National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Coxswains

Previously: Introduction || Eating disorders defined + explained || Signs + symptoms

Today I’m going to talk about coxswains and eating disorders. While lightweights have maximums, we have minimums when it comes to weight standards. In high school and college it’s 110lbs for women and 120/125lbs for men, respectively. As the smallest and lightest members of the crew we’re basically dead weight since we aren’t physically helping to move the boat and because of that, crews understandably want the least amount of dead weight to carry as possible.

For me, I’ve always been 15-20 pounds under the women’s minimum so at larger regattas I’ve had to carry weight in the boat with me so that I would be at 110lbs. Despite always being well below 110, I’ve still been pressured and felt pressure to keep my weight down. Coaches would joke or make offhand comments if they saw me eating fast food and say things like “better watch out, you’re not going to be able to fit in the seat if you keep eating like that”. There were also times where people would say “if light is good, lighter must be even better … what’s another few pounds if it helps your boat go faster?” Ah, the guilt trip. Obviously I always wanted what was best for my boat so this was the one that really got stuck in my head. I’d skip meals (usually breakfast and lunch since they were the easiest ones to skip), say that I wasn’t hungry or had already eaten, push food around on my plate to make it look like I’d eaten something, etc. I’m a picky eater to begin with so none of my habits ever appeared that abnormal to anyone. I knew it wasn’t normal but I still felt healthy so I continued on that trend for awhile.

Related: I’m currently a novice coxswain at my school’s club team. I weigh about 125ish. I’m thinking about transferring schools but I still want to do crew. One of the schools I was looking at was D3 and they said that coxswains should weigh less than 115. Do you think they would let me cox because I have already been doing that or would I need to lose weight? I try to work out. I’m planning on doing winter training but I’m not a good runner and I don’t have much erg experience so I don’t know if it would pay off.

All of this was way more prevalent my junior and senior year, particularly my junior year when I was coxing the lightweight 8+. I don’t know how much weight I lost but at most it was maybe five pounds so it wouldn’t have made a difference in my boat’s speed anyways, which I realized after I stopped coxing the lightweights my senior year. I gave up the weird eating patterns, etc. but I’m still overly aware of my weight, what I eat, etc. and it all goes back to offhand comments and jokes made by my coaches and teammates. None of it was ever malicious in any way but this goes to show that something you say to someone in passing can stick with them for a long time.

For coxswains who are above the minimum, they can sometimes have a lot of pressure put on them by their teammates and coaches to lose weight and get closer to racing weight, regardless of the fact that it might not be physically possible for them. Some coaches refuse to weigh their coxswains for fearing of instilling a “complex” in them but then freak out when that coxswain weighs in over racing weight three days before a regatta. Others don’t know how to approach talking about weight with their coxswains (especially if you have men coaching high school women) or how to address the issue of coxswains who are overweight.

Related: Hi! I have two questions about coxing, if that’s alright. I’m a varsity mens HS cox and I weigh around 122-123 on average. Is that a good weight for men’s? I used to cox women’s but the men’s coach asked me if I wanted to switch so I coxed both for a season before switching and the women’s coach kept asking me to drop weight. Also, can you recommend any workouts to stay in shape? I don’t really have much time to work out. Thank you so so so so much!! 

By overweight I don’t mean overweight for their body types but over the “acceptable” racing weight. I generally give coxswains a buffer of few pounds but I also think you have to be realistic and know that coaches aren’t going to pick, for example, a women’s coxswain who weighs 135lbs. The stress on the coxswain and the coach isn’t worth it.

Eating disorders and similar issues tend to arise when coxswains (or their coaches) set “goal weights” for them to be at by a certain point in the season. I think having targets to hit are a smart approach as long as they’re realistic and attainable in a reasonable amount of time. When they’re not, that’s when coxswains begin engaging in unhealthy weight loss tactics.

Throughout my time in this sport I’ve seen coxswains do some pretty ridiculous shit to get their weight down. Let’s just ignore the fact that a simple adjustment in diet or exercise would have been more than enough. Taking Adderall (whether it was prescribed to them or not) to suppress their appetite was a big one, as was purposely dehydrating themselves until they had to weigh in.

Related: How does getting weighed in work during the spring season? I’m a coxswain for a collegiate men’s team where the weight minimum is 125. I’m naturally under 110, so what’s going to happen? Sand bags? Will it be a problem?

Laxatives and diuretics were luckily never something I saw any of my friends use but that’s another thing coxswains turn to. The health consequences of engaging in tactics like this include confusion, dizziness, severe migraines, appearing more impatient or on edge than usual, slow reaction times, etc. in addition to heart and kidney problems from the amphetamines and laxatives. One of the symptoms of laxative use is a really sore back (due to stressed kidneys), which coxswains can easily wave off as it just being sore and/or bruised from hitting the back of the boat.

So, how can weight issues with coxswains be avoided or alleviated (before they become a problem)?

Don’t make offhand comments to them about what they’re eating, how they aren’t going to fit in the seat tomorrow, etc.

As a coxswain, be proactive and note your weight at the beginning of the season. If you’re more than 8-10ish pounds over the minimum, start paying closer attention to what you’re eating, how much you’re working out, and how much you’re sleeping. It’s literally that simple.

Don’t wait until the last minute before a big regatta where you know you’ll be weighed in to see how much you weigh. This only leads to you being that fool running around the regatta site in sweats and a trash bag. It’s unhealthy, it’s stupid, and you’re hurting yourself more than you’re helping your boat.

If you’re a coxswain who is currently engaging in tactics like this, stop for a second and think about all that. Is it worth doing permanent damage to your body? Even if you think what you’re doing is minor (“I only did this for those three races in the spring…”), it’s still a problem. As I said before, you have to be realistic about where your weight’s at and take responsibility for/not ignore the fact that being aware of your weight is part of the job.

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