Keeping a notebook

There are three camps when it comes to notebooks. The first is full of the “psh yea not doing this too much work don’t care don’t need it” coxswains (usually guys), the second is full of “omg everything must look perfect” coxswains (usually girls), and the third is full of the normal people who don’t over-analyze the contents of a tiny book that’s most likely going to get wet, wrinkled, and torn five months from now.

Initially I started out in Camp Who Cares because I didn’t know any better and when my coach gave me my first notebook he failed to mention why he was giving it to me and what I was supposed to do with it. Once I learned its purpose I spent a brief period of time in Camp Perfection before moving on to Camp Normal.

If I’m writing stuff down, particularly stuff that I’m going to keep for awhile, I want it to be legible, organized, and visually appealing but when it comes to notebooks, especially when I’m coaching and scribbling stuff down from the launch, it’s just not possible to do all that. You’re gonna write your warmup down wrong, you’re gonna have last-minute lineup changes, you’re gonna remember some detail about practice that day after the fact … it’s not going to look perfect and that’s OK.

Related: Do you recommend carrying a small pocket notebook or having a regular size notebook for notes? I currently have a pocket notebook during erg pieces to jot down splits and times. How do you organize all your thoughts and coxswain information?

For the coxswains who are firmly planted in Camp Who Cares … why? Sure, it’s not required of you to keep a notebook and there are definitely coxswains out there that have been successful and not kept them but for something that is so simple and would take you maybe 15 minutes to maintain each day, why not just do it? If you’re serious about crew and are pursuing coxing in college, on the JNT, etc. then you really should be doing this anyways. In those situations (among a few others), we’re not saying you have to but you really should be and if you’re not, you’re getting judged for it.

Below are some of the common questions I get about notebooks, in addition to a couple I got last week. If you want to know anything else, feel free to leave a comment.

What notebooks work best? What do you use?

3×5 memo notebook // Field Notes Expedition // Rite in the Rain // Moleskine

Anything small enough to fit in your pocket is going to be your best bet. The Rite in the Rain and Field Notes Expedition notebooks are great because the paper is waterproof so if you’re on the launch or something and are trying to take notes, you don’t have to worry about the paper getting all gross. A normal 3×5 notebook gets the job done too, just keep in mind that if it gets wet it’s pretty much done for. If you want something a little nicer, Moleskines are always a great option.

I use a combination of all three, for no particular reason other than I have them. I use my waterproof-paper notebooks whenever it’s raining or snowing but tend to rely on my normal 3×5 spiral notebooks for everyday use. I have a nicer Moleskine that I use though whenever I go to conferences, to keep track of notes on the coxswains for when we go over evals, or to write down stuff that I wanted to remember long-term (i.e. things that might transcend the team I’m currently with). This is mainly for appearances though so I don’t show up in a “professional”-ish setting with a shitty notebook that’s ripped and scribbled all over.

When and what should I be writing in it?

I got in the habit in high school of getting my notebook out as soon as I got to practice so I could write down the lineup, drills, pieces, etc. that we’d be doing, along with anything else my coach wanted to work on or wanted me to pay attention to. This, as you might guess, requires actually talking to your coaches. We’d usually have a quick 5-10 minute meeting before practice started or while the rowers were on their warm up run so we could discuss all of this.

I rarely, if ever, take my notebook out on the water when I’m in the boat but if we’re sitting for a bit, taking an extended water break, or the coach is addressing something with someone then I’ll quickly pull it out if I want or need to make a note of something that I know I won’t remember once we’re off the water. Sometimes if waiting for another crew or our coach is tending to something in another boat (like something with the rigging that will take a few minutes) then I’ll take that opportunity to talk about our race plan for the upcoming weekend and jot down some super fast notes on whatever the crew says. Like I said though, it’s rare that I do this and other happens if we’re sitting for 5+ minutes without anything else to do.

Immediately after practice I’ll quickly get down anything I want to remember for tomorrow (usually something we worked on that day to make sure the changes stuck) or something I need to make sure gets done before we go out (i.e. adjust the spacers on 4-seat’s rigger). Before I could drive I’d usually try to get this done while I was waiting for someone to come pick me up. Now I usually write it down while the rowers bring the oars up and the coach is giving his post-practice recap, that way I can also get down anything he says about practice that I think would/could be useful in the future.

Once I get home I’ll try to go back through the skeleton I wrote down before practice and fill in any pertinent details. I try to keep this pretty brief and to the point (very rarely are there full sentences being used). Those details might include:

More info on individual issues. If I scribbled down “Sam – finishes” then I’d elaborate on that by saying what was wrong (“wasn’t getting the blade out”), when it was happening (“consistently throughout practice”), and the possible causes (“posture – said low back was sore, probably not sitting up – or rigging <– likely because XYZ used this boat yesterday”).

Questions I have. This includes but isn’t limited to something we did, something I saw, or something the coach said that I either didn’t understand or want clarification or elaboration on.

Drills. Did they seem effective, did the rowers understand it, did I understand it, etc. and why or why not.

Pieces. How did they feel, what did I notice (third of four best overall – why?), any issues regarding stroke rate, technique, etc. – basically anything that stood out to me gets written down.

Miscellaneous things the coach said. I’ll usually get down a couple quick quotes from when he’s talking about technique or racing and then try to figure out a way to work them into a call. For example, one of the coaches I worked with last summer always said to the bow pair “everything’s faster in the bow”. What he was saying was that in the bow, if you think you’re on time you’re probably a hair late, which means you’ve gotta really anticipate what’s happening and almost set yourself up to be early so that you’re actually on time with everyone else. The way you’d use that in the boat is to make calls right to the bow pair about anticipation, staying quick and light on the seat, etc. if you see them falling off the timing a bit.

How do I use it at races?

Usually a day or two before when we’d find out all the details of the regatta I’d write down:

Time/location of the coxswains meeting

Time/lane # of my races

Who else was in my race

What time we needed to meet at the boat (i.e. 45 minutes before race time) and what time we needed to launch (i.e. 25 minutes before race time)

If anyone was going to be hot-seating

The boat and oars we’d be using if I was coxing multiple races with different crews

I’d also write down my warmup and race plan. Some people get way too into this and make full 8.5 x 11 pages that break down the race into 250m increments where you’re supposed to write down what you want the athletes thinking, all the calls you plan on using, etc. and personally I think that’s a huge waste of time. Races are way too fluid to be able to stick to something as rigid as that. If that works for you though, go for it. (I don’t mean that sarcastically either – different things work for different people. Find what you like and run with it.)

What I do is write down my full starting sequence, where our moves are, our sprinting sequence, what our starting, base, and sprinting SPM should be, and that’s about it. If someone asks me to say something in particular, call a specific burst, etc. then I’ll also make a note of that as well. All in all, it’s no more than one full page (front/back) in my small 3×5 notebook.

After the race I’ll do the same thing I do post-practice … jot down anything the coaches said (either pre-race that resonated with the crew or post-race that I want to remember), make notes anything that stood out with the warmup, the race, etc. (positive and/or negative), get quick feedback from the rowers on what they thought, and that’s it. I’ll also go through my cox box to double check the rates and see how close we were to where we wanted to be. Later on, usually on the bus on the way home, I’ll listen to my recording of the race (sometimes alone, sometimes with a few people from the boat) and take notes on it.

How should you keep a notebook when you can’t immediately write down everything you’re seeing?

If you’re on the launch you should always have your notebook with you and be writing stuff down. The amount of stuff that you write down in those cases shouldn’t be looked at as the “gold standard” though – you shouldn’t be trying to write down that much stuff every day. When I was on the launch last summer when we were doing two-a-days I could easily write down three or four pages, front and back, of stuff whereas when I’m actually coxing I’ll get maybe one side of one page filled with notes. If you’re in the boat though, you shouldn’t need to write down everything you’re seeing. You really only need to make note of the stuff that stands out (either in a good way or a bad away) and there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not going to forget it because if it’s that important, you’re probably already making calls for it.

If you can’t quickly get something down during a break then talk to yourself via your recorder and write it down later when you listen to it. I’ve done that before and yes, it looks and feels as weird as you probably think it does but who cares. I can either deal with my stroke laughing that I’m talking to myself for 10 seconds or I can forget whatever it is that I want to remember. I don’t always have my recorder on for the entire duration of practice but the times that I do, I always end up hearing a conversation I’m having with the rowers or the coach or that the coach is having with us that reminds me of something I wanted to make note of.

Don’t over-think this. Keeping a notebook isn’t some big project that you’re going to be graded on at the end of the season. It’s really only there to supplement what you’re doing and help you keep track of what’s working, what isn’t, etc.

How can I use it for myself? A lot of what I keep track of is stuff related to the boat…

I asked my coaches the same question because for about a year or so it felt like all I was using it for was to document the boat and not so much anything that I was doing. The thing they stressed to us was that it’s not a journal to write down every minute detail of practice. I’ve seen ones posted online where the writing is so small or so annotated that you can barely read it or there’s so much content crammed onto one page that it’s impossible to find anything of substance. This isn’t going to help you. Just like you do with all the other notes, keep everything concise and to the point. Short phrases are your friend here.

I don’t do this as much anymore but before what I’d to do keep myself accountable while coxing was write down a specific goal or two of something to work on over the next [whatever period of time]. Steering and technique-related stuff were the most common ones that I can remember, mainly because you can always be working on steering and learning to spot and correct technique issues is a huge part of coxing. After whatever period of time had passed I’d talk with my coach (and the rowers, on occasion) about my performance in those two areas and decide whether I should keep those goals for the following [however long] or if I’d met them satisfactorily enough that I could move on to something else. Sometimes I’d keep them even if I’d received positive feedback from other people though. It’s all about self-awareness … if I felt I could do better then I’d hang on to them for another practice or two until I felt like I’d achieved what I wanted.

Another thing I’d write down, mainly after races, was the positives and negatives of my coxing. Was I effective in communicating with the crew, was there a call the crew really responded to that I should keep using, was there a spot where I could/should have been more calm, did I control my nerves on the way to the starting line (something I was always working on), etc.

The other thing I’d write down was if something went wrong, how I handled it, and how I should handle it in the future if it happens again. These were rare (and never serious) but they usually revolved around how to manage traffic or weather-related situations. An more serious example of this is a weather-related situation a coxswain emailed me about this past spring. A storm came up on them pretty quickly when they were in fairly open-ish water and they ended up taking on a lot of water from the rain and waves which resulted in their eight sinking. He didn’t know how to handle it and said he wasn’t nearly as calm as he should have been. It wasn’t anything he could have controlled and it certainly wasn’t anyone’s fault but if he’d known what to do the whole situation might now have been as stressful for him and his teammates. Afterwards he talked with his coach, got some advice on how to handle that situation in the future (like, not letting people try to swim to the launch) and from there he went and wrote all of that down in his notebook. If X happens, he should respond by doing Y. If A happens, make sure B and C are taken care of before trying to do D. Stuff like that.

In addition to all of that, keep lists of your best calls or ones you heard and want to incorporate. If you listen to your own recordings or those of other coxswains you should have plenty on hand that you can use if yours start sounding a little stale.

Hopefully that answers some of the more common questions about notebooks. Like I said, don’t over-think them. They’re just there to help you out, not add more stress. If you’ve got any other questions feel free to email me or leave them down in the comments.

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