Question of the Day

Hi! For the past month I have been in walk-on tryouts for the Syracuse Women’s Rowing team. I found out yesterday that she is keeping me as one of the walk-on coxswains, which I am so excited and happy about! I know that coxswains are supposed to be very confident and I am while I am on the water, but I truly don’t really know what I am doing. I have been watching hours of recordings to help but coxing a novice crew is difficult when nobody in the boat has every rowed before and I am not sure what kind of calls I should make, we have only just started getting on the water all together about 4-5 times. I’m not really sure what to say during drills beside the drill. Do I make calls as if they are racing? I am in love with rowing, it is a great sport, I just get frustrated when I feel like I’m not a good coxswain because I don’t feel anybody guiding me or training me like they do the rowers.

Congrats on making the team!! I agree with you that coxing a novice crew where no one has rowed before is extremely tough. I 100000% understand what you’re feeling.

When you feel yourself getting frustrated and can tell the crew isn’t responding to what your saying, take a few minutes and try some of the following things.

1. Ask them what’s going on. Is there something specific that they aren’t understanding and if so, what? If that’s not it, what is it? Talk to them and find things out from their perspective.

2. Tell them you’re frustrated. This seems counter intuitive, but explain that you’re frustrated because you can see they don’t understand or aren’t picking it up and you’re unsure of what to do to help them. If you project the idea that you GENUINELY want to help them, they’re much more likely to offer feedback and tell you what’s going on. If you just get frustrated and pissed because they’re not doing what you want them to do, they’re not going to make your job any easier because you’re giving the impression of being dictator-ish and that you don’t ACTUALLY care whether or not they do it right, so long as they do what you say.

3. Slow it down. Speed (and pressure) is of no consequence when you’re first learning the stroke. To me it’s a very simple motion because I’ve been doing this for so long but to most people who are new to rowing it’s very unnatural. You have to take it slowly and let them think about every. single. little. thing. Talk to whoever your coach is and ask if you can break it down a little more or slow it down so that they can focus on what you’re doing but at a slower pace. This might help them process what you’re saying a little easier.

4. Take a deep breath and don’t let ’em see you sweat. There have been plenty of times where I am just consistently saying “what the fuuuckkk” in my head but I try as hard as possible to not let that anger or frustration show in my face or body language. Maintain the idea that you are calm and collected. This will calm your crew down and calm their nerves. Be quiet for a few strokes and then say something like “OK guys, lets take the next few strokes, sit up a little taller, relax the shoulders, take a deep breath, and just row. We’re getting frustrated so let’s take some time to calm down and get back in the zone.”

5. Remind them of what they’re doing well. There are going to be times where you will have to dig REALLY deep to find something positive but you have to find SOMETHING. Once you’ve given them some positive feedback, provide some constructive criticism and talk a little about what needs improved on. “So, we’ve been working on our catch timing and those last five strokes looked ON. Everyone is thinking a little bit more about moving up the slide together and I can see it. Let’s keep doing that. On these next five strokes, let’s think a bit more about our handle heights. Catches looked better but our set suffered a little.”

What drills have you been doing? Do you write them down? My first suggestion would be to write EVERYTHING down in your notebook on the bus back to campus. Ignore the chatter and noise and reflect on your practice. Other suggestions for drill work:

1. Talk to your coach either at the beginning of the week or before practice. Ask them what drills they plan on working on that week or that practice. How is it executed and what is its purpose? What part of the stroke does it focus on? What should you be looking for and how should you correct what you see?

2. Drills are a bit of a grey area because on one hand, you need to talk in order to execute the drill but on the other, you need to be quiet in order to give the rowers the opportunity to figure out what they’re doing. Know when to talk and when to be quiet. This can be tricky to learn as a novice so talk to your coach. Ask what they want you to say and when you should just let them talk.

3. Don’t try and over talk your coach unless you’re calling a transition or something, but at the same time, don’t let them over talk you. If you find that you’re trying to tell the rowers what you’re seeing and your coach cuts you off and talks over you, that can not only piss you off but it can frustrate and confuse the rowers. Chances are they don’t realize they’re doing it. I had this problem recently and when I told my coach he apologized. Approach the subject gently and just say something like “I’ve noticed when we’re doing drills I’ll go to point something out to the rowers or make a transition within the drill and you’ll start coaching them on something different. How should I deal with that as a coxswain – should I hold off on the transition until you’re done coaching or just go through with it? How should I go about pointing out what I see while still having them think about what you just said?” Make them understand that you aren’t trying to overstep your boundaries but you recognize the fact that you have a different point of view in the boat than they do.

My suggestion for this would be to not only approach your coach about this, but when you’re on the water, for now, wait until you’ve stopped or taken a break and THEN point out what you see. With novices, it’s easy to overwhelm them with too much information. Once you’ve stopped, wait for your coach to come over and say “So, I noticed our catches were a little mistimed and we were leaning to port for most of the drill. Once you pointed out that they needed to think more about their body swing, it started to feel better though.” If you tell them what you saw and what you noticed, not only does that show them that you are REALLY paying attention, but it also lets the rowers hear what they did well and what needs worked on. You could also inadvertently point out something that your coach didn’t notice. Maybe she couldn’t tell that the boat was offset because she was so focused on the bodies. With this new information, she can give you things to look for and things for the rowers to think when you start rowing again. Listen to what she tells the rowers to work on and make sure you repeat it during the drill. Anything the coaches say is fair game to be used as a call.

Drills can get really boring for coxswains, especially if you’re doing something like pause drills where all you’re doing is saying “row … row … row …” for 5+ minutes. Keep your voice sharp and don’t let the rowers or your coach get the impression that you’re bored or just going through the motions. If you start to let your voice slip off, the rowers will let their technique slip. Keep your calls crisp and concise, your voice sharp, and your body aggressive. There’s a difference between tense and aggressive – know the difference. Don’t just sit in the boat like you’re lounging on your couch playing xbox.

You’re not a bad coxswain – you’re still learning! Don’t let a shitty practice crush your confidence. Recognize when you’ve made improvements and use that as motivation for tomorrow’s practice. Maybe you steered a straighter line going down the lake today than you did yesterday. Maybe your turns on the river are smoother than they were last week. Maybe you FINALLY understood what the point of that drill was and your calls were more confident because of that. Know when you’ve done a good job but also recognize when/where you can make adjustments too. Also, get a notebook and a recorder and use both regularly. Ask for feedback from the rowers too so you can figure out what’s working, what isn’t, what can you do better, etc.

It’s unlikely that anybody is going to coach you. It’s not fair but that’s the way it is. They’re going to put you in the boat and assume you’ll pick it up as you go. Don’t let this piss you off, even though it inevitably will. Find other resources. Talk to the varsity coxswains, listen to recordings from other coxswains, etc. 97% of what you learn, you will have to learn on your own. Accept and embrace that.

Be confident. They chose you for a reason. You gave them a reason to believe that you’re the best person for the job. They trust you with the safety of eight other women. Don’t let that scare you – let it motivate you. If you ever get to the point where stepping in the boat does nothing for you, take a step back and reevaluate. Don’t ever let it feel like a job.

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