I get emails and questions from coxswains all. the. time. that read like lyrics from an Aretha Franklin song.
“All I’m askin’ … is for a little respect.”
They want to know how to get their boat, their coaches, the team, etc. to respect them because they are coxswain, hear them roar. I applaud the tenacity and enthusiasm but there are some things you’ve gotta understand first, starting with the fact that wanting, earning, getting, and deserving respect are four completely different things. You might want respect and feel like you deserve it but you have to earn it before you get it.
I’m not going to say this is a foolproof guide to gaining respect but it’s a start.
Respect is a two-way street.
You have to give respect to get it in return. You’re in charge of the rowers but you’re not and they have to obey your commands but at the same time they don’t. It’s a respect and safety thing. It starts out as pure safety and then as you spend more time on the water together it blends to a mix of the two. This is really where it all begins. You get thrown in the boat as a novice after hearing from your coach that the rowers have to listen to you because you’re the coxswain, it’s your job to be in charge, etc. and we instantly develop this Napoleon complex and think we’re the shit because we get to boss people who are bigger than us around. Nope nope nope. If you get in the boat thinking that the rowers are your minions out to do your bidding, you’re setting yourself up for apocalyptic failure.
In the beginning they have to listen to you because they don’t know what they’re doing and by being in your position it’s assumed you do (even when you don’t either). Someone has to tell them what to do and they have to listen because…they just do. As you start coming together as a boat — as a crew — they start listening to you not out of necessity but because they trust you and your judgement (on everything…). In order for this to happen, you have to gain their trust and in order to do that, you have to afford your crew the same level of respect that you desire in return.
Be in control of every situation by staying calm and composed.
The strongest leaders are the ones who can silence a crowd without raising their voice. Yelling or being loud just to be loud doesn’t mean you’re taking charge — it means you’re straining your vocal cords for no reason.
Show up physically (never on time or late, always early), emotionally (what happens outside of crew stays outside of crew, don’t start or perpetuate unnecessary drama, etc.), mentally (be ready to do work and get shit done), and spiritually. If you’ve rowed long enough, or maybe if you’ve only rowed for one season, you know what I mean by “spiritually”. It’s that feeling you have when you show up at the boathouse and get on the water that can’t be explained to anyone who’s never experienced it. This quality must be infectious in you — when your crew isn’t feeling it one day, they should be able to look at you and feed off your energy.
Experience “the dark place”.
Have you ever seen a rower doing a 2k or looked into your stroke’s eyes during an all out, balls to the wall piece, and been able to see hell in their eyes?That is the place I’m talking about. Soldiers won’t follow a general into battle if the general has never been in their shoes before. It’s not about pulling a certain split or getting a certain time; if your 2:04 split makes you feel the same way your rower feels when pulling a 1:39, so be it. The numbers don’t matter. It’s about the toll being put on your mind and body.
One of the biggest ways to gain the respect of your crew is to never ask them to give more than you could give yourself. Don’t say “I know you’re hurting” if you’ve never experienced what they’re going through. Wherever and whatever the dark place is for you, go there every once in awhile to remind yourself of just how strong your teammates are. Every time you finish I guarantee that you’ll be newly enlightened with an even greater sense of admiration for what they put their bodies through. (Don’t make the fatal mistake of confusing hero worship and respect though.) Remind yourself of that “wow, these guys” feeling every time you call for a power ten or the build into your sprint or “everything you got, put it on the line, right here“.
No matter what the situation is, its never “you” and “them”, it’s “us” and “we”.
You are not eight rowers and one coxswain. There is not an invisible divide between the stroke seat and the ninth seat. You are ONE crew. That subtle change in linguistics says a lot and it’s something I really pay attention to as a coach. You want your teammates to consider you as part of the crew?Act like one. When talking about your boat, it’s never “they’re doing this”, it’s “we’re doing this”. “They” didn’t row poorly, “we” rowed poorly. “You” don’t want this, “we” want this.
When you say “they”, it’s as though you’re excluding yourself from whatever follows. “They” had a bad race. “They” had a great day on the water. Don’t you think you played a part in that? If you only include yourself in the positive and not the negative, what do you think that says to your teammates? That you only want to be involved in their success but never their failure. On the flip side, if you never include yourself in the positive it gives off the impression that you’re not considering your own contributions, which opens the door for the rowers to not consider them either. I’ll say it again — you are not eight rowers and one coxswain. You are ONE crew.
Always learn from your experiences, positive and negative, on the water and off.
Every opportunity is a chance to learn something new or reinforce something you’ve learned previously. You should be soaking it in every chance you get. You can’t do that if you consider yourself anything less than a sponge at any given moment during practice. That glazed over, “kill me now” look in your eyes during winter training? Yea, stop that. Your coach is talking to 3-seat on the water about keeping his inside shoulder relaxed and you’re staring at the group of people picnicking on shore? Yea, stop that too. You can read about technique all you want but reading is only going to take you so far. It’s a book sense vs. street sense kind of thing. You need to be in the boat, in the launch, watching video, etc. Your rowers notice when you’re taking advantages of these opportunities and your coaches absolutely notice when they hear you make a call based off of something they said individually to a rower (or even to the crew as a whole). It shows that you’re invested, engaged, and doing your part to make the boat go fast.
Rowers add meters to their stroke by erging, lifting, etc. You add meters to all of their strokes by filling your brain with useful information that you’ve attained through every avenue possible, not just from reading a blog online (although that’s a good start, if I do say so myself), and then delivering it in the most effective way(s) possible. In a similar vein, don’t coach beyond your level of experience. If you’re a novice coxswain, don’t try to cox like you’ve been doing it for ten years. I understand the intentions but more often times than not it comes off as obnoxious and your coxing ends up being just plain bad. Don’t cox what you don’t understand.
Reaction time is crucial.
One of the first things I was taught as a novice was that you have to be able to experience, analyze, and react to situations no less than five seconds before they happen. You have to anticipate everything and anything. Ten different scenarios have to be going through your head at any given time and you’ve got to have a plan for every single one. Something that hurts novice rowers in the earning respect department is having horrible reaction times to what’s happening on the water. This usually occurs more when they’re coxing experienced crews but novice crews can also tell when their coxswain is showing up to the party late (and not in a fashionable way).
Your rowers shouldn’t have to take control of the boat because YOU should already have it under control. If rowers are calling for something to happen or telling you to do/call something, that’s a problem because you should have already done or called it. You earn respect from your rowers by demonstrating an unwavering capability to take control of a situation if and, most especially, when the situation warrants. This also relates to what I said at the beginning — calm and composed, never freaking out. For clarification/elaboration, reaction times doesn’t apply only to a situation that could be considered dangerous. It also applies to you calling for the starboards to lift their hands immediately after the boat goes offset, telling the crew exactly what needs to happen in order to recover from a crab and get back into the piece, etc.
Stand up for yourself and always be confident in your calls, decisions, and actions.
Your teammates, including other coxswains, are only going to be assholes to you if you let them. If they think they can get away with it, nothing’s going to stop them from telling you to shut up, stop being such a goody two-shoes, or to straight up fuck off. You are in a position on the team that invites a lot of criticism and you have to have a thick layer of skin to deal with it. Confidence is non-negotiable. If you question yourself every time you do something or you let people walk all over you, no one is going to respect you because you don’t respect yourself.
Something I heard a college coach tell a novice coxswain a few weeks ago was “don’t invite contradiction”. I’ve heard that phrase many times in many different situations over the years and have always liked it. A coach I worked with this year said that he’d rather have a coxswain steer directly into a bridge than debate about what to do to avoid it in the five seconds before they hit it. Sticking to your convictions, regardless of whether the outcome is good or bad, is important. Being able to defend why you did something is better than doing something and not having a reason for why you did it.