Coxswain skills: Kill your darlings

One of the most frustrating things for me as a coxswain is coming up with a call that I think is really great and just what the boat needs to hear only to have it fall flat when I actually use it. Sometimes coming up with calls is a spur-of-the-moment thing but more often they’re the result of a lot of time spent reflecting on things outside of practice. I’ll think about what happened at practice that week, what drills we did, what pieces we did, how the rowers felt each day, what the boat felt like, what the coach was saying, what our goals are, what inspires us, what pisses us off, etc. and try to make a list of at least 5–10 things that I can use the next few times we go out.

This isn’t a daily ritual, rather it’s a weekly or bi-weekly habit that I got into around my sophomore year of high school and have more or less maintained since then whenever I’m regularly coxing. Half of what I come up with are short one or two word technical phrases (my personal definition of what a “call” is) and the other half are 3–5+ word phrases that I use to evoke some kind of emotion from the rowers, either individually or as a group. Out of this list there’s usually one or two calls that I think are my magnum opuses (for that week at least).

The key to creating a list like this is that you implement the calls as needed. You want to space them out and let yourself say them naturally, rather than trying to force yourself to use it, if that makes sense. Showing restraint when you’re convinced this is the greatest call you’re ever gonna make can be tough but if the timing, emotion, and delivery’s not there, it’s never gonna be successful anyways.

My“darlings” were nearly always calls that I wanted to use towards the end of a piece when I knew my crew was clawing for every last inch we were getting. There were many times when I’d use them and they’d get just the response I wanted — I could feel the boat pick up, I could see my stern pair grit their teeth and get after it, I could hear the catches sharpen up — but there were just as many times where either nothing happened or worse, things would just fall apart.

When I’d ask the rowers for feedback, sometimes they’d say “oh man, that call has to stay … it was perfect” and other times they’d say “eh…it wasn’t terrible but it didn’t really do much for me”. The positive visual and verbal feedback instantaneously reinforced that that was a call I should keep but the neutral or negative feedback never seemed to register as quickly. I always thought “OK it didn’t work/they didn’t like it this time but that’s just because [excuses] … I’ll hold on to it and try again later. This call’s just too good to not keep using.” So that’s what I’d do. I’d keep trying to work it into my vocabulary and keep trying to make it work, even though what I was seeing and hearing was telling me that it was having the opposite effect.

And that’s where the phrase “kill your darlings” comes in. It is a phrase most commonly attributed to William Faulkner as he is quoted as saying “In writing, you must kill all your darlings”. The best and easiest explanation of its meaning that I’ve found is this: “His advice admonishes against being so attached to a piece that it is sent to be published on impulse based on only the writer’s high opinion of how great it is. This impulse can be something that lasts for not mere seconds but actually over long periods of time. The idea is that there is an emotional connection making it dear for the author, but this does not translate for the readers by default.”

In layman’s terms, don’t try to put something out these just because you think it’s great because your opinion of it has likely caused you to develop an attachment to it that other people won’t have. The same applies to coxing. You spend time coming up with things to say to your rowers and because of that, you’re determined to use them and make them work. You’ve become attached to them because you’ve convinced yourself that they’re great simply because they’ve been repeated in your head over and over and over and over again.

This has happened to me so. many. times. There were times where I was so convinced that this call was the call that I’d keep trying to use it and someone in my boat would have to eventually go all Regina George and tell me to stop trying to make “fetch” happen because it was never going to happen. It was those moments, among others, where I had to just sit back and accept that I wasn’t getting the response I wanted or needed and it was more important to let go of this call and find something else to say than to keep beating the proverbial dead horse.

Another explanation of Faulker’s quote says “you have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work”. For the greater good of your crew, you can’t keep indulging yourself by saying things that clearly aren’t working, regardless of how great they sound in theory or what you hope the boat’s response will be. It’s not all about you, just like writing a novel isn’t all about the author. They’re writing for the masses and to an extent, you’re coxing for the masses (albeit a much smaller one) and that’s who you have to make your words work for.

So, here’s my challenge for you. Talk to your rowers, listen to your recordings, and think about the things you’re saying. You’ll likely be able to pick out at least two or three calls that just aren’t doing anything for anyone. Additionally, if you find yourself saying the same phrase to the point of excess (you’ll know it when you hear it) … get rid of it, as much as you might like it or have grown accustomed to using it. It does nothing for the crew to keep repeating things that aren’t generating the response you want, regardless of whether it’s mental or physical. Don’t think of it as scrapping your entire coxing lexicon either. Instead, look at it like writing a paper — practice is your time to proofread, edit, and revise so that you have your best, most polished piece of work on hand on race day.

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