Defining the role of the coxswain: What coaches look for in a coxswain

I was going through row2k’s poll archives and came across this one that asked “What do you look for most in a coxswain?” That’s such a loaded question – how do you pick just ONE thing that you look for the most when there are so many things that a coxswain has to be able to do?

This is a pretty accurate representation of where you should be focusing your energy so if you’re a novice coxswain wondering what you should be focusing on in order to become an asset to your team, here you go.


Execution encompasses practically EVERYTHING you do, from the time you get to the boathouse until the time you leave. This includes getting everyone in the same place to start practice, getting them on the ergs to warmup, getting them to the boat, getting the boat (safely) off the racks and down to the dock, getting out on the water, going through the warmup properly, knowing what the plan is for the day, etc.

The rule of thumb is to always have a plan. Proper execution cannot happen without a solid plan that has that has been discussed and communicated amongst all involved parties. At the beginning of practice you should get together with your coach and ask what you’ll be doing today. Go over the warm up sequence, drills, pieces, etc. and determine the focus for each one. Regarding drills, if you haven’t done a particular drill before, ask for it to be explained to you before you get on the water. Make sure you have an understanding of it’s purpose and how it’s carried out. A good way to test your understanding is to repeat it back to the coach or to another coxswain, that way if something is incorrect you can be corrected on it before you tell it to the rowers. It’s important that you understand how the drills are done so that time isn’t wasted doing it multiples times because it was done incorrectly the first time. The amount of time we have on the water is limited, so coaches rely on coxswains to use that time as efficiently as possible.

The winter is a good time  for coaches to begin getting a sense of how well coxswains can execute practices or pieces without the pressure of being on the water, which is why I strongly encourage you to not waste these few months by sitting around and just “watching”. Make yourself useful by offering to call the shifts during erg pieces or leading a core circuit. If you’re a novice, don’t be intimidated and assume you can’t do it – if you’ve seen other coxswains do it, you should already have an idea of how it’s done. You’ll have to lead a group of people eventually, so your best opportunity to “practice” is in a low-stress, low-pressure environment. Conveniently, winter training provides just that.

STEERING – 28.6%

Steering is one of the hardest skills for a coxswain to learn. Like rowing, it’s something we pick up quickly but then spend years perfecting. I’ve been coxing for ten years and I still make it a point to practice my steering every time I go out on the water. The most obvious reason why coaches look for coxswains to have good steering skills is because NOT having them is a huge safety issue. If a coxswain is bouncing off either side of the river bank, they are endangering not only their crew but also any other crews that are on the water. It also wastes a significant amount of practice time if the coach constantly has to be telling the coxswain to get on the correct side of the river. Traffic patterns are there for a reason and it is your responsibility as the leader of your crew to know what they are and abide by them.

Prior to the start of the season, varsity coxswains should take it upon themselves to familiarize novice coxswains with the body of water you’re rowing on and explain what the traffic patterns are so that they are aware of them before they get on the water. Spend some time also explaining how to steer and how the boat responds to touches on the rudder. Not all boats are the same and some have different steering mechanisms than others (namely Vespoli’s handle steering in bow-loaded fours vs. the standard string steering).

Related: How to steer an eight or four

Another reason why coaches (and rowers) expect coxswains to have good steering skills is because it can win you races. It can also lose races if those skills are not up to par. During a sprint race, a straight line is CRUCIAL and truly can make the difference between first and second place in a tight race. One of the reasons why coaches often have binoculars during these races is not just so they can see the action from far away – it’s to watch their coxswain’s line coming down the course. The worst thing you can do is bounce off the buoys for 2000m. The phrase “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” is something all coxswains should have at the forefront of their mind during the spring season. Bouncing off the buoys adds meters to your race which in turn adds seconds to your time.

With regards to head races, knowing what the best line is for a particular course and knowing how to take it can eliminate several seconds from your overall time. Since it’s hard to practice steering for head races, studying the course ahead of time will help you determine what the best line is. Rowers appreciate a coxswain who fights for the inside of the buoys because it shortens the course and eliminates any question that they’re exerting more effort than they have to, which is what happens when coxswains take a bad line.


I don’t particularly like the term “motivation” because I think it gives the wrong impression of what a coxswain’s duties are. I’m a firm believer that rowers need to have some kind of motivation already in them before they get in the boat, otherwise how can a coxswain be expected to push them if they can’t even push themselves? But, for the sake of “lack of a better term”, motivation is what we say.

When the rowers are in the pain cave during a race and can’t focus on anything but the burning feeling in their legs, what can you say that pulls them out of their heads and back into the boat? One of a coxswain’s most respected skills is the ability to reach in and pull something out of a rower that they didn’t know they had. It’s a coxswain’s responsibility to talk with their rowers and figure out what they want/need to hear and then use that to help them make their calls during a race. A coxswain that is fired up and pushes his/her rowers to do “the impossible” gains far more points with the coaches than one who is a simply a cheerleader.

COACHING – 11.2%

On the rowing totem pole, coxswains are second in command after the coaches. (Rowers are at the bottom — they have minimal authority. Shh, don’t tell them.) When we’re on the water, we are in charge of the crew and are expected to act as the liaison between the rowers and the coach, in addition to our other responsibilities. Think about what your coach does — they provide guidance, leadership, technical advice, and are considered highly knowledgeable with respect to the sport. Now think about yourself … aren’t your responsibilities similar, if not the same?

Ideally, a good coxswain should be able to go out and run a practice with minimal input from the coach. They understand the technical intricacies of the stroke and can make the call for the necessary corrections, they have a thorough understanding of the drills (why we do them, how they’re done, what the focus is on, etc.), and they are able to effectively communicate with and provide feedback to everyone in the boat.

A coxswain who can truly function like a mini-coach is rare, which is why “coaching” isn’t a skill that coaches particularly look for since they tend to take that entire responsibility upon themselves. If a coxswain does possess this skill though, it makes them a HUGE asset to the team.

WEIGHT – 2.0%

I was happy to see that this was last on the list of things coaches look for but I was also irritated that it was on the list at all. The weight of a coxswain is as sensitive of a topic as it is with lightweights. We’re expected to be petite twigs so as to not add any additional dead weight to the boat, which is understandable, but coaches often take it too far when discussing it with their athletes. I have another post centered on this topic that I’m working on so I’ll keep this brief. The rowers are already moving several hundred pounds down the race course and despite our importance to the crew, we are dead weight from a physics standpoint. Any additional weight we add to the boat has the potential to slow it down (although by how much is a hotly debated topic).

The best advice I have regarding this is to always be mindful of your weight. Some coxswains, like myself, are naturally under the weight minimum and don’t need to worry about it. Others are above the minimum and frequently stress about it. I think you can safely get away with being 3-5lbs over racing weight before it becomes worthy of discussion. The more important issue is that of your health. We’re expected to set an example for the boat and it’s hard to not be considered a hypocrite if we are pushing the rowers to be healthy while partaking in an unhealthy lifestyle ourselves. Bottom line is this – there is a written weight minimum and an unwritten weight maximum. They’re there for a reason and should be acknowledged.