Making mistakes

It’s not like it’s any big secret that our generation doesn’t know how to fail at things. It’s definitely something I struggle(d) with but over time coxing helped me reframe it as a skill that can be developed rather than as some defining characteristic. You can’t be a coxswain – not even a good coxswain, just a coxswain – and not be OK with making mistakes. It’s going to happen, especially when you’re just getting started, and how you respond to those moments (and their aftermath, in some cases) can set the stage for how easily you adapt to adverse situations in the future.

Also, note to all the parents that are reading … public shaming in this context is a good thing. There’s no need to be traumatized for your kid (who, by the way, is a young adult and should be able to handle critiques and feedback by now) because they had to go a whole four days without being praised for walking upright and breathing without being told to. If the only thing you take away from them telling you about their camp experience is that “public shaming” is a thing they participated in and you subsequently focus on that in a negative way instead of asking them what they learned and took away from it, you. are. not. helping. them. Ask them questions about what they did wrong, how they reacted to getting called out for it, what they did differently next time as a result, etc. and help them learn that making a mistake is not some apocalyptic event that is going to derail their entire career. Be supportive but don’t coddle them – I promise, they’ll survive.

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How to: Rotate through the Sixes

This regularly gets asked by new coxswains at the start of each season so hopefully this helps you learn the order of the switches, as well as who’s being switched in and out.

Related: Transitioning by fours in an 8+ always confuses me. I know you start with stern four, then stern pair out, then three four in, but what’s after that? Who goes in and out in what order? Thanks!

It’s not nearly as difficult as it looks but it does help to familiarize yourself with the transitions before you actually need to call them.

How to: Avoid being repetitive

Lately I’ve been emailing with several coxswains who have been using their time indoors to work on their calls and eliminate some of the repetitiveness that comes with not knowing what to say. A question I got back in December (that encapsulates the general vibe of the other questions I’ve been asked) said “how do you suggest rephrasing things and not just spouting meaningless calls?”. Below is my response.

“As far as styles of calls, it’s different for every coxswain and varies between the crews they’re coxing. So, knowing your crew is step one. What do they respond best to? Are they the type of crew that needs a lot of positive reinforcement and motivation or are they the type that wants very blunt, straightforward, no bullshit-type of calls?

Step two is understanding technique and the style of rowing your coach is trying to teach. The more you understand the nuances of the rowing stroke, how the bodies connect to the blades, etc. the easier it will be for you to communicate what you’re seeing and feeling to what actually needs to happen. The winter is a good time to talk about all this with your coach and ask questions if you have them.

Step three is taking a copious amount of notes. If you’re ever in the launch you should be able to come off the water with at least a page or two of notes based on the things you hear your coach saying. Obviously it’s a little harder to do this on the water because you’re not going to remember everything but that’s why you use your recorder – most of the time you can pick up your coach’s voice on there so listen to what he’s saying to your crew and write down stuff from that that can be used as calls. I ride in the launch with our head coach nearly every day and I tend to write in shorthand the stuff he’s saying to each guy so I can pass it on to our coxswains for them to make calls with.

For example, (I’m just flipping open to a random page in my notebook), during a practice back in September he was talking to two of the guys about burying their blades too deep through the drive and how part of the reason why they were doing that was because they were opening their backs too early instead of hanging their weight off the handle. I actually remember us sitting in the basin as he explained this for about five minutes but of that five minute long technical explanation, what I wrote down was “don’t confuse hanging body w/ opening backs too early → why Charlie and Sam are going too deep w/ the blades”.

After practice I talked about that with our coxswains and they’ve been able to take that and turn it into a handful of different calls, all relating back to the same concept of suspension. Because this specific issue was originally aimed at those two guys in particular, they’ll occasionally incorporate them into their calls too – i.e. “let’s hang the bodies off the handles and suspend our weight through the drive – Charlie and Sam, stay horizontal here through the water”.

What I’m getting at is the majority of what you’ve gotta do to avoid becoming repetitive with your calls has to happen off the water. Creating a backlog of sorts of the things your coach says to the rowers is a great place to start though because from there you can incorporate that stuff into your calls and spin your own calls off of whatever technical thing he’s coaching the rowers on based on what you’re seeing.”

To that last point, I do this in Google Docs. Every couple of weeks I’ll take all the semi-legible notes I scribble on the launch and dump them into a Google Doc that houses, at this point, three years worth of technical and motivational calls and phrases. Trust me though, your notebook and recorder will be two of your biggest assets here so take advantage of them. You can check out the two posts linked below if you’re not sure how to keep a notebook or what the best type of recorder is to get.

Related: Keeping a notebook and The best recorders for coxswains

Most of what I said in that email has been said in a variety of posts over the years but now that it’s all in one place, I hope this will help you hone in on the steps you need to take if being less repetitive with your calls is something you’re working on too.

Question of the Day

How do you avoid being repetitive if your boat keeps falling off the goal stroke rate? The boat I cox sometimes struggles to keep it up and I don’t want to constantly be calling “up two in two,” as I feel like it’s either not working (which is why we keep coming back down) or it gets annoying. Once we get up to rate I try to sometimes call for a “focus 5” to really focus on what the rate feels like and maybe help with building muscle memory of what the slide speed and drive speed should feel like and I think it helps a bit, but sometimes we fall back down anyway.

Also, how do you call a double pause drill (e.g., pause at arms over and at half slide)? Do you say “row” after the first pause, even though they’re not actually rowing but rather moving to a second pause? Or do you not call the pauses/”row”s at all and just let stroke seat take control? (I’m in a bowloader, if that makes a difference)

Thanks!

Good question about the pause drills. Check out the “relevant calls” section, specifically the first and second paragraphs, in the “Top 20 terms” post linked below. That addresses exactly what you asked.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Pause drills

If for whatever reason you aren’t calling something, whoever’s in bow takes over making the calls, not stroke (and that’s rare too that they’d need to take over doing that). Being in a bowloader though is irrelevant. You don’t need to see them to feel when they get to the first pause and from there you just need to wait 2-3 seconds before calling them to half slide. Wash, rinse, repeat.

With the stroke rate issues, first thing you should do is talk to your coach. Explain that you’re having trouble maintaining the stroke rate and see if they can take some video of the crew that they can then go over with everyone later. This should help you narrow down what technical things you can narrow in on with your calls to help them hold the rate.

There’s plenty of things you could focus on but here’s three to start with..

Get the hands moving out of bow at a speed that matches whatever rate you’re at. You’re not gonna hit a 32 if your hands are coming away at a 26. Hand speed’s gotta match the boat speed. Get the body set before the legs come up too, that way you’re not dumping all your weight into the front end as you try to change direction.

Change direction at both ends in one fluid motion. When the slide/handle stops moving in one direction it should immediately start moving in the other. If you’re hanging at the front end or pausing at the back end the boat’s gonna lose momentum and whatever energy you could be putting into maintaining the rate is gonna have to go into picking it back up again (which is gonna feel super heavy and cause you to fatigue sooner which will also contribute to the rate falling off).

Get the rate on the drive. You’ve gotta build the pressure before the rate so as you’re building between the “off” strokes and the “on” strokes, don’t make it all about slide speed. Make sure the blades are fully buried and that they’re squeezing the legs the catch and getting a solid push off the stretchers that is then followed up by accelerating the handle through the second half of the stroke. If you can get the boat running well that’s gonna make it feel lighter at the catch which in turn will make it easier to pick up and turn around.

Focus fives lose their meaning really fast if you constantly call them without any sort of positive outcome. All you’re basically saying is that they just have to focus on X for five strokes and then they can go back to … not focusing on it. If something feels good, just say that. If you want them to do something, just say it.

I’m assuming you’re coxing a younger crew, in which case there’s not usually enough stability or consistency over five strokes to get a good idea of what good ratio feels like or how (for example) a 22 feels compared to an 18. Instead of doing a focus five, lengthen it out to 60-90 seconds … and be quiet during that time so they can actually feel the boat, process it, and commit it to muscle memory. This is a good thing to do during steady state and you can preface it by saying “the ratio here at the 22 feels pretty good so for the next 90 seconds, let’s maintain this by doing XYZ” … and then let them go.

Question of the Day

Hi! Recently I’ve taken a bigger role on my team as a coxswain and have made some definite improvements with my confidence. But, I’m still struggling with how to handle frustration. When a boat feels really good and my rowers are being super responsive I feel as though I make really good calls, but when my rowers aren’t being as responsive to me or they’re tired, I feel like I never know how to motivate them without sounding mean. The other day a rower told me to work on saying more positive calls instead of negative calls, but I’m having trouble thinking of what would be considered a negative call. What do you think I should do to improve on this?

Good timing with this question – it’s something I’ll be talking about with one of our coxswains this week when we go over their evals, hence why this is a really long response since this is all fresh on my mind.

tl;dr The best way to turn practice around and get them to respond to you is to communicate throughout practice and keep everything you’re doing goal-oriented and the best way to pinpoint “negative” calls is to look at what you’re telling them not to do and then rephrase by telling them what you want them to do.

You should definitely ask that rower for clarification about the positive vs. negative call thing so you understand what calls they’re perceiving as negative and what alternatives they think would/could be more effective. A good rule of thumb if you’re trying to figure out what a “negative” call is is to think about what you’re telling the rowers not to do rather than what you’re telling them to do. Here’s the example that one of the guys gave on the evals:

“When [that coxswain] makes technical calls, they tend to be something like ‘Dan, don’t row it in’. This is so much less effective than saying ‘Dan, back it in’ or ‘Dan, get some backsplash’, or even ‘Dan, you’re rowing it in, you need to get some backsplash here’.”

So, it’s not that what you’re saying is inherently or traditionally negative, it’s just that when you say “don’t do X” they’re more likely to start thinking more about whatever you just said not to do instead of immediately thinking “OK this is the change I need to make”, which is what they’d do if you instead phrased it in one of the ways listed in the example above.

One example that Marcus McElhenney used with the coxswains last winter to make this point was he’d say “don’t think about a pink elephant … don’t think about a pink elephant … don’t think about a pink elephant” … and then he’d ask “OK what are you thinking about? Are you thinking about a normal elephant or are you thinking about a pink elephant?” and of course everyone said they were thinking about, visualizing, etc. a pink elephant, even though that’s what he said not to do. It’s a “the more you try not to think about it, the more you end up thinking about it” kind of thing so to combat that, you have to make sure that the words you’re using to communicate with the crew are as efficient as possible, which in this case means eliminating the negative word (“don’t”) and replacing it with something more effective/”positive”.

The first part of your question is similar to something I talked about with our freshman coxswain today. If practice isn’t going well or the crew isn’t responding to your calls, turning that around has literally – literally – nothing to do with motivation. Like pretty much everything else related to coxing, that should be your lowest priority. If they’re not as responsive today as they were yesterday, you’ve first gotta look at yourself and figure out a different/better way to communicate with them.

When I’ve been in that position I always talk to my stroke (with the mic turned off) between pieces and ask if there’s something I could/should be saying that I’m not or something they’re feeling that I’m not picking up on that I should address, etc. From there I’ll quickly say to the boat “Something’s not working … what’s going on, how can I help?” and usually someone in the boat will have an opinion on what I can say to get them to refocus. I’ve rarely ever been in a boat where the rowers don’t know what needs to be done to get back on track, it’s just that they need someone (aka me) to facilitate it and if I’m approaching it from a different angle or just not addressing it at all, it helps to just ask and have them say “this is what we need from you”. It also saves a ton of time, which took a while to accept because there was definitely a period where I didn’t want to ask them that because I felt like I should just know or be able to pick up on it without someone laying it out for me … but it’s not always that simple or easy so you’ve gotta have that back and forth communication otherwise you’re just gonna waste time going through six different things that aren’t working instead jumping straight into the one or two things that will work.

The second thing you’ve gotta do after evaluating how you’re communicating is just get over feeling like you’re sounding mean or being a bitch or whatever just because you’re asking for more or in some cases, the bare minimum.  Like, there’s obviously a fine line between pushing them to meet their potential during practice so you can get shit done and pushing too far to the point where they’re giving everything they’ve got and you’re just coming off as unsatisfied and making them think their efforts aren’t good enough … you definitely have to be aware of that. At the same time though, you have plenty of tools at your disposal to keep you on the right path, namely your Speedcoach that’s showing you your splits (you know where you’re at vs. where you need to be and from there you know how much harder you can push them … usually one or two splits is good as a “stretch” goal for pieces if things are going well) and your own goal-oriented practice plan that you’re ideally forming in your head as soon as you find out what the workout is.

This is another thing that we ask the guys about on the evals – how do the coxswains do at keeping practice on task, goal-oriented, etc. and if practice is going poorly, how good are they at turning that around. We definitely have days where the guys are similar to your rowers – not responsive, tired for whatever reason, and just not in it – but the consistent theme when I ask them what the coxswains could do better is that they just need to keep the crew focused on a goal. Sometimes the overarching goal of practice is too broad (i.e. if it’s a skill-and-drill day and we’re working on blade placement at the catch) so the coxswains will need to break it down even further and lay out some smaller goals that feed into that larger goal for this next piece or for the next 3-2-1 chunk of steady state or whatever.

That shouldn’t be something you always need to come up with on the fly either. Sometimes it is just based on what you’re seeing but in talking with your coach(es) before practice you should be able to extrapolate a couple of sub-goals based on whatever they say you’re gonna do that day. To use the blade placement example again, if that’s the main focus then the sub-goals/focuses should be on moving the hands away together, watching the shoulders of the guy in front of you, anticipating their movements and swinging out of bow together, starting the wheels together, making sure the bodies are fully set by the time the handle crosses the toes (that’s our style, yours might be different), and unweighting the hands in the last inch or two of the slide as you come into a fully compressed catch position.

On the surface sure, it doesn’t exactly read like how a “goal” normally reads because each of those is just a step in the process but each of those things has to happen if you want your catch to be on point and your blade to move through the longest arc possible in the water so they should naturally be a focus every time you take a stroke. You are the one with the power to take those inherent focuses and turn them into something more goal-oriented in order to get everyone back on the same page.

If we’re doing 3-2-1 at 18-20-24spm then something we might do is say “alright, let’s refocus and for the next minute here at an 18 let’s anticipate that movement out of bow together and match up the hands as they come away…”. Remind them to breathe and stay loose and then give them a few strokes to get it on their own. Make some calls throughout that first minute about tapping down, finish posture, matching the hands to the speed of the boat, etc. – all things that directly relate to getting the hands out together, that way you keep them singularly focused on matching up the hands. Give them feedback on how it’s going and then move on in the next minute to swinging the shoulders over together. Incorporate in a few calls about the hands but try to stay focused on swing, staying loose with the upper body, pivoting from the hips, anticipating the movements of the guy in front of you, etc.

From there you’re just progressively building on each step of the recovery until finally you’re at a 24 and can put it all together. Once we’ve gone through that 3-2-1 segment then the coxswains will take a step back and just let them row on their own for awhile to give them a more extended period of time to process what they just worked on.

That’s where that fine balance comes in of knowing when to push and ask for more and knowing when to take a step back and let them work it out on their own. If things are going poorly you’ve gotta be the first one to step up and say “alright, this is what we’re gonna do, this is how we’re gonna do it, let’s go…” and then once you’ve spent a few minutes on that, back off and let them focus on just feeling the boat and committing those changes to memory. A tendency with coxswains (myself included for sure) is to want to tackle every problem immediately or to just go radio silent and address nothing but if you are focused and you understand the stroke and how each movement feeds into another, it’s really easy to break things down into smaller parts that you can then use to get practice back on track.

Something to keep in mind too is that everything I listed above isn’t going to work 100% of the time. There will be days where nothing you try works and that’s OK as long as you’ve actually made the effort to find a solution. If you just sit back and do nothing then you’ve failed in your responsibility as the coxswain but if you’re actively trying different things and are finding that none of them are clicking, you’ve gotta keep an Edison-esque mindset about it and accept that you didn’t fail, you just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work. Those 10,000 ways that didn’t work are just as important to know as the one way you find that does work so spend some time post-practice reviewing what you did, what you tried, what wasn’t working, etc. and then … move on. You’ve now got a ton of info on hand for what to do and what not to do so just let it go and commit to doing something different tomorrow.

How to prioritize and organize your calls

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 || How to cox (and coach) novices

One of the key parts of ensuring you don’t get repetitive or run out of things to say during a practice or race is prioritizing your calls and organizing them (and yourself). When you’re racing it’s also a key part in ensuring your race plan is executed efficiently and cleanly. At one of the Sparks camps I was at last month I was coaching with Malcolm Doldron, who is the lightweight women’s head coach at BU (and a former coxswain), and he laid out a unique plan for organizing your calls that I hadn’t seen before, at least not in this configuration. If being more organized on the water is something you’ve been working on or you have it set as a goal for the upcoming year, try this out and see if it works for you.

Related: Mike Teti’s “Three S’s of Coxing”

The first part of this is prioritizing your calls, which should go something like this:

1. Safety + steering
2. Distance, rate, splits (if applicable), and time
3. Rhythm + technique
4. Motivation

The second part is organizing yourself and knowing where to focus and what to say. Malcolm suggested thinking of it like a clock. To orient yourself, you/the stern are at 6 o’clock, the bow of the boat is at 12 o’clock, and laterally at 3 and 9 o’clock you’ve got the crews you’re rowing with, along with the buoy or shore line.

Looking straight ahead towards where you’re pointed and at your crew should be your main focus. This also corresponds with whatever “safety and steering” calls you make, as well as the “rhythm and technique” ones. From there you’ve got the information that’s right in front of you at 6 o’clock (the data from your CoxBox and SpeedCoach) and then whatever’s on either side of you at 3 and 9. Thinking about it like this is similar to your race plans in that it gives you a framework to go off of vs. just getting in the boat and having all this stuff around you with no semblance of how to cherry-pick the important stuff and communicate it to the crew.

It took me a sec before I fully understood how he was laying it out but once I processed it I realized that this is pretty similar to how I organize myself when I’m coxing. I’ve never laid it out like this but I know that when I’m on the water I’m constantly shuffling between 12, 6, 3, 6, 9, 12, 6, 12, 9, 3, 6, 12, etc. Most of you who have been coxing for awhile will probably realize the same thing it but if you’re new to coxing or like I said earlier, working to better organize yourself and your calls, consider this an option for how to go about that.

Question of the Day

Hey! I have a couple questions. 

1. I’m not very good at taking criticism. Mentally I don’t mind it and I try to use it and everything, but for some reason emotionally I seem to take it as an attack and always feel close to crying. I’m not sure why this is and I was wondering if you have any tips.

2. We just got a new coach and he’s doing a summer rowing program, which is great, but he’s trying to completely change my style of coxing. I understand that repetitiveness is something I need to work on, but he’s telling me that while I was coxing the rowers on the ergs that I was “singing” to them. He expects me to be much louder (which I can be when I choose to be- I prefer to save it and use it as a “wake up” call kinda thing to change the pace of the race) and also be more direct and short (which I understand that part of and agree with). How should I deal with this? Should I try to explain my ways (I did a bit) or just go with what he says? And how do you work on being less repetitive ?

Thanks!! (Sorry if the second one is kind of a loaded question. Today was the first day with the new coach and tomorrow is the first day on the water)

So this is always a question that I genuinely don’t know how to answer and always struggle with when people ask for advice on how to work through it. I think my initial thoughts on it tend to come off kind of flippant (unintentionally) which makes it hard to give legit feedback without sounding like an ass. My take on it though is that if you can acknowledge the value in what’s being said and are able to use it … I don’t see how at the same time it can be construed as an attack. You’ve gotta be able to separate you the coxswain from you the person, which I talked about in the post linked below. If someone says “you’re a bitch” then yea, that’s clearly a personal attack but if they say “you need to work on your steering”, that has absolutely nothing to do with you as a person. One of the things I learned early on in coxing is that you have to – have to – look at everything objectively. As soon as you start letting emotions cloud your judgement or how you interpret situations you’re shooting yourself in the foot and limiting your growth potential.

Related: Coxswain skills: How to handle a negative coxswain evaluation

Anyways, moving on. It kinda seems like you’re contradicting yourself a bit here by saying your coach wants to completely change how you cox … but you acknowledge that you could do XYZ better. Normally in situations where a coach is at odds with a coxswain’s style I’d advocate for them to, at the very least, explain their approach so the coach can better understand why they do things a certain way. In most cases I think that as long as your approach isn’t completely ass-backwards to the way things should be done (which some coxswains try to pass off as “their style”) and you’re able to clearly communicate how/why coxing this way works for your crew, most coaches will take a step back and let you do your thing. I’ve had to do that before (not even with new coaches either, with my coaches that I’d worked with for 3-4 years) and one of my coaches who was a coxswain said that even though he didn’t necessarily agree with how I was doing it, I presented it in a way that at least made sense and he could see that the crew responded well to it.

In your case though, I think you should just go with what he says for the time being (give it a trial period of a week or two) and see how it goes. Tell him that you’re going to be working on XYZ and ask if he can give you some feedback over the next few days about how you’re doing. After your trial period is up, compare and contrast the changes you made with how you were coxing before. What improved, what stayed the same, etc. Whatever improves, based on his and the rowers feedback, incorporate it and do it from now on. With whatever stays the same, explain that you tried doing [whatever] the way he suggested and the rowers didn’t really respond to it or felt kinda “meh” about it so you’re probably just gonna stick with how you were doing it before, at least for now.

With whatever suggestions you don’t use or incorporate, I’d at least keep them in your back pocket to use if/when you need to try something new. There have definitely been times where a coach has suggested something to me and I’m just like “lol no” because I know it won’t work or sounds ridiculous but other times, even if their suggestion doesn’t work at the time with whatever boat I’m coxing, I’ll try to remember it so if a time comes when I’m feeling burnt out or the crew I’m with is hitting a mental plateau, I’ve got something on hand that I can try. Why create extra work/stress for myself by trying to come up with new calls/strategies when I can just re-try or re-purpose ones that have already been suggested to me?

Related: Hi! I just started coxing this fall, and towards the end of the season my rowers told me that the calls I was making during our race pieces were good but that I should work on being more controlled with my voice. I think it’s because I’m nervous about being silent for too long so I rush everything out but then I also run out of things to say. I also think I need to work on being less repetitive and have a little more intensity to my calls. However, we went off the water right after that. Is there any way I can work on this over the winter? I really want to work on these things and I’m bummed I won’t really have a good opportunity the whole winter. I cox the guys on the ergs but it’s very different than being in the boat. Right now I’m just listening to tapes when I have spare time and taking notes, but is there any way to actually practice this before spring?

As far as how to work on being less repetitive, check out the post linked above. A good place to start would be to listen to your recordings and identify which calls you use most frequently, that way you can then think about what you’re actually trying to say and come up with more specific calls from there. If you’re one of those coxswains that says “let’s go” or “now” every 5 strokes during a race then working on creating a basic race plan would probably go a long way in helping cut down on the repetitiveness. The less room you give yourself to make seemingly random calls like that (outside of where they can/should be used), the better you’ll be at communicating effectively with the boat.