Question of the Day

Hello! First thing I just wanted to say is you have helped me so much with coxing and thank you for that. I am in 8th grade and I am on the Freshman crew on our team. I cox the Fresh 8 and it has been said that I am competition for varsity coxswains. My boat just won sweep states and I had an amazing race. I steered perfectly straight the whole way through and I called great calls, in my boats opinion. So you could say I’m pretty good.

I have a bad problem though. I have no confidence. No matter how good I am I still seem to think I am doing something wrong. I don’t know if it is because I don’t get much compliments from the coaches, even though the rowers get a bucket load, or if I feel I am too young, or anything else. I was coxing the 2V today and I got really nervous and started doubting myself more than usual and I got really self conscious about my abilities. I don’t know why but whenever I am not racing, I overthink things and get nervous about everything I say. When I am racing, I feel like it is just me and my boat who I know and trust and feel like they won’t “judge me”. When I am out on the water during practice, I just keep thinking in my mind I am going to do or say something wrong. What I am really asking is … how do I boost my confidence?

I (and I’m sure a lot of other coxswains) relate to this hard. One of the things you learn (and have to accept) early on is that you’re most likely not going to get a lot of external validation from your coach(es). It doesn’t mean they think you suck or anything else, it’s just the way it is. If you’re doing your job right, you frankly shouldn’t even be a blip on their radar during practice anyways because the majority of what you’re doing isn’t going to be that blatantly obvious. If you screw something up though (steering being the obvious thing) then it’s super obvious to everyone, even the casual observer (think of the Snowflake Regatta shitshow), and you’re more likely to get an annoyed and probably deserved call-out thrown your way.

One thing that helped me was accepting the stuff I know I’m good at and not trying to find ways to discredit or undermine myself. I tend to write off my accomplishments by lessening them and focusing on what could have gone better, what I could have done instead to achieve an even better result, or by saying “it’s really not that big of a deal, literally no one else is gonna care about this, etc”. That’s a pretty shitty approach because all you’re doing is taking stuff that should be inherent confidence builders and not even giving them a chance to lay that foundation that the rest of your confidence is built on. And trust me, that’s a deep and unpleasant hole to try and dig yourself out of.

Related: Notebook “hacks”: Post-practice affirmations

The “too young” thing, I totally get that too because I feel the exact same way whenever I’m at a camp with other coaches and I’m one of, if not the, youngest one on staff. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you do feel so behind the curve but whenever I think I shouldn’t be there because I’m nowhere near as experienced as them, I remind myself that I have just as many years coxing (almost 15) as some of them have coaching. When you look at who we’re coaching (rowers vs. coxswains), we’re basically on a relatively level playing field. That might be completely bullshit logic but it’s how I justify it to myself and it lessens my anxiety about not being taken seriously because I’m 10+ years younger than almost everyone else and haven’t been coaching nearly as long. I know I’m good at communicating what I know and other people must think that too, otherwise why would I be there to begin with? That’s kind of what it comes back to – you are where you are because somebody believes you’ve got the necessary skills to own that role and succeed at it. If they didn’t think you could do it, they’d have already found someone better to replace you with.

Related: 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 and probably 95% of the other coxswains reading this overthink our calls, wonder if they’re are gonna be good enough, wonder if we’ll sound stupid when we say “cha” between strokes, get nervous before practice pieces, etc. It’s fine as long as you remember that even though people might have feedback on what you say or do, you care a lot more about the minutiae of your coxing than anyone else in your boat. Once you get past that and accept that regardless of whether they like it or don’t like it they’ll tell you, that self-conscious barrier kinda goes away and you’re more open to just going with the flow of practice and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The more stuff you find that works, the more confident you’ll be because you’ll feel more in charge and less overwhelmed by uncertainty and anxiety.

Related: Making Mistakes

You’ve also gotta accept that mistakes are gonna happen and then own them when they do. Making mistakes is one of the best learning tools you’ll come across as a coxswain so you shouldn’t let them be confidence-killers. If you spend your entire practice being scared to mess up or nervous that you might say or do something wrong, you’re not even giving yourself the chance to do it right. You’ve got a 50-50 shot regardless so you might as well do it with the assumption you’re gonna do it right and then see what happens. I’m sure others can attest to this, it is the best feeling when it actually does go right because you get the biggest surge of confidence and you just feel good. There’s no magic formula to building confidence but riding that high and building on it each day at practice is definitely part of the process.

Question of the Day

Hello! I was wondering if you had any advice for not panicking during a head race? I’m a novice rower who usually rows stroke in doubles. During practices everything is fine. Mock races are great, good start, ratio, and pressure … but during the last two actual regattas I started panicking when the head race started and my rate was too fast with no pressure and I felt like it was endless and I couldn’t push … it almost felt like I had to give up! Do you had any advice?

Here’s a similar question I answered a few years ago that might help.

If things are good during practice then the issue is more likely you just letting your nerves get to you rather than you getting to the starting line and panicking because you feel unprepared (which is another reason why people freak out at the start). I used to always get really nervous before the start of a race too so before our boat would meet to start our land warmup I’d find a quiet spot well away from the boats, other people, etc. and just sit for 10-15 minutes to try and relax. Sometimes I’d go lay in our trailer if it was a short walk away and other times I’d go into the boathouse and find a stairwell to sit in. I totally sabotaged myself during one of my first races as a novice by letting my nerves get to me and it was a total shitshow (at least on my end) so I learned quickly that I needed to take a few minutes to get out of my own head before we launched. During the row up to the start I’d always try to focus on my breathing too (long, slow, deep breaths), that way I’d always have something to focus on even when I wasn’t making calls to the boat.

Related: I’m a novice rower and I’m racing in my 1st head race this weekend, any tips? I’m freaking out!

The more experienced I got the less nervous I’d be by the time we got to the starting line but even now the buildup of adrenaline still makes me antsy. Once I catch myself drumming my fingers on the gunnels I know I need to close my eyes and take a couple deep breaths to get back to that relaxed baseline feeling I had on the row up. I talk to myself a lot while we’re sitting there too (in my head, not out loud … that’d be weird), usually just to remind myself to chill out, the crew trusts me and has my back, etc. Each of my stroke seats and I (or bow seats if I’m in a four) have always had our own little thing we’d do too (fist bumps, “secret handshakes”, things we’d say to one another, etc.) and that’s kinda the last little thing I need to get me 100% dialed in. At that point there’s no time left to be panicked or antsy because I’ve got a job to do so whatever nervous energy I have left just has to be channeled into calling the race.

I’d recommend doing something similar before your next race – find somewhere quiet to collect your thoughts before you launch, subtly focus on your breathing on the row up, and dial yourself in at the line so your start is as controlled and powerful as possible. What works for everyone is a little different so you’ll probably have to tweak all that to make it work for you but eventually you’ll get into a pre-race routine that leaves no room for nerves to take over.

Question of the Day

This might be a tough one: I’m a coxswain on my college team. After years, I’m finally coxing our first varsity boat. That’s the good news. The bad news is I’m dealing with a lot right now – I’ve been suffering from anxiety and depression as well as dealing with losing a best friend to suicide roughly a year ago. My anxiety is generally much worse during spring season because races where I have to weigh in freak me out. I am about 110, 5’4″ but a lot of our coxswains barely come up to my shoulders and I worry my coach will replace me if they weigh less than I do!

I’ve been seriously considering taking this season off to get my head together, but every time I decide to do it, I become convinced my coach will question my competency or tell me not to come back. As a side detail – I really love crew I’ve been part of the sport since eighth grade, I rowed up until college. I really want to coach high school or juniors rowing after I graduate and I’d hate to do anything to undermine my position on the team and I’m afraid to let my teammates down! Any ideas? Thanks!

At the start of this school year my brother, who is a sophomore in college, also lost a good friend to suicide. It took him quite awhile to get over the initial pang of guilt, anger, and sadness that he felt and while I can’t presume to know what that feels like, from the outside looking in I know that it was a really rough situation for him, as I imagine it is for you. One of the things that helped him through it was talking to one of the counselors in the student health center as his school. Everybody deals with stuff like this in their own way but it’s something I’d recommend looking into, even if you’re a little weary about it at first. He wasn’t too keen on the idea when I initially brought it up but it ended up being a good thing for him to do. Even if you only go one time, you never know … it might help.

Same goes for dealing with anxiety, depression, etc. I think everyone, myself included, feels one of three things when it comes to stuff like that: a) if you ignore it eventually you won’t “feel” it anymore and you won’t have to worry about it, b) you have to hide it from other people to avoid being judged, pitied, mocked, ridiculed, diminished, or brushed off, or c) we’re old enough that we should be able to figure out how to deal with it on our own without outside help.

Regardless of which of those three categories you fall into, everyone can probably agree that no one ever comes out better on the other side as a result of following one of those paths. Most, if not all, colleges and universities have mental health services (or just student health services in general) already factored into your tuition, meaning that you’ve essentially already paid for X number of sessions with a counselor simply by being enrolled. I’d look into that and see what it’s like for your school. If that’s the case, take advantage of it.

As far as your weight goes … this is such an unbelievably infuriating topic. For starters, weighing in should never cause anyone any kind of anxiety. Sure, if you gorged on burgers and mozzarella sticks the night before you might wake up feeling a little nervous but that’s a lot different than experiencing an all out panic attack over it. You’re 110lbs, which is the minimum for coxswains. If you’re under that you have to carry weight in the boat with you anyways so that you meet the minimum, THUS your coach replacing you with someone lighter than you is completely redundant because they’re just gonna have to fill up a sandbag so the scale reads 110lbs when they get on it.

Height has nothing to do it with it. Yea, pocket-sized coxswains are the norm because you don’t normally see tall women rocking a 110lb frame and it’s hard/uncomfortable to contort your body to fit in a seat made for someone several inches shorter than you. Tall coxswains do exist though because the more important variable is your weight (i.e. your ability to be as close to racing weight as possible on race day), not your height. I know saying “don’t worry about it” doesn’t mean much but on your list of things that you should be concerning yourself with, this really shouldn’t even be on there. Besides, weight isn’t a measure of how skilled a coxswain is, which is where the real focus should lie.

Here’s the thing about coaches: they’re supposed to assume that you are competent and capable rather than assuming the opposite. They’re supposed to be there for you outside of practice to be someone to talk to or offer advice if you’re having problems. They’re not supposed to be some hard-nosed person that you can only see for 15-20 hours a week and are afraid to talk to because you think their immediate reaction is going to be scoffing at your question or telling you to leave and not come back. I hate that there are coaches out there that act like that but what I hate even more are the coaches that tell other coaches that’s how they should act. It sets a bad precedent and frankly, it’s bullshit. I refuse to coach like that.

Everybody goes through things in life that cause you to have to make certain choices … take time off, walk away from an opportunity, etc. In this context, your coach (and teammates) should be supportive of your decision, even if he’s not happy about it or it messes with his lineups, because presumably he wants the best for you. If he questioned how competent of a coxswain you are or told you not to bother coming back after you said everything you said in your original question, I don’t know why you’d want to row for someone like that.

If you think that taking time off would be the right decision for you then try approaching it with your assistant coach first (with an agreement ahead of time that whatever you discuss stays between the two of you). Give your coaches the benefit of the doubt that they will be supportive and will welcome you back in the fall. When I was in school I was surprised at how many student-athletes would take time off to study abroad, deal with personal issues, focus on school if they were taking particularly hard classes that semester, etc. It’s not a ton of people but it’s more than you think. If that is what you’re planning on doing though you’ve gotta let your coaches know ASAP. The only time I would truly justify a coach getting upset over something like this is if you told him/her at the last second, right before or after racing season started. I wouldn’t let that affect your decision but just know that they might be initially annoyed that you waited so long to say something.

With coaching after graduation, I’ve found that I get more shit from other coaches (not all of them, just a few) about having not coxed the entire way through college than I do from the people I’m coaching. No one I’ve coached has ever thought it was a big deal or detracted from my ability to teach them how to row or cox. As long as you make an effort to relate to them, treat them with respect, don’t act like you’re superior to them in every conceivable way, and are able to communicate what you know, they will most likely embrace you as their coach. I try really hard to learn about the stuff I’m not as familiar with and think I do a pretty good job of conveying what I do know.

I’ve had other coaches make really snarky comments towards me, treat me like I’m completely new to the sport, or blatantly parade the fact that they’re a “four year varsity athlete at such and such school” every time the topic comes up but honestly, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m starting to just not care. If you think you’re so much better than me or any other coach because you’ve got a few years of racing on us then so be it. I’ve also worked with coaches who couldn’t care less that I didn’t cox all four years. Someone I met last year started rowing when he was a junior in college and only had two years of experience in the sport before he started coaching. I can totally understand wanting to hire someone with X number of years of experience but I think as long as you can demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be fine.

Question of the Day

I recently had an anxiety attack in the boat (they didn’t notice and it was still safe). Part of the reason may have been because I’m not sure what to say. I’m good at short calls but as a junior coxing adult men (average age 45) I lack the confidence to make long calls and exercises that weren’t given to me. Do you have any suggestions of calls I could start with? We have been focusing on control on the slide and finishes. 🙂 Thank you!

Regardless of whether anyone noticed or not, coxswains having an anxiety attack in the boat isn’t safe, no matter how minor it is. It’s just not. I have anxiety (and regular panic attacks) too so I know it’s not something you have a lot of control over but that’s part of the problem – you don’t really have any control over what’s happening, which is also what tends to exacerbate some people’s anxiety in those situations, and it can leave you feeling distracted, dizzy, etc. (neither things that you want your coxswain to be feeling ever).

I’ve heard several stories from coaches about people having panic attacks in the boat and it can go from relatively minor and “I’m OK *deep breath* I’m OK…” to pretty serious and “We’ve gotta get him/her outta the boat now” (which they’ve gotta try to do while the person is sitting there having a combined panic/asthma attack). It’s just not something that you want to risk have happening, for the sake of that person especially, but also for the rest of the crew. You also don’t want to have  your entire practice derailed either because of it but most people tend to not want to say that out of fear of being seen as “insensitive” to the issue (even though that’s a fairly legitimate concern).

Not to minimize your situation but if you’re having an anxiety attack in part because you’re not sure what calls to make, as a coach, that would make me question your ability to handle being a coxswain in general or at the very least, your ability to cox a masters crew. Before you do anything else though I would really advise you to talk with the coach of that crew (if you haven’t already) and let him/her know that coxing them is intimidating to you and either figure out a plan for the two of you to communicate more on the workouts or to find another coxswain who can handle working with them. Jumping from coxing high school crews to masters can be tough at first and not everyone is cut out for it. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad coxswain or anything if you’re not but if it’s becoming too overwhelming to the point where you’re having a panic attack (or multiple attacks) while you’re on the water over something as simple as making calls, you really owe it to them to relinquish the seat to someone who is better equipped to cox them.

As a junior, assuming you’ve been coxing for three years now, you should have a solid arsenal of calls and drills in your back pocket that you can pull out if/when you need them. The coach should obviously let you know what he wants to do that day but he shouldn’t need to spoon-feed his coxswain every workout he wants done, drill he wants called, or call he wants made. If that’s what he has to do he might as well take out coxless small boats.

I’m not sure if by exercises you meant the actual workout or drills so I’ll try to hit both of those. Workouts are completely dependent on your crew’s training plan for the week (assuming you have one). When in doubt if you aren’t given a workout to do with them or you’re sent off on your own and told to put them through something, just do a long steady state piece, particularly if you’ve been focusing a lot on technique lately. 2×20, 3×15, at 18-22spm etc. are good ones to do.

As far as drills go, double pause drills are great for slide control (I like to pause at hands away and 1/2 slide) as are exaggerated slides, assuming your crew is skilled enough to row with good technique at borderline-obnoxiously low stroke rates (think 12-14spm). Catch-placement drills are another fun drill to do that help work on slide control. The main focus is on catch-timing (hence the name) but moving the slides together on the recovery is obviously a pretty big part of that.

When I make calls for the recovery/slide control, I like to draw out whatever I’m saying and get them to match their recovery length to the length of whatever I’m saying. I’ll say “relax”, “control”, “smooth”, “long”, “patience”, etc. for about three strokes, which gives the stroke a chance to match up his slide speed with my voice and for everyone else to fall in line with him. From there I’ll call it like that as I need to. The biggest thing I try to remind them of is that in order to have any forward momentum, they’ve got to have good ratio. You can’t have good ratio unless you’re patient on the recovery.

Another thing to remind them is that on the recovery they shouldn’t be pulling themselves into the catch or really doing that much work at all; all you’ve gotta do is let the boat run under you. If you looked out of the boat at the shoreline while on the recovery it should almost look/feel like you’re not even moving because you’re letting the boat do all the work.

For the finish, it depends on what you’re working on – clean releases, getting a good send at the end of the drive, etc. For clean releases, simple square-blade rowing is probably the most basic drill you can do because all you’ve gotta do is apply weight with the outside hand to extract the blade. You could also do this with the outside hand only if you wanted. Posture is critical when working on finishes too so make sure that’s something you’re making calls for.

Another drill is rowing with feet out since you’ve gotta have a solid finish with the arms to help you maintain your connection to the stretchers on the last part of the stroke. It’s not strictly a “finishes” drill but my coaches have always used it to help enforce good finish posture in my boats when we’ve been working on that part of the stroke. If you’re working on building power throughout the drive and finishing the stroke off with the max amount of send, you could do half-pressure catches building into full-pressure finishes. Not only does that work on quick catches but it also helps them feel the acceleration on the drive, all culminating in a full-pressure finish.

Question of the Day

How should a coxswain deal with pre-race doubts and jitters?

I think you should always be a little nervous before you race. I get nervous going to the starting line but that’s mostly because I try to micromanage everything (not really the best course of action, to be honest…). Granted, being in control of your nerves and not being that person that is a blithering idiot about everything is fairly crucial too. If you’re doubting something before your race, whether it’s your skills as a coxswain or your crew’s ability to have a good race, you didn’t prepare enough, plain and simple.

Related: Once we are underway with an outing or actually in a race, I am completely in control and able to respond to any situation and keep a level head, which is what I think makes me a good cox. I find it difficult to keep that same composure on land or as we navigate up to the start. I panic and stress that we are missing a rower/ late/ something has gone wrong. I find it difficult to not get irate with my crew and my coach tells me to stop stressing but I don’t know how. Help?

Using your time wisely and effectively during practice and practicing the things you need to work on will ensure that on race day you’re adequately prepared to do what you’re there to do. I mean, that’s the entire reason why we practice, right? If you come back from a race knowing you were really nervous going to the start, figure out why. Is it just general nerves or is it because you didn’t have a race plan, were running late, etc.? Once you’ve figured out the root cause, determine how you’re going to do it differently next time. That could be actually coming up with a race plan, getting the crew together 30 minutes sooner than last time so you can launch earlier and not be rushed to the line, etc.

If you’re nervous and it’s just the normal kind of nerves, relax, close your eyes, and take a deep breath or two. (This is commonly called “centering yourself” in the sport psych world.) Outside of trying to micromanage things, I’d say that most of my nerves are nothing more than an adrenaline rush. That helps me out a lot at the start though because once the flag drops, the nerves go away and the adrenaline takes over, which means I’ve got a lot of energy to put into the beginning of the race.

Another thing that helps that a lot of athletes do, particularly pro-athletes, is visualization. If you’ve been watching the Olympics you’ve probably heard at least one athlete from every sport say the spent the previous night or the morning of their competition visualizing their routine or their race. It’s exactly what it sounds like too – you’re visualizing yourself going through every step of your event, from launching to your warm up to back into the starting platform to every part of your race plan. Visualizing how everything is supposed to go helps you build a bit of confidence which ultimately leads to your nerves either being eliminated or at the very least, better controlled.

Question of the Day

Hi, I’m going to HOCR this weekend and unlike everyone, I am not excited, only extremely nervous. Basically, I don’t deserve to be in my boat.. The other 3 girls are way better and have years of experience and I started only this spring and I didn’t row during the summer. I’m only in the boat because our club is so small that we are only 5 girls and one has been injured since August. My technique isn’t good either. Any advice to how to row with people better than you? I’m so scared I will mess everything up…

Attitude is everything. If you think you’re gonna have a good time, you’re gonna have a good time. If you think you’re gonna have a shitty time, you’re gonna have a shitty time. This is a situation where “control the controllables” couldn’t be more applicable. You can’t control the size of your team, you can’t control the fact that one of your teammates is injured, and you can’t control the fact that you’ve rowed for less time than everyone else but you can control your attitude and how well you row those 3.2 miles. You only started rowing what, six months ago? Your technique isn’t going to be perfect but if you put the effort in and focus on taking one good stroke at a time, you’ll do fine.

Related: Words

If you’re that person in the boat that spends the next three days focusing on all the “bad” things though, your teammates are gonna get pretty pissed at you really fast. Don’t do that. When you go out for practice, try to do something a little bit better than you did the day before and build up some confidence in your stroke (and yourself). When you race, row the best race you can and come off the water knowing you couldn’t have done any better.

TED Talks, body language, and … coxing?

I was going through Reddit the other night and came across this talk from last October given by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who currently teaches at Harvard Business School. It’s really interesting and a lot of what she says can easily be related to coxing.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking “how to do I become more confident”, “will I be a good coxswain even though I’m shy and quiet”, etc. and that made me realize how big of an issue this is for those who are new to the sport (and for some experienced coxswains as well). I get asked a lot how I developed my confidence as a coxswain and I don’t ever really know how to answer that other than to say “I just am/was”. Good coaching, support from my family and friends, and my natural personality all play(ed) into it but it was never something I had to teach myself to be.

That isn’t the case for a lot of coxswains out there though and is really more of a “pick two” situation. You can have two of the above but not the other one and what sucks is that the one you don’t have tends to affect you more than the two you do have. When you’re just starting out in something new, especially something as feedback-based as rowing, that can be the make-or-break thing that helps you decide whether to stick with it or not. I’ve said multiple times that to be a good coxswain you have to be confident in your skills, your decisions, and yourself as an individual and I stand by that wholeheartedly, but how do you teach yourself to become that, especially when there’s no one telling you the process step by step?

One of the things that Amy talks about in the beginning of her talk is how your level of confidence is communicated in your posture, what your body language is communicating to other people, and what your body language is communicating to yourself. If you think about how you approach any given situation, what do you think your body language/non-verbals say about you? If you’re a coxswain, think about yourself when you’re at practice. Do your non-verbals give off an air of “I know what I’m doing” or, as Amy said, “I’m not supposed to be here”? Do you stand up front by the coaches, hands on your hips, waiting to be told what to do or do stand near the back or in the middle of the rowers playing with your cox box hoping no one notices you’re there? What about when you’re on the water? How do your coxing non-verbals make you look? Think about that for a second and honestly ask yourself how you think your non-verbals have affected you so far, either positively or negatively.

A little bit further on she talks about how there’s a grade gap in business schools between men and women and they can’t figure it out because coming in, they’re all on equal footing so you’d think that gap wouldn’t exist. What they attribute part of it to is one’s level of participation in class. Based on personal experience I know that in classes and situations where I’m confident in what I know, I’m a willing, avid participant in whatever’s going on. I’m one of those people that “spreads out”, has their hand high in the air, etc. When I’m not confident (i.e. every math class I’ve taken since elementary school) I don’t say a word and tend to make myself smaller in the chair I’m sitting in with what I can only assume is a “I’m not supposed to be here” look on my face.

When I started thinking about this, we do this at crew too. We all come in on equal footing, not knowing anything about the sport, but the ones who participate more by engaging themselves in the beginning during winter training, talking to the coaches, interacting with the rowers, learning about the sport on their own time, etc. are the ones that (initially) succeed. Those that stand around not doing much, are nervous or afraid to talk to the coaches, are intimidated by the rowers, and don’t do anything to engage themselves other than show up tend to get looked over in favor of those who are displaying more positive non-verbals. That all has to do with confidence. The more confident you are, the more risks you’re willing to take at the beginning to put yourself out there in an unfamiliar situation. That confidence is an inherent thing too that has nothing to do with how much you know or don’t know about crew or coxing. So, how do you become more confident and project those positive non-verbals?

The next minute or two of her talk really justified something I’ve felt and been saying for awhile now. “Is it possible that we could get people to fake it and would it lead people to participate more? … Can you experience a behavioral outcome that makes you seem more powerful?” You all know that one of the things I’ve consistently said, especially to novices, is “fake it ’til you make it” because the more you fake it, the more you start to actually become it. But, as she goes on to say, do the non-verbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves? I say definitely. If you’re awkwardly standing somewhere in a “powerless” position, chances are you aren’t feeling so great about yourself whereas if you’re standing somewhere with your chin up, shoulders back, etc. you probably feel pretty confident … or do you? Maybe you’re faking it. Who knows! That’s the beauty of it. “When you pretend to be powerful you are more likely to actually feel powerful.”

Related: “Fake it till you make it.” Do you believe in that for coxswains? Because of today’s terrible practice I wouldn’t have been able to fake anything for the life of me.

This transitioned into what she was saying about how powerful and effective leaders have high testosterone and low cortisol levels, testosterone relating to dominance and cortisol relating to stress. As she says, when you think about power you tend to think more about testosterone and less about cortisol but the thing with power is that it’s not all about how dominant you are over a situation or group of people, it’s also about how you handle and react to the stress of being in that position. Tell me that isn’t exactly like coxing. As she goes on to say, think about the kind of leader you want to be — do you want to be a dominant leader who is also very reactive to stress or a leader who is dominant and not very reactive to stress? I know there are a fair number of rowers out there cringing as you recall situations where your coxswain was freaking out about something on the water and you spent the next several minutes wondering if he/she was gonna have their shit together at any point during practice. That’s not the kind of coxswain you want to be. You want to be the kind that manages stress effectively by figuring out a solution to the problem rather than outwardly reacting to it. Why? Because the non-verbals you display in situations like that let your rowers know you’ve got things under control and their confidence in you ultimately translates into confidence in yourself. See how that works? (On the flip side though, the exact opposite can also happen…)

Moving on to “primate hierarchies”, think about when your coach decides to make a change by randomly and all of a sudden taking you out of your novice 4+ and putting you in the varsity 8+. You’re probably nervous, questioning your abilities, and thinking “oh shit, what if I mess up”, right? You’re replacing an “alpha” coxswain -someone who is most likely more confident, more experienced, and more skilled that you. But, after a few practices with the boat you realize it’s just like coxing any other crew with only minor differences. You start to worry less about how you’re doing as you settle into your groove and become more comfortable with the rowers. This demonstrates what she’s saying about your testosterone going up and cortisol coming down. As you continue working with them you gradually become more and more confident with yourself, which is what she’s saying about how role changes can shape the mind. On that same line, the more confident you become, the more positive your body language becomes, which in turn circles back around and increases your confidence. Body shaping the mind. Bam. Science.

Hopefully by this point you get how big of a role your body language plays in that. The trick is to do it in small doses like she says (starting around 10:19). For two minutes stand in a “high power pose” like one of the ones from her PowerPoint. Obviously you don’t have to do this somewhere where people can see you if you’re worried about looking silly. Do that and see how it makes you feel. Do this every day before you go to school, before you go to practice, etc. and after a week or two, see if you notice a difference with yourself. If what she says is right, the more you do it the more confident you’ll feel and see yourself becoming.

I have a great story to tell about “having the opportunity to gamble”. So, about two weeks or so before I left for Penn AC I was having a really shitty time with … life. I went out to breakfast one morning with one of the women in my boat and she said to me, dead serious, “you look like you’re going through life like you’re in the middle of surgery with no anesthesia”. That was a serious wake-up call because I knew how shitty I felt and I had been trying really hard to keep it to myself but apparently I was failing (miserably). What had given it away was how I was carrying myself. I wasn’t carrying myself confidently like I normally did; instead I just looked defeated all the time, including when I was on the water, which had never happened before. Ever since I started coxing this boat they’ve all consistently said to me, with wondrous amazement, that I’m a completely different person on the water. I’m a much more reserved and quiet person than I used to be but when I’m on the water, my true personality really comes through. I’m the person on the water that I wish I still was on land. How they knew something was “off” though was by how I was acting on the water. Up to this point I was always 100% in command, 100% focused, and never once questioned myself. Now though, I just wasn’t into practice, I couldn’t concentrate, and my mind was always on other things. They didn’t know any of that but they read it all through my body language, which was giving them the sense through my non-verbals that I didn’t have an ounce of confidence in my body.

For the first time in a long time I questioned myself in the middle of a race piece. I haven’t done that since I was a novice and didn’t know any better. Looking back at my non-verbals I know I was giving off the “I don’t belong here” vibe because in that moment that was exactly how I felt. We were doing race pieces with another boat and we were coming up on the last 400m or so. It was close between the two of us and I wanted to call a move to put us ahead once and for all going into the final sprint. I was already not 100% mentally into practice, in addition to being nervous about how close we were to the other crew. I debated for too long about whether or not to make the move, whether it would hurt our speed during the sprint, etc. and missed the opportunity. We lost the race by about two seats. I was furious with myself, which then made me feel even less confident and more defeated. It also just went to show how irrational I was being because it was just a practice piece — there was literally nothing riding on it whatsoever and my boat was happy because it was a good piece. My coach asked me afterwards what was up because he’d never seen me like that in the boat before. He said his first clue that something was off was as soon as we crossed the finish line I buried my head in hands and started crying, which is really unlike me, especially on the water.

Fast forward about three weeks to Penn AC. The guys were doing 4x2ks and I ended up coxing the last one. Up to that point I’d been having a great week so I was feeling pretty good all around. Getting asked to cox the last piece just sent my enthusiasm levels through the roof and having the guy at stroke say to me “let’s go fuck this other boat up” before the start just totally did it for me. Thinking back on it, I was willing to take the risk I did because I was feeling good about myself and the boat, which was translated to my body language (I was in a “high power” stance, or as close as you can get in the boat), which then translated how I felt to those that were watching us. Compared to the piece I did with my own eight, my testosterone and cortisol levels were probably the exact opposite of what they were before. I felt completely in control and wasn’t stressed because I knew that no matter what I said the guys were gonna go with me.

I called for a move with 750m to go that took the other crew by surprise and helped us get even with them — something we should not have been able to do given the difference in size and experience between the two boats. It was a risk and as one of the coaches later said, a ballsy one at that. It could have backfired and killed the momentum we’d built up but in the moment that wasn’t even something I was thinking about. Later on I ended up talking with another coach about that piece and they said that they had a feeling that I was going to do something “crazy” just based on my body language. He said that he told the rower that was riding with him to watch our boat because “she’s gonna do something … I don’t know what or when but she’s gonna do something and they’re gonna move.”

That definitely ranked in the top 5 compliments I’ve gotten on my coxing and it really boosted my confidence even though I had no real reason to need a confidence boost. It’s not like I needed any kind of validation on my coxing skills (but when has something like that ever hurt…). Put yourself in that situation though or go back to a time when something similar happened to you — how awesome would/did you feel immediately afterwards? What would/did that do for your confidence? And now think that it has nothing to do with your coxing, it all came straight from what your body language was communicating.

There are a lot of different connections to be made here which can get confusing trying to put all the pieces together, so, to recap:

Non-verbals communicate to other people as well as to ourselves

Positive non-verbals = “happy” feelings; negative non-verbals = “sad” feelings

Happy/sad = confident/not confident

“Fake it ’til you make it” = mind shaping the body

Confident/not confident = dominant/powerless, indicated through testosterone and cortisol levels

Feelings of confidence or lack thereof displayed through “high power”/”low power” body stances

“High power”/”low power” stances = higher/lower risk tolerance, higher/lower testosterone, lower/higher cortisol

Non-verbals govern how we think/feel about ourselves

Bodies change our mind

This video from the Harvard Business Review also gives a good, quick overview in simple terms of what’s been talked about so far.

Back to the Ted Talk, fast forward to 13:50 where she’s talking about what you’re doing before a job interview. Translate this to race day or right before your first practice of the season on the water with a group of people you’ve never coxed before. Instead of making yourself small and finding ways to distract yourself from “the big moment”, you should be making yourself big by spending two minutes in one of your power poses.

Fast forward again to 15:10. It’s not about what you’re saying, it’s about your presence. This is something I really want the novice coxswains to pay attention to. You can listen to as many recordings as you want and borrow as many calls as you want from all the great coxswains out there but if you lack presence, what you say isn’t going to matter. What you say is not what makes you seem more confident or like you know what you’re doing, it’s how. you. say. it. and the vibe you’re giving off as you do it.

When she’s talking about her car accident, going to Princeton, and feeling like she didn’t belong, that’s intense stuff but it’s something that in one way or another we can relate to because we’ve all felt that way at some point. Some of you have said that you don’t feel like you belong at crew because you’re just not confident enough, you don’t think you’ll ever have the personality for coxing, etc. and that you want to quit. I’m going to say to you what her professor said to her:

You’re not quitting. You’re gonna stay and this is what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna fake it. You’re gonna cox every boat you ever get asked to cox, you’re gonna do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified and paralyzed and having an out of body experience until you have this moment where you say “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it. I have become this. I am actually doing this.”

Don’t fake it ’til you make it, fake it ’til you become it. There’s a saying that says “don’t practice until you do it right, practice until you don’t do it wrong” that is along the same lines. Don’t fake it and practice your skills until you’re confident in yourself for one practice, practice until you’re confident in your skills every practice and you don’t have to fake that confidence anymore because you’ve actually become confident.

Do I have all the answers for how to become a more confident coxswain? No, but what I do have is a way that you can become more confident as a person which will hopefully translate to you becoming more confident as a coxswain. Win-win, right? And don’t gimme that bullshit of “oh, *scoffs* that’s lame, that’s silly, it won’t work, I’ll look pretentious, this is just smart people talk about smart people stuff that only smart people do, etc.” Don’t knock it before you try it. I fully admit that I am one of those people that definitely thought stuff like this was ridiculous until a time came when I needed stuff like this just to make it through the day. Try it for a week and then tell me you don’t feel just a little bit better about yourself and that your coxing isn’t improved by your new-found positive attitude towards yourself.

As she says at the end of her talk, try the power posing and share the science. I shared it with all of you so now I want you to share it with someone else. Forward the link to a coxswain on your team that you see struggling with his/her confidence because like she said, those without resources and power are the ones who need it most. Novice coxswains tend to lack both. This also goes for coxswains who are moving up to varsity. Hopefully they’ve found a few resources that have helped them learn the ins-and-outs of coxing but they might still be lacking when it comes to power so share this with them too.