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

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 think we’ve all been there at some point – I definitely have. But here’s the thing, there’s a pretty good chance that you wouldn’t be in the 1V, be told you’re the “best” coxswain (numerous times), etc. if people didn’t think that you were doing something right. I know that sometimes it can be tough to believe that yourself but the blunt truth is that if you don’t accept what appear to be pretty objectively clear signs that you’re a good coxswain, eventually the praise is gonna stop (and you’ll actually be in the position you feel like you’re in now) because people are gonna get tired of doing what appears to be nothing more than feeding your ego.

Related: TED Talks, body language, and … coxing?

Having teammates who favor their friends as their coxswain isn’t something that’s ever gonna change. This was something that annoyed me when I was in high school but my coach explained it in a way that made me look at the situation differently and ultimately use it to my advantage. He said “do they prefer [the other coxswain] because she’s objectively better in certain areas than you or do they prefer her just because she’s friends with them and you’re not?” Both were valid questions because while I was friendly with the girls in that boat, we weren’t friends because we were in different grades so them preferring that coxswain over me wasn’t anything personal, it was simply them wanting someone they knew (and trusted) in the boat with them. If you fail to take the emotion out of the situation then yea, it might look like bitchy, unjustified favoritism but that wasn’t it at all.

Skill-wise, we were relatively equal but one area where she was definitely stronger than me was being able to call out individual things with each person’s stroke and make the right call that would have an immediate impact on the boat’s speed. I was still developing my “eye” so my coach pointed out that since I wanted the boat she was coxing (and was likely the first in line for it the following year), it would be in my best interest to ask her for advice on how to do the stuff that made her an asset to that boat … namely, making technical calls that instantly resulted in the boat running better, faster, smoother, etc. Getting her help with that stuff taught me a lot which had an obvious impact on my confidence since I was more sure of myself when I’d make those calls with my own boats.

People preferring other coxswains isn’t always about you. I think that’s a big lesson coxswains have gotta learn … some people just prefer other coxswains and sometimes it’s justified and sometimes it’s not but how you let it affect you is entirely up to you.

Related: I’ve always been that insecure person but according to my rowers and coach, I’m a “good coxswain.” Problem is that I always find fault in whatever I’m doing. I’m positive towards my rowers but negative towards myself. Any tips on how to be more self confident?

As far as confidence in general goes, the best advice I have is to not let perfect get in the way of good. Put your best effort in, have achievable expectations for yourself, etc. but don’t beat yourself up if things aren’t 100% perfect all the time. I used to do that all. the. time. and that made it really hard to accept positive feedback from my coaches and teammates because I never felt like I genuinely deserved the compliment(s). Eventually one of my friends said what I said before, that if I didn’t stop with the perpetual pity party and accept that they thought I was doing a great job then they were just gonna stop saying anything at all and then I’d never know how I was doing (which, as most coxswains can probably attest to, is the worst).

Related: Notebook “hacks”: Post-practice affirmations

Like I’ve said on here a thousand times before, it’s way easier said than done to just believe you’re doing a good job. You do have to get in the habit though of recognizing when you made a good series of calls, had a good practice, coxed a great piece, etc. and not overanalyze it to the point where your pat on the back turns into you beating yourself up over something trivial. And if people are giving you positive feedback, trust that they’re giving it to you because you’ve truly earned it. Internalize it, build on it, and eventually the confidence will come. It’s a process so stick with it.

The Mental Game

Previously: The language of the first 500 || Getting off the line with world class speed

Dr. Adam Naylor is a sport psychologist at BU and Northeastern and his talk at the What Works Summit on the mental aspect of being ready on race day is the focus of this week’s post. We pay so much attention to making sure we’re technically and physiologically ready but we tend to not give as much thought to preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally. This leads to having lackluster levels of confidence that can manifest itself in many negative ways on race day.

Related: What Works Summit

For us as coxswains (especially if you’re new to the sport) it can be tough because not only do you have to sort out your own mental state on race day but you’ve also potentially gotta sort out eight other people’s as well. It’s hard to act as the unifying force in the boat if you don’t know how to do that. Hopefully what’s down below will give you some strategies for how to approach this on race day so you and your crew will be just as prepared mentally as you are physically.

How to help athletes manage themselves

On race day, what do you see in your teammates? The first response given during the talk was “panic”, which prompted a side conversation on how panic manifests itself in the athletes. You can see the look of panic or distress or anxiety in their eyes but what effect is it actually having on their bodies? In my experience, it usually meant my friends were very tense, very quiet, and/or very antsy. Their shoulders would be up around their ears, they wouldn’t be saying a word (which, for high school and college-aged women, is unusual), and they’d be pacing back and forth, walking in circles around the trailer, or incessantly tapping their fingers against their thighs.

The easy response to all of this would be to say “just relax” but the reason why it’s easy is because it’s not helpful. You know how when you’re in an argument with someone and they say “chill out” or “relax” in response to your frustration and it just pisses you off even more? The same thing applies here. Having someone say “relax” when you’re anxious just makes you even more anxious because your brain is going all over the place and you can’t process what you actually need to do to calm down.

The better response is to tell them how to relax. Sometimes this is something you can do one-on-one (a recent example is me putting my hands on our coxswains’ shoulders, looking them in the eye, and saying “breathe … you got this” before they go out) but other times it’s something you can/should do as a crew. One year one of my boats would circle up and we’d actually do breathing exercises together for ten minutes as part of our land warmup. We had this whole “routine” that our five seat (who was really into yoga and meditation) would talk us through that involved a lot of “close your eyes, drop your shoulders, inhale through your nose for a count of five, exhale for a count of five…”, etc.

Similar to coxing rowers on the erg though, you’ve also gotta know when to leave them alone. There are guys on our team who come to the boathouse on race day super tense and completely unlike their usual selves and their way of loosening up is to spend 40 minutes foam-rolling, listening to music, and standing out on the boathouse balcony by themselves. It’s funny seeing them standing 5-10 feet apart just doing their own thing (even though they’re all pretty much doing the exact same thing) but it works.

As the coxswain you have to know your rowers and know which approach is going to be the most beneficial – both of which requires you to communicate with them. If you’re coxing girls the team/social approach might work best whereas with guys, letting them have some time to themselves before getting together as a group might be the best strategy. Regardless of what you do though, consider the language you use on land, on the way to the start line, and at the start line and make sure you’re using words that actually help get in the right headspace vs. saying something useless like “just relax”.

Managing ourselves

So, what about us? I have a tendency to be the most calm and the most nervous person on race day, which can be a really tough internal battle to try and manage. When I was a freshman (aka a novice) I would outwardly try to display a really calm, in-control demeanor not just because I knew it was expected of me but also because I knew my teammates were going to mirror my emotions. The more confident I appeared, the more relaxed they would be. Plus, they were varsity rowers and I wanted to give the impression that I could handle the responsibility of coxing them. Internally though, I was usually bouncing off the walls and visualizing all the things that they were outwardly doing … I’d visualize myself tapping my fingers on my legs, jumping up and down or nervously walking in circles, etc.

Even though I was confident in my skills as a coxswain, despite having only been doing it for a few months, I’d sometimes get into these verbal sparring matches with myself where I’d question why I was so confident when I was just a novice and why I was coxing the 1V or the V4+ because no one else really believed I deserved it … they were all just pretending. I would go from being actually confident and actually calm to putting myself on the verge of full on panic attacks like, five minutes before we were supposed to launch.

Related: TED Talks, body language and … coxing?

Keeping all that internalized though is really disastrous though so once my coach picked up on the fact that something was off, we started going on short walks before our scheduled meet-up times and he’d ask how I felt and I’d say “…nervous”, “…ready”, or whatever adjective properly captured my emotions at that moment. It was at this point where he’d stand in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and say “deep breaths … breathe … you got this”, which, as I’ve said in past posts, became my starting line mantra (and what I sometimes do with our coxswains now).

Throughout the rest of high school, in college, and even now I figured out that the best way for me to be in a good headspace before a race is to get away from other people and be by myself. I, like a lot of coxswains, know that I can be very tough, negative, and straight up mean towards myself so to actually be calm and actually be confident before races (rather than faking it in order to appear so), I assess how I’m doing and repeat exactly what my coach said to me. Deep breaths … breathe … you got this. Being honest about how you feel, admitting that you’re nervous, and acknowledging that you can’t predict the outcome of the race is confident and shouldn’t be something you’re afraid to do.

The beauty of sports + the acceptance of the unknown

The beauty of sports, especially rowing, is that you have to give up control in order to do well. Once you start racing at a high enough level you aren’t gonna know the outcome of your race ahead of time. Sometimes in high school it’s easy to predict that this boat is gonna blow that boat out of the water but that becomes less so the deeper into the sport you get. Eventually you have to race the entire race to know what the outcome is and that’s the fun part. 

As a coxswain the thought of giving up control can be hard to wrap your head around, especially if you’re a control freak like most of us. That’s where your awareness kicks in though and why you can’t go into a race with OCD levels of perfectionist tendencies and being hell bent on just spitting out a scripted race plan. Giving up control as a coxswain during a race means being aware of how it’s evolving around you and being confident enough in your skills, your preparation, and your teammates to say “this is what we’re gonna do … it might work out”.  You have to be willing to take risks and remember the stress that comes with it is what makes it fun.

Seat racing coxswains

I’m not a fan of seat racing coxswains. There are just way too many variables and you can’t quantify it the same way you can with rowers but despite all that, there are still coaches out there that do it. It’s one of those things that you’ve always gotta be prepared for just in case it happens to you but if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll never be caught off guard if your coach decides that a coxswain seat race is needed.

Related: Can I just flat out ask my coach for a coxswain seat race? How do I go about asking such a question?

I was going through some of my saved posts on Reddit the other day and came across this year-old reply that I’d written to a coxswain who was asking for advice on how to deal with being seat-raced. They said that they felt like an underdog compared to the person they were up against (who was a year older than them) but that they felt capable of beating them and wanted to know how to get the coach to look past their age so they could have a shot at the eight.

Related: Words

For those of you that are going up against someone more experienced than you (hell, even if you’re going up against an someone who is equally experienced), I implore you to read this first paragraph down below and really take it to heart because a) you need to hear it and b) if I’ve learned anything through this blog it’s that it’s unlikely anyone else is going to say it to you and be as straightforward about it. Two and a half years into this, you guys should know by now I’m not going to sugarcoat things when I think there’s something that needs to be said and this is one of those times. We’re two weeks into racing season and SRAAs, Youth Nationals, conference championships, IRAs, and NCAAs is going to be here before you know it. You want that top boat? Go take it.

“Fuck age, seniority, being an “underdog”, etc. Do not use that an excuse. Those things only become factors if you pay too much attention to them and let them become factors. Cox your race and let the other coxswain(s) cox theirs. If you think you’re capable of beating them, do it.

The coxswain who is smart, confident, strategic, resourceful, commanding, authoritative, aggressive, and respectful of the competition will earn the seat in the 8+. Steer a smart course and know what you need to say to get the most out of your rowers. This requires you to interact with them in order to find out what makes them tick. Pick their brains off the water so you can get in their heads on the water.

Oh, and don’t assume that this seat race is the only thing your coaches are looking at. They’ve been watching you since Day 1, the first day you showed up to practice when you were a novice, to see how well you interact with your teammates, what your presence on and off the water is like, if you command the respect of your teammates through your actions, how well you understand the technical side of rowing, how effectively you communicate what you want/need to happen, etc. The seat race is only a piece of the final puzzle.

Saying you want it isn’t enough. I have to be able to look at you and feel how bad you want you want that top 8+. Give your rowers a reason to want to pull hard for you. Don’t half ass anything. Make your intentions known from the first day of practice that you want that top eight and you’re going to work as hard as you can to get it. Do this without being a cocky, over-confident douche. Seat racing isn’t just something you can get in a boat and do. You’ve gotta prep for it just like you do any other race. Put the effort into perfecting your steering, working on your calls, getting feedback from your rowers and coaches after practice, etc. and then go out and execute when it’s time for your race. Get off the water knowing and believing that you couldn’t have done any more or any better than you just did.

Do all of that and your coaches might give you a shot.”

Rule #1: never refer to yourself as the underdog. Let other people say that about you but know that the minute you say it about yourself you’ve already lost. It absolutely drives me nuts when I hear people talk down about themselves like that because if you aren’t even confident in yourself how is that supposed to inspire me to be confident in you?

Question of the Day

I’m being heavily recruited to a few top tier men’s rowing programs (UW, Cal, Princeton) to cox. I’m obviously really incredibly thrilled but I’m also so nervous and afraid that I’m really not good enough to do well on that level. Do you have any suggestions for boosting self confidence when it comes to the whole recruiting process? I know they’re recruiting me for a reason, but I just don’t know if I’m that good.

UW? Cal? Princeton? You’re good. Those programs don’t mess around and like you said, they’re recruiting you for a reasonWhat I’ve learned over the years though is that there’s really just no point in thinking you aren’t good when you have people around you telling you that you are. They wouldn’t be saying it if they didn’t believe it and if you weren’t giving them some reason to think it.

I’m reading “Boys in the Boat” (highly recommend) and there was something I read the other day that describes coxswains much more eloquently and soulfully than I ever could.

“From the moment the shell is launched, the coxswain is the captain of the boat. He or she must exert control, both physical and psychological, over everything that goes on in the shell. Good coxes know their oarsmen inside and out – their individual strengths and vulnerabilities – and they know how to get the most out of each man at any given moment. They have the force of character to inspire exhausted rowers to dig deeper and try harder, even when all seems lost. They have an encyclopedic understanding of their opponents, how they like to race, when they are likely to start sprinting, when they like to lie in wait, etc.

Before a regatta, the cox receives a race plan from the coach and he or she is responsible for carrying it out faithfully. But in a situation as fluid and dynamic as a crew race, circumstances often change abruptly and race plans must be thrown overboard. The cox is the only person in the shell who is facing forward and can see how the field is shaping up throughout a race, and he or she must be prepared o react quickly to unforeseen developments. When a race plan is failing to yield results, it is up to the cox to come up with a new one, often in a split second, and to communicate it quickly and forcefully to the crew. Often this involves a lot of shouting and emotion.

In short, a good coxswain is a quarterback, a cheerleader, and a coach all in one. He or she is a deep thinker, canny like a fox, inspirational, and in many cases the toughest person in the boat.”

You would not be being recruited by some of the top programs in the country if you didn’t do and embody every single thing in that paragraph. You just wouldn’t so stop doubting yourself. You’re not jumping straight from high school into the varsity eight. You’re not expected to be that level of amazing yet. You have plenty of time to soak up as much information as you can, learn from every practice, race, and experience you have, and get to that level. Right now you’re at the level that they want for their freshmen program and given the schools you listed, you know their standards are pretty high. They wouldn’t be pursuing you if they didn’t think you met and have the potential to surpass those standards.

You have to believe that you’ve got some talent otherwise why would you have applied to those schools, academics aside? Whenever you’re starting something new there’s always going to be those seeds of doubt that pop up and make you question everything but the key is knowing how to shut them down immediately by reminding yourself of all the positive attributes you have that have gotten you this far and will continue to take you places in the future. You’ve got them, it’s just about reminding yourself of what they are. Stop questioning yourself and start believing in yourself.

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.

Question of the Day

I totally died during my seat race today. I usually am awesome at them but today was my worst in a LONG time. But I’m not sure if it was just a bad day or if I have somehow been getting worse at them over the course of the season because I think I might be getting overconfident.

I wouldn’t disagree with you that your seat races might be suffering a little bit from your (over)confidence. Your rowing itself is probably good but where you might be suffering is in the mental game. Confidence is a good thing to have but when you start getting overconfident to the point where you think you can’t lose, you start taking situations for granted.

The thing with seat races is that once they’re over, they’re over. If the outcome isn’t what you wanted, yea you should be pissed but be pissed in a positive way that motivates you to go out the next time and do better. Figure out why you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped – was it something in your control or out of your control? Were you overconfident? Why? How was your rowing? What was your technique like? Were you mentally/physically prepared? If you think that you’re getting overconfident, figure out why and then … tone it down. Be honest and realistic with your expectations, forget about past results, don’t compare yourself to other people (and/or assume you’re better than them based on the boat you/they are in or past results), be open to constructive criticism, and be disciplined but not overly aggressive (with your actions or attitude) towards yourself or your teammates.