MCP, maximum controlled pressure. No tomorrow, no waiting, nothing beyond the moment. We seek the perfect balance – total abandon on the drive, total control on the recovery.
Now that the fall season is well underway and we’re a little less than a month away from Head of the Charles, I wanted to share some tips for head racing for those of you that are new to coxing or new to head racing.
Look at the course before you arrive. With Google Maps being, ya know, a thing, there’s no excuse to not have a general idea of what the river looks like before you get to the race site. Race maps are obviously ideal but they’re not always available so the next best alternative is looking the course up on Google. This will give you just as good of a look at the turns, bridges, possible landmarks, geography (i.e. how much room is there to navigate), etc. and will help you plot out a rough idea of where you might want to execute (or avoid executing) certain moves.
Don’t count on being able to do your usual water warmup. Making your way to the starting line, especially at big regattas like HOCR, tends to be a crowded affair. You can rarely row above half pressure or by anything less than all eight, which makes getting the crew properly warmed up tough. To combat this, do a land warmup (7-10 minutes of dynamic stretching plus a light jog … or something similar) 20ish minutes or so before you launch so that when you’re on the water, you can focus on getting from Point A to Point B without the distraction of having to actually call the warmup and the crew can focus on getting into their rhythm, establishing their swing early, and keeping their focus internal.
Establish your rhythm early. Your first priority coming out of your high strokes should be on lengthening to a sustainable pace and immediately finding your rhythm. This is where you can really work your tone of voice and use your calls to help facilitate that. The sooner the crew gets into their rhythm, the better – you don’t want to still be trying to figure this out when you’re eight minutes in to a 3.5 mile long race.
Related: What are some “rhythmic calls” you use? I know ones such as hook, send and catch, send but I was wondering what others are used. and Hello! Sorry if this is a dumb question but I was wondering, what does it mean when coxswains say “cha”? Thank you!
Plan ahead. This is where knowing the course and having studied it ahead of time will really help you. In a head race you’ve always gotta be thinking one bridge or turn ahead of where you’re currently at, which means knowing where the buoy line is (and when to follow it closely vs. when to stray off of it) and whether you need to be on the outside or inside of this turn in order to get the better/faster/more effective line on the next turn. You’ve probably heard (or will hear) numerous times that the inside line is the fastest but that isn’t always the case. The best example of this is the stretch between Weeks and Eliot on the Charles – Eliot is a bigger/more important turn than Anderson so coming out of Weeks (a turn to port) you should line yourself up on the outside of Anderson (a turn to starboard) so that coming out of that one you’re automatically lined up on the inside of Eliot (a turn to port). This minimizes the number of crews you have to tousle with to get that inside line and has been my go-to strategy for nailing the Eliot turn for the last four years.
Steer competitively and aggressively. Those two things are not synonymous with “a lot” or “recklessly”. You have to be smart here because your steering, per usual, can make or break you. Patience and forethought is key and will help you avoid or navigate through at least 50% of the situations you’ll encounter. It all starts with holding the strings correctly though. You know the phrase “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”? Look at steering the same way – your hand position on the strings and the gunnels is the “single step” in that analogy. I talked about this in the “race steering” post linked below so check that out to see how I hold the strings when I’m coxing and how it helps me avoid oversteering.
Communicate with your bow/stroke. Saying it again for the people in the back that didn’t hear this the first 8,023 times it’s been said – not yielding during a race because you didn’t see the other crew, didn’t know they were there, didn’t hear their coxswain yelling at you to yield, etc. is not an excuse and you deserve every second of the penalty/penalties you incur. I get that you’re looking forward and you can’t see what’s behind you blah blah blah but your stroke/bow can and they should know (either through their own common sense or because you’ve discussed this with them beforehand … preferably both but definitely the latter) that they need to communicate to you in some way that a crew is behind you, walking on you, etc. and you need to yield.
Maximize your time in the straightaways. When you’re in long straight stretches, this is your best opportunity to pass a crew or make up time by steering laser-straight. Way too many coxswains fail to take advantage of this because they’re focused on unimportant stuff (i.e. that crew that’s four and a half lengths of open in front of you) or just completely lacking in awareness of where they’re at and what’s happening around them.
Work the crowds. If you’re neck and neck with another crew and you’re near a heavily populated spot on the course, bring all that energy from the crowd into your boat. Use it to reignite your crew if the boat’s starting to feel a little heavy or to add some extra fire to the start of a move. Make your crew think that all that cheering is for them and then harness that to help you move through the other crew(s), even if that means only taking a seat or two. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change the tone of a race.
Know what logistics need to be handled … and then handle them. Heel ties, bow numbers, top nuts, knowing the subtle differences in rules at each regatta, etc. … all the little things that might trip up an unprepared coxswain, figure out what they are ahead of time and take the initiative in handling it. Discuss this with your coach ahead of time (because they’ll definitely have a list of little things that you can do so they don’t have to) so you know beforehand what your priorities need to be once you get to the course.
Better safe than sorry ALWAYS. Your most important job as a coxswain is to keep the crew safe. Everything else you do outside of that is a bonus. Whether it’s on the water, walking to/from the launch site, or loading/unloading the trailer, your main focus has to be on executing the safest course of action followed by the fastest/most efficient, etc. There’s obviously a risk-reward aspect to it when you’re racing but there’s a very fine line between taking a calculated risk to move ahead of a crew or take a sharper turn and straight up putting your crew (and potentially others) in a dangerous situation. Erring on the side of safety isn’t always a popular decision in the moment but you’ve gotta be able to deal with a few people being annoyed at you for a small amount of time and recognize that the alternative (a lot of people being furious with you for an extended period of time) will tarnish your status/position on the team a lot more in the long run.
If you guys have any other pieces of advice, feel free to leave it in the comments.
Pretty interesting video on the breakdown of costs per athlete that raced in Rio. As a raw number $4.1 million doesn’t sound too bad either … until you realize GB’s funding totaled nearly $44 million (£32 million) and Canada’s was around $17 million.
Update: Better numbers for comparison – thanks Pete!
ONE YEAR AGO
Coxswain skills: Boat feel
QOTD: Hey! Was it like ‘bro day’ (my coaches words) on the Charles today because there were a bunch of stupid college freshmen guys in singles just basically rowing very badly. Some college must have sent out their novices in unmarked singles. What was happening was a whole bunch of guys in singles rowing steady state from about the Elliot Bridge to the Cambridge Street bridge when we spun and went back down the river. There were two singles who were especially annoying because they were going at the exact same pace as my coxed 4+ and THEY WERE PASSING ON THE INSIDE. I ended up steering us more towards the middle of the river, but still on the right side. I couldn’t get back to the right because one boat’s stern was close to my bow ball and at the other end of my boat it was the same except in reverse. They then proceeded to row AT EXACTLY THE SAME PACE AS US. The first time I saw them was during the hard right after Elliot bridge when the first guy was attempting to pass me on shore side. I had to yell to him because he was going to crash into me with his bow. (TBH it made me feel really good to yell to him…) I had brought us through the bridge badly so I had my 2 seat drop out (it was a starboard stroked boat) so yeah that was interesting. Also another time I was trying to go under some bridge and the guy on my tail wanted to go through at the exact same time. But I was like ‘hell no, I’m going for this’ and we both made it through with out crashing. I had to be a tad creative with my steering but you know whatever. The only good thing was that my coach praised me for handling the situation well and not freaking out. Oh and I got some great steering experience. This isn’t really a question I just wanted to rant. How would you have handled the situation? Or just tell me a story that’s kinda similar maybe? Or do you know if it was ‘bro day’ and WHOSE ‘bro day’ it was?
VOTW: Adjusting your foot stretchers
Music to erg to, pt. 104 Sia, St. Lucia, Matisyahu, Drake, Jidenna, Macklemore, etc.
VOTW: Rowing footage you don’t normally get to see
TWO YEARS AGO
Interview with 2004 M8+ gold medalist coxswain Pete Cipollone This was so much fun and worth reading if you haven’t before.
QOTD: Heeey so at the moment we’re doing a lot of work on the finish and the release but I am struggling to come up with calls that really work. I have a few basic ones but not many so I find myself repeating them over and over and over and over. Do you have any calls for technique at the finish and release that i could borrow or modify to suit my crew?? TY x
QOTD: Hey so this is kind of a follow up to a question I asked earlier about not training over the summer due to plica. So a lot of girls came back out of shape and our coach hasn’t been happy with our scores. My captain/roommate told me that he’s thinking he’s going to withdraw one of our HOCR entries because he’s so upset about it. My coach did know about my injury but I’m really scared to approach him. He’s a great coach, but I’m just a nervous person/easily intimidated. Any advice?
QOTD: I’m just so pissed because my seat in the boat was taken today and I understand why because her scores are better, and now my coach isn’t having me race. I’ve been contemplating switching from my mostly sculling club to a more sweep inclined club so I can cox for a long time and I think this was just the final straw. I hate feeling like I have no control, especially because there’s no way my scores can get better than hers; dropping 5 splits just isn’t doable ugh.
Music to erg to, pt. 55 Queens of the Stone Age, Avicii, The Clash, The Naked and Famous, etc.
QOTD: My coach has started setting boats and she didn’t place me in one. I am a novice coxswain but am the second most experienced on the team due to other coxswains going to college. Another girl that joined about a month ago has been set to cox the guys varsity boat and girls JV 4+ of our club. She does weigh less than me, (she weighs 110 and I weigh 120), but I was originally set with the lightweight girls boat so I don’t think weight is a huge concern. My coach switched some lineups around and I have been left without a boat. I have talked to her and my team has talked to her about placing me in a boat but nothing has changed. It seems as if she is trying to avoid placing me in a boat. Any ideas why this may be or what else I can do to be placed with a boat?
QOTD: So I’m the only coxswain on my school team because we’re a really small team (Varsity 4 and Novice 8) and last spring I would do all of the land workouts with them, including erging. This year, (my sophomore year) my coach has been having me cox them on the ergs and it’s really helping my coxing. However, some of my low varsity/head novice rowers (they’ve only done one season) seem to think that this is unfair and are convinced that I don’t do anything. How do I react to this? Also, one of my novice rowers has a really bad attitude about rowing, and I’ll try to push her on the ergs but she says that she doesn’t care about her split. She’ll just tell me to stop trying cause her split won’t go down. When we’re in the boat (5 seat) she’s constantly complaining so loud that I can hear her and it’s distracting the rowers. What do I do? Thank you so much, I literally wouldn’t survive without this blog!
VOTW: Technique tips from elite rowers
Music to erg to, pt. 56 Shiny Toy Guns, Childish Gambino, Foster the People, B.o.B., Semisonic, etc.
THREE YEARS AGO
Music to erg to, pt. 9 Guns ‘n’ Roses, Lady Gaga, Skrillex, Fort Minor, Mest, etc.
QOTD: As a coach, do you feel that it is ever acceptable to refuse coaching to one specific individual solely on the basis of personal differences? My coach of two years this morning threw me out of his squad, not on the basis that I am a poor rower, that I don’t have potential, or that I don’t train, simply because he finds me difficult to deal with.
Suicide awareness + prevention I didn’t realize this had so many shares on FB…
QOTD: How do people qualify for CANEMEX? Is it the boat that wins club nationals?
QOTD: Hi! Since fall season hit, I’ve been trying to improve my steering. The problem is, my team has a limited number a boats and we’re taking a Resolute to a head race. The steering essentially forces me to go straight and I find it impossible to make it around big turns! I was wondering, how can I steer a head race in a Resolute?
QOTD: I’ve just joined a varsity program and we have been doing a lot of long pieces in preparation for 6K season. Whether it be ‘racing’ pieces or ‘technique’ pieces, I do find myself stumbling on things to say. I’m not quite clicking as much as I did last year (maybe it’s because last year during fall season we were still learning how to actually row – this is my first year on varsity). Do you have any tips to coxing longer pieces without being annoying? And also – do you have an advice on how to steer while keeping it close with other boats that we’re practicing with?
Music to erg to, pt. 10 The Ataris, Lupe Fiasco, Bon Jovi, Daft Punk, etc.
QOTD: What are the differences between rowing programs for DI, DII, and DIII schools? I know only DI and DII can offer scholarships but other than that what’s the difference as far as intensity and daily routine go?
VOTW: Inside the 1999 World Cup USA M8+
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
Raise your hand if after practice your coach, a teammate, your parents, etc. ask “how’d it go?” and you shrug and say “good” for no reason in particular other than nothing disastrous or of note happened. I spent most of my first year or two of coxing doing this before one of the varsity coxswains asked if it was actually good or if I was just saying that because I didn’t know how to actually evaluate a practice. Obviously the latter was the case because I’d just assumed that as long as I didn’t hit anything and the boat had been reasonably set, that’s all there was to a “good” practice.
Related: The four defaults
There’s a ton of different things you could look at to determine how practices went but as a coxswain, here are three you should start with.
Did you make calls throughout practice that reinforced the coach’s technical focus for that day?
Did you make technical corrections that contributed to an increase in boat speed?
An easy way to determine the effectiveness of a technical call is if the boat’s speed picks up within 3-5 strokes and is maintained for 5+ strokes. If you’ve got a SpeedCoach you can determine if your speed is improving by watching for a consistent improvement in splits that is maintained for five or more strokes. If you don’t have a SpeedCoach you can look to see if the boat is running out further between strokes, which is easily determined by watching for an increase in the distance between your puddles.
Did you work towards and/or achieve your personal goals for that day?
Ideally you want to accomplish all of them to some extent but my goal on any given day is to hit two of the three, usually with the priority being reinforcing the technical focus. (If we’re not focusing on something specific that day then I’ll make calls for whatever we did the day before or last week or whenever.) That one is always non-negotiable because it’s like, kind of your job to do that regardless of whatever else is going on.
I don’t always have a personal goal when I go on the water (and if I do it’s usually just making sure I’m steering well) so I’ll try to spend a lot of time watching the blades and relying on boat feel to guide whatever technical calls I’m making, with the goal being to tie in stuff our coach has been saying (to an individual or the crew), maintain what feels good, and/or fix any issues that pop up. That all then obviously falls under the umbrella of hitting our splits when we’re doing steady state or pieces. If those three things are happening then hitting our splits should come easily.
Related: Coxswain skills – Boat feel
Being able to look back at your performance during practice is beneficial to you for a lot of reasons but one that coxswains tend to overlook is that if you’re regularly critiquing yourself and making improvements based off of that, there’s not gonna be a ton of surprises that pop up if/when your team does coxswain evals. It’s always in your best interest to get regular feedback from the rowers but that can’t be the only thing you do to get better. Having an objective eye towards your own coxing has got to be part of the process and that starts with asking yourself these three questions a few times each week.
One thing about racing is that it hurts. You better accept that from the beginning or you’re not going anywhere.
Do you have any advice on how to deal with getting offers during official visits (particularly when you have more in the coming weeks/month)?
Just approach it the same way you would when you’re going on job interviews (which – say thanks, let them know where you’re at in the process with the other people you’re talking to, and find out when they would need an answer from you.
This past weekend was, for most teams, only the first or second weekend of official visits so if you got an offer then the coaches have to know, or at least assume, that you’ve got a few more scheduled in the coming weeks. I can’t imagine they’d push you for an answer right away but they’re probably hoping that by putting it out there before everyone else that that will help sway you a little bit. I’d keep that in mind, assuming it’s one of your top choices, but don’t let it influence your other visits. Collect as much info as you can from all the teams you visit/coaches you talk with and give yourself plenty of options so you can make the best decision possible.