At Masters’ Regionals this weekend we were having a discussion on if it is important for coxswains to have time rowing. Not just on the erg, but on the water as well. What do you think?
I’ve touched on this a couple times before but yes, I do think it’s important for them to get on the water/erg but how I think it should be approached is typically very different than how rowers and other coaches think it should be. I think it’s pointless to make coxswains row competitively for a season or two or train them as if they’re rowers because … they’re not. If you look at the average person who’s targeted to be a coxswain when they’re in high school, they’re usually very small kids. We’re seriously like the runts of our age group. Putting us in boats with “normal” sized kids and trying to teach us to row rarely accomplishes anything because the size and strength just isn’t there. I’ve talked to a few coxswains about this and I agree with what they’ve said about how psychologically it can be pretty damaging for them, mainly because of how obvious it is that they’re “weaker” in comparison to the other kids. It can be (and usually is) very intimidating for them. It’s also really hard to go from being portrayed as the weak kid, even if it’s not done intentionally, to suddenly being the kid with all this responsibility and who’s expected to step up and be a leader. Trust me, I’ve had to do it before and it’s rough. Some kids have an easier time with it than others but if you want to know a great way to kill a kid’s confidence right off the bat, that’s how you do it.
Like I said, I do think that coxswains should have the opportunity to get on the water to row but I think it should be done separately from the team’s regular practice. The further into the season you get the less important it is (in my opinion) so I would try to get them on the water (or in the tanks) during March-April before the competitive season begins. (Before that I’d spend time with them on the ergs doing stuff similar to what I’d do on the water.) Ideally I would like to get them out at least once every week or two for 30-45 minutes after practice, preferably in fours if we can. Initially the goal would be to teach them what the stroke feels like with an actual oar and how it’s different from being on the erg and then as we progress I’d want them to focus more on consciously feeling what their body is doing as they go through the recovery, catch, drive, and finish. I think teaching them to feel what all that (the body, the boat, etc.) feels like at various points during the stroke, both when they’re doing something correctly and when they’re not, helps teach them the boat feel that they need to have as a coxswain, in addition to helping them communicate more effectively with the boat when they’re trying to elicit a change. Even if you’re not entirely sure what the issue is you can still say something like “I was having a similar problem getting the blade out cleanly at the finish the other day but what worked for me was making sure I stayed tall throughout the drive instead of sinking down into my hips as I got closer to finish. This gave me a little more room to tap down so the blade wouldn’t get caught in the water. Next time think about keeping your core tight and the low back muscles engaged so that you stay upright as you press back. [Etc. etc. etc.]” That’s a pretty basic call to make and it’s very likely that most coxswains would know to say something like that whether they’d rowed or not but having the personal experience to back it up adds credibility to the call and lets your crew know that you’re making extra efforts outside of your usual responsibilities to learn more about what they’re doing so you can communicate with them better while you’re at practice (and ultimately be a better coxswain).
Once I think they’ve got a good handle on what the stroke should look like, feel like, etc. then I’d start taking them through some of the drills we do and getting them to understand that this is the purpose of the drill, this is how it’s done, this is what we’re looking for when it’s done correctly, etc. Basically anything I’d want them to know about the drill I’d go over with them while they’ve got an oar in their hands. Similarly to what I said up above, I think this just helps them better communicate with the rowers what they want to see happen, what change needs to be made, etc. The knowledge and understanding they gain by doing it themselves is ultimately what the coach should be after (vs. trying to perfect their technique and make them row like actual rowers). For me personally, I’m a really hands on learner. I can grasp concepts pretty easily if you explain them to me but if you show me and let me go through the trial-and-error process of getting it right on my own, that’s what really solidifies it for me. That’s how I learned a lot about the drills we used to do – I’d get on the erg with my coach for 5-10 minutes and go through it with him so I knew what it should look like, what I should be looking for, etc. when we were on the water.
Rowers talk a lot (incessantly would probably be more accurate…sorry guys) about wanting coxswains to understand what it feels like to row but what they usually mean is they want them to know what it feels like to row when lactic acid is wreaking havoc on your muscles. I can appreciate that but at the end of the day I think it’s more effective to teach the coxswains one-on-one(ish) about the stroke, the drills, and the general technique things that they should be looking for, pointing out, and correcting when necessary. Putting them in a boat, giving them an oar, and saying “here, now row with these people that are six inches taller and twenty-five pounds heavier than you” is about as helpful as saying “steer straight and don’t hit anything”. Rowers and coxswains are two separate entities so you’ve got to coach them as such. When coxswains are in a boat trying to row I’m not so much trying to coach their bodies as I’m trying to coach their brains, if that makes sense. With rowers it’s all about the bodies because their role in the boat is physical. A coxswain’s job is mental, thus that’s what you’ve got to coach.