Question of the Day

I’m a 3rd year coxswain and last week I made a pretty big statement about wanting to go to Nationals to my coach. He said he’d try me out in the 2nd boat and he did for 2 days, but he took me out even though my boat was doing well and he gave to the girl who’s always on the launch. This week though, the boat I’ve been in has had an attitude problem and I tried to stay positive and encouraging but the negativity kinda got to me. I talked to the coaches today but they said they’d talk to the girl and then my head coach said I’m part of the problem, which OK, I can see that I was frustrated because I was unsure where I was and why he just took me out of the boat, but saying that just felt a little unfair. He said I had to make the boat I’m in go, which I also get, but I feel like I’ve shown him throughout this season and last season that I can make boats better. I drove the JV8 last year and we got 3rd at WIRAs, when our coaches thought we’d do shit. I’m just so close to quitting, because I just don’t feel like anything I do makes any difference. I’m conflicted though, because this is the start of regatta season and I just don’t want to make it seem like I’ve abandoned the team when “I’m needed”, though I suspect they won’t need me. What should I do? I feel like crew really affects me mentally and I just have so much on my plate that the last few weeks I’ve been a wreck. When I talk to the coach it just feels like a brick wall. It seems like he doesn’t see that he plays favorites and I’m just over busting myself for something that doesn’t enrich my life anymore.

First off, I wouldn’t read too much into him taking you out of the boat after two days. Like you said, we’re only at the start of the season … it’d be foolish of him to switch you into a brand new boat and just leave you there for the next three months. Trying out a new coxswain is like test driving a car you’re thinking about buying. You don’t go into the dealership and say “hey, I wanna try out this car” and then drive off the lot and never come back. Pretty sure that’d irritate a few people. You take it out on the road for an hour to see how it feels, how it maneuvers, etc. That’s what your coach did with you, he gave you a two day test-drive. Once he thought he saw everything he needed to see, he put someone else in to see what they were like. Don’t confuse someone saying they’ll try you out with a new boat as them saying that boat is now indefinitely yours because that’ll come off as having a serious sense of entitlement which will ultimately garner you no favors with the coaches.

Regarding the crew with the attitude problem, what was the cause of that and the negativity? Did you try to handle the situation yourself before the coaches got involved? I know that’s not always possible and it can be really hard to try and be positive when everyone around is doing the opposite but as the coxswain, it’s your responsibility to work with the crew and figure out a solution so the coaches don’t have to get involved. I’ve definitely been in similar situations before where you don’t realize you’re part of the problem until someone says something and yea, at first you’re like “WTF, rude…” but you’ve gotta remember there’s a big difference between saying something to hurt another person and giving them criticism/feedback in an attempt to help them improve themselves. I think your coach was giving you some harsh but necessary feedback in this situation. The best way to handle it is to put emotions aside, accept it, and say “OK, I see that now, I’ll try to act differently in the future”. Saying that it’s unfair that he said that because you didn’t know why you were in that boat isn’t legitimate because you don’t need to know why you’re in the boat you’re in – you just need to get in there and cox. Take whatever he said about why you were part of the problem and reflect on that so you can figure out what to do differently the next time you’re in a similar situation.

I agree with him that whatever boat you’re in you’ve gotta commit to making them go fast, regardless of whether it’s the boat you want to be in or not. You’ve proven up to this point that you’re an effective coxswain but you have to keep proving that every day you’re at practice. It’s like seat racing – rowers think that seat races only happen when the coaches say they do but they’re actually happening every day. Same goes for the coxswains. Every move you make, every interaction you have, every task you’re given is seen and evaluated by someone and all of that is later brought to the table as evidence of your skills and abilities when it comes time to make lineups.

I don’t think it should ever be a problem to sit down with your coaches/superiors/whoever and ask, in their opinion, what they feel you bring to the table. Particularly if you’re feeling like you’re not being used to your full potential, this would be a good opportunity to lay that all out on the table. Far too often I’ve found that people think when you ask that that you want them to stroke your ego and sing your praises so they ultimately refuse to do it but that’s really not what the point of the conversation is. Reiterate your goals for the season and how you’d like to make a run for nationals and then ask him what he feels your strengths/weaknesses are because at this point you aren’t sure where you stand with him, compared to the other coxswains, etc. and you’re looking for some honest feedback as to what you can improve on so that you actually can help make whatever boat you’re in go fast. If he asks where this is coming from or why you’re bringing this up now, just say what you said up above about how crew has been affecting you in a way that is starting to make you question it’s place in your life and that you want some reassurance one way or the other about your role on the team so that you can make an informed decision going forward about whether or not it’s worth it for you to keep coxing. It’s not an easy conversation to have (trust me, I’ve had it before) but things tend to go a lot more smoothly when both sides are honest and up front about what they need from one another. The only side of this that you have any control over is obviously your own but if you go into it with an open mind and a willingness to hear what he’s got to say about how he hopes to use you this season, you might find that your value to him and the team is a lot higher than you think it is.


2 thoughts on “Question of the Day

  1. Dermot says:

    I’ve been steering boats for 40+ years. A couple of things that coxes need to learn are to park their ego and to learn some self awareness. There’s no such thing as a crew with an attitude problem; what you have is an engagement problem. You just haven’t yet worked out how to communicate with the crew. Once you do that the “attitude” will disappear. The best measure of how well you’re doing is not that the coach gives you a crew, but that crews ask for you.

    The underlying message here is that at it’s most basic coxing is about communication. It doesn’t matter how much you know about rowing, if you can’t communicate it as a cox, you’re lost. If communication doesn’t come easily to you, you have to work at it continuously. I’m still doing that after my 40+ years in the sport as a cox, rower, coach and administrator.

    • beantownkmd says:

      Eh, I have to slightly disagree with you on this. I don’t think that there’s no such thing as a crew with an attitude problem – there definitely is. Just look at any high school crew out there and you’ll see plenty of examples. It’s not fair to put all the blame on the coxswain and say that they’re not engaging the crew properly or communicating with them effectively because they could be doing everything in their power TO do those things and still not getting a response from the crew. Not every coxswain has an ego problem and far more coxswains possess a great deal of self-awareness than coaches give them credit for, at least in my experience. I don’t think this blog in particular would be half as successful as it is if coxswains WEREN’T self-aware.

      I do agree that in situations like this you’ve got to tweak your communication style in order to find the best way to get the message across. That doesn’t however, in my opinion, mean you have to cater to the bullshit and/or attitudes that certain rowers tend to have. If that’s what you’re doing then you’re not being an effective leader, you’re demonstrating that you’ll give in to the problem in order to make other people happy and get it to go away. If a crew has an attitude problem then I think it’s the coxswain’s responsibility to work with them and figure out what the underlying issue is and then come up with a solution for it so everyone can move forward and stop wasting practice time. It’s not just one person that needs to work out a solution, it’s EVERYONE, but it is the coxswain’s responsibility, in my opinion, to facilitate that conversation.


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