Before you click out of the video after 10 seconds because you realize there’s no commentary … don’t. Not only will you miss a pretty sick finish, you’ll also miss (what I can only assume is) the best “fuuuuck, are they walking, nooo…” reaction from the Italian coxswain at 4:30ish (and lasting for at least the next 20 seconds).
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).
Neat look at how the timing system works at Canadian Henley (and pretty much all other major regattas).
George Washington University 2015 V8+ IRA C/D Semi-final
I’ve posted quite a few of GW’s recordings over the years, not just because they’re good but because I think they are easily some of the best examples out there of how to cleanly and assertively execute a race plan. Of all the audio I’ve posted, when you listen to Connor’s specifically, that should be one of the main takeaways as far as “what is this coxswain doing well that I can/should try to emulate”.
One call I liked in particular was “keep tappin’ it along”. This is such a universal call because it works for literally any situation – racing, steady state, drills, etc. The biggest thing it conveys is to maintain consistency. In the past I’ve used it as reassurance if it feels like the crew’s starting to second guess how well the boat’s moving – you know, like when it’s felt too good for too long and you’re like “is this a fluke or…?”. Most of the time this’ll happen after we’ve had a few questionable rows or pieces and we’ve finally started hitting our stride again and reestablishing our confidence. Similarly, nearly every coach I’ve ever had or worked with has said this during drills, especially when doing the pick drill or reverse pick drill when you’re working with a shorter slide and the propensity for having wonky a wonky set or slide control is a bit higher.
Green Lake Crew vs. Tideway Scullers 2015 Henley Royal Regatta Thames Challenge Cup Heat
This is a decent recording (tone and intensity throughout are pretty good) but the primary takeaway should be to put some daylight between your calls and not have your race sound like a seven minute long run-on sentence. You’re just not as effective if it sounds like you’re running out of breath every few seconds and rushing to get out what you want to say before you have to replenish your oxygen stash. Slow down, breathe, and speak clearly.
This is probably dependent on your crew but saying whatever split you’re at isn’t gonna cut it when you’re a length or more up on the other crew (aka you’ve clearly been doing something right) is probably not the most effective way to get them to hold off a charge or keep increasing their lead. Obviously you should always be on alert and not too comfortable with whatever lead you have but phrasing can make a big difference. “1:46, we’re a length up, let’s keep moving out and pushing that split back down to 1:45…” or “Three seats of open, sitting at 1:46, 1000m to go … let’s not get comfortable, we’re gonna take five to press together and hit that 1:45 with the legs, ready … now” says pretty much the exact same thing but in a more focused, unified (and positive) way. Granted, there are definitely situations where you need to get in their faces and be like “this is not good enough, we need to do better now” but having a couple seats of open water on the field typically isn’t one of them.
Also, I’ve beaten this horse to death multiple times but stahhhp with the “I need”, “you guys”, etc. Once in awhile is whatever, fine but not every single call. It’s not “I” and “you”, it’s “us”, “let’s”, “we”, etc. You’re part of the engine moving the boat so stop making calls that make it seem like you’re sitting behind some invisible barrier that separates you from the work.
Other calls I liked:
“Take us to Thursday…” When you’re in a multi-day race situation like Henley, Youth Nats, IRAs, etc., a call like this is a solid one to start a move off with. It’s one I’d probably save for the latter half of the race, especially if it’s close, but I like how she used it here.
You can find and listen to more recordings by checking out the “Coxswain Recordings” page.
Between mid-May and this week I’ve gotten several questions from coxswains about time trials – it seems like there were more than a few regattas this year that did them in lieu of heats. Below are a couple excerpts from some email replies I sent that include tips I’ve picked up from fellow coxswains and coaches over the years. If you have any strategies that have worked for you, feel free to leave them in the comments.
Pacing into and off the line
The simple approach to a time trial is to just go off the line with your normal start (no need to do the 1/2, 1/2, 3/4, full stuff, just do 5 to build as you approach the line and go straight into your high strokes as you cross – much like a head race) before lengthening out to your base pace. If you’re confident that you’ll make the top 12 or however many it is to advance, you can sometimes pace a little lower than normal (i.e. 33-34 instead of 35-36) but that’s something to discuss with your coach (and crew) well in advance of your race. I wouldn’t plan on racing at anything lower than your normal rate though but if your coach is confident and thinks it’s OK to conserve a bit of energy for the final, feel free to talk about it with them.
use the puddles to gauge if you’re on pace
Another point to remember (and this is important for all head races, not just time trials) is to not go out too hard. It’s easy to think you’re moving really well when there aren’t any other boats around to gauge your speed off of but you run the risk of burning out around 750m in and then it’s just a slow, painful crawl to the finish.
Practicing your start + the first 500 head-race style during practice is a good way to see how the crew feels, how the boat’s moving, etc. and gives you a chance to practice racing the splits vs. racing another crew (or five). If you’ve got a speed coach then obviously that makes it super easy but if you don’t have any splits to go off of, watch the puddles. Based on what I saw leading up to IRAs, when our varsity 8+ was running at top speed our stroke’s blade was entering the water just behind our bow seat’s puddle from the previous stroke. If the margins started to get smaller – i.e. stroke’s blade going in before the puddle reaches him) then I knew we were shortening up a bit and starting to fall off pace. You’ll have to watch your crews to know what the puddle margin usually is but that’s a good way to gauge your pace if you haven’t got a speed coach on board.
Don’t forget to start your clock
Last thing is to make sure you start your clock when you cross the start line. This is another thing you should be doing during practice so that it becomes second nature and not something you have to remember to do on race day. My coaches were always very intent on making sure we were cognizant of these easily overlooked details and after getting my ass verbally kicked by them for about two months, I came to really appreciate their constant reminders to not let stuff like this slip through the cracks. To them, the more little things like this you do, the more free speed you’re racking up and as cliche as “free speed” is, it’s also so, so true.
If you know your average 2k time (or 1500m, depending on what you race), this will help you gauge your speed and where you’re at on the course if it’s not clearly marked or there aren’t any landmarks to go off of. For example, if your boat’s average 2k time this season has been 6:00, you should be crossing 1500m around 4:30 in. If you’re coming through 1500m at 4:32 you know you’re a little off pace and should probably take a 10 to dig in at the start of the last 500m and really hit it with the legs before you build into the sprint.
This works as a great motivator too because if you’re on or ahead of your usual pace, that’s just gonna motivate the crew to keep pushing. Even if you’re off pace a little, hearing the time worked into a call can be the thing that helps them refocus and get back on track – i.e. “through 1000m we’re 3:03 in, that’s a 1.5 seconds off our time from last week; let’s commit to holding the finishes on this 10 and try to hit 1500m by 4:31 … ready … now.”
internal motivation is key (and not as hard as you think)
You do have to rely a lot on internal motivation to keep the crew going during time trials but you’ve likely got a lot more material to pull from than you think you do. Make sure you’ve got a good understanding of your crew’s technical strengths and weaknesses so you can make calls for that as necessary, and don’t underestimate the power of calling a move just for yourselves. I’ve done that before where I’ve called a ten for us … for the seniors, for the juniors … for [whatever team I’m coxing] … etc. and sometimes those are the most powerful tens in the whole piece. I usually save those for the 3rd 500 when I know they’re hurting and really wishing we had some crews around us for that visual confirmation of where we’re at on the field. 98% of the rest of my calls are almost exactly what I’d say during a normal race though.
Image via // @nickmiddletonphoto
Both crews had a great race on Saturday but Yale, predictably, came out on top. They stayed pretty patient throughout the entire piece but lit it up at the end and never looked back. This is a good example of trusting your race plan, your teammates, and your coxswain to keep the focus on your boat and not let the crew get too rattled just because the other boat is trying to make a move.
I don’t think I’ve ever stood at a more electrified finish line than this one was. What a race, especially the last 250m. Congrats to Yale!!
Less than two weeks!
If you caught my Instagram story yesterday then you saw the last 50m or so of this race from the beach where we were all watching from. That sprint by Harvard was fantastic and they should definitely be proud of that race. Congrats to Yale – can’t wait to see them throw down at IRAs.
I was talking to someone who said they thought the Harvard coxswain didn’t celebrate, rather the splash at the end was from him throwing his cox box in the water because it didn’t work during the race. “Big if true”, as they say. But seriously though, that sucks if that was the case but let that be a cautionary reminder to everybody – check your cox boxes before you launch and always have a spare on hand).