TED Talks, body language, and … coxing?

I was going through Reddit the other night and came across this talk from last October given by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who currently teaches at Harvard Business School. It’s really interesting and a lot of what she says can easily be related to coxing.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking “how to do I become more confident”, “will I be a good coxswain even though I’m shy and quiet”, etc. and that made me realize how big of an issue this is for those who are new to the sport (and for some experienced coxswains as well). I get asked a lot how I developed my confidence as a coxswain and I don’t ever really know how to answer that other than to say “I just am/was”. Good coaching, support from my family and friends, and my natural personality all play(ed) into it but it was never something I had to teach myself to be.

That isn’t the case for a lot of coxswains out there though and is really more of a “pick two” situation. You can have two of the above but not the other one and what sucks is that the one you don’t have tends to affect you more than the two you do have. When you’re just starting out in something new, especially something as feedback-based as rowing, that can be the make-or-break thing that helps you decide whether to stick with it or not. I’ve said multiple times that to be a good coxswain you have to be confident in your skills, your decisions, and yourself as an individual and I stand by that wholeheartedly, but how do you teach yourself to become that, especially when there’s no one telling you the process step by step?

One of the things that Amy talks about in the beginning of her talk is how your level of confidence is communicated in your posture, what your body language is communicating to other people, and what your body language is communicating to yourself. If you think about how you approach any given situation, what do you think your body language/non-verbals say about you? If you’re a coxswain, think about yourself when you’re at practice. Do your non-verbals give off an air of “I know what I’m doing” or, as Amy said, “I’m not supposed to be here”? Do you stand up front by the coaches, hands on your hips, waiting to be told what to do or do stand near the back or in the middle of the rowers playing with your cox box hoping no one notices you’re there? What about when you’re on the water? How do your coxing non-verbals make you look? Think about that for a second and honestly ask yourself how you think your non-verbals have affected you so far, either positively or negatively.

A little bit further on she talks about how there’s a grade gap in business schools between men and women and they can’t figure it out because coming in, they’re all on equal footing so you’d think that gap wouldn’t exist. What they attribute part of it to is one’s level of participation in class. Based on personal experience I know that in classes and situations where I’m confident in what I know, I’m a willing, avid participant in whatever’s going on. I’m one of those people that “spreads out”, has their hand high in the air, etc. When I’m not confident (i.e. every math class I’ve taken since elementary school) I don’t say a word and tend to make myself smaller in the chair I’m sitting in with what I can only assume is a “I’m not supposed to be here” look on my face.

When I started thinking about this, we do this at crew too. We all come in on equal footing, not knowing anything about the sport, but the ones who participate more by engaging themselves in the beginning during winter training, talking to the coaches, interacting with the rowers, learning about the sport on their own time, etc. are the ones that (initially) succeed. Those that stand around not doing much, are nervous or afraid to talk to the coaches, are intimidated by the rowers, and don’t do anything to engage themselves other than show up tend to get looked over in favor of those who are displaying more positive non-verbals. That all has to do with confidence. The more confident you are, the more risks you’re willing to take at the beginning to put yourself out there in an unfamiliar situation. That confidence is an inherent thing too that has nothing to do with how much you know or don’t know about crew or coxing. So, how do you become more confident and project those positive non-verbals?

The next minute or two of her talk really justified something I’ve felt and been saying for awhile now. “Is it possible that we could get people to fake it and would it lead people to participate more? … Can you experience a behavioral outcome that makes you seem more powerful?” You all know that one of the things I’ve consistently said, especially to novices, is “fake it ’til you make it” because the more you fake it, the more you start to actually become it. But, as she goes on to say, do the non-verbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves? I say definitely. If you’re awkwardly standing somewhere in a “powerless” position, chances are you aren’t feeling so great about yourself whereas if you’re standing somewhere with your chin up, shoulders back, etc. you probably feel pretty confident … or do you? Maybe you’re faking it. Who knows! That’s the beauty of it. “When you pretend to be powerful you are more likely to actually feel powerful.”

Related: “Fake it till you make it.” Do you believe in that for coxswains? Because of today’s terrible practice I wouldn’t have been able to fake anything for the life of me.

This transitioned into what she was saying about how powerful and effective leaders have high testosterone and low cortisol levels, testosterone relating to dominance and cortisol relating to stress. As she says, when you think about power you tend to think more about testosterone and less about cortisol but the thing with power is that it’s not all about how dominant you are over a situation or group of people, it’s also about how you handle and react to the stress of being in that position. Tell me that isn’t exactly like coxing. As she goes on to say, think about the kind of leader you want to be — do you want to be a dominant leader who is also very reactive to stress or a leader who is dominant and not very reactive to stress? I know there are a fair number of rowers out there cringing as you recall situations where your coxswain was freaking out about something on the water and you spent the next several minutes wondering if he/she was gonna have their shit together at any point during practice. That’s not the kind of coxswain you want to be. You want to be the kind that manages stress effectively by figuring out a solution to the problem rather than outwardly reacting to it. Why? Because the non-verbals you display in situations like that let your rowers know you’ve got things under control and their confidence in you ultimately translates into confidence in yourself. See how that works? (On the flip side though, the exact opposite can also happen…)

Moving on to “primate hierarchies”, think about when your coach decides to make a change by randomly and all of a sudden taking you out of your novice 4+ and putting you in the varsity 8+. You’re probably nervous, questioning your abilities, and thinking “oh shit, what if I mess up”, right? You’re replacing an “alpha” coxswain -someone who is most likely more confident, more experienced, and more skilled that you. But, after a few practices with the boat you realize it’s just like coxing any other crew with only minor differences. You start to worry less about how you’re doing as you settle into your groove and become more comfortable with the rowers. This demonstrates what she’s saying about your testosterone going up and cortisol coming down. As you continue working with them you gradually become more and more confident with yourself, which is what she’s saying about how role changes can shape the mind. On that same line, the more confident you become, the more positive your body language becomes, which in turn circles back around and increases your confidence. Body shaping the mind. Bam. Science.

Hopefully by this point you get how big of a role your body language plays in that. The trick is to do it in small doses like she says (starting around 10:19). For two minutes stand in a “high power pose” like one of the ones from her PowerPoint. Obviously you don’t have to do this somewhere where people can see you if you’re worried about looking silly. Do that and see how it makes you feel. Do this every day before you go to school, before you go to practice, etc. and after a week or two, see if you notice a difference with yourself. If what she says is right, the more you do it the more confident you’ll feel and see yourself becoming.

I have a great story to tell about “having the opportunity to gamble”. So, about two weeks or so before I left for Penn AC I was having a really shitty time with … life. I went out to breakfast one morning with one of the women in my boat and she said to me, dead serious, “you look like you’re going through life like you’re in the middle of surgery with no anesthesia”. That was a serious wake-up call because I knew how shitty I felt and I had been trying really hard to keep it to myself but apparently I was failing (miserably). What had given it away was how I was carrying myself. I wasn’t carrying myself confidently like I normally did; instead I just looked defeated all the time, including when I was on the water, which had never happened before. Ever since I started coxing this boat they’ve all consistently said to me, with wondrous amazement, that I’m a completely different person on the water. I’m a much more reserved and quiet person than I used to be but when I’m on the water, my true personality really comes through. I’m the person on the water that I wish I still was on land. How they knew something was “off” though was by how I was acting on the water. Up to this point I was always 100% in command, 100% focused, and never once questioned myself. Now though, I just wasn’t into practice, I couldn’t concentrate, and my mind was always on other things. They didn’t know any of that but they read it all through my body language, which was giving them the sense through my non-verbals that I didn’t have an ounce of confidence in my body.

For the first time in a long time I questioned myself in the middle of a race piece. I haven’t done that since I was a novice and didn’t know any better. Looking back at my non-verbals I know I was giving off the “I don’t belong here” vibe because in that moment that was exactly how I felt. We were doing race pieces with another boat and we were coming up on the last 400m or so. It was close between the two of us and I wanted to call a move to put us ahead once and for all going into the final sprint. I was already not 100% mentally into practice, in addition to being nervous about how close we were to the other crew. I debated for too long about whether or not to make the move, whether it would hurt our speed during the sprint, etc. and missed the opportunity. We lost the race by about two seats. I was furious with myself, which then made me feel even less confident and more defeated. It also just went to show how irrational I was being because it was just a practice piece — there was literally nothing riding on it whatsoever and my boat was happy because it was a good piece. My coach asked me afterwards what was up because he’d never seen me like that in the boat before. He said his first clue that something was off was as soon as we crossed the finish line I buried my head in hands and started crying, which is really unlike me, especially on the water.

Fast forward about three weeks to Penn AC. The guys were doing 4x2ks and I ended up coxing the last one. Up to that point I’d been having a great week so I was feeling pretty good all around. Getting asked to cox the last piece just sent my enthusiasm levels through the roof and having the guy at stroke say to me “let’s go fuck this other boat up” before the start just totally did it for me. Thinking back on it, I was willing to take the risk I did because I was feeling good about myself and the boat, which was translated to my body language (I was in a “high power” stance, or as close as you can get in the boat), which then translated how I felt to those that were watching us. Compared to the piece I did with my own eight, my testosterone and cortisol levels were probably the exact opposite of what they were before. I felt completely in control and wasn’t stressed because I knew that no matter what I said the guys were gonna go with me.

I called for a move with 750m to go that took the other crew by surprise and helped us get even with them — something we should not have been able to do given the difference in size and experience between the two boats. It was a risk and as one of the coaches later said, a ballsy one at that. It could have backfired and killed the momentum we’d built up but in the moment that wasn’t even something I was thinking about. Later on I ended up talking with another coach about that piece and they said that they had a feeling that I was going to do something “crazy” just based on my body language. He said that he told the rower that was riding with him to watch our boat because “she’s gonna do something … I don’t know what or when but she’s gonna do something and they’re gonna move.”

That definitely ranked in the top 5 compliments I’ve gotten on my coxing and it really boosted my confidence even though I had no real reason to need a confidence boost. It’s not like I needed any kind of validation on my coxing skills (but when has something like that ever hurt…). Put yourself in that situation though or go back to a time when something similar happened to you — how awesome would/did you feel immediately afterwards? What would/did that do for your confidence? And now think that it has nothing to do with your coxing, it all came straight from what your body language was communicating.

There are a lot of different connections to be made here which can get confusing trying to put all the pieces together, so, to recap:

Non-verbals communicate to other people as well as to ourselves

Positive non-verbals = “happy” feelings; negative non-verbals = “sad” feelings

Happy/sad = confident/not confident

“Fake it ’til you make it” = mind shaping the body

Confident/not confident = dominant/powerless, indicated through testosterone and cortisol levels

Feelings of confidence or lack thereof displayed through “high power”/”low power” body stances

“High power”/”low power” stances = higher/lower risk tolerance, higher/lower testosterone, lower/higher cortisol

Non-verbals govern how we think/feel about ourselves

Bodies change our mind

This video from the Harvard Business Review also gives a good, quick overview in simple terms of what’s been talked about so far.

Back to the Ted Talk, fast forward to 13:50 where she’s talking about what you’re doing before a job interview. Translate this to race day or right before your first practice of the season on the water with a group of people you’ve never coxed before. Instead of making yourself small and finding ways to distract yourself from “the big moment”, you should be making yourself big by spending two minutes in one of your power poses.

Fast forward again to 15:10. It’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about your presence. This is something I really want the novice coxswains to pay attention to. You can listen to as many recordings as you want and borrow as many calls as you want from all the great coxswains out there but if you lack presence, what you say isn’t going to matter. What you say is not what makes you seem more confident or like you know what you’re doing, it’s how. you. say. it. and the vibe you’re giving off as you do it.

When she’s talking about her car accident, going to Princeton, and feeling like she didn’t belong, that’s intense stuff but it’s something that in one way or another we can relate to because we’ve all felt that way at some point. Some of you have said that you don’t feel like you belong at crew because you’re just not confident enough, you don’t think you’ll ever have the personality for coxing, etc. and that you want to quit. I’m going to say to you what her professor said to her:

You’re not quitting. You’re gonna stay and this is what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna fake it. You’re gonna cox every boat you ever get asked to cox, you’re gonna do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified and paralyzed and having an out of body experience until you have this moment where you say “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it. I have become this. I am actually doing this.”

Don’t fake it ’til you make it, fake it ’til you become it. There’s a saying that says “don’t practice until you do it right, practice until you don’t do it wrong” that is along the same lines. Don’t fake it and practice your skills until you’re confident in yourself for one practice, practice until you’re confident in your skills every practice and you don’t have to fake that confidence anymore because you’ve actually become confident.

Do I have all the answers for how to become a more confident coxswain? No, but what I do have is a way that you can become more confident as a person which will hopefully translate to you becoming more confident as a coxswain. Win-win, right? And don’t gimme that bullshit of “oh, *scoffs* that’s lame, that’s silly, it won’t work, I’ll look pretentious, this is just smart people talk about smart people stuff that only smart people do, etc.” Don’t knock it before you try it. I fully admit that I am one of those people that definitely thought stuff like this was ridiculous until a time came when I needed stuff like this just to make it through the day. Try it for a week and then tell me you don’t feel just a little bit better about yourself and that your coxing isn’t improved by your new-found positive attitude towards yourself.

As she says at the end of her talk, try the power posing and share the science. I shared it with all of you so now I want you to share it with someone else. Forward the link to a coxswain on your team that you see struggling with his/her confidence because like she said, those without resources and power are the ones who need it most. Novice coxswains tend to lack both. This also goes for coxswains who are moving up to varsity. Hopefully they’ve found a few resources that have helped them learn the ins-and-outs of coxing but they might still be lacking when it comes to power so share this with them too.

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