Coxswain skills: “So, what did you see?”

This is one of my favorite questions to ask coxswains. Most see four or eight oars and … that’s about it. When their coach asks them what they noticed during that last piece there’s usually a second or two where they try and think of what to say before giving a super vague answer that sounds something like “Um … the boat wasn’t set and timing was off.”

Remember, we’re the liaisons between the rowers and the coaches. It’s our responsibility to convey what’s happening in the boat so that the coaches know what’s working, what’s not, what they need to spend time focusing on, who needs some extra individual attention, etc. Specifics are what drive our sport. If you say “the boat wasn’t set”, I’m going to respond with “OK, why? What side was it down to? When did it go offset? Was it offset at certain points in the stroke or for the entire stroke? Did you make a call for a correction? Do you know how to correct it? Etc., etc., etc.” THOSE are the kind of observations that make you an invaluable asset to your crew.

When you’re in the boat you should constantly be observing (and feeling) what’s going on and relaying what you see to the rowers. Your eyes should never stop moving. Before you tell the rowers what you see, make sure you understand what you’re seeing. Don’t tell them something you yourself don’t understand. If you see something that seems off but aren’t sure how to relay it to the rowers, say “Hey Coach, I noticed XYZ but I’m not sure what that means or how to fix it”.

One of the best ways to be able to see all of this is to watch video of your crew rowing. This allows you to see the entire eight from the side, which isn’t a view coxswains often get unless they’re in the launch. By observing the crew from the side, you can see what the timing on each side looks like, what the rower’s bodies are doing, where their hands are, if their chins are up, etc. The bodies aren’t something we can see in the boat, so if we can study them externally we can start to develop a better sense of each of our rower’s tendencies. If your coach is able to ride behind you and can get an shot of all eight rowing, you’ll be able to see the timing of the entire crew even better.

THE SET

If the boat isn’t set, ask yourself the following questions. See if you can figure out why it’s not set based on your observations. Don’t assume that it’s offset just because of the handle heights.

When the boat’s not set, is it always down to the same side or does it go back and forth between starboard and port?

Is it off on every stroke or every few strokes?

At what part of the stroke is the boat not set? (Catch, release, recovery, etc.)

If it’s offset on the recovery, is it at the beginning when the rowers first move their hands away or later when the bodies extend? When moving hands away, are the hands and arms moving in an arc instead of straight away? (This is easy to determine based on whether or not the oars stay at the same height off the water the whole way through the recovery.) When the upper body pivots at the hips and moves forward, make sure the hands aren’t dipping at the catch (skying the blade). If the blades are dragging across the water, the hands are too high and need to lower a bit.

If it’s offset at the catch, it’s typically caused by uneven catch timing (everyone entering at a different time) or hands dipping down towards the feet. If the hands are dropping it could be because the heads/upper body are dropping.

If it’s offset at the release, the timing of the release may be off or the oar may be being buried too deep. They’ll know if it was buried too deep when they catch a crab.

Does it start as a slight lean and then all of a sudden drop down at the catch or does it remain steadily offset throughout the whole slide movement?

Are port and starboard exerting equal pressure or is one side pulling harder than the other? This will be one of the easiest things for you to notice since it will effect the steering.

Are everyone’s heads in the boat, with their eyes and chins up?The slightest turn of the head can offset the boat which is one of the main reasons why the rowers are constantly reminded to keep their heads in the boat and their eyes forward.

TIMING

Timing can be a tough thing to see at first, especially in an eight. You have to use your peripheral vision in order to see all eight blades at once, which can be awkward sometimes since it involves staring almost directly at your stroke’s chest.

Is everyone catching, squaring, and feathering at the same time? Point out who is late/early on each part and try to get everyone in unison. If they’re late at the catch, remind them to start squaring up over their knees so that by the time they’re at the catch all they have to do is drop the blade in. Make sure they get the handle down and the blade out BEFORE they feather.

Are the other seven (or three) rowers following the stroke? Is the 7-seat (or 3-seat) picking up the stroke’s rhythm and translating it back to the rest of the crew? Periodically ask the stroke how it feels. If he says it feels rushed, remind everyone else to match the hands, shoulders, and slides as they come out of the finish and if necessary, call for a ratio shift.

Is everyone moving at the same speed? Watch for oars flying back and then waiting at the catch, going slow during part of the recovery and then speeding up at the end, etc.

DRILLS

When your coach gives you a drill to execute with the boat, focus on the purpose of that drill and what the rowers are trying to accomplish. For the most part, this should be the bulk of what you’re critiquing. If you’re not sure what you should be looking for with each drill, ASK. If you do a drill incorrectly, not only are the rowers going to be annoyed because they’re not getting anything out of it but the coach will also be too because you wasted valuable time.

HANDLE AND/OR BLADE HEIGHTS

Is someone skying their blade/dragging it across the water consistently? This goes hand in hand with the set. If you notice this, tell the rower, pair, side, etc. what you see and how to correct it.

PRESSURE

Occasionally your coach might ask “how’d the pressure feel on that piece?” It’s important that you be honest, especially if you’ve been given a specific pressure to row at for the piece. You’ll quickly learn what your rower’s half, 3/4, and full pressure feels like, so if it doesn’t feel like they’re rowing at the specified pressure, don’t be afraid to ask for more.

Also know when to tell them to back off the pressure, if necessary. Warmups are not the time to be rowing at full pressure, so tell your crew to stop showing off and instead focus on what you’re telling them to do. I’ve found through coaching that this is most often the case when you’ve got a boat full of high school guys who just recently started rowing; experienced rowers don’t tend to have this problem.

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