I call bullshit…

Guys – seriously – calm down. I know the article was intended as satire. Doing some research on the author you’re responding to is usually good practice before you write anything. That doesn’t mean that people don’t actually personally believe to be true what the article is saying, which was the majority of the reason why I wrote this. The article itself annoyed me only because it’s making light of stuff that happens on an all-too-regular basis and the only people who realize that are the coxswains that experience it.

As I was sitting here this morning with my bowl of knock off Lucky Charms trying to figure out what today’s post was going to be about I opened up row2k and an article link immediately popped out at me that I knew I had to respond to. This one, to be exact. Go read it then come back.

Where do I even begin?

This is what the author lists as the expected and anticipated responsibilities of a coxswain during practice or at a race:

  • Get the crew assembled for a boat meeting
  • Take care to make sure all their electronic tools are working
  • Get the crew launched on time
  • Run a full warmup, usually from memory
  • Understand and deal with rowing on new and sometimes unusual waterways
  • Get on the stakeboat without drowning any volunteers (Side note: what??)
  • Execute the race plan
  • Motivate eight very different people to work together
  • Steer straight!
  • SAFETY! (Side note #2: We all know this should have been number one.)

I would agree with all of that as falling under the duties of a coxswain, minus the not drowning volunteers thing because…how? However, none of these things are why coxswains are called “the coach in the boat”. All of these fall under “common sense”. For the sake of argument, with the exception of maintaining the safety of the athletes, none of these are the responsibility of the actual coach either. What gives the coxswain the nickname of “coach in the boat” is every. single. thing. in this post and nearly everything in bullet points in this post, in addition to practically everything else I’ve ever said EVER on this blog.

But let’s ignore the very best coxswains as outliers; it is probably true that your average college coxswain only really becomes even a good coxswain after several years of effort. Kind of like a rower, eh? Rowers have plenty of information on what is going on in the boat, as much or more than the coxswain. So what if every rower figured they were the coach in the boat as well?

Of course it takes years of effort to hone the skills of being a coxswain. Not sure if the “kind of like a rower” comment was a dig or something but … obviously everything takes time and effort if you want to be proficient at it, let alone good, great, or excellent. Rowers have plenty of information, yes. How do they get that information? Their. Coach. And. Their. Coxswain. If a rower has more information than me on what is going on in the boat, that’s an issue because I’m clearly not doing my job and to an extent, he’s probably not doing his. There are clear definitions as to the responsibilities of each person in the boat and what pisses me off to no end is when people try to blur the lines between coxswains and rowers and say that rowers know just as much if not more than the coxswains. If that was the case every boat would be a coxless boat.

I’m sitting here trying to think of a coherent way to make my point on this but I really can’t, partially because I’m that irritated.

No one denies the fact that coxswains are taught from day one that they are expected to be leaders. Have I not said that same thing numerous times to all of you? Whether or not your coaches have said it to you, I’ve said it. Go read any high school coxswain manual posted on Google Docs and I guarantee it’ll say in the first paragraph something about how coxswains are supposed to be leaders both on and off the water. Rowers are taught from day one that they are expected to listen to their coxswain because the role of the coxswain is to lead the boat. They’re in charge!  Everyone on the team is also taught from day one that the coach is the ” #1 leader” of the team and, assuming you and your teammates aren’t a bunch of little shits, you respect that because his role on the team is to be in charge, give commands, provide feedback, instruction, guidance, and clarity. Does anyone want to argue that those are not also the responsibilities of a coxswain when you’re on the water?

If the bow seat, who can also see most of the same stuff the coxswain can see, but also has the added information of actually rowing for a few years, and even more is actually going up and down the slide, started spewing about how seven-seat does this, and how the stroke should fix this, and why the crew should row a 33, not a 33.5, and who should sit here – in short, started COACHING – they’d be run out on a rail. Their job is to row the bowseat. And the coxswain’s job is to coxswain.

“…but also has the added information of actually rowing for a few years and even more is actually going up and down the slide…” Oh gee, did you just MAKE my point that coaches should spend time getting their coxswains in boats, teaching them how to row, going through the drills with them, etc. so that they can get that experience, not so much to be in solidarity with the rowers as to help them become better at their jobs?

Want to know what happens when bow, stroke, 3, 5, 7, 2, 6, or 4 starts spewing about what the other rowers are doing? It pisses the other rowers off because the other rowers know it’s the coach’s and coxswain’s responsibility to do that. They are responsible for pointing those issues out, telling the rowers how to fix it, providing continued feedback on whether or not the issue was resolved and if not, what the rower needs to keep doing to get better, etc. They’re BOTH responsible for that. How does that not make the coxswain like a coach? Of course any rower that did that would be “run out on a rail” because it’s not their job to call their teammates out like that. I can’t tell you the number of messages and emails I’ve gotten from ROWERS (not coxswains, ROWERS) asking me how to deal with teammates that do this because they feel that if the rower has enough energy to be coxing at the same time they’re rowing, they’re clearly not putting all their focus into what they’re actually there for, which is to row. Plus it’s straight up obnoxious.

Also, “the coxswain’s job is to coxswain”…no, it’s not. Their job is to cox or to be a coxswain. Their job is not to coxswain because “coxswain” is a noun, not a verb. How the hell do people not know that?

So how come every second-year coxswain thinks (and is told) they’re the coach in the boat? How come, every spring without fail, newspapers from east to west run article about a second boat coxswain who is “the coach in the boat?”

They think and are told that they’re the coach in the boat simply because it’s the easiest way to convey what their role is without having to delve into every tiny detail of what they’re expected to do. Newspapers title coxswains the coach in the boat because it’s the easiest way to explain to the non-rowing crowd what we do. Our responsibilities are not always your responsibilities but your responsibilities are almost always ours. Most of you have previously read the posts I linked to at the beginning of this – do you think newspapers have enough space to put all that information in a one-column article running in the middle of the sports section? No, so they water it down to say exactly what they need to say to make their point. Coxswains are secondary coaches. We all know what the responsibility of a coach is and saying coxswains are like coaches gives non-rowers a good idea as to what our role on the team is. I would much rather be identified as a “coach in the boat” than the bossy, tiny person often seen carrying her weight in shoes, water bottles, and articles of clothing because it gives me a sense of pride and makes me feel like an important, contributing member of the team, which I am and we are. I don’t just carry shoes, water bottles, and articles of clothing and if that’s how you want to define what I do, screw you. I’ve spent the better part of eight months/ten years trying to dispel the fact that coxswains don’t do anything, aren’t worthy of being on the team, etc. and I am NOT going to sit here and let someone, regardless of the amount of experience they have, say that I or any other coxswain, regardless of their level of experience, is not worthy of the title of “coach in the boat”.

The goal for a young coxswain should not be to become the “coach in the boat;” a coxswain might want first to try to be a coxswain. Steer straight. Make your calls concisely and clearly. Call the race plan. Read the coxbox correctly. Say where the boat is on the course. Tell where the other boats are. Tell whether the crew is moving on the field or not. It is plenty hard and rare enough – almost impossible, on the evidence – to do all of these well as it is.

Becoming the “coach in the boat” isn’t the “goal” of any coxswain because it’s an immediately accepted fact that that is what they are. Should novice coxswains immediately try and do everything I do? Of course not. I’ve been coxing since I was 14 years old and right now, I’m a month away from turning 25. I have that experience that allows me to do eighteen things at once without batting an eye. Should they learn the basics first and gradually start taking on more responsibility as they get more time on the water? Do I really need to answer this for you? Being the coach in the boat is not something that comes in time but it is something they get better at over time.

Also, in terms of coaches continuing to make my points for me, here’s another one. “It is plenty hard and rare enough – almost impossible, on the evidence – to do all of these well as it is.” I do think it’s hard but not impossible because I know I do all of those things very well and know many other coxswains who do the same. Would you like to know why though most coxswains have a lot of trouble doing all these things? It’s because they’re never taught how to do it. Coaches tell their coxswains to do all of the stuff listed in that paragraph but rarely (at best) give them any kind of instruction on how to accomplish those things. Maybe – and get ready for this novel idea that I’ve been saying for months/years – coaches should spend a little more time working with their coxswains and helping them gain the necessary skills of their position instead of throwing them in a boat and then bitching at them when something goes awry. Maybe then not only would it be possible for coxswains to do these things and do them well but coaches would see just how closely the role of a coxswain mirrors that of a coach. It’s easy to look at a bad coxswain and think “they aren’t a coach, leader, etc.” but did you do anything to help bolster their skills and abilities or explain to them that they are a leader and this is what you expect of them? My guess is and experience says no.

So let’s call BS on “the coxswain is the coach in the boat,” and maybe, if you’re as nice a guy as I am, three cheers to simply good coxswains.

Respectfully and emphatically, I call bullshit on this article. What’s written, even if it was meant as a joke, has only continued to confirm what I’ve thought since my senior year of high school, which is that the only coaches who think coxswains aren’t mini-mes and don’t bring anything to the table other than steering straight, gathering the crowd, etc. are the arrogant ones who were probably THAT rower that told their coxswain they couldn’t tell them to push harder because they just sit there and do nothing.

I tell every coxswain I meet, talk to, email with, coach, etc. that they are an extension of the coaches because they are. Does anyone dispute that? Anyone? Speak now or forever hold your peace. Coaches are the leader(s) of the team. Coxswains are second on the totem pole and are in most cases expected to be the middle-man between their boat and the coach. In addition to that, most (good) coaches rely on the coxswains to help the rowers “buy in” to their philosophy. Coxswains back their coaches up and communicate with them when the boat/team has feedback on something. All of this, combined with everything I just said, involves them having and maintaining higher-than-average levels of responsibility, character, communication skills, knowledge, etc. – all things that, if reading more job descriptions than I care to admit has taught me, are also what is expected of a coach.

4 thoughts on “I call bullshit…

  1. Lilly says:

    I agree with you- this season my team lost its head coach, and it was up to the assistant coaches and the coxswains to step up. Without as many coaches, ours were stretched thin, forced to send out novice and varsity men and women between two coaches, and many times our boat would be left to run much of practice coach-less. Hardly ever was this a problem, because the communication between the coaches and the coxswains was excellent, and most days, our coxies ran warm-ups, pointed out issues in the boat, and then would piece against other boats. When the coaches would join us, all they would contribute is more comments like the coxswains’, some overall observations about the boat, and sometimes they’d call pieces. That’s it. Decent coxswains steer straight, make calls, etc.- good coxswains act as an extension of the coaching staff while still doing the necessary bare minimum this BS article says is a requirement of good coxswains. If we rowers are going to have to learn the intricacies of rowing technique and empty every ounce of energy we have into every piece, coxswains can be taught these things, too.


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