“The Coxswain in Winter”

My coaches showed us this article sometime in high school, possibly my sophomore of junior year and I remember thinking “holy shit, somebody else gets it!”. Because of that, I really took to heart what was said and learned to appreciate the winter training season a little more than I had previously.

It’s written by Charles Ehrlich, a former coxswain (Phillips Exeter, Harvard lightweights, and Leander Club) and coach (William & Mary, Oxford lightweights, etc.). I wanted to share it with you guys because I think you’ll definitely be able to relate to this and hopefully be able to take away a few things that you can apply to your own winter training experience. I’ve gone through and highlighted some of things that I’ve tried to reiterate in here and that I think are important for you guys to ponder.

“Winter is the most ill-defined time of year for coxswains. The training shifts to the land and there is not much obvious for the coxswains to do but stand around.

I remember my first Winter as a coxswain. In the Fall of ninth grade (I think that is Third Form, for you Brits out there – 14 years old), we had a physical education program designed to introduce us to all of the sports offered at the Academy, which included rowing. But we really didn’t have a clue. I knew I wanted to be a coxswain, because when I arrived at Exeter the rowers in my dorm looked at me, loud and diminutive, and trotted me down to the boathouse to meet Tom Taft, the boatman (now at Yale). Tom quickly sold me on the sport. But my intro that Fall was brief.

We were finally allowed to join the team for real in late Winter, when we were introduced to the ergs. This was in the days of the Model A, rickety contraptions made out of old bike parts. To provide air resistance, the manufacturers, the Dreissigacker brothers, had affixed plastic flaps to the spokes of the flywheel (actually a bicycle wheel). As the ergs got use, these flaps had a tendency to become dislodged, and would fly at great speed across the room. The footstraps were also primitive, and tended to wear out. So coxswains were employed to hold down the feet of rowers testing on the ergs. Because of the flying flaps, however, this job was considered fit for those coxswains at the bottom of the pecking order. So I spent my first few weeks on the team dutifully holding feet down and ducking to avoid flying flaps, not having the slightest clue what was going on. I remember these enormous looking Seniors teaching me exactly how they wanted their feet held, and when I got it just right they smiled at me and said approvingly: “Keep it up! You’ll make a great coxswain.”

When we weren’t in the erg room, we were doing land-training circuits in the wrestling room or running around the indoor track (Winters in New Hampshire preclude much outdoor training). As far as I knew, I was supposed to join in. I used to enjoy running (a good sport for someone like me with little hand-eye coordination), until I damaged my knee when I was twelve, but even so I limped along as best I could.

The point of all of this, however, was simple: even though I wasn’t coxing and knew virtually nothing about the sport, there was something I could do to become a better coxswain that Winter. I could train with the rowers and get in shape with them, while bonding. I could hold feet better than any other ninth grader. And while holding the rowers’ feet, I could look at the odometer needle (these were the days before computers on the ergs) and try to figure out how the needle’s fluctuations correlated with the strokes being taken. Whatever it was, I had a purpose.

Most coxswains going through Winter training at least come in with a little more background and do not have to feel like tools or glorified footstraps. But whatever it is a coxswain does in Winter, it must contribute in some way towards learning how to be a better coxswain in Spring.

Rowers hate Winter training. People row because they enjoy rowing, not because they enjoy sitting on ergs, lifting weights, running up and down endless stairs, or splashing around monotonously in the tanks. But they put up with all of this for one reason: it gives them skills which will make them faster in the Spring. It is frustrating waiting for the ice on the Charles River to melt (or the floods on the Isis to subside). But if approached with the right attitude, Winter training allows rowers to emerge in the Spring with an increased knowledge of their own capabilities.

Coxswains must approach the Winter with the same attitude. Too often, coxswains only make token appearances at the boathouse. The logic is, of course, that off the water the coxswain is not necessary. Certainly, it is true that it matters not in terms of boatspeed what sort of physical shape a coxswain is in. Therefore, many coxswains figure they’ll use the free time to go study or something rather than trying to figure out how to become a better coxswain.

Winter is a great time for coxswains to work out – time they usually spend sitting immobile in the stern of a boat can now become workout time. The crew really does not expect the coxes to set any sort of speed records, so if they are not the most athletic specimens in the world that is no problem. But working out with the crew accomplishes several objectives. First of all, the rowers appreciate the effort and that effort alone is all that is necessary. They will only gain respect for a coxswain willing to put in the effort. Furthermore, when the cox needs to ask the rowers for superhuman effort during a race in the Spring, the rowers will know that the cox knows what he is asking for, and that will make it easier for them to respond. And that leads to another underlying truth: that the coxswain really will understand what he is asking for, because the coxswain has been there himself.

I have erged myself into oblivion: one year at CRASH-Bs I blacked out with about 800 meters to go, yet somehow finished the piece (albeit slowly). The next thing I remembered was forty-five minutes later when I awoke on a cot in the Red Cross observation area where they had administered oxygen. When I asked a crew to row until it passed out, I knew what that was like and the crew knew it.

I did the CRASH-Bs every year as an undergrad, as did most of my fellow Harvard lightweight coxswains. We also had a Christmas Challenge contest over the Christmas vacation, where exercise added up to points. Our coxswains regularly exceeded the team average in points accumulated over the break. I think this helped us to be better coxswains.

If a coxswain has a physical problem and cannot do a certain workout, the rowers will understand. No one wants to see their coxswain drop dead of an asthma attack. Since I could not run because of my knee, and rowers had priority on the ergs, I spent many practices observing the upstairs of Newell Boathouse on one of the stationary bikes in the corner. Since I was unable to do two legs of the triatholon because my knee (Harvard’s triatholon, in December, is erging, running, and a stadium – I could only erg), I have distinct nightmares of having to do three times the erg (that’s 22.5K, a long time to spend on an erg especially for a coxswain-weight person who has been coxing all Fall and has only just recently begun to train). The important thing, though, was not necessarily doing exactly what the rowers were doing but doing as much as possible.

One of my freshman coxes came to me in tears a few Decembers ago. Her asthma was acting up so badly that she could not work out with the guys as we moved onto land. She was crying because she thought that she was going to have to quit. I explained that she could still cox even if she couldn’t work out. But she feared that it would count against her if the rowers saw the other coxes working out and she just sat there. But they knew she had bad asthma and had no desire to see her suffer like that. There was always something else she could do: encourage them, help me time, get them water, or my old stalwart: hold down their feet while they erged. Whatever she did would help her become better. The rowers just needed to see her there doing whatever it was she could do.

And there are a lot of things a coxswain can do off the water.

Ergs are a tricky topic. They play mind games with rowers. A little computer readout basically says to the rower: “Ha ha! You aren’t pulling hard enough!” It is hard for rowers to overcome this mental problem, and so they react to it in different ways. Every rower has different approaches to coxswains on the erg. Some like to be yelled out like they are in a boat. Some like to be told specific things (how fast someone two ergs over is going, or technique pointers as they get tired, or reminded about some dude at Princeton). Some, who in a boat might like a lot of chatter from their coxswains, want complete silence. Most rowers get downright ugly when they erg if a coxswain crosses whatever line it is that they have drawn between their pet likes and dislikes. Coxswains must learn not to take it personally if a rower who may think highly of their coxing on the water suddenly starts shouting obscenities at them from an erg. It is better not to cross the line, and let the rowers have it entirely their way.

But being there for erg tests is nevertheless instructive. It is a chance to isolate rowers individually and break down their psyches. Since coxing on the water is 100% mental and all about maximizing speed through mental manipulation, it helps to know as much as possible about each rower. Besides seeing what sort of chatter each rower responds to, the coxswain should also ask the coach what he is looking at when he observes erg tests. I watch the rowers’ pacing and rhythm as they respond to different situations and levels of exhaustion. I watch how their tech holds up. I watch their faces and see if I can read their minds. Coxswains do not get this sort of close-up view of everyone when they are sitting in a boat – so an erg is a good place to inspect the rowers’ psyche. Rowers learn about themselves isolated as individuals when they sit on ergs. The coaches learn about them isolated as individuals. The coxswains should take advantage of the same opportunity. Watch. Observe. See what can be seen that cannot be seen from the coxswain’s seat in a boat. If there are any questions, ask the coach.

Similarly, the coxswains should use tank sessions to get insight into each rower which cannot be gained from the boat. Part of a coxswain’s on-the-water job is to get the crew to row better. That means translating the coach’s technical objectives into more proficient actual rowing. After a certain period of time, a cox should be able to coach effectively from the coxswain’s seat. But one way to double check this skill is to pay attention in the tank. Stand at the stern of the tank and observe the blades, then watch from different angles to see what each rower does which makes the blade do what it does. Listen to the coach. If the tank session is being filmed and analyzed, make sure to attend the analysis. It is not just the rowers who learn in the tank. While a cox may feel like he is just standing there while the rowers work, the observation is critical.

If, of course, the cox gets guilty just standing around during tank sessions, then this is also the perfect opportunity to hop into an empty seat if there is one. Coxswains do not normally get enough opportunity to learn to row themselves. A tank is a good place to learn. If they are lucky, the coach will not skip the coxswains when doing filming. Going through the stroke, trying the same drills the rowers are working on, and basically coordinating the motion is a great way to understand the mechanics of rowing better. Again, it does not matter how odd the cox looks in there, every little bit helps the learning process.

On the water, the cox is going to have to coach the crew, and get the crew to perform as a unit. To do that means knowing as much as possible about each rower and about what the coach is trying to get across. Winter is a great time to step back. We may not know which crew each coxswain will sit in, nor do we know the line-ups of the rowers, but that should not prevent the coxswains from making progress.

The coxswains’ schedules do not have to match the rowers’ exactly every day – since these are not water practices which need the coxswain there in order to happen, there is more flexibility. Coxswains can look at their own schedules, and mix and match the times they come down in order to observe particular bits of practices and to join in with their own work-outs. Also, it is useful to set up a different time during the day to come in and meet with the respective coach. This time can be spent reviewing films (of recent tank sessions, of Fall water practices, or of the World Championships), or simply talking about the objectives for the upcoming season and what the rowers need to be working on now. This is useful for the coach as well, because it provides the coach valuable feedback about the squad. Also, it will be important that the coach have an excellent working relationship with the coxswains on the water during the season – communication during the Winter both improves the working relationship and makes sure that the coxswain is on the same page as the coach going into the season.

The critical thing for all coxswains to remember is that they are always learning. Every time they go down to the boathouse – even if it is only for a land practice – they should come away thinking, evaluating what they have learned that day. If they are not sure, they should talk about it with the coach or other coxswains. Coaches often neglect their coxswains – it is a natural tendency. Coxes should realize this and not be afraid to approach the coach directly, or to chat among themselves.

The final piece of advice I had for the coxswains assembled at this clinic was that they get their family to buy them a whole lot of warm and waterproof clothes this holiday season. When they return to the water, they will need it. After the return to the water, the weather is still quite cold. And the coxswain is in the coldest seat in the boat. Dress warmly.”

All good points, right? I hope you guys got something out of this. My challenge to you is to pick something from here that you are capable of doing and commit to doing it for the rest of the winter season. Don’t be a wallflower at the boathouse! Also, don’t forget to check out some of the other posts I’ve written on coxswains and winter training too.

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