“If anyone can keep up with us, good luck to them.”
A few weeks ago I went to the What Works Summit coaching conference at CRI and one of the main things I was looking forward to was hearing Kevin Sauer of UVA speak. He was a huge reason why I looked at UVA in the first place when I was applying to schools so to get the chance to hear him talk was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.
He gave two presentations, one on how to make the boat move and then another as part of a roundtable discussion on championship programs. During the roundtable he told this story that, even now, just kind of blows my mind because it’s so awesome.
So, a bit of background to start. UVA won the 2012 NCAA Championship led by the 1st Varsity 8+, which was the first time they’d accomplished that. They’d won NCAAs previously but never with a V8+ win too. After graduating a good class the previous spring (2011), they were now tasked with putting together a boat that could match or exceed the skill level of the rowers they’d graduated. When they came to Head of the Charles in 2011 and won (in a time of 16:11.519, eight seconds faster than 2nd place Radcliffe), he was pleasantly surprised. They weren’t going against the national team since they were training for the Olympics, but they beat the other college teams, which is obviously who they needed to beat. Then, when they went to Princeton Chase and won there too, he started to realize this boat had something.
Now, looking at the competition, Michigan was solid last year. They killed it all season, basically just blowing the other crews they raced out of the water. They only lost twice on their way to a Big 10 Championship and 2nd place finish at NCAAs. When Coach Sauer was telling us this, he started talking about this race that Michigan had against Princeton.
Michigan got out hard and controlled the entire race, winning with a length of open over Princeton and two lengths of open over Brown. He called a team meeting and played this video for the girls, without saying a word from beginning to end. They silently watched it and at the end someone asked, “So, how are we going to beat them?”, to which he replied “I don’t know.” They started throwing ideas out there on what their race plan and strategy was going to be, how they were going to train for this, etc. Everyone’s contributing ideas and he just kind of blurts out “baseball bat”, to which the girls were all … “what??”. And he said “Baseball bat! We’ve just got to keep hitting them and hitting them and hitting them.” At the time, and still now, he said he had no idea why that was what came out of his mouth because it didn’t make sense to anybody, including him.
Part of their strategy was this move that they make at the 1000m mark but because they knew Michigan’s tendencies, he told his coxswain on race-day that if she needed to take it right at the beginning of the race to avoid letting Michigan get away from them, do it. The goal was to not let them get an inch of open water on them, otherwise it’d be all over. Coach Sauer and another coach were following behind the race in the launch and saw that, like they’d predicted, Michigan got out hard and fast. They started to walk, seat by seat, until they were six or seven seats up and he said he was thinking “come on, make the move, gotta go, don’t let them break away, gotta make it now…” and then all of a sudden they started seeing UVA walk until they were even with them.
The other coach in the launch said “You’ve got it. They (UVA) won.” and he said he was thinking this guy was crazy because they were only 750m into the race. BUT, they had won at that point because by making the move and walking on Michigan, they broke them. Michigan couldn’t and didn’t know how to counter it, presumably because it wasn’t something they’d had to deal with all season (which you can look at as either a good thing or a bad thing). UVA ended up winning and the rest is history.
When they got back to the dock, Coach Sauer went up to the coxswain and said “What did you do, what did you call? What’d you say to them to make that move?” and she said “All I said was ‘baseball bat‘.”
That is like … wow. This random thing that he’d blurted out during a team meeting, something that meant nothing to anyone at the time, is what they all internalized to help them win a national championship.
Related: When do you call power 10s, both on the erg and the water? Would it be like when you see a girl’s split dropping and staying down on a 2k or during a race if you’re close and want to pass another boat? Or could it be any time just for a burst of energy? I don’t really know the strategy, I just know at some point I’ll have to sound like I know what I’m doing and call a few.
My point with this story goes back to what I was talking about in the question I answered this morning (linked above) but it also touches on a lot of other things too. The moves you plan aren’t always going to happen when you want them to – sometimes you’ve got to do something spontaneous to reap the maximum benefits. The calls you make are important, which is why I try and stress to you guys to say what you say with a purpose. When you’re talking with the coach or your crew, pay attention to what people say – you never know what is going to resonate with people. Baseball bat?? I mean, come on!! That’s such a basic, meaningless term but it became the rallying cry of sorts for this boat. It is your job to figure out what it takes to get your boat to move, so always keep your ears open – you never know when you’re gonna hear the call that changes everything.
Image via // UVA Today
This is widely considered one of the best Boat Races of all time and definitely the closest one in recent memory. Acer Nethercott was the coxswain for the Oxford boat that ended up winning by a foot. 4.2 miles and it comes down to 12 inches. In addition to coxing at Oxford, he was also the coxswain of the GB men’s eight that won silver in the Beijing Olympics.
Google Talks posted this interview last week with James Cracknell and his wife, Beverley Turner. If you don’t know who James Cracknell is, he is a former Olympian for Great Britain who competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics in the coxless four. Both times he won the gold – in 2000 he was in the boat with Steve Redgrave (when he won his fifth consecutive gold) and Matthew Pinsent, who was also in the 2004 boat.
Related: Video of the Week: Gold fever
This interview that he did at Google with his wife focuses on a lot of different things, but it spends a good amount of time talking about the accident he suffered in July of 2010. He was on an “adventure-quest”, as I’ll call it, to row, run, cycle, and swim from Los Angeles to New York in 16 days. While cycling through Arizona, he was hit from behind by a petrol tanker, a crash that resulted in a serious skull fracture that lead to an even more serious brain injury. His recovery is an ongoing process and it is noted that he may never fully recover due to the nature of the injury he sustained. If anything, his accident should encourage you to always wear a helmet while riding your bike since the helmet he was wearing is probably the only reason he’s still alive.
The video itself is about 55 minutes long but it’s worth the watch when you have time. He’s moved on from traditional rowing but has found many other exciting endeavors to fill his time with. What is it about rowers that leads us to partake in such crazy (but thrilling) adventures?
I was lucky enough to hear Mike Teti speak at a coxswain clinic I attended when I was in high school and one of the things he spoke about were “the three S’s”. The three S’s are what a coxswain should consider to be their highest priorities. For novice coxswains, consider this an introduction; for experienced coxswains, consider this a reminder.
Safety is always and forever your absolute number one priority. Why? Because you’re in charge of a $20,000-$40,000 boat and eight other lives. If something happens on the water, it is your responsibility to do what is best for your crew. I tend to compare being a coxswain to sitting in the exit row on an airplane. You have to understand how the boat works, how to operate it, be able to follow the instructions given by your coach, and assess, select, and follow the safest travel route(s), amongst many other things. Remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Steering is an imperative skill that all coxswains must become proficient with as quickly as possible. It’s not something to joke about and spend four months trying to figure out. Yes, it’s tricky learning to navigate a 53 foot long shell along waterways with a steering system that consists of two strings and a credit-card sized rudder but again, it goes back to safety. Zigzagging across the river and not following the traffic patterns can have disastrous outcomes for both your crew and anyone else on the water. The rowers are not there to steer the boat for you – it is your responsibility to figure it out.
I think if most coaches (and experienced coxswains) had their way, novices would be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, coxswains must be heard if they are to do the job that is required of them and to additionally ensure the safety of their crew. HOWEVER, I do believe that novice coxswains should be silent until they’re comfortable with steering the boat and have a firm grasp on their duties. Essentially, you must prove to me that you can handle everything that is being asked of you. Instincts are key as a coxswain and once safety and steering become second-nature, then you can talk. Another important part of “speech” is learning and knowing what to say. If what you’re saying isn’t constructive to the crew, you shouldn’t be saying it.
Being a coxswain is an amazing position to hold, but it is not one without responsibilities. Although these are just three of them, like I said before, they should be considered your top priorities. Mastery of these skills through practice, listening to your coach, and learning from your fellow coxswains will put you on the path to becoming your crew’s biggest asset.
Image via // @merijnsoeters
There’s some good food for thought in this video.
This video is from a BBC documentary series called “Gold Fever”. It was filmed over the course of the four years leading up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster, and James Cracknell all had personal video cameras that they used to record video diaries during those four years. You see Steve dealing with his diabetes diagnosis, Tim dealing with all his surgeries and the possibility of not making the final lineup, and many other things.
One of the things I love most about this series is how intensely they take the sport but also how vulnerable they are to the same things that HS and collegiate athletes are vulnerable to. These guys hate getting up in the morning just as much as we do sometimes, but they still get up and do what needs to be done. The way they attack those erg pieces and just fall off the ergs in exhaustion afterwards…that’s dedication.
In the end, the four ended up winning the gold and Steve Redgrave won his FIFTH straight Olympic gold medal.
My suggestions for listening to these is to have a pen and piece of paper with you so you can write down good calls you hear, try and figure out why the coxswain made those calls, and then find a way to implement them with your own crew. Don’t take any call and use it if you don’t know why the previous coxswain said it. Part of making good calls is knowing WHY those calls are good. How to they help your crew? Are they motivational or technical? What part of the stroke does the call apply to?
If you can answer all those questions, then take that call and try it out with your crew. Not every call is going to work with every crew so it’s up to you to discuss after practice with your coach and rowers whether or not they responded to that call or not. Don’t be offended if they say it didn’t do anything for them. Ask them why and then tweak it a little. Fine tune it and eventually you’ll find the combination of words that really gets in your rowers heads.
Pete Cipollone 1997 Head of the Charles men’s Champ 8+
Above is a 15 minute clip that starts about 30 seconds before the start of the race and ends just after they cross the finish line. If you want to listen to the whole 27 minute recording that includes getting to the starting area, staging, etc., as well as read along with a transcript of the race, you can check that out over on row2k.
This recording is basically the gold standard when it comes to … pretty much everything. Calls, tone, execution, engaging individual rowers throughout the piece, it’s all on point here.
Because there are so many turns on the Charles you can go from having a headwind on one part of the course to a crosswind on another, so it’s good to know what the wind is doing and where those trouble spots are so you can prepare the crew for it before you get hit with any gusts. Watching for the ripples on the water is a good indication of when the wind is coming but sometimes that’s tough to do with everything else that’s going on so knowing ahead of time where you might get encounter it will make it easy for you to incorporate the applicable technical calls (i.e. sit up into a head wind, hold the finishes in a tailwind, etc.) into your race plan. You can hear Pete do this at 15:53 where he says “here comes a headwind, sit up and drive…”.
Around 17:37 as they’re coming under River St. in the Powerhouse Stretch he calls for them to make their first commitment under the bridge. I’m a big fan of this move (I’ve appropriated it in some way into nearly every race plan I’ve had throughout my career), not just because I think it’s more effective than a power ten but because of the way he calls it. I usually save this call (if I can) for when we’re under a bridge because I think hearing a guttural, drawn out call like that echo around you just reiterates the importance of the commitment. It’s a great call but one to be used sparingly during a race if you want to maintain its effectiveness.
At 19:19 he says “we’re in the quiet, good time to walk away”, which is another call I’ll use from time to time during head races if we’re in a relatively straight stretch without a lot of people or other crews nearby. It’s a good opportunity to refocus everyone and take advantage of the clean water to make up a few seconds or continue building your lead.
As they’re weaving through the Weeks – Anderson stretch you’ll hear him prep the crew by saying which side the turn is to and who’s driving that turn, i.e. next turn to port, starboards drive it around. This is a good habit to get into so the crew knows what’s coming and can make the adjustment for the set as you go on the rudder around the turn.
Another thing he does throughout (but especially in the last 1000 meters) is telling the crew where they are on the course. In the last thousand meters he points out 1000 to go, 500, 350, 250, last 20, and last 5. You must be able to do this, regardless of whether this is your first time on the course or your seventeenth. Use a map, pay attention to the markers and landmarks when you’re out practicing, etc. so the crew isn’t going through the entire race wondering how much is down and how much is left.
Other calls I liked:
“One part drive, attack…”
“Take that handle with you and attack it…”
“Now is where you fucking hang tough…”
“Do not sit, do not quit…”
“I got the course…”
(After they’ve crossed the finish line) “Good piece, keep fuckin’ rowing…”
Upper Thames Rowing Club 2011 Head of the River
One of the standout things from this recording was how he worked his tone throughout the piece. Tonal changes can make a huge difference and you can kinda see that when he says “walk away NOW”, the crew responds and the intensity heightens.
“Speed the hands up, don’t panic on it, relax” is a great call because when you tell the rowers to speed something up or do something quicker, there’s always that tendency or possibility that they will lose some slide or body control, so throwing in “don’t panic, relax” is a great way to remind them to keep the bodies controlled.
Alongside him pointing out the distance to the next crew in front of him, another thing to take note of is how he navigates through the crews they’re passing. There’s no unnecessary shouting at other coxswains or panic in his voice – he stays pretty calm and communicates exactly what needs to be said in a way that lets the crew know that he’s still in control of their race and his course.
Towards the end he says “Do you wanna beat the first eight or not?”, which I liked but it’s a call that has to be used with caution because it can easily come out wrong and make you look like a huge dick. Tone is key here and said any other way it would just come out as you whining or being antagonistic but the way he says it is perfect. You can tell he’s saying it with the goal of igniting that last little bit of fire in them as they close in on the finish line.
Other calls I liked:
“Hang it through…”
“Bodies over, hold the knees…“
“Legs sit back…“
“Each man commit to the catch now…”
You can find and listen to more recordings by checking out the “Coxswain Recordings” page.