Race skills: Coxing from behind

Coxing when you’re behind is one of the hardest things you can be tasked with during a race, second only to coxing a race like our JV had this past weekend where they built up a 2/3 length lead by 1000m and then lost by a seat or two of open water. (You can watch the race here if you want.)

The latter has always been hard for me to work out how to do, on one hand because it’s (luckily) not a position I’ve found myself in very often but also because there just doesn’t seem to be a strategy for dealing with a broken crew (coxswain included). Today’s post though is gonna talk about coxing when you’ve fallen slightly back but are still within striking distance or when you’re in the thick of a race and are trying to work your way up to get your bow ball in front.

My strategy when I’m sitting in third, fourth, fifth, or sixth is to make it a two-boat race and work our way up crew by crew. These mini-races within the context of the overall race helps you to manage your calls (instead of bouncing around all over the place with minimal direction or focus) and in turn gives the crew small achievable goals to focus on.

The thing I struggled with initially when doing this was knowing when to demand more of my boat to actually get us past another crew. There were times where we’d slooowly move on them (or we’d move quickly initially and then sit for awhile) but when you’re sitting in fourth and you’ve only got 1100m left to work with, that’s not good enough. Creating these mini-races helped me develop my awareness because it forced me to pay attention to our speed relative to the other boats. I found that when we were sitting on a crew or the amount that we were walking on them slowed, it was usually because I was becoming too focused on what was happening outside the boat, which would dampen our fire a little bit and allow the crew’s focus to wander.

Once I realized this I’d make calls like “we’re in a good position on New Trier but we’ve been sitting for the last 10 strokes … let’s refocus the legs and shut them down … on this one … legs NOW, legs NOW…”. “Now” is a call I use a lot while coxing but in situations like this, the change in my tone when I said it communicated a (controlled) sense of urgency that resonated with the boat and helped us find that next gear and move. That’s the key too – as demanding of a call as “now” is, it was never that that they were responding to … it was how I said it and that can make a huge difference when you’re coxing from behind. One of my stroke seats used to call it my “don’t fuck with me” voice. When that came out during a race (which was only in certain situations) the crew just knew to snap back into it and respond to whatever I was saying in an instant.

Awhile ago I found this anecdote from Marcus McElhenney from when he raced in Beijing in 2008 that touches on creating mini-races and getting your crew excited about moving past the boats around you.

“In the Olympic final we had an okay start but at the 500m mark we were in 6th place. We were in lane two. The Dutch were in lane one and almost ¾ of a length up. Lane three and four had the Brits and Canada, who were WAY out. This left Poland and Australia leading us on the outside in lanes 5 and 6. My crew could not see anyone next to them. Realizing that we could overtake the Aussies and Poles, I started to race them. It was all about getting up just one place at a time.

Over the second 500 meters we were then able to overtake them and were sitting in fourth. In the process we were able to cut the Dutch lead from two seconds to half a second. Then we turned our focused in the third 500m on the Dutch which would put us in medal position. I can remember looking at the bend in the oars. As guys from the bow like Schnorbich and Hoopman could sense the lead and medal, the bend in the shaft grew. That feeling then started to pass up the crew as we began to move, the energy increased and we really started to cook. Stern pair, Volp and Inman, were now foaming at the mouth. We over took the Dutch establishing our Olympic medal spot.

New focus…the Brits! Their commanding lead over us during the first part of the race was now less than half a second. Last 500m and we were charging. We ended up not passing the Brits, but we came home with some hardware.”

If you’ve fallen really far back (like a length of open or more) then your focus has to shift to creating internal targets within the boat. You can’t keep saying “they’re walking away”, “we’re a length of open back”, etc. and expect the crew to suddenly have a burst of enthusiasm and “let’s go get ’em!” energy. Instead, focus on something tangible like dropping the splits by a second (and maintaining it) or re-establishing the rhythm so everyone is rowing together and not doing their own thing. If the boat is getting frantic, eliminating that feeling has to be your first priority otherwise you’ll just waste a ton of energy and have an even harder time trying to walk back on the other boats.

One question that comes up a lot is whether or not you should tell the crew that you’re in last place. For me, it’s 50-50 … if you’re sitting in last by no more than half a length of open water then you should tell them because closing that gap is doable. If you’re more than half a length back then I wouldn’t say anything until you’ve closed the gap to within striking distance of the other crew(s). This lets you focus solely on whatever’s going on with your boat without having to worry about the chaos around you (which honestly isn’t a bad thing).

That approach came out of a conversation my freshman year after my novice eight (predictably) fell pretty far behind our three varsity boats while doing pieces. I remember it being one of the few times where I said “I don’t know what to say” and my crew gave me a ton of ideas and feedback that we trial and error-ed over the next few practices to figure out a strategy that worked. That boat was made up of a bunch of two and three-sport athletes so to capitalize on our strength there was a lot of focus put on bending the oars (as long as our technique was good … our coaches drilled into us that that always came first).

This in turn became our rallying point. If we fell back we’d refocus on our technique – I made a lot of loose, breathe, relax, focus, sharp, together, etc. calls – and once we had that on lock I’d make the call to “bend and send”. The pick up and surge that resulted from that call was incredible – it was like lighting the afterburners. If we were half a length down when I made that call we could easily get even within ten strokes and then from there it was back to “regular” race-mode.

Coxing from behind isn’t something you want to have to do but I guarantee you’ll spend more time doing that over the course of your career than you will as the crew out front. You don’t want to find yourself in that situation and not know how to manage it though (because it all comes back to execution and management) so spend time discussing those “what if’s” with your crew so you can establish your Plan B, C, D, etc., as well as the calls you’ll make to get you back on track. For us, it was “bend and send”. By no means was it a “magic” call (there were times when it didn’t work) but it was well thought out, well rehearsed, and positive (in a non-cheesy way) and that was what made it the catalyst to making our “comebacks” effective.

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