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.”

Question of the Day

I am a freshman in high school cox and I am friends with an 8th grade cox. She isn’t done growing but is worried that she will be over the weight limit (aka minimum) when she is so she is trying to lose weight. She claims to just want to eat healthier but she does not eat lunch, has mentioned cutting sodium and fat significantly, and is tracking her calories. I think she has an eating disorder, which I have had before and don’t want her to go through. What should I do? I want her to be safe. 😦

I touched on this in a similar question a few months ago (linked below) but I think you’ve gotta be careful about assuming someone has an eating disorder just because they’re changing their eating habits. I get what you’re saying and can see why you might be concerned, especially since she’s only in 8th grade, but I wouldn’t jump to the worst possible conclusion just yet.

Related: Hello! I’m a collegiate rower currently at a D3 school. Recently I’ve noticed that my team’s top coxswain has seemed to have lost a lot of weight in the past few months. By this, I mean she seems to have lost 10 to 15lbs, which is a lot considering she’s 5’4″ and wasn’t over the 110lb minimum by more than 7 or 8lbs last season. I don’t believe she eats very often but when I do see her eat she doesn’t seem to have an eating disorder. I’m not sure whether or not I should be concerned about her weight loss and if I should bring it up with someone?

If you’ve dealt with an eating disorder and can see her starting to fall into the same habits you did, point that out (without being accusatory). There’s nothing wrong with tracking what you’re eating or cutting back on unhealthy stuff but there’s always the risk of taking it too far, sometimes without even realizing it, and having someone else point out that they can see you doing the same things they did can be the wake up call that gets them to reassess their approach. Point is, I’d be much more responsive to someone that said “hey, I’ve dealt with disordered eating, it started off as just wanting to lose a few pounds but I got really caught up in counting calories, it spiraled out of control pretty fast, etc. and I’m concerned because I see you doing some of the same things I did, which I now realize was doing more harm than good…” than someone who said “you stopped eating lunch, you stopped eating salt, you must have an eating disorder”.

The response there will either be “I’m good” or “…hmm”, in which case you should drop it if it’s the former (I mean, keep an eye on it if you’re really that concerned but don’t hover or keep belaboring the point) or offer her some advice if it’s the latter. If you’ve since recovered or are recovering from your eating disorder, talk with her about what you’re doing now to be healthy and maintain a good diet. If talking with a nutritionist, one of your coaches, etc. helped you, recommend it to her as an option if she finds she wants or needs help.

Also point out that as a freshman (presumably novice) coxswain, no one gives a fuck what you weigh. It’s literally the least important thing when you’re just learning how to cox. None of you are competitive enough at that stage for your coxswain’s weight to make any sort of difference in your speed. As long as you’re under like, 135 max (there’s gotta be a line somewhere), you should be perfectly fine.

Look, you’re closer to this situation than I am so you have to use your best judgment based on whatever you’re seeing. There is no perfect, step-by-step way to handle stuff like this. If you’re afraid to confront her directly, maybe ask your coach if they can address coxswain weight in general to all the coxswains (that way she’s not being singled out) and dispel the myth that they must weigh 110lbs or 120lbs on the dot every day of their entire high school career or else they’ll never get boated ever. Maybe hearing that will alleviate some of her worries.

10 simple things you can do to be a better athlete

When I was at Penn over the summer, Wes Ng, who is the women’s head coach (and also the women’s U23 coach), came and gave a talk on the simple, ordinary things you can do to make yourself a better athlete.

What’s the plan for the week?

If you’re gonna row at any level, it takes a solid amount of commitment. When you’re a collegiate athlete, rowing needs to be a priority (not necessarily the #1 priority but still a pretty high one) and that will probably require moving your lives around to make it work. Up front communication with the coaches, your professors, etc. about what you’ve got going on is important.

We send our yearly training plan out at the beginning of the school year so that the guys can see what we’re doing each day, when we’re testing, when our races are, when our training trips are, etc., that way they know where they need to be, when, and what the time commitment is so they can plan everything else accordingly. Obviously it’s a given that there’s some flexibility when it comes to academics, job interviews, etc. but it’s made clear up front that frat stuff or other extracurricular activities should not be put above their commitment to the team.

Always arrive early

You’re not prepared if you’re only thinking about performing when you arrive on time. Wes spoke about the U23 women that he’d see arriving early who would spend that time before practice going through their own personal checklists of the things they needed to do to perform at their best, which included warming up on the erg or bikes, rolling out for 15-20 minutes, or just closing their eyes and doing some meditative breathing. Regardless of what each individual routine entailed, they knew that it was worth coming in 30-40 minutes early for because it was setting them up to have a good row.

Rolling into the boathouse at 6:25 for a 6:30am practice might not hurt you but it’s not going to help you that much either … and it could set the wrong tone for the underclassmen who are looking to the senior members of the team to set the example.

“How can we help?”

Rather than being accusatory towards someone who, for example, consistently shows up late to practice, instead ask them how you can help. Wes used this example because they had a rower who said she was having trouble getting up in the morning for their AM rows and the response from the team was to buy her a lot of instant coffee and share their morning routines with her to help her figure out something that would make waking up earlier easier.

It’s really easy to just get pissed at someone who’s showing up late or constantly making the same mistake in the boat but getting pissed doesn’t help anyone and it doesn’t fix the problem. This goes hand in hand with the “don’t punish the symptoms, address the cause” or whatever that adage is.

Take care of the equipment and the environment you row in

This is simple – it’s about pride. If you have pride in the space you row out of, as well as the equipment you use, then you’re more likely to take your training seriously.

Make pre-row stuff light and fun

I loved the question that Wes posed when he brought up this point – “Who are you gonna be? Are you gonna make atmosphere better or wait for someone else to do it?”

Know when to shift gears from fun to intense focus

One of the things I really appreciate about our team is their ability to shift from loose and chill before practice (during which some of the most ridiculous conversations I’ve ever heard happen) to completely dialed in and ready to get shit done the moment they finish their warmup. It makes things easier for the coaches, it gets us on the water faster, and it sets the tone early on (for practice, for the underclassmen, and for the team as a whole…) that regardless of whatever else everyone’s got going on or whatever riveting debate you were having earlier, all of that is put on pause until 8:30am so that we can all collectively focus on accomplishing that day’s goal(s).

Ask questions but don’t ask just to be heard

This is all about maturity. Everybody can relate to this one because we’ve all been in class with that person who says something, not because they actually have anything to contribute but because they want to be heard so they can get their participation points (or just disrupt the conversation). This is an easy trap for coxswains, particularly younger ones, to fall into because they know they’re expected to know things but rather than just asking a question or saying they don’t understand, they blurt out and rattle off a hundred different things that are all wrong and wildly off base because they think that’ll give off the impression that they’re making an effort.

If you have something important to say or contribute then you should absolutely put it out there but don’t waste your or everyone else’s time if whatever you’re gonna say isn’t relevant, is grasping at straws, or is just disruptive to the flow of practice.

“Thanks coach, see you tomorrow.”

Wes phrased this well – “we’re all in this together to try and be the best we can be”. You might not always agree with your coach’s decisions but you’re both working towards the same goal of having a successful season so you should, at the very least, be appreciative of their efforts and respect the time they spend helping you become a better a athlete.

Saying “thanks coach” after they’ve spent time on the erg with you or going over evals or just after a regular practice row … it’s a simple gesture that can strengthen the bond between the team and the coach(es). Some of the moments that have meant the most to me at MIT have been when someone’s said “thanks for working with the coxswains, all the work you’ve put in is really paying off” because it motivates me to work harder to help them get better which in turn motivates them to work harder because they know someone’s got their back. If you put in effort your coaches will too and that’s only going to help you get better.

Use rowing to make your life better

This has been a big topic of conversation this week between myself and one of the other coaches. Everyone gets something different out of rowing but you’re more likely to get something out of it if you’re actually making the effort to get better. If you’re open to being coached and getting advice/feedback from other people, you’ll start seeing that stuff manifest in how you act and carry yourself in your everyday life.

“How can I do my thing better?”

You have to take care of yourself first before trying to help others get better. This is huge for coxswains because you can’t help the rowers or the boat if your own skills are subpar. If you want the boat to get better, look first at what you can do to improve and then find a way to translate the skills you’ve been developing to your teammates.

None of them are groundbreaking but that’s also probably why they’re easily overlooked when someone (rower or coxswain) asks the question of “what can I do to get better?”. It’s the little things…

Five things to do as a novice coxswain

If you’re new to the sport of rowing and got tapped to be a coxswain, here’s a few things you should do to help make sure your first few weeks go smoothly.

Establish a relationship with your coach.

Don’t be intimidated by them. Communication and trust are intangible assets when it comes to the coach-coxswain relationship so establishing them early on in your career can only help you. Talk to them regularly before and after practice and find out things like how they like to run practice. Coaches will vary on how much involvement they have, as well as how much involvement they’ll want from you when you’re just starting out. It’s definitely their responsibility to tell you this stuff up front but some won’t or will forget so take the initiative and ask yourself.

Listen and learn.

Observe everything. Ask lots of questions – even if you think they’re stupid, you get a pass because you’re new. Engage. Seek out and accept feedback/critiques on a regular basis.

Related: Advice from a former novice

Use your time wisely

As a novice you’re not going to have a ton of responsibilities right off the bat so use any “down” time (i.e. when the rowers are erging or you’re riding in the launch) to talk to the other coxswains and learn about the boathouse (where stuff is), procedures (getting the boat in/out), equipment (which boats/cox boxes you use), team culture, etc. Don’t be a wallflower or you’ll fall behind fast.

Reflect.

There’s a lot you have to learn and be in command of so establishing what your personal goals are (why you’re doing this, what you want to get out of it, etc.) and prioritizing the skills you need to master ASAP (steering…) will give you a framework to go off of, which will give going to practice every day an added sense of purpose that you might not otherwise have right off the bat.

Find a mentor.

Ideally this would be a varsity coxswain but it can also be a coach, team captain, etc. Basically you want to find someone who can help you get up to speed, answer questions, and just be a resource when needed. We did this in high school and we do it here at MIT too. It’s great because you have single source of contact so you never have to worry about who to ask if you have a question. Here we try to pair the guys off with other guys in their major so that if questions arise about classes, professors, advisors, internships, jobs, etc. they’ll be able to ask someone who’s experienced it all while also being a full-time student athlete. Plus, it helps with retention if people feel like they’ve got a friend on their side from the beginning vs. feeling like they’re going at this on their own.

Keep in mind too that this doesn’t only apply to novices, it applies any time you join a new team, even if you’re an experienced coxswain. If you’re a week or two into your freshman year of college and haven’t done any of the above yet, make it a priority this week to, at the very least, have a conversation with your coach and find a peer mentor on the team if they’re not already assigned to you.

2016 Summer Camps

The 2016 camps spreadsheet is up – click here to check it out.

Similar to last year, you can see all the camps on the first tab, arranged by what area of the country they’re located in. Highlighted camps in each section indicate that they’re aimed at college rowers and coxswains (everything else is for juniors). I’ll try to keep this updated throughout the spring but if you know of any camps that I haven’t included that have their 2016 info up, feel free to send me an email.

Question of the Day

Hi, I’m currently an sophomore high school girls coxswain and this question doesn’t really have to do with coxing or rowing, but I hope you can help me out. Both the junior and senior classes of my crew are very small, two people each. However, the sophomore class is quite big, around 15. Now that the spring season is starting only about 5 novices have joined so our coach, who was a rower back when the varsity team had 90 girls total, is mad at us and constantly pressing us to go out and recruit. Our school has about 600 people per grade so it shouldn’t seem too hard but I am not very good at talking to new people so I have a hard time going up to people to recruit. I am wondering if you have any tips on how to recruit and things to say to the person to get them interested in the sport.

Check out this post. It’s mainly geared towards recruiting coxswains to your team (and what not to do) but there’s some stuff in there that’s applicable to recruiting in general.

Instead of talking to individual people (which will never not be awkward) try reaching out to groups instead, like National Honor Society (pretty sure 3/4 of my team was in NHS), Model UN, Key Club, Student Council, etc. If your school has a marching band (particularly a competitive one), that’d be another good group to talk to. I think during my freshman and sophomore year at least half of us (which was like, 50ish people) were on the crew team too since it was a good way to stay in shape between when we finished in November and started again in July.

That’s obviously not a comprehensive list but it’s a good starting point if you think about the type of people that rowing typically attracts – driven, competitive, dedicated, etc. See if you can make a quick 5 minute pitch at the start of their next meeting and say that the team is looking for people who’d be interested in joining, this is when/where practice is, follow us on social media to get an idea for what the team is like, and if you have any questions talk to [the team captain(s), the seniors, or whoever else you designate]. You don’t have to give a ton of details right off the bat so just give them the pertinent information and then you can answer the more specific questions later. Another thing is to see if you can occupy a small part of the chalkboard in some of the classrooms. We did this my senior year and asked our AP/Honors teachers if they’d mind us writing something and leaving it there for a week or so and they were all pretty cool with it. I don’t remember what we wrote but it was probably something really simple (“WANNA ROW? 3PM. LIBRARY. SNACKS.”) written in a delightfully artsy design that only a bunch of 17 year old girls given colored chalk and free reign over the chalkboard could design.

Another great way to get new people is to talk to fall/winter athletes who aren’t doing a spring sport. We had a lot of swimmers, basketball players, volleyball players, cross-country runners, and soccer players on our team, in addition to several football players – wide receivers, running backs, safeties, and kickers specifically. These were always some of the best people on the team (physically and mentally) because they already had that competitive mindset that can be really hard to teach new athletes. If you’re trying to get walk-ons in the fall you can also have your coach talk to the coaches of the other fall teams and see if they can get a list of the kids that were cut that might have the potential (aka athletic ability) to excel at another sport. Just because they didn’t make the soccer team doesn’t mean they wouldn’t make a good rower!

Pro tip: Advice from a former novice

Back in late June I got an email from a coxswain who had just finished her novice season and wanted to share some of what she’d learned and what she wish she’d learned throughout the spring. Here’s what she had to say (the italicized text is mine).

“Now that I’m no longer a novice, I can reflect on my time on the novice team and also add in all the new things I’m learning at a competitive camp. My hope is that I can help the novices that look at your blog with all my mishaps and experiences, so here are two lists:

Things I wish my coach told me while I was a novice:

When you’re rowing it up after your sprint race, if you see boats coming down the course about to pass you, weigh enough.

For those that don’t know, this is a sportsmanship thing and also so that the wake from you rowing doesn’t impact the crew in the lane closest to you. You’re not always required to stop (the officials will tell you if it’s something you must do but if they don’t, ask to confirm) but it’s just one of those things you should do regardless. It also gives the rowers a chance to grab a quick drink or make any needed adjustments, not to mention cheer on their teammates if a race your team is in is on the course.

When you have a bad day/bad row don’t let it stay in the boat with you. Let it go and be patient.

Don’t expect rowers to do what you say just because you’re their coxswain. You have to be their leader.

When steering, less is more.

Related: How to steer an eight or four, Oversteering, and “Small adjustments

If you need to clear your skeg of weeds in an eight, you need to turn all the way around, lean over the stern deck on your stomach, and get both hands down on the skeg.

Unless it’s 80 degrees out this is rarely an enjoyable activity but if you’ve got a lot of weeds/leaves wrapped around the rudder or a stick caught between the fin and the rudder (had that happen at HOCR two years ago) then reaching into the water and loosening it up manually is your best/fastest option. Just make sure that you’re pulled over to the side out of the way of other crews that are practicing or racing. 

Things I’m so glad my coach told me when I was a novice:

Your warmup is this, your race plan is this, and when I raced in college, it helped when my coxswain said this.

With regards to the first two, if these aren’t things your coaches tell you, ask them yourself. They might forget, they might think you already know, or they might think that one of the other coaches already filled you in. If you don’t know ASK. These are not dumb questions, these are critical parts of your race day preparation.

Don’t panic, and have fun.

This is how you stake boat. (She showed us a video and then the next day we practiced it on our dock.)

Related: Spring season pre-race prep (includes videos on how to get into a stake boat)

When coxing an eight, instead of staring at one oar at a time, stare at a point in the air in front of your stroke, and your peripherals will bring everything to you. (Tricky to do, but when practiced, super helpful.)

Being a few pounds over the limit is okay. It’s called the minimum for a reason.

So, as a message to all frustrated novice coxswains (and rowers!), here are my words of advice: Hang in there. You never stop learning but it does get better.”