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.

Question of the Day

Hi! I’m in my third year of coxing in college. I coxed the 2V my first two years but this fall I was moved up to the 1V. There are a few other coxswains on our team but honestly, most of them don’t know what they’re doing and won’t put in effort to improve. I’ve noticed that when I’m occasionally put back into the 2V (which is mainly made up of the same rowers as last year’s 2V) for practice, the rowers have lost a lot of technique. Stroke seat (who was my stroke in the 2V last year) has told me that the other coxswains don’t know how to correct technique and will either ignore it or tell them to do the wrong thing. She has also said that the coxswains don’t know how to call pieces and aren’t helping them get to the stroke rate or split they need to be at. I also found out that several of 2V rowers no longer trust coxswains because the other coxswains have constantly lied to them about stroke rate, split, distance, time, etc.

What can I do for them? I love the 2V; it has a special place in my heart and I’ve had some of my best races and practices in that boat. I really want them to do well this spring, because we were amazing last year, but they don’t seem to be on that track now. Several rowers have talked to our coaches about how those coxswains are negatively affecting their boat but our coaches don’t seem to be very concerned and haven’t done anything to help. They’ve also talked to these coxswains but they get offended and defensive when the rowers ask them to change things. I really want to see the 2V do well this year but I don’t know what to do at this point for them.

I have a lot of thoughts on this so it’s gonna be kinda long.

First, this obviously doesn’t have anything to do with you but to any coaches who are reading, if you’re seriously that lazy or unbothered by your athletes coming to you and saying “this is a problem … help“, you really shouldn’t have to think too hard at the end of the season about why certain crews underperformed. You’re part of the problem.

I agree with the point you’re getting at, that the coxswains play a  role in how good (or not good) the rowers technique is, but I do think a line’s gotta be drawn somewhere. The rowers regressing in their technique can’t totally be put on the shoulders of the coxswains, regardless of how inept they are. There’s a lot of personal responsibility that has to be factored in there and if they’re not making some kind of effort off the water to work on whatever technical issues they’re having, then their own inaction is just as much to blame as the coxswains not taking their jobs seriously in pointing this stuff out.

As far as wanting the 2V to do well – I get that. I respect the fact that you want to help them but keep in mind that they’re not your primary boat anymore, even if you are occasionally switching between them and the 1V. I’ve been in that position before too, as I’m sure plenty of other coxswains have, and all that willing your old boat to do well does is distract you from coxing the boat you’re actually in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t help them but it should be less about the 2V specifically and more about helping the other coxswains get their shit together. You can’t complain about other people’s ignorance and then contribute to it by not sharing what you know. You’re in the 1V, presumably you know what your team’s top 3-5 technical focuses are, how to compare and contrast what you’re seeing and feeling vs. what you should be seeing and feeling, how to call a piece, how to get the crew on rate, how to earn your crew’s trust, and most importantly, how to check your ego and learn the difference between critiques and criticisms. So … share that.

And yea, I get that you and half the coxswains reading are probably thinking “…but if they have shitty attitudes and aren’t even gonna try, then what do I do?”, to which I say nothing. You do nothing. I say this to our coxswains all the time: if it gets to the point where I’m putting in more effort than you are to help you get better, I’m walking away and you’re on your own. I actually did that with one of our coxswains this past spring and it sucked and I felt like a dick but the  point was made pretty quickly that they needed to get over themselves and actually take the advice and feedback that was being given otherwise they were gonna continue to be perpetually disappointed with their standing on the team. It’s my job to share my experiences, explain stuff, and give you the “tools” to figure it out on your own. It’s not my job to will you to care, tell you what you want to hear, or spoon feed you so you can avoid having to do any actual work.

Before you approach them, go to your coaches and get them on board with you working with the other coxswains. Don’t ask if it’s OK or if they mind or whatever, just put on your assertive varsity coxswain adult pants and say “hey, I wanna meet with all the coxswains at X time on Y date at Z location to go over some of the technical stuff we’ve been working on this week, can you make that announcement at the end of practice?”. That’s literally – literally – all you need to say. Hopefully having them say something will get the coxswains’ attention and add an air of legitimacy to what you’re trying to do (since that can sometimes get lost when you try to organize it on your own).

Whenever you meet with them, rather than trying to do a deep dive right off the bat, just talk to them. Sure, there’s a chance that they actually are as apathetic and pissy as the rowers imply but in my experience, at least a third of them are that way because no one’s ever bothered to sit down and explain anything to them. So, start by figuring out where they’re at. I usually try to do this by asking what 2-3 things they’re struggling the most with and then follow up by asking what I can do for them, rather than asking what they need help with. That’s what works best for me personally because it feels less burdensome on the other person than if I were to just ask for help outright. Plus, if you ask me what I need help with, more than likely I’m not gonna have any idea how to respond because I’m too frustrated to have any coherent idea of the stuff I don’t know … I just know that I don’t know it.

Once you’ve got an idea of where their weaknesses lie, parse it down into more manageable chunks (i.e. the basics of bladework, body positioning, etc. instead of just “technique”) and find a time that works for everyone so you can meet to talk about it. This doesn’t need to be some super formal thing either – when I do this with our coxswains we either hang out in the boathouse lounge during practice while the guys are doing steady state or we’ll grab breakfast afterwards and talk while we eat. You should make it clear though that you want to help them get better, not just for their own sake but for the team’s as well, and that you’re happy to be a resource but the onus is on them to actually apply the stuff you’re helping them with. Like I said before, if you start putting more work in than they are, walk away.

If after all that nothing changes, go back to your coaches and have a serious sit-down conversation with them. Explain the issues the rowers have with the coxswains and that you attempted a solution without much luck so now it’s their turn to address the problem. Obviously you can rephrase the latter part of that to whatever you think will make your point the best. At some point though they’ve gotta take the hint that they need say something to the coxswains directly about their performance and it needs to go beyond the same half-assed, immediately written off “you need to do better” platitudes that tend to get thrown out in situations like this.

Question of the Day

G’day! Just an upfront thanks for the help this blog has been to me so far – it is really a god send!

Recently our coach took us on a road trip to a ‘still’ body of water to do our time trials, however the weather was absolutely horrendous that day (strong winds and rain). This left us with quite the time trial. In regards to the steering, however, I found it very difficult. Generally in practice, I’d look over my shoulder (bow loaded quad) to try and see how the blade work was doing and on top of the glances at the SpeedCoach and calls, it’s generally a handful. When we were doing pieces that day, I’d made the mistake of not prioritising the steering (I just kept the rudder straight) ended up a good 5 or so meters to bow side after the 2K (~ish) piece. On the latter pieces, my line was much better, but required my to be on the rudder a lot of the time.

My question is how do you deal with rough weather? Mainly in regards to cross winds, head winds, tail winds. Should I be constantly on the rudder to maintain my line? Or should I point my line in the direction of the wind in hopes that it pushes the boat back to a straight course? A fellow cox mentioned that they did something similar to this in Rio this year but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Thanks in advance!

When we do seat races or time trials we usually tell the coxswains what arches on the bridge to go through and what they should be pointing at so we can ensure they’re setting themselves up to steer a straight course. If their lines are off and they go through the wrong arch or are clearly not pointed correctly then we have to factor that in to the results because they most likely went over 1000, or 2000m (our standard seat race/time trial distances when we do them by length), which could (and sometimes has) cost a guy his seat.

In my experience rowers tend to get way more pissed about coxswains drifting off course and adding unnecessary extra meters than making small steering adjustments to maintain their original course. It also helps to preface the piece by saying “hey guys, there’s a crosswind coming from the starboard side so I might need to steer a bit if I get pushed off my line”.

Related: How to: Cox a seat race

Usually I’ll point slightly into the wind (like, an arms-only or arms and body-stroke’s worth) at the start if there’s a particularly strong and consistent cross or headwind, that way, like you said, it pushes me back on course. My priority though is to do whatever’s necessary to maintain the straightest course without adding any additional meters. Tailwinds haven’t ever presented much of a problem for me unless it’s a tail-cross but even then it’s negligible so I don’t think my strategy for steering changes much in those conditions.

In a cross or headwind I’ll make as much of an adjustment as necessary and say “on the rudder”/”off the rudder” so the crew knows that I’m paying attention to how the conditions are affecting the piece and taking the necessary steps to ensure we’re impacted as little as possible by them. Once we’re done I’ll tell the coach where/when I had to steer (i.e. about 250m in, 2min into a 5min piece, etc.) and for how long (i.e. a stroke, three strokes, etc.) so they can make a note of it and decide if it had any effect on the outcome of the race.

Coxswain skills: Evaluating races

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

Following up on September’s post on evaluating practices, today’s post is gonna talk about evaluating your race performance. Given that the biggest race of the fall season for most of us is now over and the hangover (either from racing or Ned Devine’s) has worn off, today seems like a good day to reflect back on how we did.

Similarly to when you’re looking back on practice, there’s a lot of different variables you can look at to determine if your performance was up to par (and no, winning is not one of them – you can win and cox like shit just like you can lose and still cox a good race). There’s some carryover between the two but below are the ones I fall back on the most when talking with our coxswains, regardless of whether we’re talking about sprint or head races.

Did you execute the race plan effectively and if you had to deviate from it, did you do so in a way that was easily understood by the crew?

I’ve extolled the virtues of race plans enough times that you should know by now that there’s no excuse for not having one. Plan A, Plan B, Plan C … gotta have ’em all because you never know when you’re gonna need to make the switch because the race is developing differently than you’d originally planned. The better acquainted you and your crew are with the plan before launching for your race, the smoother the transition will be if you need to make that jump. Having to do this during a race is a good test of your composure, your ability to stay focused, and your awareness of how the race is developing around you and how you need to adapt to it.

Did you work towards and/or achieve your personal goals for that day?

Usually with our coxswains this involves something related to race management, steering, and/or communication with the crew. This is a big one for us because we’re always talking about what we did well during this race that we want to carry over to next week (and continue to improve on, implement more frequently, etc.), as well as what we didn’t do well that we need to work on throughout the week so that it’s done better during the next race. We discuss their goals before the race, immediately after, and then more in depth when we go over the video and having that conversation consistently throughout the week is one of the things that helps keep them on track.

Did you make technical corrections that contributed to an increase in boat speed?

This is a question that carries over from the previous post where I talked in more detail about how to determine if your technical calls are effective. Obviously during a race it’s too late to be coaching a rower or crew’s technique but you can/should still make simple, targeted calls that address issues if/when they pop up (i.e. “shape the finishes” if the blades aren’t coming out cleanly, particularly in rough water like we had all weekend). This is crucial during a race because if your technique is off just enough to slow you down 0.001 seconds per stroke, that’s 2 seconds over the course of 2000 meters, which at this level (collegiate men) can equate to nearly a boat length.

These post-race reflections are easily done without audio or GoPro but they’re so much more effective if you’ve got a recording on hand that you can go through, analyze, and get feedback on. GoPro is even better but the caveat, for you at least, is that your performance and execution skills will get scrutinized and critiqued a lot more because you can see your course, the bladework, etc. and how well you’re doing relative to each of those things.

The Wisco race from this past spring is good example of this. If we’d just had the audio I think we’d all agree that it was a solid performance by our coxswain but because we had the GoPro video too, there were a lot of things that stood out where if he’d executed XYZ better, attacked certain areas of the course with a little more fire, etc. that race could/would have been closer. And yea, I agree that it’s absolutely nitpicky as fuck but that’s also the nature of the game.

Related: MIT Men’s Rowing V8+ vs. Wisconsin (Spring 2016)

The great thing about going over that video with our coxswain (who was a freshman at the time) was that all the stuff I wanted to point out and say “we need to do this better”, he said first. I remember leaving that meeting and being so impressed because all I really had to do was help refine whatever plan he’d come up with to work on each of the areas where he felt he needed to improve. The one or two things that I pointed out that he hadn’t already mentioned, we discussed so that it made sense to him and then he  followed up with “OK, how would you do it?” or “What should I do/say next time?”. That’s a HUGE sign of maturity in a coxswain and ultimately plays a big part in how effective these post-race (or post-practice) self-evaluations are.

Coxswain skills: Evaluating practices

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

Raise your hand if after practice your coach, a teammate, your parents, etc. ask “how’d it go?” and you shrug and say “good” for no reason in particular other than nothing disastrous or of note happened. I spent most of my first year or two of coxing doing this before one of the varsity coxswains asked if it was actually good or if I was just saying that because I didn’t know how to actually evaluate a practice. Obviously the latter was the case because I’d just assumed that as long as I didn’t hit anything and the boat had been reasonably set, that’s all there was to a “good” practice.

Related: The four defaults

There’s a ton of different things you could look at to determine how practices went but as a coxswain, here are three you should start with.

Did you make calls throughout practice that reinforced the coach’s technical focus for that day?

Did you make technical corrections that contributed to an increase in boat speed?

An easy way to determine the effectiveness of a technical call is if the boat’s speed picks up within 3-5 strokes and is maintained for 5+ strokes. If you’ve got a SpeedCoach you can determine if your speed is improving by watching for a consistent improvement in splits that is maintained for five or more strokes. If you don’t have a SpeedCoach you can look to see if the boat is running out further between strokes, which is easily determined by watching for an increase in the distance between your puddles.

Did you work towards and/or achieve your personal goals for that day?

Ideally you want to accomplish all of them to some extent but my goal on any given day is to hit two of the three, usually with the priority being reinforcing the technical focus. (If we’re not focusing on something specific that day then I’ll make calls for whatever we did the day before or last week or whenever.) That one is always non-negotiable because it’s like, kind of your job to do that regardless of whatever else is going on.

I don’t always have a personal goal when I go on the water (and if I do it’s usually just making sure I’m steering well) so I’ll try to spend a lot of time watching the blades and relying on boat feel to guide whatever technical calls I’m making, with the goal being to tie in stuff our coach has been saying (to an individual or the crew), maintain what feels good, and/or fix any issues that pop up. That all then obviously falls under the umbrella of hitting our splits when we’re doing steady state or pieces. If those three things are happening then hitting our splits should come easily.

Related: Coxswain skills – Boat feel

Being able to look back at your performance during practice is beneficial to you for a lot of reasons but one that coxswains tend to overlook is that if you’re regularly critiquing yourself and making improvements based off of that, there’s not gonna be a ton of surprises that pop up if/when your team does coxswain evals. It’s always in your best interest to get regular feedback from the rowers but that can’t be the only thing you do to get better. Having an objective eye towards your own coxing has got to be part of the process and that starts with asking yourself these three questions a few times each week.