What I learned at a coxswain clinic in 2006.

When I was a senior, I attended a coxswain clinic hosted by Vespoli in Fairfax, Virginia. Because of scheduling conflicts the other three years I was in high school, this was the only clinic I was able to attend. There were some fantastic speakers, including Marcus McElhenney, Yaz Farooq, Mike Teti, and my personal favorite, Pete Cipollone. Every so often I pull out my notebook from high school and read through the notes I took. It’s funny because a lot of what I learned that day, despite being things I already knew from my previous three years of experience, were reiterated in such a strong manner that I tend to give the same advice to the coxswains I coach now, almost word for word. It really made me realize how invaluable we are and can be to our teams.

Below I’ve written out everything I wrote down that day. Forgive the short, choppy sentences – there was a lot to get down so I wrote quickly with a lot of shorthand. I hope everyone can find something to pull from it and keep in mind as we go through the winter training season into the spring racing season. If anyone has questions on anything, leave a comment or send me an email at rowingandcoxing [at] gmail [dot] com. This information is coming from some of the best coxswains and coaches in the sport of rowing, all of whom I hold in very high regard. It might not be what your coach has taught you, but keep in mind that doesn’t make it wrong or untrue. Look at this as another learning opportunity and as a chance to try something different than what you’re used to. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!

What a Coach Looks For in Their Coxswains (also see the previous post I wrote on this topic)
Coxswain Rules.

  • Take everything slower when getting the boat out of the racks and into the water. Moving too fast can result in injury, damage to the boats, or both.
  • Are they listening to the coach? Pay attention and be able to repeat what the coach says.
  • Safety and steering are #1. Know and follow the traffic patterns.
  • Have a good knowledge of the sport – understand the “bigger picture”. The objective is to win the race.
  • Don’t have a big ego.
  • Do they agree with the coaching philosophies? Convey your opinions to the coach but still follow the workouts, etc. as planned. Keep any discontent with their philosophies subtle.
  • Have a realistic assessment of your crew. Be realistic about your goals. Race and beat crews on your level.
  • Communicate in an articulate manner. Be loud and clear. Tkae your time when calling drills, pieces, etc. DO NOT talk into the mic or to the rowers when the coach is talking (unless it is for safety purposes).
  • Are they truthful? The biggest lie in rowing is “last 20”. Always tell it like it is – don’t sugarcoat anything. Being truthful conveys a confidence in the boat.
  • Will they execute the race plan? Don’t let things falls apart. Move the boat efficiently.
  • Do the athletes trust me? Pat attention. Favors do not equal trust. Coxswains are not servants. Gain trust by making good calls, steering straight, etc.
  • How do they react under pressure? Don’t let pressure get to you. If you panic, the crew panics.

Supporting Your Coach’s Strategy
The coxswain’s role.

  • Teammate.
  • Observer and adviser.
  • Race prep officer – what can we do to get ready for the race?
  • Liaison – the “go to” guy.
  • Manager.
  • Friend – it’s last on the list for a reason.


  • We aren’t coaches. We make the rowers and coaches lives easier. Be polite – rowers are cranky. We are not dead weight.

Race prep officer.

  • Every practice = race prep time trials. Go through everything in your mind. Get in their heads. The most prepared crew usually wins. Everyone should know the race strategy and be prepared to execute it.

Observer and adviser.

  • Observation is our most powerful contribution. Advise the rowers on changes and give them feedback.


  • Sometimes we’re in a grey ea. It provides us the opportunity to say what no one wants to hear.
  • Don’t broadcast problems – be subtle.
  • The coach may come to the coxswain for opinions on how things feel. Don’t hold back. If something doesn’t feel right, they need to know.
  • Coaches rely on the coxswains to tell the truth.
  • Be able to calm everyone down. Sometimes just listening helps.
  • Develop a good relationship with the rowers.


  • Remember, we’re trying to win. Coxswains need to be fair and impartial. Leave everything on the water.

Learning your coach’s technical plan.

  • The coach sets the plan.
  • Listen! Listening to the coach is the best way to make a contribution to the team.
  • Reinforce the coach’s message.
  • Coaches typically use specific words to invoke a technical change. Works may also be specific to the rowers. Learn the words and use the same language as the coach to avoid any miscommunications or things being “lost in translation”.


  • Have equipment, tools, and athletes ready.
  • Know where you and your team need to be at all times.
  • Know the workout plan.
  • When the coach gives and order, you schedule it and make the call.
  • All commands must be crisp and clear.

Help the rowers.

  • You are the external feedback.
  • When the coach talks to the rowers, reinforce it.
  • Compliment and point out what is good, but still be truthful.


  • Be ready to start pieces on time.
  • Line up even.
  • Race at the given cadence – DO. NOT. CHEAT.


  • It is not just what you say, it’s how you say it.
  • Don’t be afraid to just shut up.
  • Tone of voice is very important.
  • Articulate!!!
  • Give loud, clear, preparatory commands.
  • Who, what, when – i.e. bow 4, swing pick, on this one…
  • Give decisive commands.

Going solo.

  • Run the show.
  • Use your coach’s regular drills – don’t add in anything new.
  • Make good use of the time.
  • Show the coach that the crew gets better when you’re the coxswain.
  • The more “solo” practice you get, the easier race day will be.

Putting it all together.

  • Combine all of the above traits and you’ll be an integral part of the coach’s strategy.
  • If you’re going to say something, make sure it’s important.
  • Juice ’em up.
  • Rhythm calls during race are good.
  • Keep the voice soft, lower tension, tell them what’s going on, bring up your voice to get them moving.

Keys to Effective Steering

  • Goals should be to not effect the balance, steer a subtle course, and center yourself in the lane.
  • Steering with the fingers allows greater control, keeps the steering subtle, and keeps the boat balanced (vs. steering with your whole hand)

Steering on the recovery.

  • Designed for straight shots and high stroke rates.
  • Boat responds quicker.
  • Should be done at 30spm or higher.
  • Don’t use on major adjustments.
  • Special circumstances: in strong cross winds, ride the rudder, and inform the crew.


  • Safety = trust.
  • Be aware of EVERYTHING.
  • Pre-practice: get info on the course/water by talking to other coaches and coxswains.
  • Always know bridges, traffic patters, buoys, penalties, rules, etc.
  • Avoid stupid mistakes.

RelationshipsCoxswain to coxswain

  • Pre-practice: know the workout and the course/river
  • On the water: Be silent (less is more). Speak to the other coxswain only when it’s necessary. Be polite, never get emotional, and never argue. Respect the competition.
  • Off the water: Never get involved in trash talking. Ignore smack talk. Repair any miscommunications.
  • Varsity coxswains: Take responsibility for actions of the team. Help out the younger coxswains.

How to Run a Smooth Practice

  • Make the practice plan before you get out on the water.
  • Make them fun (while still being effective).
  • Talk about where to meet up with other coxswains and coaches.
  • Keep the boats together.

Shut up.

  • Listen to the coach and other rowers.
  • Earn respect.
  • Only make calls that will have an effect on the rowers.

Be in control.

  • Dictate commands immediately.
  • Make your calls clear and concise.
  • Keep safety in mind.
  • Think out your actions before you do them.
  • Don’t allow misconduct.
  • Ask questions.
  • If you don’t understand, do not continue until you’ve received clarification and do understand.
  • Follow directions.


  • Help out – take oars down while the rowers are running or stretching, etc.
  • Try not to be negative.
  • Positive wording is key.

What a Rower Looks For in a CoxswainPractice mode.

  • Steering is the most important thing rowers look for. They don’t want to be able to feel the steering.
  • Be a coach on the water.
  • Don’t be annoying but nag for changes.
  • They’d rather hear it from a coxswain than a coach.
  • Less is more – know when to shut up.
  • Act as a liaison between the coach and athlete. Help to smooth things over when necessary.
  • Watch your tone of voice. Don’t be annoying.

Off the water training.

  • Erg pieces – be there and take down times.
  • On days of hard pieces, instill a sense of competition but ONLY during hard pieces.
  • Run with the athletes (if you are physically capable of doing so).

Race mode.

  • Steering!
  • Make an effort to pull your own weight.
  • When dictating the race plan, be aware of your tone of voice – be calm and in control. Don’t raise your voice unless you have to. Use positive words and instill a sense of potential.
  • Take care of behind the scenes stuff.
  • Know the times of when you need to meet at the boat, get on the water, and be at the starting line.
  • Never, ever, EVER be late to the line. EVER!!!

Racing (aka “how to scare the hell out of everyone when you race”).

  • Don’t try to starve yourself just to be at weight.
  • Plan weight loss in advance if/when necessary.

Pre-race logistics.

  • Be organized.
  • Make sure everyone has IDs, if necessary.
  • Know where you and your team need to be at all times.
  • Keep your cox-box charged.
  • Have sunscreen.

Take the lead.

  • Be prepared to answer questions.
  • Be intelligent and organized.
  • Observe!
  • Check out the venue, observe wind and weather conditions.
  • Measure time from hands on through the time you return to the dock to get an idea of when you should be where.
  • Stick to a normal sleep schedule.
  • Get up before your crew and start handling logistics.
  • EAT.
  • Get down to the course early, if possible.
  • Check regatta times and delays.
  • Check the boats.


  • Weight in as far in advance as possible.
  • Drink water to gain a pound or two if you’re below the minimum then “get rid of it”.

Pre-game show.

  • Figure out any last-minute logistics.
  • Go over your observations with the coach and crew.


  • Give yourself 5-6 minutes to get into the stake boats.
  • Know how much time it will take to get from the dock to the starting line and plan your workout accordingly.

At the line.

  • “Breathe.”
  • Quiet positive talk.
  • Get them focused.

Let ‘er rip.

  • Come off the line in control.
  • Prepare for shifts and EXECUTE.
  • Steering!!

The body of the race.

  • Implement the plans.
  • Articulate and they will execute.
  • Don’t lie – tell them the truth.
  • Focus on short-term goals.
  • Don’t change the race plan in the middle of the race – it will destroy the rower’s confidence.
  • Give challenges – i.e. “Is this where you want to be?”, “Where’s the speed?”, etc.


  • Make the appropriate calls and give feedback every step of the way.


  • There are no magical calls.
  • Have conviction. You must convey confidence.
  • Sound aware and in control.
  • Calls must be about what you can do, not what you can’t.
  • Get inside your rower’s heads. Know what inspires and intimidates them.
  • Lower your voice when needed.

Question of the Day

How hard is it to just start rowing in college, especially at a D1 or Ivy League school?

It’s hard but the degree to which it’s hard is largely determined by you. The biggest adjustments don’t come from learning a new sport, because regardless of what sport you try to pick up, it’s always going to be tough at first. The hard part is adjusting to waking up early several days a week, having practice six days a week (sometimes twice a day), and just learning how to manage your time better. Even if you’re a rock star at time management and self-discipline, joining the team will seriously test those skills.

If you have a demanding course load, it can be tough finding a good balance, especially if you fall behind earlier and have to spend a few weeks/months playing catch up. Once you find the balance though, it gets easier. You learn where your time needs to go and personally, I think, makes you a better overall student. If you have a hard time managing your time and/or you’re not very disciplined when it comes to getting things done, rowing probably isn’t the sport for you.

A lot of rowers pick the sport up in college – just look at the number of people on the national team that were walk-ons as college freshmen. It can be done but like I said, how tough it is is going to be determined by you and how disciplined you are at managing everything else in addition to crew.

Question of the Day

I’m 5’2 and weigh 153lbs. I can pull 1:58/500 m for a 30 minute test. I’ve been trying to lose weight but the nutritionist has essentially told me that my only option is to lose muscle (because of weight) or actually get bone removed through surgery (which I think is against NCAA rules). I was a walk-on to the crew team and want to row or cox but I have no idea what to do. My coach has told me I would make an excellent cox but I don’t know how to lose weight/approach this situation. Thank you!

One of your two “only” options is to have bone removed? That’s your nutritionist’s weight loss suggestion? Um…

The only way you would lose muscle is if you started starving yourself, which obviously no sane person recommends. You’re a good height to be a coxswain but maybe too short to row depending on how competitive your team is. The minimum for coxswains is 110lbs if you’re coxing women and 120lbs if your coxing men. You typically want to be as close to the minimum as possible (while still being healthy) to avoid adding unnecessary weight and drag to the boat. Coaches will typically give you some leeway though as to how far you can be over before they start nagging you about your weight (and nag they will). The best way to lose weight is pretty simple – diet and exercise. Substituting unhealthy foods for healthier options, eating several small meals a day, and adding in at least 30-45 minutes of exercise 3-4 times a week is a good way to get started.

Related: I’m a novice rower in my third season. I’m one of the strongest novice rowers, but also the heaviest (female) novice. This hasn’t seemed to be a problem before, I’m very healthy and strong, but when we did weight-adjusted pieces I began to realize it was a bit of a problem. I’m 5 7 and about 178 pounds, and about 20 pounds heavier than the other girls. I’m not self conscious about my weight, although according to my BMI I am slightly over weight, and now I’m realizing I could perform better if I was slightly lighter. I’ve tried dieting before, but I’ve always felt weak and worried about my strength while working out three hours every day. Do you have any tips about losing weight healthily as rower?

Just something to keep in mind too … 153lbs is a pretty high starting point if you want to cox. If you’re at a competitive program that expects their coxswains to be right at or very close to racing weight, you’re looking at having to lose 25lbs at least. Not that that’s not possible but just be realistic with what you decide to do.

I would search the “weight loss” or “weight” tags on here because I know I’ve answered similar questions from both rowers and coxswains that will probably help you out.

Sprint races vs. Head races

Winter training is slowly trudging along but before you know it, the spring racing season will be upon us. If you coxed or rowed in the fall but haven’t done a spring season yet, you’re probably wondering what the differences are.

Head races

Head races are run over a course an average distance of 3 miles. Instead of being a distance race, it’s raced against the clock, with the goal being to have the fastest overall time with as few penalties as possible. Crews are started 10-15 seconds apart, allowing for faster crews to overtake slower ones along the course. Due to the length of the race, the cadence is much lower when compared to a sprint race. Head races are aptly nicknamed “the coxswain’s race” due to the winding turns along that river. Navigating these turns as efficiently as possible aids the crew in achieving a fast overall time. In comparison to the spring season, the fall season is usually shorter in duration – crews might only do two to four races starting in late September and ending in early November.

Sprint races

Spring season is the best season. In college races, rowers cover a course of 2000m whereas in most high school races, rowers cover 1500m. They’re rowed somewhere between five and a half and eight minutes and at a much higher stroke rate than head races. Anywhere from 4-8 boats are lined up at the starting line, either through a floating start or on stake boats, after which the starting marshal will utilize one of the various starting calls followed by “Attention, GO” to begin the race. The end of the race (250-300m) is an all out, balls to the wall sprint.

The season itself lasts from late March or early April until the beginning of June, and crews will typically race in seven to ten races during that period. The training is much more intense and unlike fall racing, begins a few months before the actual season starts, a period classified as winter training where the athletes primarily train indoors on the erg.

Coxswains employ a different strategy with these races compared to head races because there is less distance to cover, which translates to the amount of time you have to make move running out very quickly. It is imperative for coxswains to have good control over the steering of the shell to ensure it travels the straightest line possible. If he/she is slaloming down the course, it can cost their crew a win. The intensity of the race overall is also heightened – it’s pure adrenaline from start to finish, which is an experience you can’t really comprehend until you experience it.

Question of the Day

So I’m going to begin coxing this coming spring season, and I am constantly reading about experienced coxes getting annoyed with the newbies. Any recommendations for things I should do to avoid pissing everyone off?

It’s impossible to avoid pissing people off though because no matter what you do, someone will be annoyed by what you’re doing. So instead, I’ll give you some general advice.

Pay attention

Soak in the information. Listen intently to the coaches and listen to the varsity coxswains when they’re telling you how to do something or what to do.


Separate yourself from your friendships and realize that you’re now in a leadership position and favoritism is not something many people appreciate. When you’re on the water, focus on accomplishing the task at hand and not the fact that your friends are in the boat with you. Practice time is not synonymous with sleepovers…you can talk about school, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. AFTER practice.

Do something

When you’re not on the water and you can see the varsity coxswains and coaches working on something, ask if you can help. If you see things out of place, put them back where they belong. Wipe down the ergs after people get off them, take down times, splits, etc. when they’re doing pieces, etc. Never just be standing around. Crew is not the place to be a wallflower.

Make an effort

Educate yourself. Do research. Coxswains are in the unfortunate position of being expected to do a million things but we’re very rarely ever instructed on HOW to do those things. If there’s something you don’t know or understand, talk with your coach about it and ask them to explain it further, then go home and Google whatever it is and see what else you can find. Ask questions – the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.

Be enthusiastic

Don’t mope around and make it obvious that you’re bored or unhappy with your role on the team. If you’re actually unhappy about something, talk with your coach or a varsity coxswain before or after practice. During practice, keep the rowers engaged and on point. If the rowers aren’t looking forward to something, get them excited. Be THAT coxswain that always has a smile on their face and can make their teammates smile too.

Rest assured, varsity coxswains piss off novices coxswains just as much as novices piss them off. There’s a learning curve when you first start coxing that varsity coxswains forget about, which is why most of them tend to get annoyed. What I said up above is the bare minimum of what you should be doing but it’s a good place to start.

Question of the Day

What’s a good way to get the attention of college coaches? Everyone keeps telling me that with my times and progress “the offers will roll in”. I really just want to be proactive in my college search to be sure that I’m choosing the right school. Is it as simple as shooting coaches an email saying that I’m interested or is there some secret step that I’ve been missing?

Rowing isn’t like football and basketball … the offers don’t just “roll in”.

First thing I’d suggest is checking out and making a beRecruited profile. This will allow coaches to get a general idea of who you are as a rower and what you’ve accomplished so far. Second, attend camps at universities you’re considering and get to know the coaches. This can be a good initial way to figure out if this is a coach you might be interested in rowing for.

Related: Hey I’m currently a sophomore & I’m interested in rowing in college. An older teammate suggested I make a beRecruited account. What are your thoughts on the website? Is it helpful? If so, what are your suggestions about keeping it updated? I feel weird writing about myself! Should I list any regatta my boat has placed in or just major races?

Third, fill out the recruiting forms on the athletic websites of the schools you’re looking at. Coaches are gonna ask you to do this anyways so you might as well ski the step of them asking you to do it and just get it done on your own. Fourth, go to CRASH-Bs (and do well) or ID camps if you can. They look great on your rowing resume and let coaches know that you have the potential to be an asset to their program. Fifth, visit the schools and see if you can meet up with the coach to tour the boathouse and learn a little bit about the team.

Check out the recruiting tag as well as the “contacting coaches” tag too. There’s lots of questions and information in there that might help you out.