Question of the Day

Hi! Do you have any suggestions for what my boat can do about our struggles coming out of a start? We’ll usually do a start 6 and a high 20/25, but when we need to lengthen out to get to  race pace (because we can’t hold a 42 SR for the whole 2000m) we seem to lose a lot of energy and ground on other boats. What can we do to come out of a start more smoothly? My boat is fairly strong and it’s not that we’re dropping from a 1:35 to a 1:50 because we can’t hold a lower split, but we just don’t know how to lengthen out/get a ratio shift that’s more smooth and even. Calling a lengthen 10 doesn’t help. Thanks!

Unless the ratio is actually that out of whack off the start, a ratio shift is the wrong approach.

Related: How do you call a ratio shift to control and stop the rush without lowering the SR? Is it even possible?

Have you tried doing a sub-settle and then settling again to your base pace? This has always worked well for my boats (both coxing and coaching) when we’ve had similar issues. If we’re starting high (in the 40s) and trying to get to a 34-35, more often times than not it’d feel like we were putting the brakes on in order to hit the 34, causing us to lose ground and momentum, rather than just gradually lengthening out to it while still maintaining the power we had in the high strokes. Once we tried doing a sub-shift to a 38ish and then 5-7 strokes later shifting again to base, that seemed to alleviate a lot of the issues.

Related: The Language of the First 500

Even before we started incorporating the sub-shifts, we’d spend a lot of time on the transition during practice, not just on the strokes themselves but on the calls too. For me the focus was always on the last three strokes of the high strokes and the first stroke out of the shift, just making sure my calls were clear and on point so that first stroke was smooth but still deliberate and powerful. If I was sloppy here I could feel the drop in energy over the next few strokes. Another point of emphasis was on staying loose – if you’re tense then you’re not going to be able to flow in sync with the boat, which was one of the things that contributed to that “hitting the brakes” feeling for my crews.

Related: Getting off the line with world class speed

Talk with your coach and try to make this a point of practice each week. One of my coaches always had us do starts at the end of practice when we were tired and more likely to row with not-the-greatest technique, which actually helped a lot because it made us focus more on staying loose and taking clean strokes. I think making that snap transition between fatigued from AT pieces to clear-headed and calm before doing a start also helped us manage our adrenaline better during races, which played into that shift down to base pace being smoother and less frantic.

“All fast crews have three things in common…”

If you’ve been to Northeast Rowing Center and had Coach Lindberg (BU heavyweight men’s assistant) as your coach, then you’ll remember him asking his boats if they can list the three things that all fast crews have in common. Do you know what they are?

Blades go in before the drive begins

While the feet are still light (aka there’s no pressure being applied to the stretchers), the blade touches the water and gets heavy. This has to happen before the wheels change direction.

Hang your bodyweight off the handle all the way through the drive

From catch to finish, suspension is the key to prying and accelerating. You can read more about it in the “Top 20 terms” post linked below.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Suspension

Spacing at the back end

Every coach coaches the finish a little differently but regardless of whether you keep the hands moving around the finish or do that weird pause-y thing, the hands and elbows have to be out and away before the body rocks over.

This stuff is so simple you’ll probably read it and think “…duh” but if your crew is trying to gain more speed or figure out what’s holding them back, don’t default to just thinking about pulling harder – go back to the basics and ensure you’re doing all three of these things first. You can make calls for this stuff for at any point during practice too – it all falls under the umbrella of “just one (or three) of those things” that you should always be looking for, correcting, and perfecting.

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.

Coxswain recordings, pt. 30

Previously: Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5 || Part 6 || Part 7 || Part 8 || Part 9 || Part 10 || Part 10b || Part 11 || Part 12 || Part 13 || Part 14 || Part 15 || Part 16 || Part 17 || Part 18 || Part 19 || Part 20 || Part 21 || Part 22 || Part 23 || Part 24 || Part 25 || Part 26 || Part 27 || Part 28 || Part 29

Wellesley College WV8+ Final 2016 NCAA Championships

I posted the recording from Wellesley’s heat at NCAAs back in December (you can check it out here) and similar to that recording, the audio’s a little muffled here. This is actually a good thing to keep in mind too now that the spring season is getting closer – if you’re not using a GoPro, make sure you play around with different spots to put your recorder so you can find one that protects it from the water while still being able to capture a clear sound.

If you want to watch the NCAA’s footage of the race and listen to their commentary, you can check it out here – skip ahead to 3:23:00ish (the race starts about a minute after that). Wellesley is in Lane 2 with the black boat and blue and white oars. I’d also recommend muting the NCAA video and starting the recording when the race starts, that way you can listen to Ale call the race as you watch it.

From a coxing standpoint, this piece accomplishes three of the things that make up a good recording – there’s no screaming off the line, she gives consistent updates on their pace and position, and at the end of the race you have a pretty good idea of where most of the crews finished just based on the updates she was giving throughout the piece. All of that is rooted in communication so if you’re a sophomore or junior who is trying to put together audio to sent to the JNT or college coaches, I would highly recommend you make your communication skills a central focus during practice in the weeks leading up to your first race. Ale demonstrates really well how to do this effectively by keeping the information concise (aka saying only what needs to be said) and using her tone rather than volume to convey her message.

Related: What makes a good coxswain recording

One of the most well executed parts of the race was when they’re crossing 1000m between 3:16 and 3:42ish. Through the first 1000m there’s this focus of just chipping away at the field stroke by stroke in order to establish their lead and then as they come across 1000m it’s like OK, we’ve got now, if anyone else wants it, they’re gonna have to take it from us because we are not giving it up.

I think the best part of the NCAA commentary is near the end where Williams starts to take the rate up but Wellesley is still at like, a 33 or something, and the announcer says they have “plenty of stroke rate left to go up and not much water left to defend”. That’s probably the best position you could be in coming into the last 250m of a race.

Other calls I liked:

“Catches with her, shoulders with her…”

“Our confidence in two … one … two, our confidence. MOVE through that 1000 … MOVE through that 1000. Seize it now … seize it now, blue. We command this. Sit up, we’re across. Sit up, now this is our 500 because we’ve trained … LET’S GO!

George Washington University 1F vs. Georgetown University 1F

Right off the start, I like the “draw through” call on the first stroke. That’s an easy one to whiff, especially if your blade’s not all the way buried or you pull out of the catch instead of push, so having that call as a reminder is a good way to make sure everyone stays horizontal through the drive.

Out of the high strokes they make their shift down to base and at 1:47 you hear him say that he wants to shift down one more beat to a 35. His execution here (between 1:47 and 2:00ish) is really smooth, mainly because there’s no sense of urgency in his tone that the shift has to happen right freakin’ now like you sometimes hear in other recordings. He draws it out over a couple of strokes which allows him time to make very clear, direct calls about what he wants and most importantly (especially when it comes to rate shifts), when he wants it to happen. This is something you should regularly be practicing when you’re doing pyramid pieces or anything else involving rate shifts, that way you can establish a good flow in initiating it and the crew can get accustomed to the calls you’ll make when the rate needs to change.

Little goals are obviously a big part of any race plan and he does a good job here of (indirectly) tying those to the crew’s overall technique. You’ve gotta be careful about making too many technical calls during a race and becoming hyperfocused on that but I think he does a good job of balancing those calls with follow-up calls that say where they are now on Georgetown after taking a few strokes to get the blades in, swing through a headwind, keep the outside shoulder up, etc.

The only thing I’d suggest not doing from this recording really isn’t that egregious but there’s definitely better – or at least clearer – ways to call it. Rather than saying “200m ’til the 500m mark” just say “750 to go” or if you’re making a move at 500, “15 strokes ’til we make our move”.

Other calls I liked:

“At the 500, we’re gonna walk away. We’re gonna sting at the 5…”

“Stay loose, stay long … stay loose, stay long…”, said on the drive, recovery.

Coxswain skills: Coxing erg tests

Previously: Steering, pt. 1 || Steering, pt. 2  || Boat feel || How to handle a negative coxswain eval || How to cox steady state workouts || How to cox short, high intensity workouts || Race steering || Steering a buoyed course || Evaluating practices || Evaluating races

If there’s one question that dominates my inbox between November and March (besides “what should I do during winter training”) it’s “how do I cox people on the erg?”. Steady state on the ergs is easy because you can mostly leave the rowers alone and just let them go at it but erg tests, like 2ks, usually require a bit more involvement on your part. With CRASH-Bs coming up, here’s a few things to keep in mind.

Related: 2k test strategy

The Golden rule of coxing rowers on the erg

Prior to the piece, ask if they want to be coxed. If they don’t, respect that and leave. them. alone. Don’t be that coxswain that gets all pissy and makes their decision all about you. It’s not and no one wants to waste their time doling out fake platitudes to make you feel better about yourself just because someone said “don’t cox me”.

Things to know

If you’re coxing people, you should know the following:

Their PR, previous time, and goal for this piece

What splits they’re trying to hold (either their overall average split or their split for each 500)

What calls resonate the best (some thrive on the heavily motivational stuff, others just need the occasional technical reminder)

When they want/need support (i.e. at 1200 because that’s where they tend to hit the wall, if you see their splits go above X, etc.)

We make this easy for our coxswains by having each guy send us their race plans that we then write on notecards and tape to their ergs (example below). By eliminating the need to memorize multiple individual race plans and requests, they can focus more on coxing and helping the guys hit their goals.

If they’re having a bad piece

It sucks watching your friends have a bad piece but rarely, if ever, does a half-hearted “you can do it!” (that you’re only saying because you don’t know what else to say) work here. If anything it just pisses them off so unless they specifically say to do that, focus more on giving them tangible, achievable goals to hit that will pull double-duty by serving as motivation to continue pushing to the end of the piece. Below are a couple examples but this is something you should directly ask them too – “if you start falling off pace, what can I do to help you get back on track?”.

If their splits are getting erratic, try to get them to hold a consistent pace for ten strokes. It doesn’t need to be their goal split, it just needs to be a split that they can commit to for an easily achievable amount of time. Focus on breathing and getting them re-dialed in to their race plan.

If they’re falling off pace and sitting at a 1:39 when they need to be at a 1:36 (and you know they’re capable of hitting it), get them to hit their splits for a couple strokes (twice max for 2-3 strokes each) before digging in and pushing the numbers back down. Super simple calls here like “there it is!” or “YEA that it’s, hit it again” just to get them to see that they can hit those numbers can be the kick of encouragement they need to recommit and get after it.

Similarly, you should know the rowers well enough to know when they’re having a bad piece because of something external (like they’ve got a cold, have a nagging injury, are dealing with academic stress, whatever…) or when they’re just feeling sorry for themselves and settling for whatever time they end up with. I can’t lay that out for you so just like our coxswains and I have done with our rowers, you’ve gotta do the same with yours – observe, observe, observe. Sometimes there will be a piece where it’s not about the time, it’s just about finishing it and other times, you just need to get behind them and say “stop feeling sorry for yourself, let’s go“. The better you know your athletes, the easier it’ll be for you to determine which one of those is appropriate.

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.

Coxswain recordings, pt. 29

Previously: Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5 || Part 6 || Part 7 || Part 8 || Part 9 || Part 10 || Part 10b || Part 11 || Part 12 || Part 13 || Part 14 || Part 15 || Part 16 || Part 17 || Part 18 || Part 19 || Part 20 || Part 21 || Part 22 || Part 23 || Part 24 || Part 25 || Part 26 || Part 27 || Part 28

2015 Henley Royal Regatta Thames vs. Barge, Thames Challenge Cup Semi-Final

This coxswain is #goals AF.  Listen and learn because she puts on a clinic here.

This is a great race from the 2015 regatta and a solid example of a style of coxing that most of us in the US aren’t accustomed to. The biggest difference is in how we call the starts. Our style is very regimented most of the time but this style is a little looser and focuses more on the technical side (“nice and loose off the back end”, “let’s start pushing that finish”, etc.) rather than calling out 1/2, 1/2, 3/4, full, “complete, complete, lengthen, full” or whatever your traditional starting sequence is.

I’ve called starts like this and I do like it but it requires a lot of focus from the crew because they don’t have you in their ear calling the starting five, power 20, lengthen 5, etc. The coach I did it with always referred to it as a more “mature” way of racing because it forces everyone, coxswain included, to be that much more tuned in to the race plan and what’s happening on each stroke, even if/when it’s not directly being said out loud.

Also, note how at 1:40 she says “here comes the wind”? You can see the texture of the water is different in front of the boat in the subsequent few seconds after she makes that call (in comparison to the calmer water in front of them as they came off the line). If you’re new to coxing or are trying to get a grip on how to alert your crew of where the wind is, this gives you a good visual of what the water will look like as you encounter, in this instance, a headwind. Remember, if it’s blowing towards you, it’s a headwind, if it’s blowing with you it’s a tailwind, and if it’s hitting you at an angle it’s a crosswind.

Related: One of my coaches was a coxswain and I got switched out the last third of practice to be in the launch with her. OMG BEST TIME EVER. Every time I had a question she’d answer it so well! More coxes should become coaches! One thing she was talking about was watching the wind patterns – like the dark patches in the water to let the crew know. I understand the concept, but I’m not really understanding why. Like, I tell them that a wind/wake is coming to prepare them?

The 15 seconds between 2:25 and 2:40 show exactly how you should communicate with your crew during a race, particularly one where you’re down. Her tone is level, she’s calm, she makes calls that keep the crew focused, and she doesn’t give them any reason to worry when she says where they are relative to Barge. She makes the call for “our rhythm”, which is always a great go-to call, and follows it up with calls that emphasize what she wants, not just in their direct meaning but also in how she says and annunciates them. She ends it by saying “they’re just sitting there … let’s start trucking through … we knew we’d be down off the start”, which is a good way of saying we knew this was going to happen, it’s OK but now it’s time to buckle in and get moving. There’s no sense of concern or anything there, which can admittedly be tough to master as a younger coxswain but it’s a skill that can really elevate you from just being mediocre to being good.

That move between 2:50 and 4:10ish is flawless. THAT’S how you make up 2/3 of a length between you and another crew. You can bet too that when she said “half a meter off their stern and they have no idea what the hell happened here”, that’s exactly what they were thinking.

When she slaps the side of the boat as she calls “now” at 5:38, you can see and almost feel the energy in the boat pick up. I’ve seen lots of coxswains do this and have done it myself too but be careful if you do – slamming your wrist into the gunnel hurts like a bitch.

One of the (many) things she does well is giving them super specific position updates – i.e. “we’re a meter and a half off their cox”, “we’re a meter off their bow ball … we’re a foot off their bow ball … bow ballll!”, etc. Don’t underestimate how motivating this is to the crew, especially if you can count it down like she does as they’re coming up on bow to stern.

Crossing the line, “we’re gonna act like this means god damn nothing, they should never have come over here” … like, damn, could you make a more savage call at the end of a race? I aspire to have that much ice in my veins.

She makes a great point though, celebrating wins is fine and normal and whatever but you should have some decorum when doing it too. My coaches always told us to save it for the final. Heats and semis were the battles but the final was the war and you don’t want to look like a dick by shouting, slumping over, etc. just because you won something as inconsequential as a qualifier, no matter how good of a race it was.

Other calls I liked:

“Let’s cruise now, tap it along…”

“In two … next stroke … now…” I like how she calls this. It just sounds crisper than saying “in two, one … two…”.

“You’ve got momentum Thames, we’ve got to keep moving…”

“Gimme five strokes holding the back end through…” Super basic call but she said it so succinctly and didn’t waste any time getting it out – one breath to make a call that that helped them take a seat over those five strokes.

“Hang and send…”

“Keep squeezing me away…”

“Whole crew, sit up now…” Another basic call but I like how assertive she is in calling it and how she gives them direction on when to do it. Little, little details like this add up.

Australia Men’s 8+ training row

This is a long recording (22 minutes) and there’s not much specific that I want to point out, rather I think this is just another good example of how to execute a long row – occasional technical comments but largely letting the rowers feel out the piece and process the changes that need to be made while giving the coach(es) plenty of opportunities to jump in if they have feedback to offer.

This is something you can/should discuss with the crew and your coaches too. I’ve been in boats that hated this much silence between calls and I’ve been in others where this amount of coxing was just right. Similarly, some coaches are content to let you take control and do the majority of the talking/coaching, others want to use this time to provide as much feedback as possible. Both can be annoying for the coxswain because long rows like this require a bit of forethought so you’re not just winging it with your calls but at the same time, it’s really annoying when you get talked over or interrupted every time you go to say something.

Conversations like this will obviously do a lot for making practice more effective but my end game with having them was to just save myself as much hassle and frustration as possible. There’s nothing selfish about that so don’t think you’ll look bad if you bring this up, particularly if dealing with overly talkative coaches on the water is a problem you’ve encountered in the past.

Team USA 2012 M8+ 10 at base pace

This is a quick and simple video that shows the eight going through some strokes at base pace. I don’t think this is Zach Vlahos coxing them so if anyone does know who it is, let me know. (Update: Asked Zach, it’s Ned DelGuercio.)

One thing he does that everyone should do at the end of the piece is say “clean paddle”. Just because you took a few hard strokes doesn’t mean you can row like shit now just because you’re not at pressure. That goes for coming off of longer pieces too. A small dropoff in technique is fine but you should still be at like, 90% when it comes to how proficient your strokes look. Anything less is just lazy.

Also, check out that docking. Drops pairs out on the approach, tells them to watch their oars, when to lean, to watch out for the corner … seriously, if you guys do those four things as effortlessly as he did them, you’re docking will improve tenfold in one practice. None of that is hard either so don’t equate “effortlessly” with the fact that he’s a national team coxswain. If you have functioning eyes and common sense it’ll be just as easy for you as it was for him.

Other calls I liked:

“Stabilize here…” I use this one a lot as a full-stroke call (“stabilize” at the catch, “here” at the finish”) if/when the boat’s off set.

You can see all the recordings I’ve shared by checking out the “Coxswain Recordings” page listed on the front page of the blog.