Hi! So I’m a collegiate coxswain with about 8 years of experience and I’ve been struggling with fours for a while now. I’m pretty good in eights and have great boat feel, but as soon as I hop in a four everything goes south. I struggle to diagnose problems, stumble over my words, become repetitive, steer poorly, etc. etc. It also doesn’t help that I’m in eights most of the time, so it’s near impossible to fix problems for next practice as the next fours practice might be 8-10 practices away. Do you have any advice?
This is how I feel whenever I get into a four too. The ratio of time I’ve spent in eights vs. fours is pretty lopsided and even now (especially now) whenever I hop in a four, whether it’s filling in for one of the coxswains or actually racing, it feels like it takes forever for me to get in a groove with feeling what’s going on, making calls, etc.
When I was just learning to cox in fours my coach’s advice, which I still rely on today, was to not look at it like you’re starting from scratch anytime you go from an eight to a four, especially since we were also in them infrequently. In my experience that’s what tends to trip coxswains up and cause them to get overwhelmed – that was definitely the case for me. I’d get in the boat and immediately overwhelm myself by thinking about not being able to see anyone instead of just slowing down and using everything I knew about the rowers from being in the eight to guide whatever I was saying or interpreting via boat feel.
That’s why whenever I’m in fours I talk a lot less than I do when I’m in eights. Rowers (at every level I’ve coxed) have pointed it out too and my response is always that it’s not because I’m zoning out or not paying attention, rather it’s the exact opposite – it’s a different environment so I’m trying to focus, feel, process, etc. more and I can’t do that if I’m talking all the time. If I’m talking the same amount in a four that I am in an eight, that’s a pretty clear sign that I’m just completely bullshitting my way through practice.
When it comes to diagnosing problems, I heavily rely on whatever’s been going on in the eight to act as my “baseline” for the four. Before going out or while we’re warming up I’ll usually say something like “We’ve been working on ABC in the eight so now that there’s just four of you, let’s really hone in on XYZ today – the less time we spend worrying about setting the boat the more time we can spend on just moving it.” and then quickly run through one or two individual things that I want them to focus on. By this point in the season you know what’s going well, what’s not, etc. which makes it a lot easier to narrow the scope of practice vs. “starting from scratch” where it seems like every technical issue known to man could be the problem. Plus, the smaller the boat you’re in the more noticeable technical issues are going to be. If you know what to look/feel for based on the stuff you’ve already been working on, that makes things a lot easier for you.
If I knew we were gonna go out in fours I’d talk to my coaches about the lineups, anything in particular I should focus on (i.e. 3-seat in the eight isn’t used to being in stern pair so now that he’s 3-seat in the four, making calls about syncing up with the stroke would be beneficial in the first half of practice), stuff they’ve seen from the launch, etc. – pretty much the same stuff I’d talk about with them normally anyways. Taking the feedback I got from those conversations and meshing it up with my own observations from the eight made getting into the fours a lot less stressful because, like I said earlier, it helped narrow my focus.
Stumbling over your words and getting repetitive is usually a sign that you need to take a step back and (re)focus. You also just need to be honest with the boat. If I know something feels off but can’t figure out what the problem is then I’ll just say that and ask them what they’re feeling. I know a lot of coxswains are kinda timid about doing this because they think it’ll make them look bad but it really doesn’t. Making useless calls and being ineffective in general makes you look bad … admitting you’re off your game today and can’t figure out if what’s throwing the boat off is X or Y demonstrates a level of self-awareness that far too many coxswains lack.
Steering poorly, you can’t really justify or make any excuses for that. You’ve got an unobstructed view and technically that should be your primary focus anyways. If you’re steering is bad/unsafe then that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to slow down, stop talking, and get that sorted out before trying to do anything else. It also baffles me when coxswains come off the water complaining about how practice didn’t go well because the boat was unset all morning and nothing they said fixed it … did you ever consider maybe not touching the rudder every three seconds? That’d probably help.
Anyways, my advice is to talk less (way less), incorporate in your observations, the rowers’ known tendencies, etc. from the eight rather than starting from zero every time, and when in doubt, crowdsource ideas from the boat if you’re stuck on something. Last piece of advice is to talk with the other coxswains regularly enough that you at least have a basic idea of the strengths/weaknesses of the rowers in their boats, that way if you end up coxing them in a four instead of the people who are usually in your boat, you won’t be in the dark about what they’ve been doing or where they’re at technically. This will benefit you regardless of the boat you’re in and it helps make you a more versatile coxswain.