Coxswain skills: Working with a bad coach

As a coxswain, having a good working relationship with your coach is crucial. It’s the same as what I’ve said in the past about your relationships with the rowers – you don’t have to like each other but for two hours every day you do have to be able to work together. There’s no foolproof way to do this either … some coaches just suck, plain and simple. What I’ve laid out below probably won’t work for you if you have a coach that is really disagreeable, has a huge ego, etc. but short of telling you to just quit and go join another sport, this is the best I’ve got.

Related: “Coach problems” tag

Most of this I learned the hard way my senior year when I had a coach who refused to coach my eight, constantly made disparaging comments towards me and my teammates, and refused to be questioned by anyone because he was the coach (which he reminded us of literally every chance he had) and there was absolutely no conceivable reason why we shouldn’t just blindly follow every instruction we were given. I, to the surprise of pretty much no one, rebelled hard against all of this because I thought it was bullshit and, to the surprise of pretty much no one, he responded by taking me out of the varsity eight, not just because I questioned him (which was my first mistake) but because I handled it with the same level of maturity that most 17 year old girls would … which is to say, in hindsight I could have handled it a lot better.

Like a lot of things I’ve put on this blog, I didn’t have anyone telling me “this is how you deal with this” and the only advice I got was everyone basically telling me to just keep my head down, do what I was told, and don’t do anything that would, for lack of a better phrase, rock the boat. That kind of “advice” doesn’t really work for me so below are the things that I eventually came up with (some during the season, some years after the fact) that should hopefully make working with or around a bad coach a little easier.

Do what you say you’re going to do

If you’re going to be a coxswain then you’re agreeing to a lot of rules and expectations that are often unwritten and unsaid. Even if your coach isn’t explicitly telling you what you need to do, you still have a pretty defined set of responsibilities that you know you have to execute on a daily basis. If you aren’t doing these things they’re going to draw a lot of attention and the target on your back is going to become even bigger, which is why it might seem like your coach is always picking on you. It’s up to you to go directly to them and ask “what are your expectations of me…” so that you know what’s expected since they’re probably not going to take you aside to tell you themselves. Don’t expect it to be spelled out for you either … you’re probably going to have to read between the lines of whatever vague non-answer they give you in order to figure out what they really want.

Be transparent

I’ve talked about this before but if you screw up, own it and don’t be that guy that tries to cover it up or make excuses. You can save yourself a lot of grief by taking responsibility right off the bat and avoiding the fallout that comes with a coach who not only has to deal with damaged equipment and wasted practice time but on top of that, a coxswain who’s lying about whatever role they played in the incident. If you have a coach who is prone to kicking people out of boats seemingly on a whim and that’s what you’re trying to avoid having happen, you’re playing yourself. If/when you screw up, say “this was my fault, I take full responsibility for it” and accept whatever happens without making it a bigger issue than it already is.

Provide solutions, not complaints

It’s really easy to complain when you have a bad coach but as the coxswain, you can’t get sucked into that and you sure as hell can’t be the one starting it. When my coach would purposely drive his launch close to us so he could wake us out during practice, my default response every time was “are you fucking kidding me…” because … who wouldn’t respond that way? During one of our many post-practice therapy sessions, our assistant told me that it wasn’t worth getting frustrated over when we could instead just focus on rowing better so that the next time it happened we could row through the wake like nothing happened.

“Rowing better” is obviously always the goal but for us it became “we’re gonna do it because we know that you think we can’t”, which isn’t always the best mindset to be in (I hate the idea of feeling like you have to prove something just to get people to back off) but it really worked for us. We doubled down on handle heights, body prep, carrying the blades six inches off the water, etc. and literally every single opportunity we had, we rowed square blades. There were practices where, if we were on the water for 90 minutes, probably 60 of them were spent rowing square blades, regardless of what we were doing. If the weather was bad, even better – we’d row square blades through white caps if we had to. Our bladework got so good that the next time we got waked by his launch we didn’t even flinch and he actually stopped to watch us row by. Our assistant yelled over to him, smile on his face, “lookin’ pretty good, huh?”, which to this day remains one of my favorite moments ever.

That whole situation was pretty defining for me as a coxswain and reinforced the notion that every challenge or hurdle is an opportunity to step it up and showcase your leadership skills. You can take the easy route and complain, which I’ll admit is really tempting to do sometimes, or you can be the one that provides a solution by saying “nope, we’re not settling for this, this is what we’re going to do to turn this distraction into a tool that makes us better rowers”.

Anticipate and over-prepare

This was something I learned early on in my career but it’s benefited me the most when I’ve had to work with erratic, unorganized coaches who thought “coxswain” was synonymous with “mind reader”. Getting in the habit of talking with your coaches before practice about what the plan for the day is, what drills you’ll be doing, and what the technical focus will be is just part of being a good coxswain but if they don’t tell you (or you just don’t ask), it’s gonna feel like you’re constantly being put on the spot.

One way to combat this is to pay attention to patterns. For example, on Mondays you do AT pieces and the drills are almost always catch/front end related. Tuesdays and Thursdays are steady state days and you’re usually left to your own devices. Wednesdays are sprint work and the drills typically relate to whatever you struggled most with during the race on Saturday and during steady state yesterday. Fridays you do a race walk-through. If you can recognize the patterns in your training plan then it becomes a lot easier for you to execute practice with little to no direction or instruction given by your coach. It also helps you prepare your calls ahead of time, familiarize yourself with drills, etc.

The best way to not be caught off guard is to be prepared for whatever might get thrown at you, which means you should know every drill, forwards and backwards, and the purpose of every workout (general rule of thumb: steady state = technique, sprints = power).

The final thing to keep in mind is that the most mature (and hardest by far for some of us) way to deal with a bad coach is to not talk back to them. You will be tempted but don’t. It might make you feel better in the moment to argue or get the last word in but in the long run it’s just gonna hurt you because you’ll essentially be undermining your own authority. Be cooperative, try to be cordial and pleasant (even when it means gritting your teeth to do so), and always, always be on top of your game. The lighter you keep the overall atmosphere by doing those three things, the better the rowers (and you) will be able to focus on the task at hand in spite of the fact that your coach is making it harder rather than easier.

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