouse and find a stairwell to sit in. I totally sabotaged myself during one of my first races as a novice by letting my nerves get to me and it was a total shitshow (at least on my end) so I learned quickly that I needed to take a few minutes to get out of my own head before we launched. During the row up to the start I’d always try to focus on my breathing too (long, slow, deep breaths), that way I’d always have something to focus on even when I wasn’t making calls to the boat.

Related: I’m a novice rower and I’m racing in my 1st head race this weekend, any tips? I’m freaking out!

The more experienced I got the less nervous I’d be by the time we got to the starting line but even now the buildup of adrenaline still makes me antsy. Once I catch myself drumming my fingers on the gunnels I know I need to close my eyes and take a couple deep breaths to get back to that relaxed baseline feeling I had on the row up. I talk to myself a lot while we’re sitting there too (in my head, not out loud … that’d be weird), usually just to remind myself to chill out, the crew trusts me and has my back, etc. Each of my stroke seats and I (or bow seats if I’m in a four) have always had our own little thing we’d do too (fist bumps, “secret handshakes”, things we’d say to one another, etc.) and that’s kinda the last little thing I need to get me 100% dialed in. At that point there’s no time left to be panicked or antsy because I’ve got a job to do so whatever nervous energy I have left just has to be channeled into calling the race.

Related: How should a coxswain deal with pre-race doubts and jitters?

I’d recommend doing something similar before your next race – find somewhere quiet to collect your thoughts before you launch, subtly focus on your breathing on the row up, and dial yourself in at the line so your start is as controlled and powerful as possible. What works for everyone is a little different so you’ll probably have to tweak all that to make it work for you but eventually you’ll get into a pre-race routine that leaves no room for nerves to take over.

Coxing Novice Q&A Teammates & Coaches

Question of the Day

Hi! This is my second year as a coxswain on a girls’ high school team. We just had some novices come in so they’re relatively new to the sport. I’m worried that I may be too mean/harsh with the rowers. Earlier today I was coxing a quad back to slings to wash it. It is difficult to move the boat from the dock to the slings – there are quite a few poles on the dock and around the slings area. I’d already told the rowers not to move and the next thing I hear, one end of the boat had come in contact with a pole (not exactly a crash but the boat had hit the pole). While the sound wasn’t too loud I immediately yelled, “I said, DON’T MOVE until I give a command!” I feel like I may have been too mean but at the time my only concern was to not wreck the boat. What is your opinion and how should I effectively take control calmly in this situation?

I’ve been dealing with similar stuff all week so I totally get where you’re coming from. I have a really hard time understanding how someone can be told to follow this instruction or not do something or whatever and then they go and do literally the exact opposite. Especially if we tell you to do something, directly ask you if you understand, and you say YES, indicating to us that you comprehend what we said and will do whatever we said to do/not do whatever we said not to do.

Admittedly, I’m a pretty impatient person in general and when instructions (not requests … instructions) not being followed leads or has the potential to lead to a dangerous situation (like, oh I donno, rowing against the traffic pattern in the basin in a Tubby or rowing 500m away from the launch to the point where we can’t see you after we specifically said “stick with the other Tubbies”), I become very tense and on edge. I know that as soon as that happens anything I say is going to reflect the “WTF ARE YOU DOING” feelings going through my head and I do question sometimes if I’m going to come off as being too harsh as a result. I care but at the same time I don’t because it all comes back to if you had just followed the REALLY, REALLY, REALLY STRAIGHTFORWARD AND SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS that I gave you in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this position. I’m guessing you probably felt the same way. A lot of people say “you can’t get too mad, they’re just novices…” but I think that’s bullshit because you don’t need to be a varsity rower to be able to follow an instruction as simple as “don’t move”.

I don’t think that getting frustrated in situations like this means you’re being too harsh or mean with the rowers. Others might disagree, which is fine, but that’s my opinion. Safety is your number one priority and protecting the equipment falls under that umbrella so as long as you’re not actually yelling at them and calling them a bunch of idiots (out loud), I don’t think you have anything to worry about.

After your next practice, I’d recommend taking them aside and apologizing if you came across overly aggressive but make it clear that as a coxswain safety is your top priority and it’s very frustrating when people don’t listen and jeopardize the safety of the equipment, other teammates, etc. Traffic patterns, how to stay safe in the boat, etc. are not suggestions, they’re rules and protocols that are in place for. a. reason. Going out and blatantly ignoring what we said after previously indicating they understood puts them and anyone else on the river in danger.

Explain to them why you said don’t move and point out the poles you have to navigate around so they can see why it’s important that they listen to you. Also say that you try to make sure your voice is heard (which hopefully you do) but you know that when there’s a lot going on around you it can be harder to hear so you’ll make more of an effort in the future to talk loud and make sure everyone on the boat hears what you’re saying so there’s no confusion on what you want/need them to do.

Hopefully that explanation will clear things up and you won’t have this problem again but if you do, ask one of the varsity coxswains or team captains to address them. If the issue persists after that, talk to your coach and let them know that you and the other coxswains/captains have already addressed this several times but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through. If it gets to that point it’s best for you to take a step back, not say anything, and let your coach address it because if this is a regular thing you’ve been dealing with you’ll probably be pretty pissed off and that’s when you’re more likely to say something that is too mean/harsh.

Coxswain Skills: Steering, pt. 2

Coxing How To Novice

Coxswain Skills: Steering, pt. 2

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 (Oversteering)

Depending on who you talk to when you first start coxing, you’ll either be told that you should always be steering or that you shouldn’t be steering at all. Both of those are correct-ish but are still pretty vague and can be interpreted a couple different ways, which leads to either some aggressive oversteering or watching a coxswain steer directly into a boat in front of them because you said not to steer. Obviously that’s not what you meant but to a novice who doesn’t know any better, they’re going to take you literally even when common sense dictates that maybe they should steer to port to avoid the boat that’s directly in front of them.

When you’re told that you “shouldn’t be steering” what that actually means is that you shouldn’t be overcorrecting (aka making more adjustments/corrections than are necessary). The ultimate goal when it comes to steering is to do it just enough that the boat responds but not so much that the rowers can sense that it’s happening. Outside of steering around long bends or sharp turns, they shouldn’t be able to tell (by the boat going off-set or seeing the zig-zag trail in the water behind you) when adjustments are being made. This is where knowing how your shell responds to the rudder and how far you have to move the strings before the rudder moves can come in handy.

Another important thing to remember  is that “small adjustments” doesn’t relate to how far forward you’re moving the strings, it has to do with much the rudder moves. You’d think the two would be one in the same (and in most cases they are) but I’ve been in boats where the steering cables are really loose and I have to move my hand forward a few inches (aka not a small amount) just to get the rudder to move a quarter of an inch. If you know this is the case with certain boats then make sure you let the other coxswains know, especially if they’re new to the team and/or haven’t coxed that particular boat before.

Related: Hi I’m a novice coxswain (like really novice, my first day of actual coxing was today) and I have a steering question. Should I steer when the rowers are on the drive or on the recovery (blades in or out of the water)? I have looked it up a couple places and found conflicting answers. Today I just steered during both because I figured for my first time it was more important not to hit anything than to have perfect “steering technique”.

If someone says that you should always be steering that doesn’t mean that you should constantly be moving the rudder back and forth, rather it means that you should always be anticipating what adjustments need to be made based on what the boat is doing, what’s happening up ahead, the wind/water conditions, etc. Hearing “you should always be steering” tends to lead to the oversteering problems I talked about last week though so a better way of saying that would be that you should always be thinking about steering in the context of the things I just mentioned but only actually doing it when you need to.

The experienced coxswains out there will know that the more proficient you get with steering the more it becomes an “auto-pilot” skill. For me, I tend to only consciously think about steering a few times per practice and it’s usually only when there’s a lot of traffic around me. If there’s minimal traffic, conditions are good, and we’re rowing well I might come off having not thought about it at all. Part of it is knowing the river and part of it is just knowing based on sight/feel when I need to make an adjustment vs. having to actually think about and process what needs to happen.

It’s a little tough to explain but you’ll eventually get to the point where you’ll get off the water and your coach will say “nice course today!” and you’ll think “… uh … I don’t even remember steering, let alone what course I took”. This isn’t something that’s just naturally going to happen though. If you aren’t consistently practicing your steering skills then “eventually” could be a couple seasons (or years) away, whereas if you’re regularly focused on all the things I’ve talked about previously that go into steering an effective course, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be fully confident in your steering abilities within two seasons or so after you start coxing.

Image via // @grimey_grim
Coxswain Skills: Steering, pt. 1

Coxing How To Novice

Coxswain Skills: Steering, pt. 1

Steering is the most, if not the only, visible role we have as coxswains. It’s something I’ve talked a lot about on here (you can see all those posts in the “steering” tag here)  but since the new season’s just getting started I thought it’d be beneficial to go over a couple of the basics for the new novice coxswains. This should also serve as a reminder for those of you who are returning as experienced varsity coxswains and give you some stuff to touch on with the novices.

If someone asks you what your most important task is outside of keeping your crew safe, your answer should always be “steering an effective course”. I don’t like to say “steer straight” because there’s always that one person that takes it way too literally and emails me saying “but I cox on a river with a lot of turns, how do I steer straight then?”. Steering an effective course covers all the bases, regardless of whether you’re coxing on a straight-shot body of water or a more serpentine one like the Charles.

More so than telling your rowers what to do and WAY more so than motivating them, learning how to steer properly should be your biggest priority when you first get on the water. This entails a combination of things – knowing how the steering system works is obviously the main one but also knowing how the boat responds to you touching the rudder and where you need to steer more/less on the water you row on (aka turns and straightaways) are the other two components. Varsity coxswains, you should be clueing the novices in on both of these since you’ve been in the boats before and know which ones respond well and which ones don’t. You also know which turns require you to stay on the rudder longer (i.e. the downstream Eliot turn on the Charles) and where you should only need to make slight adjustments as necessary to hold a point (i.e. in the basin).

Related: Mike Teti’s “Three S’s of Coxing”

Steering too much (aka oversteering) is the most common problem coxswains, especially novices, have. This is usually a result of getting impatient because the boat doesn’t feel like it’s turning. Remember, it’s not going to respond right away – it takes a stroke or two (or more, depending on your shell) before it starts to turn so you’ve gotta wait and not shove the rudder all the way over to one side thinking that’ll make it turn faster. All that does is cause you to, as I call it, “drunk steer”, meaning you’re zigzagging down the course in such a way that would make me think you’d fail a sobriety test if given one on land.

Between fours and eights, fours tend to be the easiest to oversteer because there’s less of a “delay” in response time between when you move the strings and when the shell actually turns. One of the reasons why developing boat feel and understanding technique is such an important part of coxing fours is because it can also help you limit unnecessary (over)corrections with the rudder. Being able to gauge the impact the rowers have (or will have) on the shell will allow you to be able to anticipate the corrections you’ll need to make to your steering and limit it to only what needs to be done.

Related: Coxswain skills: Boat feel

Another cause of oversteering is not anticipating what’s up ahead. You should be looking over your stroke’s shoulder every couple of strokes to see what’s going on in front of you so you can start adjusting your course sooner rather than later. “What’s going on in front of you” includes any upcoming turns in the river, other crews that might be stopped, moving slower than you, etc., and any debris or obstacles like an errant log or a buoy. Failing to acknowledge this ahead of time leads to that “oh shit!” moment where you have make a last-minute adjustment to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Those sudden changes can also cause you to panic and throw the rudder to one side (thinking again that that will make the boat turn faster and get you out of harm’s way). This will only exacerbate your oversteering and could put you in an even worse position if you end up on the wrong side of the course (aka going against the traffic pattern) as a result.

A more rare cause of oversteering is not knowing what to say to the crew so in order to feel like you’re doing something you steer … a lot. This isn’t something I’ve come across too often but I’ve had coxswains bring it up in emails so I think it’s worth addressing, if only to say that the “less is more” theory applies not just to what you say but also to how you steer. If you don’t have anything to say or are struggling to come up with a call, don’t feel like you need to compensate for that by going all Grand Theft Auto on the steering cables. The rowers and your coach will appreciate a quiet coxswain who steers well a lot more than a coxswain who is struggling on both ends.

Image via // @rorycruickshank
Managing novice coxswains

College Coxing High School Novice Teammates & Coaches

Managing novice coxswains

It’s September, a new season is upon us, and with that comes a new batch of novices in all their naively enthusiastic glory. Let’s just assume, based on the majority of our own personal experiences, that your coaches won’t teach them a damn thing beyond “just don’t hit anything” and the onus will be on you, the experienced coxswains, to get them up to speed. Yes, it’s just as daunting of a task as it sounds like. Now you know what it feels like to write this blog.

There’s obviously a lot of things they’ve got to learn but you’re all good enough coxswains to know what to prioritize and what bridges can be crossed when you come to them. That’s not what today’s post is about. Today’s post was inspired by an article I read on Inc.com about how to manage interns. There were a lot of similarities between what they said and working with novice coxswains so I figured it’d be a good thing to put out there now before we get too far into the season.

Explain everything.

Everything that is super – and I mean super – obvious to you, tell/show them because none of it is obvious to them. The second you think “Should I tell them that? Nah…it’s obvious, they’ll know what it means/they’ll figure it out/etc.” … STOP. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Stop whatever you’re doing and explain to them whatever it is that you just thought was super obvious and self-explanatory. Trust me on this. It is worth you spending the extra two minutes going over it now than running the risk of something catastrophic and/or embarrassing happening later because they never figured out what this super obvious thing was or meant. Thing includes anything related to team protocol, where things are located within the boathouse, that sandbar about a mile and a half upstream, etc.

Give them constant feedback.

Positive or negative, feedback is an essential part of any learning process. Tell them when they’re on the right track, what they need to work on, etc. Obviously you’re not going to be in the boat with them but if you’re near each other on the water and you hear them calling a drill, let them know once you’re back on land that they sounded really engaged when they were going through “cut the cake”, which is great since it’s like the most boring drill ever … or give them some pointers on how to call it more effectively if they looked lost and were just saying “go…row” over and over. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) watch them like a hawk because obviously you’ve got your own stuff to worry about but if you can give them a quick glance whenever you’re nearby and then a tiny nugget of feedback later, you are doing so much for them when it comes to teaching them and building their confidence/self-awareness.

Don’t expect perfection.

It’s not going to be perfect. It just isn’t. You weren’t perfect when you first started and neither was I. Everybody picks things up at different speeds and the first few times they do something it’s probably going to be a little rough. Getting pissed or visibly annoyed at them isn’t going to work in the “negative reinforcement” way that most people like to think it does. All that does is make them timid, less likely to ask for help when they actually need it, and then by default … useless. (Harsh but true.) They’re just learning how to function as coxswains which means you have to be patient with them. Keep them accountable but don’t expect anything to look or sound pretty for awhile.

Give them real responsibilities.

Giving someone who is new to the job meaningful stuff to do is going to build their confidence and get them up to speed a lot faster than giving them nothing to do in the interest of someone else doing it because they already know how and can do it faster. I know that’s a wordy sentence so read it again. The new coxswains, if they’re any good at all, want to learn how to do stuff and if they’re being relegated to doing things they already know how to do or they’re sitting off to the side not doing anything, they’re  not learning. The most obvious example I have for this is trailer loading. There are numerous responsibilities that go along with getting ready to travel so don’t just relegate the novice coxswains to unraveling straps or packing up cox boxes. Show them where the oars, riggers, slings go and how they should be positioned in the trailer,  walk them through getting a boat on the top and middle racks and then walk with them as they do it, etc.

The bottom line is this: put some effort into educating them. It’s not your responsibility to be the only person cluing them into what being a coxswain entails but you should play a pretty big part in it.

Image via // @row_360

Coxing High School Novice Q&A

Question of the Day

Hi! First off, your blog is so helpful! I’m finishing off my novice year as a rower this spring, but I am switching to coxing full time for the fall season. Do I get another novice year as a coxswain too? Second, my coach told me to only touch the rudder when the blades are in the water, and I understand that. But does that mean that I touch it for the drive, put it to straight on the recovery, and then touch it again on the drive? Or should I only touch it once on the drive and that should be enough? Thanks!

It’d be best to ask your coach because I feel like most teams do “novice” a little differently, at least based on the questions and stuff I’ve been asked through the blog. On my high school team if you were a rower you could “repeat” your novice year if you were only able to complete X% of the spring season. I can’t remember the amount specifically but I think it was like, if you only raced once or twice and/or had something that prevented you from participating for more than half the season (grades, medical issues, etc.) then you were allowed to be a novice again the following year. As a coxswain though, it never mattered if we were novices or not when we had that boat. In addition to the other boats I had, I coxed the novice 8+ my freshman year, my senior year, and once or twice my sophomore year when their regular coxswain was out. It’s kind of like masters rowing – there’s different age categories for each class but the coxswain’s age doesn’t count. We viewed coxing novices the same way and there was never an issue at the regattas we attended. In your case, my guess is that since you’ve already rowed for a year but have never coxed that you’ll probably be with the novices simply because you’ll all be “new” in the sense that they’ve never rowed and you’ve never coxed (full-time), even though you have a year of rowing experience under your belt. Talk with your coach(es) though, they’ll be able to tell you for sure.

Steering on the drive is the standard rule of thumb but every boat is a little different so you’ve gotta find what works for you. When you’re racing or doing pieces you should definitely only be steering on the drive since you want to minimize how much you’re disrupting the set but during practice, it’s really not that big of a deal if you steer on the drive and recovery as long as you tell the rowers so they can adjust their handle heights to compensate. (I briefly mentioned that in the post linked below too.)

Related: How to steer an eight or four

As far as how to steer on the drive, yes, you typically touch it on the drive, go back to straight on the recovery, and then touch it again as necessary on the subsequent drives. This is also known as pulse-steering. Personally I think it’s annoying and tedious which is why I don’t do it. Unless I’m racing I’d rather just hold the cable through the drive and recovery of one full stroke rather than pulse steer for two or three. Like I said though, find what works for you and stick with it. Some boats are a little more touchy so pulse steering works fine but for others, like our Empacher, you basically have to hold the cable as far up as you can through the full drive and recovery (and occasionally say a few Hail Mary’s) if you want to make any of the turns without ending up in the middle of the river.