One, excellence comes from preparation. Athletes spend 90 percent of their effort in preparing for the game and 10 percent playing the game. If we used that ratio of 90 percent preparation to 10 percent performance we would achieve excellence. Two, perfection is a moving target. But excellence is within reach. Two simple and inarguable truths. Excellence comes from consistent improvement. Dedication to preparation and practice yields increased excellence. Perfection cannot even be defined, let alone achieved. I won’t be perfect, I might not even be excellent when I begin. But I know how to achieve excellence and that is as close to perfect as I ever need to be.

Coxswain skills: Evaluating races

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  || Boat feel || How to handle a negative coxswain eval || How to cox steady state workouts || How to cox short, high intensity workouts || Race steering || Steering a buoyed course || Evaluating practices

Following up on September’s post on evaluating practices, today’s post is gonna talk about evaluating your race performance. Given that the biggest race of the fall season for most of us is now over and the hangover (either from racing or Ned Devine’s) has worn off, today seems like a good day to reflect back on how we did.

Similarly to when you’re looking back on practice, there’s a lot of different variables you can look at to determine if your performance was up to par (and no, winning is not one of them – you can win and cox like shit just like you can lose and still cox a good race). There’s some carryover between the two but below are the ones I fall back on the most when talking with our coxswains, regardless of whether we’re talking about sprint or head races.

Did you execute the race plan effectively and if you had to deviate from it, did you do so in a way that was easily understood by the crew?

I’ve extolled the virtues of race plans enough times that you should know by now that there’s no excuse for not having one. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C … gotta have ’em all because you never know when you’re gonna need to make the switch because the race is developing differently than you’d originally planned. The better acquainted you and your crew are with the plan before launching for your race, the smoother the transition will be if you need to make that jump. Having to do this during a race is a good test of your composure, your ability to stay focused, and your awareness of how the race is developing around you and how you need to adapt to it.

Did you work towards and/or achieve your personal goals for that day?

Usually with our coxswains this involves something related to race management, steering, and/or communication with the crew. This is a big one for us because we’re always talking about what we did well during this race that we want to carry over to next week (and continue to improve on, implement more frequently, etc.), as well as what we didn’t do well that we need to work on throughout the week so that it’s done better during the next race. We discuss their goals before the race, immediately after, and then more in depth when we go over the video and having that conversation consistently throughout the week is one of the things that helps keep them on track.

Did you make technical corrections that contributed to an increase in boat speed?

This is a question that carries over from the previous post where I talked in more detail about how to determine if your technical calls are effective. Obviously during a race it’s too late to be coaching a rower or crew’s technique but you can/should still make simple, targeted calls that address issues if/when they pop up (i.e. “shape the finishes” if the blades aren’t coming out cleanly, particularly in rough water like we had all weekend). This is crucial during a race because if your technique is off just enough to slow you down 0.001 seconds per stroke, that’s 2 seconds over the course of 2000 meters, which at this level (collegiate men) can equate to nearly a boat length.

These post-race reflections are easily done without audio or GoPro but they’re so much more effective if you’ve got a recording on hand that you can go through, analyze, and get feedback on. GoPro is even better but the caveat, for you at least, is that your performance and execution skills will get scrutinized and critiqued a lot more because you can see your course, the bladework, etc. and how well you’re doing relative to each of those things.

The Wisco race from this past spring is good example of this. If we’d just had the audio I think we’d all agree that it was a solid performance by our coxswain but because we had the GoPro video too, there were a lot of things that stood out where if he’d executed XYZ better, attacked certain areas of the course with a little more fire, etc. that race could/would have been closer. And yea, I agree that it’s absolutely nitpicky as fuck but that’s also the nature of the game.

Related: MIT Men’s Rowing V8+ vs. Wisconsin (Spring 2016)

The great thing about going over that video with our coxswain (who was a freshman at the time) was that all the stuff I wanted to point out and say “we need to do this better”, he said first. I remember leaving that meeting and being so impressed because all I really had to do was help refine whatever plan he’d come up with to work on each of the areas where he felt he needed to improve. The one or two things that I pointed out that he hadn’t already mentioned, we discussed so that it made sense to him and then he  followed up with “OK, how would you do it?” or “What should I do/say next time?”. That’s a HUGE sign of maturity in a coxswain and ultimately plays a big part in how effective these post-race (or post-practice) self-evaluations are.

Video of the Week: Behind the scenes of “The Boys of ’36”

Back in August PBS aired their documentary on the crew from The Boys in the Boat that they shot in Seattle with some of the UW guys. This video is a quick behind-the-scenes clip that shows the guys talking about what it was like rowing in a wooden hull with the spoon blades and in the much shorter half-slide style that was common back then.

Flashback Friday: October 9th – 22nd

College recruiting: Contacting coaches, pt. 3 – How much info is too much

River tour of the Head of the Schuylkill course

College recruiting: Contacting coaches, pt. 4 – Laying out who you are + contacting coaches when you’re not a senior


VOTW: The new “Ignatious, stop rowing!”

HOCR: The course in meters

Pete Cipollone’s 1997 HOCR recording

QOTD: Hi! I’m a freshman coxswain on my college’s club crew team and I coxed for four years in high school. My team is going to our first race this weekend and it’s a head race. We only have about 1000 meters of water to use when we practice, so we haven’t actually rowed a 5k at practice and my boat has only really had one practice together. How do I go about coxing a head race when my boat hasn’t been together very long and some of the boys in my boat have never even rowed 5000 meters continuously?

How to strap a boat down (and what happens when you don’t do it right)

QOTD: Do you think it’s possible that rowing isn’t “my” sport ? I started late summer but I have been erging for a few months with a friend who is a rower too. Anyway, I feel like everyone is getting better (even the fall novices are almost better than I am and they have been rowing not even 2 months. I feel like my technique/strength/endurance is on a plateau and I feel shitty. I won’t even talk about the 3 awful races I had in the last weeks. IDK, i feel hopeless. How do i know if I’m a bad rower?

QOTD: Hi, I’m going to HOCR this weekend and unlike everyone, I am not excited, only extremely nervous. Basically, I don’t deserve to be in my boat.. The other 3 girls are way better and have years of experience and I started only this spring and I didn’t row during the summer. I’m only in the boat because our club is so small that we are only 5 girls and one has been injured since August. My technique isn’t good either. Any advice to how to row with people better than you? I’m so scared I will mess everything up…

QOTD: Do you have any advice for a novice coxswain who just crashed for the first time? It really shook me up and I know I won’t be able to get back in the boat for a few days (due to our walk-on coxswain rotation) but I want to get over it.

HOCR: Yaz Farooq’s coxswain clinic

HOCR: My race plan


QOTD: My rowers told me after practice today that I should focus on the tone of my voice and not be so “intense” during our practices. I don’t really know how to fix that actually. Like I don’t think I am so “intense” but rather just firm and trying to be concise with the command I give out. They said that they really like how I cox during a race piece because my intensity level fits the circumstances. But they also said that if I cox in a similar tone to race pieces, they can’t take me seriously during the races. But my problem when I first started coxing was not being firm enough and getting complaints about how I should be more direct on my commands. Now when I am, my rowers say this. I don’t really know what is the happy medium. Like I listen to coxing recordings and I feel like I am doing fairly similar tones.

HOCR: Landmarks along the course

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

HOCR: Setting up for Weeks

Previously: Getting to the starting line || Steering through the bridges || Landmarks along the course || Steering around the turns || Race plans || My general race plan || Yaz Farooq’s coxswain clinic || Race plan “hacks” || The course in meters || Weeks, Lowell House, and “the turning tree”

Two years ago Pete Cipollone was on the Rowing Illustrated podcast talking about how to take the Weeks turn. I’ve talked about Weeks before in a previous post but if you’re looking for some last minute tips, here’s a few from the guy who’s won HOCR seven times and whose course record still stands (13:58.9, set in 1997 if you’re curious).

Related: Pete Cipollone’s 1997 HOCR Recording

Setting yourself for the turn is easier than you think, provided you give yourself plenty of room to execute it and position yourself in the middle of the course coming down the Powerhouse stretch. Despite what you’ve probably heard from your coach about staying tight to the buoys, this is one spot (of many, tbh) where you don’t want or need to do that. If you’re confident in your rudder system and the strength of your bow and 3-seat then you can hug them a little tighter but the “ideal” position is about a full boat length off the buoys.

Related: Taking the Weeks turn with a new/better fin on the Empacher

There are two ways to know if you’ve nailed the turn – the first is if you’re done steering before you hit the bridge. If you’re going through the bridge at an angle and you’re pretty much completely off the rudder already, you nailed it. The other visual cue is if your port side’s blades miss the abutment by a foot or less. I’ve talked about this before but for me personally, I know that when I have the momentary feeling of “oh shit I’m gonna hit the bridge”, that’s how I know we’re right where we need to be.

Related: Weeks, Lowell House, and “the turning tree”

The last part of managing the turn is thinking ahead to Anderson, which you should be doing before you even enter Weeks. Coming out of the turn, provided you started it early enough and are done steering before you go through the bridge, you want to be pointed straight ahead at the outside abutment of Anderson Bridge (the one between the Boston arch that contains the traveling lane and the center racing arch).

Related: Steering through the bridges

A lot of coxswains, particularly those who are racing at HOCR for the first time, have a tendency to wait too long to start their turns which then throws them super wide coming through Weeks, which then means they’ve gotta do an S-curve to get back into position to be lined up for Anderson. You can save yourself a lot of stress and steering by thinking a bridge or two ahead so that you’ve got plenty of time to get set up and make adjustments to your course if necessary if there’s other crews in your way.


One of the biggest myths of this sport is that rowers pull hard in spite of the pain but the truth is, they revel in it because it’s the pain that tells them what they are achieving.

Video of the Week: That time a boat sank at HOCR

Legend has it that the coxswain of this eight (from a university in China) got held up at customs and wasn’t allowed into the United States. None of the rowers spoke English which meant not only did they have to find a coxswain, they had to find one that spoke Mandarin. Luckily they found someone at MIT who spoke Mandarin and could cox but they later found out (too late, of course) that she and the rowers spoke different dialects of Mandarin which meant they could barely understand each other. This proved particularly problematic when they collided with another boat and eventually sank two miles later. It also produced what is probably one of the greatest photos of a coxswain ever. Good luck this weekend!