How to: Cox a seat race

I’ve talked a bit about seat racing before but haven’t ever gone over how coxswains fit into the picture. Our role is very limited in what we’re allowed to do but at the same time we have the ability to drastically effect the outcome of a race, more often for the negative than the positive.

Seat racing day is usually one where tensions run very high for the rowers, especially when the seats being decided are for the top boat, a big regatta, etc. The number one responsibility of the coxswain is to be impartial and ensure that the races are run fairly. The coaches and rowers (most especially the rowers…) rely on us to not overstep our boundaries or give anyone an unfair advantage over another rower and it’s our job to put personal preferences, friendships, etc. aside and let the rowers determine who wins the seat.

Related: Words

There are a lot of factors that go into seat racing but this post is just about the responsibilities of the coxswain on race day.

Things you SHOULD do

DO meet with the coach(es) before practice to go over the logistics for the day. Have your notebook handy so you can write down whatever instructions the coaches give you. The most important details you need to find out are what the warm up is (it may or may not be different than your usual one but whatever it is, both coxswains must do the same exact thing), where you’ll be meeting to start the piece, and the starting time of the first race. You should treat this like any regular race day where you have to be locked onto your stake boat 2 minutes prior to your race. Don’t put yourself (or your crew) in a position where you have to frantically get up to the starting line.

DO find out how the lane-switching will work. Typically you switch back and forth so that each crew has an equal opportunity to race in both lanes – consider this nothing more than quality control to ensure the fairness of each piece. It’s important for you to know what lane you’ll be starting in and which one you’ll be switching into at the end of each piece and then for you to actually do that before you get to the starting line.

DO know the length of the rest time following each piece and what the centers are. Centers are the amount of time between the starting time of each race. For example, if your coach says that you’ll be running on 30 minute centers starting at 2:30pm, that means the first race is at 2:30pm, the second is at 3pm, the third at 3:30pm, etc. Assuming you’re doing 1000m pieces that take four minutes to do, that means the amount of time you have between when you finish your race and when you need to be back up at the starting line to begin the next one is 26 minutes. At the end of each piece there will be a rest period where you’ll weight enough and the rowers can get water and make their switches. You (ideally) won’t know who is switching in and out until the coaches tell you but in the grand scheme of things, that’s irrelevant. All you need to do is keep an eye on the time.

DO be quick and efficient about pulling the boats together so the rowers can switch boats. If this isn’t something you’ve done before, try practicing it with another coxswain if you find yourselves sitting around not doing anything while you wait for your coach to get out. It’s really not that hard to do but you can’t spend five minutes trying to do it either. The easiest way to do it is for you to gently point your bow towards the other crew and the row over to them (lightly by pairs). Stop when the bow pairs oars are close enough to the stern pair of the other crew that they can reach out, grab the blade, and pass it back to their bow pair. The two crews can then lift their oars up and pull them across the shells to bring the boats together. Check out this video of some UCLA fours seat racing to see how the coxswains bring the crews together. (If it doesn’t start automatically, skip ahead to the 7:00 mark.)

DO carry your notebook, pen/pencil, wrench, some spare band aids, and maybe some extra spacers out on the boat with you, just in case. If it’s a particularly hot day, also consider carrying a spare water bottle with you to give to the rowers if they run out.

DO know what you are and aren’t allowed to say. 99.999999999% of the time, coxswains aren’t (and shouldn’t be) allowed to say anything more than the stroke rate and the time/distance. If during a normal sprint racing you are talking 98% of the time, during a seat race you should be silent 98% of the time. When I’ve coxed seat races I would tell the crew the stroke rate every 30-45 seconds, point out 250, 500m, and 750m, and let the crew know the time (i.e. 1 minute down, 2 minutes down, etc.). All of that was regulated by the coach too – I didn’t just randomly decide to say those things or when to say them, I was told to give that information and only that information at specific times during the piece (usually 1000m pieces). You cannot cox them at all. No motivation, no technique, no moves, nothing. In the boat, the most important thing you have to stay on top of is making sure the stroke rate stays consistent and doesn’t surpass whatever cap the coach has given you. If the cap is no lower than 28spm and no higher than 30spm, it’s your job to communicate with your stroke if he/she is under or over that. The only thing you can do to get the stroke rate back in that range if it’s outside of it is to keep reading off the numbers until they get it where it needs to be. You can’t cox or coach them on how to get it there. (In any other situation you should not do this. Seat racing is the only time when reading off stroke rates like this is OK.)

DO write down the times/stroke rates from your cox box during the rest period if your coach asks you to.

DO consult with the coach at the end of practice to go over the results. Be objective with what you say too – remember, your number one responsibility is to ensure the fairness of the races. Give them feedback on how each boat moved with the addition and removal of each of the rowers and also let them know if anything happened that might have effected the outcome. This includes steering issues (i.e. having to steer to avoid hitting a log in the water, just steering poorly on that piece, etc.), a crew rowing outside the rate cap, not being even at the start, etc. If you steered poorly you must be honest about it and say that you didn’t hold a good point on the third piece so that the coach can factor that into the results if necessary. If your crew lost a close race but you fail to mention that you also steered an entire lane off of where you should have been, you might have just cost that rower their seat in the boat.

DO steer straight and stay in your lane. This is a great opportunity for you to really focus on holding and maintaining a point in a race situation because you’re going to spend the majority of the piece not talking, thus you have little to nothing to distract you.

DO communicate with the other coxswain(s). This is important on a normal day but it’s even more important when you’re seat racing. Keep the crews together, start your warm ups together, etc. There are few things more irritating to a coach than telling his coxswains to stay together only to get out there and see one crew rowing up in lane 1 and the other rowing up in lane 5 or one crew three lengths ahead of the other. Another thing you need to communicate on is maintaining the spacing between the crews. If you’re in your own lanes and steering straight this shouldn’t be an issue but you need to get any issues like this squared away before you start rowing down to the starting line. Most of the time you just row into these pieces rather than taking a start, which means coming down to the starting line together so you can both cross the line together, at the same time, is critical. If the two crews don’t start at the same time then the validity of the piece is now in question. If you’re rowing down and see that your crew is half a length ahead with 100m to the line, don’t be a jerk and force the other crew to power it up just to get even with you. Either tell your crew to back off or throw in a pause or two until you’re even. If you’re the coxswain of the crew that’s down, do whatever you’ve gotta do to get your crew even. Call over to the other coxswain to lighten up and then get on your crew to pull you up next to them.

Things you SHOULDN’T do

DO NOT give the rowers any information about how they did, how the piece felt, where the boat finished, how the coach made his final decisions, etc. ever (unless the coach has given you expressed permission to do so … which they probably won’t). This includes on the water, after practice, next month, etc. Fair, objective, and impartial, remember? This means not giving the rowers any indication that they did better or worse than someone else. They can see where they finish, they know how the boat feels, thus they can come to their own conclusions on how they did. If the coach wants them to know any of that info then they can tell themselves when they let them know the final results. The bottom line is don’t say or do anything that could compromise the integrity of the practice.

Feel free to comment below with any do’s and/or don’ts that you think coxswains should know regarding seat racing that I might have missed.


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