Interview with 2004 M8+ Gold Medalist Coxswain Pete Cipollone

Back in July I got an email from Jeremiah Brown, one of Canada’s silver medalists in the men’s eight from London asking if I’d be interested in reading and reviewing the book he’s been working on, “The Four Year Olympian”. It chronicles his journey from being a complete novice to making the Olympic podium in less than four years after picking up the sport. Yea … less than four years. Can you imagine doing that?

As I was reading through Jerry’s book there were a couple sections that stuck out to me where he mentioned how when times were tense during training, he and the rowers would dish out a lot of abuse to their coxswain, Brian Price. Swearing at him, blaming him for things beyond his control, etc. – you guys all know what I mean because at some point or another in the last two years you’ve emailed me or messaged me on Tumblr trying to figure out how to handle those exact same situations.

Related: Video of the Week: Lessons on leadership from Canadian national team coxswain, Brian Price

This got me thinking … if elite level coxswains are dealing with this, maybe it would help you guys out to hear from them and read about how they handled being put in that position. So, I reached out to Pete to get his insight and see what advice he had to offer.

Here’s part of the email I sent to give you a bit more insight into why I wanted to do this:

“Hey! So I’m wondering if I could possibly persuade you to help me with a project I’m working on. Jeremiah Brown, from Canada’s ’12 M8+, wrote a book on how he made the Olympic 8+ and asked me to check it out before it got sent over to the publishers. While reading it, I had the idea to contact some national team coxswains that have been through the rigors of Olympic training and get their thoughts on how they handled taking the abuse of their rowers when tensions were high.

Jerry mentioned how they treated Brian like a “whipping boy” when things weren’t going so great, which actually surprised me because I didn’t think that that would be something you’d have to deal with at that level. I think I just assumed that by the time you reach that point in your career you’re mature enough or have developed good enough coping mechanisms to not have to take your frustrations out on other people.

It was encouraging though at the same time because I get a lot of similar questions from younger or newer coxswains that read my blog and want to know how to handle the rowers who feel like the only way to blow off steam is to blame them for every little thing that goes wrong. I think it would be helpful/reassuring for them to hear that it’s not something that’s exclusive to just high school rowing – coxswains at every level experience it and have to figure out how to work through it while maintaining positive working relationships with their teammates.”

Since there’s a tendency to hear the same regurgitated or long-winded replies that lack any substance (am I right or am I right?), I tried to put together questions that I haven’t seen be asked before so that the answers would be fresh and hopefully relatable, regardless of whether you’re just starting out or midway through your collegiate career. I hope you find this helpful and enjoy reading through it!

When tensions in the crew were at their highest, how did the guys treat you? Was there ever a point where you were the target of their frustration? (Side question, when during the Olympic cycle was everyone on-edge the most? Was it during the selection period, in the lead-up to the Olympics…?)

“The most tense time was always mid-spring of the Olympic year. By that point everyone had invested a whole lot of themselves and it was becoming clear who would make it, who would not, and who was right on the cut line. The athletes on the line had it worst, since, perhaps oddly, their fate was mostly out of their hands. All they could do was try to stay cool, pull their asses off, and hope things broke their way. The top athletes were focused on getting faster and staying healthy. The “cuts” were looking forward to pair trials and going to the shore with their girlfriends after it was all over.

As for me, I was always treated as an integral part of the team. The only time I caught any heat from the guys was if I made a mistake, or if some random new guy just blew a gasket in a moment of frustration. If I made a mistake, I owned it, apologized and resolved never to do it again.  The guys held me to the same standards that they held themselves. Obviously, they were not happy with any miscue, but I think they respected the fact that I gave it everything and did not make excuses when I came up short. In the other case, new guys who could not take the heat had short half-lives. Teti definitely selected for composure under pressure. The more someone got wound up, the more Mike would push his buttons. There was a dark humor to it, and those guys either figured out they were getting played, or they blew up.”

If there was ever a point where the rowers started directing their frustration towards you, was that something that you shut down right away or something you just brushed aside since you knew it was the frustration of training talking and not so much the rowers personal feelings coming out?

It was really situational. If I got called out for substandard performance, then I took responsibility for it. If it was someone blowing off steam, I usually made fun of them and reminded them to lighten up. That works well as long as you have their respect and your response does not hit too close to home. People have a chuckle and everyone gets back to business.

There were certain times, usually when tensions were already high, where I would be the go-between for the athletes and the coaches, delivering messages no one wanted to hear. In those times, no one was really happy with me. It was the least fun part of the process, but my role was to help us win, not to be buddies or blow sunshine.

For example, one day Mike wanted to do race pieces for the third day in a row. I knew the guys were already tapped out. Mike asked me if the crew was all jacked up for timed pieces and I told him, no, they were exhausted but would throw everything into the workout and then go home to crash.  At first he was miffed, but he countered with, “If you guys break X time in the first piece, the workout is over.” We beat the time, and I think he said, “Let’s just do one more short piece flat out.”  Then the workout was really over. We ended up doing less than half of the planned distance, but it worked out.

Being truthful and direct in those interactions is not only the right thing to do. Over time I learned it was also a competitive advantage, even if it meant telling a good friend something awful, like “No, I don’t think you have a path from here to make the team,” or “Athlete X is injured but won’t tell you.”  They remember and appreciate that you leveled with them.

When a rower or the crew as a whole was having an off day what was your strategy, if you had one, for getting things back on track and getting the crew re-focused without getting an onslaught of criticism, emotions, etc. thrown at you? Did Teti ever get involved or were you expected to handle it on your own?

My teammates and I occasionally got what Bryan Volpenhein called “the shanks.” Sometimes the only cure was time. We just had to ride it out, and we relied on one another to help us recover. If someone had a really strong track record of winning, Teti would cut them some slack where they had time to rehab themselves. My role there was to help them get back on form as quickly and with as little drama as possible…unless I was the one with the shanks, which did happen once or twice.

If a whole crew was getting slaughtered, I would try to break things down into the smallest possible unit of achievable progress and then drive them toward that. It might be things like “let’s be first off line on the next piece,” or “no matter where we are, let’s neutralize the other crew’s move and then sell it to move on them.” Even if we still lost the piece, even a little win can spur some confidence. A couple athletes in the crew get fired up and that becomes contagious. It takes persistence to find something that lights a spark, but that strategy worked better than any of the others I tried.

Teti never missed a trick, and if a crew was having a bad day, he would give us some time to get it together. A big, common goal was to figure it out before Mike decided you needed his help. If things got that far, you were entering a world of pain.

How did you avoid having “the shanks” interfere with your coxing, particularly on days when everyone was having an off day and tensions were high all around? If there was an instance where it did interfere, did you handle it the same way as before (taking responsibility when someone called you out) or a different way?

As the cox, when you have the shanks, you have to do your best to minimize the impact on the crew, and get yourself back on track as quickly as possible. My version of the shanks was magically forgetting how to go straight. In Teti’s system, going straight was the coxswain’s job #1. It is difficult and you have to practice it. When the shanks happened I would go to as much “silent time” as the crew could handle, and focus my attention on getting my mechanics back. If we were doing pieces, I had drills for myself, namely, taking my hands completely off the ropes and putting them on the outsides of the gunwales. My aim was to get myself back together as quickly as I could, which meant not panicking.

If the whole crew is having a bad day, the cox is expected to lead the crew out of it, or at at a minimum, get them focused on some relevant aspect of rowing. If you can do that, you can mitigate the damage, and then you just take your lumps. It is not personal. It is what happens when you underperform. Accept that you had a crap outing, lick your wounds and put it behind you, then come back for the next row ready to go.

What’s your strategy/advice to keep tense situations from escalating to the point where the rowers go off on the easiest target (usually their coxswain) and/or for preventing it from happening in the first place? Does it really all go back to simple mutual respect for your teammates?

Respect and trust are such huge parts of coxing. If you don’t have those things with your crew, you are a sitting duck. But they must be earned over time. Working hard on coxing fundamentals and being the person who looks out for the well-being of your athletes goes a long way. By looking out, I mean helping them get faster. If the coach has identified flaws in their rowing, work with the athletes to fix them as quickly and calmly as possible. Calm athletes can make changes. Tense people cannot.

I don’t think it is possible to completely avoid getting hammered by the athletes every now and again. What is possible is to build that respect and trust so the rowers know they have their own work to do before coming after someone else, namely the cox.

What advice do you have for junior/collegiate coxswains who may be dealing with rowers who feel like the only way to blow off steam is to blame them for every little thing that goes wrong, keeping in mind that younger coxswains tend to have a harder time maintaining a poker face and not giving in to how the rowers’ treatment makes them feel? At what point do you feel it’s gone past being something they could/should handle on their own and instead needs to be brought to the coach’s attention?

Be honest with yourself, and take athletes’ comments seriously, but not to heart. The former is a behavior change any aspiring champion must embrace; the latter is hard, since emotions form a huge part of our initial reactions and they generally run hot.

When they challenge your coxing, come right back and ask: “What can I do better? How should I do it? Coach me and I will work my ass off to improve.”  If you take criticism seriously, you train your athletes to give only serious criticism. If you are willing to be coached – which intrinsically means accepting that your coxing is not perfect – and can show that you can make improvements, too, you will get massive respect points. From first principles, racing is about going as fast as you possibly can. Winning is just a byproduct of that. Starting here, getting coached (even harshly) and making changes are simply parts of the process.

Going back to my first answer, there is a difference between the national team and youth/college programs. In our case, the coach ruthlessly weeded out temperaments that would be liabilities at Worlds and the Olympics. Most other programs do not have that luxury, since they need the butts in seats or the massive erg score that occasionally comes with an outsized ego. If something is bothering you with one of the athletes, then my suggestion is to address it one-on-one first, as above – find out what the beef is and see if you can make an improvement. If that does not work, ask a respected crewmate to help you work it out with the person. If it escalates to the coach, you have a major problem. One of you is likely gone, and unfortunately the cox usually loses out.  Our job is to glue the team together and lead them. If we cannot do that, someone else will at least get a chance at it.

If there are any rowers and coaches reading this, let me point out that rowers improve faster than coxswains, especially early on. Think of how often second-year rowers make the varsity. I bet you know of several. Now think of some second-year coxswains who made the varsity. Probably not too many. The right answer to this is to coach your coxswains as rigorously as you coach your athletes. Don’t just rely on someone figuring it out on their own.  It’s not complicated and pays dividends as the season progresses toward championship racing.

That last paragraph is really important and definitely something that I hope coaches take into consideration. It also reiterates the point I’ve been making for the last two years that you have to coach your coxswains and give them the tools to succeed just as you do with the rowers.

I hope you guys enjoyed that and as I said earlier, are able to taking something away from it that you can incorporate into how you work with your crews. If you’ve got any questions or a follow-up on something that was discussed, feel free to comment below or shoot me an email.

Pete, thanks again so much for your support and your help with this!

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