How to cox (and coach) novices

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat

Coxing novices when you’re all novices isn’t that hard but doing it as an experienced coxswain  … that can be tough (at first). There aren’t many things you’ll encounter during your career that tests your ability to communicate quite like working with novices will. There’s a quote from Einstein that says “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough” and you realize how true that is when you’re trying to explain the stroke sequence or the nuances of the catch to a group of people who are completely new to the sport.

Related: My coach has enlisted the help of the rowers who’ve finished their last season at school to help with a learn to row program for the new recruits. We’ll be taking them out in quads for a couple of weeks. Do you have any advice on how to teach them to get the basics down? My learn to row experience is just a big blur now!

Twice in my career I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned if I actually knew anything about rowing – once as a senior when I coxed our novice eight and again four years ago when I started coaching. I’d think that what I was saying was clear and made perfect sense and it’d only be after the fact when someone would say “I knew what you were saying because I’ve rowed for ten years but they didn’t understand it at all…” that I’d realize how ineffective my communication style  was given the audience I was working with.

Below is some of the advice I’ve gotten over the years that has helped me improve how I cox (and coach) novices.

Consider your audience

Not only are they not rowers, some of them aren’t even athletes. You have to tailor your language so that it makes sense to everyone, regardless of whatever previous exposure they have to rowing or sports in general. Rowing itself has a pretty intense nomenclature that doesn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with it so before you say “sit ready at the catch with the handles off the gunnels and the blades buried”, take the time to explain what all the sport-specific terminology means. Don’t be that person that tries to impress people with big words just to make it seem like you know what you’re talking about – nobody cares what you know if you can’t communicate it to the masses in a way that everyone can understand.

Compartmentalize

Have you ever sat through a 90 minute long lecture and just had no idea what’s going on because the professors are throwing so much information at you? Trying to absorb all of that in a short period of time is hard and you tend to leave more overwhelmed than when you arrived. It’s the same here – you can’t try to teach the entire stroke in an hour-long practice and expect them to get it. (I naively tried once, it was a disaster.)

An analogy that I heard a coach use once was that you have to look at novices like babies who will choke on their food if it’s not cut up into small enough pieces. Rather than trying to feed the rowers the entire stroke at once, break it down … and then break it down even further … and then for good measure, break it down again.

I’m a visual learner so one of the things I did when I started coaching (at the suggestion of another coach) was I’d write out whatever it was I wanted to cover during practice (the recovery, for example) and then I’d make branches from there of what all that concept entailed. It can get pretty involved but it makes it really easy to see each “bite” (and how many there actually are), in addition to helping you organize your thoughts better so you’re not bouncing around from idea to idea to idea while you’re on the water.

Keep your delivery simple

Keep the focus on one or two points at a time and try to only comment on those things. This is something I have to remind myself of all the time (more so when I’m coxing, less so when coaching) because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything you see wrong instead of focusing on improving one specific thing at a time.

If your coach is working on body prep, for example, make sure your calls relate to that and ignore (for now) the fact that the timing is off, 5-seat isn’t burying his oar all the way, and 7-seat is coming out way early. The time will come when commenting on all that will be appropriate but for now when they’re just learning how to take a stroke, keep your focuses narrow.

This also applies when you’re not really focusing on anything and are just trying to get some strokes in. It’s OK to just let them row without getting hung up on every little thing you see that’s “off”. (This is in the same vein of “it’s OK to not talk sometimes”.) If you do want to make a correction, make it something “big picture” so that they don’t get too overwhelmed trying to process what you’re saying.

Give them actionable takeaways

As we as coxswains all know, it’s a lot easier to work on something when you’re given a tangible piece of feedback vs. something vague (i.e. “steer straighter” vs. “hook your pinkies over the gunnels so you’re less inclined to use your whole hand and end up oversteering“). 

A typical way to end practice for most coaches is to recap what you did that day and then give the crew and/or specific individuals a takeaway that they can continue working on tomorrow. I got in the habit of doing this as we were coming in to dock, usually because everything was fresh in my mind and if for some reason our coach wasn’t able to meet with us, the rowers would at least get some feedback that they could use during the next practice (while it was all still fresh in their minds too). “Keep working on the timing” is too vague but something like “Sam, timing looked better today. Keep working on getting the body set sooner on the recovery so you’re moving right with Matt…” gives them feedback on the “big picture” (timing) while giving them somewhere specific to focus their efforts (body prep).

My lack of patience is one of my biggest weaknesses and it is tested when I cox novices. You will have to repeat things numerous times, you will get frustrated when they keep doing whatever it is you just said to stop doing, and there will be times where you wonder if there are any neurons firing at all in the heads of the novices in your boat. I got a couple emails this spring asking how to deal with that and the best advice I can offer is to take a deep breath and, like I said above, find where you can break things down further. Being able to take a step back, analyze what you’re seeing, and then simplify it from there can/will alleviate that frustration because you’ll almost always pick up on something that you didn’t before that you can then communicate to the rowers.

If you have the chance to cox a learn to row camp this summer or if your coach throws you in with the novices in the fall, don’t begrudge the opportunity. It’s a great chance to work on your communication skills and really test how well you understand the technical aspects of the stroke. If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a plateau it can also help you get out of it by forcing you to abandon auto-pilot and start thinking again about what you’re seeing and the calls you’re making.

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