Coxswain Skills: Coxing steady state workouts

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  || Boat feel || How to handle a negative coxswain eval

As disappointed as I am that we got like, no snow this winter, I am pumped that we were able to get on the water a full five weeks sooner than we were last year. We’ve been out for about two weeks now and have been doing our usual mix of steady state workouts and shorter, higher intensity pieces. I know there are several guys that love doing sprint workouts and loathe the steady state ones so on days when we’re doing 3-2-1 @ 18-20-24 for 19 minutes (like we did yesterday with the 1V) it’s important that the coxswains do their part to keep the energy up in the boat. This is accomplished less by knowing what to say (though that helps, obviously) and more so understanding how to cox these types of pieces, which is what today’s post is going to be about.

Science

Steady state (aerobic) workouts are long pieces at low(er) rates with short amounts of rest between each individual piece. In rowing, the longer you can go before the body experiences fatigue the better, so in order to accomplish that we focus the bulk of our training on workouts that work to improve our cardiovascular fitness. Simply put, the stronger the cardiovascular system, the better your endurance, and the further into a 2k you’ll get before you start to get tired. If you can delay the onset of fatigue from, for example, 1300m to 1800m, that could be the difference in who crosses the line first.

Focus

These pieces are prime opportunity to focus on technique and incorporate in the things you’ve heard the coach saying to the crew/individual rowers, as well as continue reiterating the concepts they’re trying to convey when you’re doing drills. For example, this week we’ve really been going all in on the catch. Since that’s the only part of the stroke we’ve really focused on, if I were our coxswains I’d make sure that was my main priority as far as technical calls go. You don’t want to be bouncing around (i.e. making a call for the catch on one stroke, a call for the finish on the next one, etc.) because that’s distracting so make a point to consider what your coach’s main focus has been that day/week so that your calls incorporate and reinforce that.

You can also tie in your technical focus to your team goals. For example, last year we lost to GW at Sprints by an absurd 0.1 seconds, which ended up preventing the eight from going to IRAs. If you consider how minuscule 0.1 seconds is when spread out across 2000 meters, it’s easy to see how all eight rowers consistently getting the blades in just a hair sooner at the catch and maximizing the amount of time they’re in the water can make a difference.

Tone

Tone is an area where a lot of coxswains struggle during steady state. If your tone is passive then the rowing will be too so you’ve got to work to find a balance between the energy you bring during sprint pieces and not sounding like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller (YouTube it).

When it comes to what you’re saying during sprint pieces, you’ll want to be moving between two types of calls – normal coxing calls and “coaching” calls. Your normal coxing calls should be said in a crisp, focused tone that gets the rowers attention without being jarring or too in their face. (If these types of calls are at an 8-9ish during a race, during steady state they should be around a 6-7ish.) Coaching calls are said in a more conversational tone – you’re not necessarily trying to match the rhythm of the strokes or anything like that, you’re just talking to the crew like you’d talk to them during a normal face to face conversation.

Calls

As with all your calls, you should keep your coaching calls as tight as possible and eliminate any filler words but don’t get so hung up on the idea that a call is only right/good if it’s five monosyllabic words or less. That’s not how it works (but that’s a conversation/debate for another post).

During steady state the bulk of my calls tend to be coaching calls but I try to follow up with coxing calls as necessary to reiterate the main point of whatever I was just saying. (I wanna say I do this ~50% of the time.) Below are two examples of some coaching calls based on some of the notes I’ve taken this week and in the case of the first one, what coxing calls I’d follow them up with.

“Let’s get the blades locked in behind us here … making sure we’re accelerating through our full arc. Unweight the hands in the last second of the recovery, find that resistance, … and prrry through. Pick off the catch … and accelerate. Lock, squeeze … lock, squeeze … lock, squeeze.

“The goal is to let gravity do the work so let’s sharpen up the catches by relaxing the outside shoulder and unweighting the handle before the slides turn around.”

Compared to your normal “lock, send” type of calls, these take a lot longer to say which some of you might try to get around by saying them as quickly as you can force them out of your mouth. Don’t. One, no one can understand you when you do that. Literally no one. Two, as you run out of breath you get quieter so by the time you finish your sentence your bow four probably assumes that you just trailed off because they can’t hear anything you’re saying. Three, in situations like this there’s nothing wrong with taking three, four, five strokes to say something to the crew. You’re rowing for 10+ miles, I think you can spare a few strokes to make a single call.

Another important thing to remember is that you don’t have to talk the entire time, nor should you. Not only is that the easiest way to run out of things to say and set yourself up to become a repetitive parrot, eventually the rowers are just going to tune you out because you’re annoying and not saying anything substantial. Not talking gives you a chance to focus on the bladework and mull over in your head what calls you want to make while also giving them some time to process what you/the coach have been saying (and/or just enjoy rowing in silence for a bit). I try to break up my calls by doing 30 second internal focuses if there’s something specific I want them to think about (“Let’s take the next 30 seconds to listen to the catches and tighten up the timing…”) or I’ll just … stop talking for a bit. I don’t think you not talking always needs to be planned or announced but try to keep an eye on the clock anyways so that you don’t go for more than a minute at time without saying something (unless otherwise instructed).

Related: Question of the Day and Question of the Day

Miscellaneous reminders

When you’re doing these pieces you want to be aware of any time restrictions that are placed on the piece or the amount of rest since they usually correlate to a specific heart rate zone that you’re trying to stay within. (For example, if you’ve got three minutes of rest between pieces, make sure that it’s actually three minutes and not ninety seconds or five minutes. This is also why you need a working cox box and/or a watch – your phone doesn’t count.) The time between pieces is usually going to be spent paddling, spinning, getting water, discussing the previous piece, or a combination of all four so you’ve got to monitor your timer and not let them sit for too long or waste too much time getting water or lined up because this can mess with how effective the piece is.

Also keep in mind that when you’re doing steady state with another boat, you’re not racing or competing against them. You can go off of them as positive reinforcement (“yea guys, we took three seats over the last ten strokes just by focusing more on maximizing our length through the water…” or “we’re side by side with the 2V right now, let’s see if we can push our bow ball ahead by getting a little more connection off the front end”) but you shouldn’t be going out and saying “OK, they’re seven lengths of open ahead of us, let’s take ten to walk back a seat”. Like … no. I’ve listened to way too many recordings where coxswains do that.

(Loosely) Related: Question of the Day

If I’m doing a long row with another crew then I’ll spend 98% of it focused on us and then maybe get competitive with them if they’re nearby (while still staying within the confines of the piece as far as rate goes) for the last few hundred meters, just to tie everything together and make sure we end on a high note. It’s not the main, secondary, or even tertiary focus of these pieces though so don’t go out there when you’re doing 12 miles of steady state with the sole goal of “beating” the other boat.

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