Question of the Day

Hey! I’m a novice coxswain and yesterday we had our first race which we lost by a lot. I struggled with trying to motivate my boat when we really didn’t have a chance of coming back. I could tell everyone felt pretty defeated and I didn’t know what to say to keep them working hard. Do you have any advice on what sort of calls I can make if this happens again? (Fingers crossed it doesn’t)

Check out the two posts linked below. The first one is a video from the Harvard, Penn, and Navy race from last spring and the second is a question about coxing off of other boats when you’re doing pieces at practice. Both touch on similar issues of one boat being way ahead of the other(s) and ways to deal with that as the coxswain.

Related: VOTW: Harvard, Penn, and Navy

The toughest thing is not letting what you’re seeing come across in your tone of voice. If the rowers start to detect any sign of defeat in your voice it’s going to change the entire attitude of the boat. It can from “yea, we’re in this!” to “screw it, why bother” in a very short period of time if you’re not careful. Don’t start getting overly-motivational because that just makes it obvious that you think they have no chance but on the flip side, don’t get completely dour or silent either.

I was fortunate enough that I was only in this position maybe two times that I can remember and the thing that I told my crews both times was that regardless of where we finished, we were going to cross the line looking, acting, and rowing like a first place crew. Being down in a race is no excuse for letting your technique get sloppy or your attitude to become “woe is me”. Losing a race and having a bad race aren’t synonymous – you can lose and still have a good row. The crews that are ahead should always be just the tiniest bit afraid that you could come back on them at any given second. It doesn’t matter if you’re in first place or fifth place though, you should finish the race rowing as hard and as well as you can.

Related: My girls really like when I cox off of other boats, even if we’re just doing steady state. I’m in the 2V boat so they all want to beat the 1V at ALL times. I find it easy to cox when we’re next to another boat/in front of it. However, I never quite know what to say without being negative and annoying when we’re CLEARLY behind another boat. Yesterday afternoon we were practically three lengths behind the v1, and we STILL didn’t catch up even when they added a pause. What do I say at times like these? I always end up getting rather quiet since the overall attitude of my boat is pretty down. I feel like whenever I call a 10 or get into the piece at this point it does absolutely nothing, since my rowers have practically given up.

This is where intrinsic motivation is so important because, like you said, it’s easy for a coxswain to just run out of things to say to keep their rowers going. The rowers should have their own personal reasons for being out there (that their coxswain doesn’t know about) that they can rely on for motivation when they need a reason to keep going. I would try to remind the rowers in close races or races where we were down a few seats (particularly in the 3rd 500) to think about why you row … what do you do it for? … and then we’d take a BIG refocus 5 for that. I wanted to be able to feel their motivation in those five strokes. This would always gain us back a couple seats and from there, I’d cox them like normal until we crossed the line.

The best thing you can do is to find something that will put a bit of energy back in the boat and then capitalize on that. There is no “magic call” for this and it’ll very rarely be the same thing between boats – it’s gotta be completely unique to each crew, something that you only know because you know your rowers and what drives them. They key is remembering that all you’ve gotta do is ignite a spark and let the fire follow. Once you see the fire in your rowers, fuel it like you would during any other race.

Another thing I’d say to them is something our coaches said to us after a particularly rough practice and before all of our races: who do you row for? They’d ask us two to three times, louder and more aggressively each time, WHO DO YOU ROW FOR? My interpretation of that was that they were always reminding us that what we’re doing is bigger than any one individual. You’re rowing for each other, your teammates, and for the pride you have in your program. Pride and dignity should be two huge forces that drive your crew and you want to be able to cross the line with both of those things intact regardless of where you finish.

Talk about the importance of mental toughness with them too. Remind them that just because there’s a voice in your head telling you there’s no point in continuing to row hard doesn’t mean you have to listen to it. Also remind them that the other four or eight people in the boat aren’t giving up, which means they can’t either. The only time you should ever assume anything during a race is that you’re the only one doubting yourself. Always assume that the other four or eight people are 100% confident in your abilities as individuals and as a crew. That should be enough to change your mindset really quick.

Related: Words.

Finally, talk to your crew about your race and find out what they were thinking, how they felt, and what you could have said to keep them going. Get their feedback and use all of that to help shape your calls for next week. Whenever you feel them starting to slip off the pace (this applies to practice too), use what they said to you about your last race to keep them going hard in this race.

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