The worst coxswain calls

I tend to interrogate people about their coxswains a lot. What do they like, what don’t they like, what do they do well, what’s something they can improve on, what do you think is their most effective call, which call will you pay them to never make again … stuff like that.

By the time we get to the “what’s the worst call” question, everyone starts rapidly chiming in and it almost becomes a contest to see who’s coxswain made the most-agreed-upon worst call ever. It’s funny to see how these conversations differ when you have them with men vs. women too. Guys tend to be pretty straightforward with what they don’t like but also a little sympathetic at the same time, usually because their coxswain is their bro and dude you don’t just throw your bro under the bus like that or their coxswain is a girl and hell hath no fury like a female-coxswain-of-a-men’s-crew scorned. Women tend to be (sorry girls) straightforward behind other people’s backs. For whatever reason, saying “I didn’t like this” to another girl’s face almost always results in some Miranda Priestly-esque pursing of the lips and eye rolls. I mean, I get it, I hate being told that something I thought was great wasn’t as well received by everyone else, but at the same time … suck it up, take it, and adapt, not only for your own benefit but for the good of the crew as well.

Inevitably everyone has seen the lists of “things your coxswain should never say” but satire or not, they are so not helpful. I’ve actually seen coaches cite this when teaching – “teaching” – novice coxswains what to do and it pains me to know that some coaches think that list is genuine. The problem I have is that rowers and coaches complain about the calls a coxswain makes but they make little to no effort to talk to them about why it’s a bad call, why they didn’t like it, why it wasn’t effective, etc. Rowing is a sport that is pretty deeply rooted in communication – if there’s no communication, the boat won’t function like it should. Goofy lists like those ones aren’t going to cut it.

The question of “what’s the worst thing you coxswain could say” was posed on a Reddit thread the other day and that, combined with what I’ve heard recently, gave me the idea to come up with a new, slightly better, more informative list. Some/most of these I’ve probably mentioned before (and can be found strewn about in the “calls” tag) but for the sake of having everything in one place, here’s a short list of “things you should never say”.

“Row faster and/or harder!” Classic rookie mistake. Never say this if you’d like your vocal cords to remain on the inside of your body.

Anything about you working harder than them.

“I know it hurts!” No, you don’t. Even if you’ve rowed before, no.

Anything involved the word “oops” followed by nervous laughter or “oh shit”.

Any call that the crew has repeatedly said does. not. work. for. them.

Calls that separate you from them. Nothing should be “you guys”, it should be “we”, “us”, “let’s”, etc.

“X” number of strokes left when there is blatantly not that many strokes left, meaning you say “last 10” and it’s actually the last 23. (This is actually something you should practice but never attempt until you’ve got it down cold.)

“You’re losing!” How motivating of you.

“Almost there!” If this is said anytime before the last five strokes of the race, you’re wrong.

“You’ve worked harder than this before, come on!” In theory, I get why people say this. I’ve said this. But, there are things to consider in relation to the “before” you’re comparing them to. What were the conditions? What was the wind/temperature/current like? What did the rest of the workout up to that point consist of?

“You can pull harder than that!” Technically there’s nothing wrong with this call but if you just say this with no follow-up, that’s where rowers get pissed. Most likely they’re already pulling as hard as they can. If you’re not feeling the power though, figure out why and tell them what needs to change. Are they missing water, washing out, not connecting with the legs…? If you’re not feelin’ it, you should be calling them out but don’t just automatically assume that it’s because they’re not giving 100%.

Anything that isn’t true. Just don’t. Rowers know when you’re lying to them.

“Don’t die on me!” Well, yes, that’d be nice, but you’re most likely saying this at a point in the race when they wish they were dead. Saying this is just going to make them wish for it more.

“Power  10/20!” …over and over and over again. Bursts are strategy moves and 95% of them shouldn’t be straight for power.

Dead silence, either for an entire practice or during a race.

Anything that might make the rowers laugh and/or lose focus. Keeping the mood light is fine but in the middle of a race, it’s just not appropriate. So many rowers I’ve talked to have said that they appreciate what the coxswain is trying to do but it takes them out of the zone, which once you’re out of is hard to get back into.

What are your “nope” coxswain calls? Why was it bad and what about it made it not work for you? What would you have preferred your coxswain to say instead?


8 thoughts on “The worst coxswain calls

  1. valentina says:

    i’ve been coxing for 2 years, im defiantly not as experienced as the majority of people on here seeing as im nearly at the end of our year 9 rowing season. I try put 100 percent into my coxing and make sure i know everything that rowers like to hear whilst they’re we’re in a regatta, but i feel like im repeating things… not like 34 stokes of “tuh-gether” but more like constantly telling them to sky their oars, sit back at the catch, pull through the whole stoke, pull your oars up at the finish and motivate etc… i also tell them how too, which i learned by talking to the coaches and reading about it. Steering i find quite easy and i seem to get the strokes to the end right when im counting down, but because i cox the top crew i would like to be as good as i can and if i could better then the year above me, so i was wondering if anyone had any helpful tip or things they like being said to them ? thanks 🙂

  2. Micheke says:

    I was doing what I look back on as the most important erg 2k in my life, and a novice coxswain walks up to me and tells me a story about how she did her first 2k and burned out and gave up at the 750. She was laughing.

  3. Liz-423 says:

    It drives me crazy when coxswains say things like “catch together” or “bring the rate down” over and over again. Once or twice is a good reminder, but saying if they say it over and over again I end of thinking “WE KNOW! WE’RE TRYING!” However it is really helpful when they say something like that and then follow it up with something more specific like a catch-call or counting out the recovery.

    Anything about how you’re not working hard enough. If it’s a race, unless something is seriously messed up, all of the rowers are already working their asses off. Implying otherwise just pisses us off. However saying that we can dig deeper, pull harder, etc., can be really motivational if its phrased right.

    This is isn’t really part of the question, but here are some call’s I find really helpful.
    During a power 10, mentioning something with each number. Not something big, but like a few words. “Breath,” “Strong drive,” “Clean catch” Things you already know, but a reminder can be really helpful. My coxswain last year would do this thing were she’d say like “One for” and a person in the boat, all the way down the line in a power 10. Being reminded that they’re 7 other people who feel just as crappy as you do can be helpful.
    Catch-calls are infinity helpful.
    Thing’s like “fight for it” are really motivating.
    “Dig deep” “Everything you have.” Stuff like that is also motivating, especially in the sprint.
    Update on where the other boats are, especially if the race is close. Also things like “we’re going to take five hard stroke to move up a seat on them.” Smaller goals make it seem smaller.

    So yeah, that’s what I find helpful and unhelpful in a race.
    Hope this helps!

    • beantownkmd says:

      YES YES YES to following up those calls with something specific. Same with working hard enough…it’s all about phrasing and how that impacts the psychology of the rower. Say it one way and it’ll piss them off and defeat them mentally. Say it another and they’ll give everything they’ve got to you and their teammates.

  4. Sarah Opatz says:

    SO. I just finished a season with the WORST cox ever. I know some rowers don’t need their coxswains to say much, but this girl ONLY said the race plan, and said it like a flight attendant. Condescending and lazy, not at all motivational or competitive. During races, she was either silent or calling numbers, of which I could barely hear because she was so quiet about it. She was also pretty repetitive. “Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether. Tuh-gether.” (This was said for a full 34 strokes- I counted). A big no-no, she said everything at the FINISH. And finally, the boat looked like a five year-old bowling with the gutter guards up: playing ping-pong against the lanes and zig-zagging all over. I wouldn’t be so frustrated with her if she actually tried. She came up to me after a practice and asked for a list of things I liked and didn’t like, how she can improve, etc. I was happy to help, and even gave her this blog as a reference! Yet, there was absolutely no improvement, and when I asked her why she didn’t read this blog or even READ the list I gave her, her response was, “I’m just really bad at getting stuff done.” UGH. So glad this season is over.

    • beantownkmd says:

      34 strokes of “tuh-gether” would make me jump out of the boat and swim the rest of the way down the course.

      Sounds like she needs a) an attitude adjustment and b) some one-on-one time with the coaches so they can explain to her just what her role on the team is and how the crew is affected by her lackadaisical approach to coxing. It’s good that she at least made the effort to talk with you and ask for feedback but if you don’t do anything with the feedback and/or advice you’re given you’re not going to get very far…and you’re probably going to lose a bit of respect from the people in your boat too.


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