Hi! So I am in my fourth season of crew, and my second season of coxing. Our season started Monday and the novices were already on the water. I was not with either of the novice boats that day but I coxed one today. I found it really difficult to teach them everything. Do you have any advice on how to teach the novices? Also, our first race is in 4 or 5 weeks, so the novices need to get the hang of it as soon as possible so that we can get “normal” boats put together. My boat today was able to row all 8 (6 novices and a 2nd season rower and stroke) fairly well. Any and all advice would be super helpful. Thanks so much!!! I love your blog- I’ve used it since I started rowing.
Therein lies the problem – you can’t teach them everything all at once. Imagine you’re sitting in math class and your teacher starts the day by teaching you to add two numbers together and finishes 90 minutes later by trying to get you to do differential equations … that’s what most coxswains (and new coaches – I was definitely guilty of this) try to do when they’re in charge of a novice crew. You have to start really simple and build from there once you’ve established a solid foundation. 4-5 weeks is plenty of time to get them rowing well enough to race so don’t rush through everything or try to pile on too much in a short period of time just because it feels like you don’t have that much time to work with.
I run our walk-on program in the fall and what we always start off doing (both on the ergs and in the boats) is a super basic pick drill. We’ll start off doing arms only for awhile (like, 15-20min) and I’ll walk around the ergs adjusting peoples’ form and making sure they’re getting the motion down. It’s obviously not going to look great but if it’s like, 75% there I’m happy. From there we’ll take a break and then do arms + bodies. Same routine, I’ll walk around and coach people as necessary but for the most part I want them to just focus on getting the motions down. Even though there are like, a thousand things I could say to them I try to err on the side of letting them figure it out for themselves (unless it’s so egregious that I have to say something) since I think that’s goes a lot further than if I were constantly in their ear nitpicking everything they’re doing. Once they’ve got arms + bodies down we’ll go back to arms only and blend the two together, so 10 strokes doing that and 10 strokes adding in the bodies, and then we’ll repeat that once or twice more. The next day we’ll start with what we finished with the day before, cycling through arms and arms + bodies before adding in the slides. We’ll start with determining where half-slide actually is, what it should look like, feel like, etc. and then I’ll have them row at half-slide for a bit, similar to what we did the day before with arms and arms + bodies. Most of the coaching I do here is just reminding them to get the hands away and bodies over before the slides start and to not go too far past where half-slide should be. Another point of focus is feeling what it’s like to drive off the footboards with the legs at the catch, although I don’t bring this up until I feel like they have a comfortable grasp on the recovery sequence. After they’ve got half-slide down we’ll lengthen it out to full slide and repeat the whole process again. Points of emphasis here are, again, hands away/bodies over before the slides start and not flying up the slide just because your butt is on wheels.
Assuming our first practice is on a Monday, we’ll do all of that on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (with Wednesday just being a “review” type day of everything up to that point … nothing new gets added) and then on Thursday/Friday we’ll start off with the pick drill (15-20 strokes each) before going into 3-5 minutes of continuous rowing (ideally in the tanks if they’re available). After that we’ll take a break and then do some kind of drill – like cut-the-cake or a pause drill or something relatively simple like that – before going back to a few minutes of continuous rowing.
Once we get on the water (and after spending the first day doing “admin”-type stuff – i.e. how to set the boat when you’re rowing and not rowing, what stern four, bow six, etc. means, how to spin, and all the other basic stuff) we’ll repeat what we did on the erg, either by pairs or fours depending on if we’re in a four or an eight and what the weather is like. The more stable you can make the boat, the less frustrating practice will be for them and you so always lean towards having less people rowing when it’s safe to do so. Oh, and don’t even think about rowing on the feather for at least a few days (or longer…). Stay on the square while going through the stroke sequence, rowing by 6s, etc. and get them comfortable with figuring out blade heights, setting the boat, etc. before you teach them the feather. Keep in mind that square blade rowing is a pretty useful drill in itself. What my coaches always did (with us as novices and as an experienced crew) and what I try to do with the walk-ons is once we were able to row by all eight (and not have it be a total shitshow), we’d row 20ish strokes by sixes and then all eight for 10 on the feather, rotating through the sixes for … probably 30ish minutes or so. A couple practices later we’d do the same thing except reverse it – 20ish strokes by all eight on the feather and 10 by sixes on the square – before eventually making our way to all eight on the feather (at which point we’d eventually work in varying rates and pressures to keep things from getting too boring).
All in all, everything I just said could be covered in roughly three to four weeks, depending on how quickly you moved through it all, which gives you a week or two to introduce them to racing and how all that works.
All that aside, the best advice I can give you is to talk with your coach and figure out what their plan is for coaching the novices. If they want you to be in charge of coaching them while you’re coxing (which isn’t uncommon) then at least discuss with them what you should cover each day so you’re not trying to come up with stuff on the fly. If you’re going out with your coach then let them do the bulk of the talking/coaching while you act as the reinforcer of what they’re saying as necessary. (Also read this post – it’s not entirely related to your question but the person asked about how to improve their coxing while working with novices and not needing to actually cox that much.) Make sure that whatever you are saying is communicated as clearly and in the most simple manner as possible too. If it can be broken down into simpler concepts, do it. You’ll end up saving a lot of time in the long run when you don’t have to go back and re-explain something that you didn’t cover initially because you thought it was obvious or assumed. (I touch on that in this post a bit – it’s about coxswains but the ideas behind the first three bullet points could all easily apply in this situation too.)