The Five Mandates of Coxing

There’s a lot of things about coxing that are steeped in logic and common sense – the five things below are a few of them. They fall under the umbrella of “the bare minimum you should be doing every single day”. Doing them doesn’t make you a good coxswain either, a good coxswain simply does them because a) bare. freaking. minimum., b) common sense, c) logic.

If you’ve been to Sparks you’ll probably recognize a couple of these. If you haven’t yet, you’re welcome for the heads up.

Wear sunglasses and a hat

The elements are a huge distraction for coxswains and one of the easiest ways to minimize that is to wear a hat and sunglasses. I resisted wearing a hat for a really long time but the first time I got sunburned and had to walk around school with that dumb ass white stripe across my forehead from the mic strap, you bet that changed my mind. Wearing a hat also keeps the sun, rain, snow, etc. out of your eyes, which gives you a clearer view of everything in front of your face, which I think we can all agree is an important thing for coxswains.

Related: What to wear: Sunglasses

Same goes for sunglasses. I wear regular glasses and paying a few hundred bucks for a pair of prescription sunglasses seemed foolish considering how frugal I needed to be with my money but I finally got a pair this year and they are so worth it. I’m not a huge fan of sunny days because I tend to get really bad migraines from the glare off the water or just the bright light in general but I’ve actually noticed over the last few months that I’ve had fewer headaches coming off the water than I have in the past because I wear my sunglasses every day instead of just relying on my hat to keep the sun out of my eyes.

Walk behind the boat

You will never be able to make a successful argument to me as to why walking in front of the boat is safer and more effective than walking behind the boat. Many have tried, all have failed.

When you’re in front of the boat you have no idea what’s happening behind you, which means you can’t see if a rigger or the end of the boat is going to hit something (or someone). Some coxswains will also say “but I need to tell people to get out of the way” … OK so, project your voice and yell “heads up!”. Protecting the equipment is more important than protecting people who are too dense to get out of your way despite your repeated attempts to get them to move.

“Behind” is not open to interpretation either. It literally means behind, not up by your bow or 2-seat because then you can’t see the rigger on the other side and that’s gonna be the one that gets slammed into the bay door when you swing out of the boathouse to go down to the dock. Whenever I’m walking a boat anywhere, I’ve got one hand either physically on the bow ball (usually as we’re walking through traffic at a race or out into the street to load the trailers) or up and ready to grab it if I need to prevent us from hitting something (usually as we’re walking in/out of the boathouse).

“Behind” also doesn’t mean being at the bow of the boat. Depending on where you’re walking (i.e. going out bow first), you might be standing behind the stern. This tends to be a point of confusion for coxswains but as long as you’re standing at the end that gives you a clear and full view of the entire shell and the rowers, bow and stern are irrelevant.

Be hands free

“But who’s gonna carry the rowers water bottles?”

Oh, I donno, maybe the rowers??? I don’t know where this idea that coxswains = pack mules got started but it’s bullshit and you all honestly need to start telling the rowers they can carry their own shit into the boat with them. They’ve got one extra hand they can carry their water with or they can do what everyone else does and stick it in the waistband of their spandex.

“I don’t mind doing it, it’s not a big deal, they asked me to, all the coxswains before me did it, etc.”

Don’t care. Your hands need to be free because if you’ve gotta suddenly grab the boat to keep from knocking a rigger on a light pole, it’s gonna be pretty tough to do that if you’ve got eight water bottles, two splash jackets, your cox box, and a partridge in a pear tree in your hands.

And yea, your cox box? That shouldn’t be in your hands either. Throw a carabiner on it (I use these s-biner ones) and attach it to your belt look, fanny back, backpack, or whatever you carry your tools and stuff in when you go out. Hands free means HANDS FREE.

Speak loudly, slowly, and clearly

This is first and foremost a safety thing. People (not just the rowers in your boat) need to be able to hear and understand what you’re saying, which means you’ve gotta project your voice, annunciate your words, and speak at a normal pace (i.e. not frantically rushing the words out of your mouth but also not taking a full sixty seconds to say five words). If you’re not a naturally loud person or you’re kinda shy and not super comfortable being that loud … suck it up, man. That’s the only pertinent advice I have for you.

Be beside the skeg on the dock

Fourteen years and counting as a coxswain and I’ve never lost a skeg, largely in part because my hand is on the boat guiding it away from the dock anytime we’re putting the boat in or taking it out of the water. It’s your job to protect the equipment and even though you’re loudly, slowly, and clearly instructing the crew to “put it out and in”, there’s no guarantees that the boat is always going to go out far enough before it goes in (especially if you’re coxing novices), which is why you’ve gotta have your hands free and be ready to guide it out further to ensure the skeg doesn’t get knocked off.

When you’re taking the boat out at the end of practice, standing there and watching the coxswain seat get closer to your face as the rowers lift it out of the water is not the same as putting your hand on the side of the boat and guiding it up out of the water.

This is another argument that coxswains have tried to have and lost. Those of you that have lost skegs on the dock, if you were standing there doing each of the things mentioned above, how many hours of repair work do you think you could have saved your coaches or boatmen?

We’re still pretty early in the season which means there’s plenty of time for you to start implementing these things and ingraining good habits in the coxswains on your team. The group that will benefit from this the most are the novice coxswains so varsity coxswains, it’s on you to set the example.

Question of the Day

Do you have any tips for dealing with confidence? I’ve been coxing our team’s 1V since fall and I’ve been praised as being our team’s “best” coxswain for quite a while, I was even selected from 20+ others as one of the best two coxswains in our division last spring, but I still get very anxious/nervous because I think I’m not very good. I always strive to put in my very best effort and always look for ways to improve but I just feel that I’m not good enough and should quit. There are also some teammates who favor their friends who are coxswains over me, which impacts my confidence a bit as well, which I know is silly but it hurts to be seen as less by some of my teammates despite constantly working my ass off to make the entire team improve. What can I do? I feel like this issue is making me want to quit because I don’t believe I’m helping our team.

I think we’ve all been there at some point – I definitely have. But here’s the thing, there’s a pretty good chance that you wouldn’t be in the 1V, be told you’re the “best” coxswain (numerous times), etc. if people didn’t think that you were doing something right. I know that sometimes it can be tough to believe that yourself but the blunt truth is that if you don’t accept what appear to be pretty objectively clear signs that you’re a good coxswain, eventually the praise is gonna stop (and you’ll actually be in the position you feel like you’re in now) because people are gonna get tired of doing what appears to be nothing more than feeding your ego.

Related: TED Talks, body language, and … coxing?

Having teammates who favor their friends as their coxswain isn’t something that’s ever gonna change. This was something that annoyed me when I was in high school but my coach explained it in a way that made me look at the situation differently and ultimately use it to my advantage. He said “do they prefer [the other coxswain] because she’s objectively better in certain areas than you or do they prefer her just because she’s friends with them and you’re not?” Both were valid questions because while I was friendly with the girls in that boat, we weren’t friends because we were in different grades so them preferring that coxswain over me wasn’t anything personal, it was simply them wanting someone they knew (and trusted) in the boat with them. If you fail to take the emotion out of the situation then yea, it might look like bitchy, unjustified favoritism but that wasn’t it at all.

Skill-wise, we were relatively equal but one area where she was definitely stronger than me was being able to call out individual things with each person’s stroke and make the right call that would have an immediate impact on the boat’s speed. I was still developing my “eye” so my coach pointed out that since I wanted the boat she was coxing (and was likely the first in line for it the following year), it would be in my best interest to ask her for advice on how to do the stuff that made her an asset to that boat … namely, making technical calls that instantly resulted in the boat running better, faster, smoother, etc. Getting her help with that stuff taught me a lot which had an obvious impact on my confidence since I was more sure of myself when I’d make those calls with my own boats.

People preferring other coxswains isn’t always about you. I think that’s a big lesson coxswains have gotta learn … some people just prefer other coxswains and sometimes it’s justified and sometimes it’s not but how you let it affect you is entirely up to you.

Related: I’ve always been that insecure person but according to my rowers and coach, I’m a “good coxswain.” Problem is that I always find fault in whatever I’m doing. I’m positive towards my rowers but negative towards myself. Any tips on how to be more self confident?

As far as confidence in general goes, the best advice I have is to not let perfect get in the way of good. Put your best effort in, have achievable expectations for yourself, etc. but don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t 100% perfect all the time. I used to do that all. the. time. and that made it really hard to accept positive feedback from my coaches and teammates because I never felt like I genuinely deserved the compliment(s). Eventually one of my friends said what I said before, that if I didn’t stop with the perpetual pity party and accept that they thought I was doing a great job then they were just gonna stop saying anything at all and then I’d never know how I was doing (which, as most coxswains can probably attest to, is the worst).

Related: Notebook “hacks”: Post-practice affirmations

Like I’ve said on here a thousand times before, it’s way easier said than done to just believe you’re doing a good job. You do have to get in the habit though of recognizing when you made a good series of calls, had a good practice, coxed a great piece, etc. and not overanalyze it to the point where your pat on the back turns into you beating yourself up over something trivial. And if people are giving you positive feedback, trust that they’re giving it to you because you’ve truly earned it. Internalize it, build on it, and eventually the confidence will come. It’s a process so stick with it.

Pro tip: Advice from a former novice, pt. 2

Previously: Advice from a former novice || Maintaining the set while on the rudder || Get on the erg

This is an email I got at the end of the 2014 spring season from a (then) novice coxswain at a men’s program here on the East Coast. I’d included it within another post at the time but felt it warranted it’s own post, particularly since the first “advice from a former novice” post (linked above) got a lot of a positive feedback.

“Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you all a couple of things that I learned after I walked on to my team as a novice coxswain. No experience at all in anything crew related. All I knew how to do was compete (I had been a varsity athlete in high school). In fact, I didn’t even know how to say starboard or skeg properly. The point is, I learned a lot along the way and ended up in the third varsity boat of a silver medal winning crew for a division one program, so anything truly is possible.

For the novices (and more experienced coxswains) out there, I have a couple of things to say that I feel are sometimes overlooked or forgotten.

Your job is to steer

I think this always bear repeating and it is certainly something that my coach harped on many times. You can’t let your emotions or competitive spirit get in the way of your main priority. And, I would say to not worry too much about your calls until you can steer, because steering takes up most of your focus. Calls will always be secondary to steering straight in a race since snaking adds meters and time to your crew’s efforts. Guys know how to motivate themselves, so really the best thing you can do is give them the shortest course, which occurs when you steer straight.

Tone matters

This is something that I didn’t realize I was missing until I listened to a recording of myself (which is why you should record yourself). When my coach gave me feedback, he said that I at times sounded frantic or doubtful, which not what you want your crew to hear. If I don’t know something, I either don’t say anything at all, or I just make something up (not always the preferable thing to do, but sometimes necessary). But no matter what, I’ve learned to sound confident in the decisions that I am making on the water. Also, when you get into a race, it shows that guys that you are just as invested as they are in winning, which is important for their mentality. They also appreciate it when you care just as much as they do.

You win some, you lose some

Sometimes you put in a lot of hard work and come up short. Other times you win by a foot. Just know that when you have done the best job you can do, there might be times when another crew rowed better. The sport is about working hard and always improving. You should always appreciate the work that you do, and strive to improve so that you have no regrets. It goes for coxswains just as much as it goes for rowerscoxswains can always improve as well.

I know this sounds simple, and it might not mean much coming from a novice rower, but as a coxswain looking back on my first year, I feel like these three things come up in a lot of the races I was lucky to be a part of. Listen to your coaches, work with your rowers, and best wishes to all.”