Question of the Day

Hi! Do you have any resources (or can point to any resources) for practicing how to spot problems that rowers are having/how to identify what corrections to call for while coxing? In my head, I’m imagining videos from the coxswain’s point of view (in an 8) and you have a clip during which you take some time to try to notice what needs to be fixed on your own, and then can look up the “answers” after to see what you missed or if you misinterpreted what was going on and got it wrong. So for example if there’s a clip that demonstrates late catches from bow pair and rowing it in from 5 and 6 seats, someone could watch the clip and write down what they see and then after can look at what a more experienced coxswain would say the problems are and compare them, i.e. see if you saw the catch and rowing it in issues yourself.

Does this kind of thing exist somewhere (and did my description make any sense at all)? It would just be nice to get a visual of what the different issues look like from the coxswain’s seat and be able to practice recognizing them, especially because I cox very good rowers and sometimes the issues are nuanced and I just don’t have the experience to notice them yet.

I definitely get what you’re saying. An exact resource like the one you described doesn’t exist as far as I know but there are plenty of ways to achieve the same effect.  I usually try to do something similar with the coxswains during the winter when we’re bored and there’s nothing else to do while the guys are doing steady state. We’ll pull up a race, listen/watch, slow a few clips down to watch it in slow-mo, and just talk through it. What we’re seeing, what we’re hearing, stuff like that and usually we’ll end up doing the same thing that you described.

This was actually a big part of what I did with the coxswains at the camps I coached at last year too (as well as with a few coxswains I’ve worked one-on-one with) – we’d watch a race, they’d take notes, and then afterwards point out what they saw, ask questions on it, etc. and I’d answer them while also pointing out anything they might have missed, interpreted incorrectly, or weren’t sure of a fix (or appropriate call) for.

Point being I guess is that what you described is a good idea but the benefit (in my opinion) from doing something like that comes in talking through it with other people, whether it’s another coxswain, your coach, etc. Every coach I’ve ever had or worked with has taken tons of video of their crews and they’ll usually spend a couple minutes going over it with the team or individual boats, again basically doing close to what you described. It’s up to you in that instance to take the opportunity to pay close attention to what you’re seeing and then compare that to whatever your coach points out.

I always did that whenever we’d go over video at MIT and every time there was something I’d miss that I’d not realize until one of the other coaches pointed it out. This helped me help the coxswains too because I took notes on whatever we’d go over during video review and then make a point to pay attention to that stuff when we were on the water. From there I could spot the nuances more clearly and give the coxswains further details or clarifications on calls that might help fix the problem, reiterate a particular point, etc.

This is also why I encourage coxswains to use GoPros. I get that they’re not the cheapest things but they’re such an invaluable tool in your development because it lets you re-watch your own rowers again and again rather than someone else’s crew who might not have the same problems that yours does (or the same problems in the same way). At the very least, have your coach get video of the crew and then spend a couple minutes going over it with them after practice once or twice a week. A good app to do this with and one I like to use  is called “Coach’s Eye” but you could of course always just use your phone’s camera and play it back like that.

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.

Words.

There’s a common saying in rowing that goes like this: “Coxswains lose races, they don’t win them.” A coxswain’s mistake, the expression suggests, can cost the boat a victory, but it is rare that a coxswain’s skilled handling of a shell is singled out as what decides a close race.  Nevertheless, it appears that, whether or not a coxswain can contribute to a win, the fault for a loss is often placed on their shoulders. It’s easier to blame the coxswain. It’s not necessarily fair, but that’s the way it is. If a coxswain does what they’re supposed to do, the win will still go to the crew.

Top 5 Most Important Things to Know on Race Day

Got a great question from a novice coxswain the other day that asked what the most important things were to know/remember on race day (excluding your race plan and lineup). Pretty simple question overall but what I liked about it was the PS at the end: “I asked my coach and he said (completely seriously) the only important thing I need to remember is to finish ahead of [a rival team]. I didn’t want to be annoying and ask again but he didn’t really answer my question so … help?”.

C’mon coaches. Do better.

Related: Race skills: Race warmups

Excluding your race plan and lineup, which you should know well in advance, here are the most important things you need to know or find out on race day.

Traffic pattern

The worst time to find out that there’s a left hand traffic pattern instead of a right hand pattern is when you’re on the water warming up. (Saw that happen in Philly a couple years ago … it almost didn’t end well.) Make sure you’re familiar with the traffic pattern and any nuances, like shallow spots, pinch points, bridge arches you can’t go through, etc. before you launch so you’re not spending your warmup time hyperfocused on trying to figure out where to go.

If you get out on the water though and don’t know where you need to be or get confused by something, ask. There are officials, coaches, etc. in launches on the water who will answer whatever questions you have but they can’t help you if they don’t know there’s a problem. They’re not going to be annoyed or think you’re stupid for saying something but I can promise you that they will be super pissed if you don’t ask and then they have to chase you down to tell you to get off the course, you’re on the wrong side, etc. because at that point, not only are you potentially interfering with a race in progress, you’re putting yourself, your crew, and the other crews in danger.

When in doubt, speak up and ask for clarification.

Warm up pattern

This is in a similar vein to the traffic pattern. I’ve been on courses where you launch at the finish line and warm up parallel to the course as you row to the starting line and I’ve been on courses where you launch above the starting line, row down parallel to the course, do a short loop below the finish line, and then row back up the same side you came down to get back to the start. Knowing the traffic pattern doesn’t necessarily equate to knowing the warmup pattern so this is another thing to make sure you are 100% clear on before you launch.

If you’re able to practice the day before your race, use that time to familiarize yourself with the water, landmarks, etc. so that when you’re going out for your race, again, you’re not wasting your warmup time by trying to figure out where to go.

Official race (and weigh-in) time

99.9% of the time these days, race time = cell phone time (because unlike watches, your cell phone’s not going to slow down time as the battery dies). At the earliest you can probably ask your coach what time your race is on Thursday of that week. At the latest, particularly if there’s concerns about weather, you should find out by Friday afternoon. It’s on you though to go directly to your coach and ask for this information – don’t wait for them to give it to you. Even if they say “I’ll find out and let you know”, you’ve still gotta be the one to follow up. There’s a lot to do on race day and it’s easy for something like this to slip their mind.

This also applies to weigh-ins, particularly and especially if racing has been delayed and as a result, so have weigh-ins. I think USRowing altered the rule as a result of that fiasco at Youth Nats a few years ago but regardless, if you’re getting weighed in or you’re coxing lightweights who need to weigh in, you need to know when the weigh-ins are happening, where they’re at, how many chances they’ll get to weigh in (sometimes there’s a limit of two times before you’re ineligible to race), and what the time frame is (i.e. no later than 2hrs before race time).

Lane and Bow Number

One time when I was doing stake boats a crew rowed up to the start without a bow number but pretty confidently spun into my lane so I just assumed they were in the right place. A minute or so later another crew rowed up and said “you’re in our lane”. The coxswain was like “oh sorry, I wasn’t sure what lane we were in so I just decided to go here” (as if that’s a practical solution) before turning around to ask me what lane she was in. I had no idea and it took a few minutes for the officials to figure out too, which ended up delaying the start of the race.

When you get your race time from your coach, make sure you also get the lane number and grab your bow number, if you’re using them (most big regattas do, sometimes smaller races or duels don’t). Most duel races (especially in college) will do the lane draw at the coaches and coxswains meeting so there’s no excuse for not knowing where to go.

The kicker with that coxswain, and the reason it took awhile for the officials to figure out where they were supposed to be, was that their race was the one before the one they were trying to line up for. Know your race time, know your lane number.

Launch time

There’s a fine balance in knowing when to launch. Too soon and you’ll end up sitting on the water for awhile (which at best, means your muscles cool down and at worst, you’ll be stuck in the elements, which means excess time in the blistering sun or freezing ass cold) or too late and you’ll have to rush up to the start and sacrifice getting a proper warm up in. I talked about determining when to launch in the “race warmups” post linked at the top so check it out for more info on that.

My personal preference is to be shoving off the dock about 40 minutes before race time – I think that tends to give me enough time to run through our warmup, get a quick drink, and then get locked on to the stake boats with 2-3 minutes to spare so the crew can have some quiet time before the race starts.

All of these things are discussed in the coaches and coxswains meeting but if you miss it or there isn’t one, find an official and ask them the specifics for each of these. They’re there to answer your questions so don’t be shy about talking to them. If you don’t have USRowing officials (who wear blue shirts, navy jackets, and khaki pants at every race), look for “regatta headquarters” and ask someone in there. If they don’t know, they’ll be the best people to point you towards someone who does.

Related: What happens at a coaches and coxswains meeting?

Also, for the novices in particular, if you haven’t yet, check out the two posts linked above and at the start of the post. There’s a ton of information in there that, if you haven’t figured most of it out by this point in the season, will definitely help you out as we enter the last few weeks of racing.

Question of the Day

Hi there – I’ve just come out of my first racing season and after talking to my crew and coaches, my weakness still lies within steering; more specifically oversteering.

My racing season consisted of Sykes bow-loaded fours (so steering is done with the rod). The steering system is an AEROWFIN. From the other fours I’ve coxed with the traditional square fin, this one is obviously more touchy and responsive (which has its pros and cons). The problem is that at the tip of the fin, (the point on the rudder that is furthest away from the hull) there is a small crease/slight bend in the rudder. I’m not sure whether this may contribute to some of the steering issues I’ve had.

In the eight that I’ve raced once, we have stuck an oversized fin for the Head of the Yarra we do every year and left it on for the whole season. The rudder does not, however line up dead straight with the fin, it is 1-2mm wide of it. At the beginning of the season, I tried lining up the rudder to be dead straight but moving the rod (while on slings) and looking from the stern down towards the bow at the rudder in order to gauge its “straightness”. I’d then mark the point in my seat to which the position of the rod/string corresponds to a straight rudder. However, I struggle to think of a time when leaving the rudder at that point does not stop the bow ball drifting to either side.

The possible factors I see which might be the cause of my oversteering.
– Power Imbalance
– Current/Wind (Although I’ve steered in near flat conditions and it still occurs)
– Rudder Defect(s)

Often when we train, I’m autopiloting the steering aspect because the river is very simple with gradual turns. But come race day on a buoyed course, it becomes pretty awful. Talking to my stroke, he said that it wasn’t like I was changing the direction of the rudder every three strokes, but it was more of a gradual snaking which was costing us metres. The four I cox have spent a lot of time in the 4- and tbh can steer straighter than I can (although this is an example of a different occasion, with different conditions and a different body of water).

The fact is that I’d like to rectify my steering issues, the next few months will be primarily Winter Training or Head Racing. How do I do it? Do I start from scratch and focus all my attention on steering? What is a good way to know that you’re steering straight (because it seems like I’m steering straight on home territory however as soon as we hit the buoyed course it becomes awful)? Some coxes have the liberty of training on rivers/lakes with buoys all year around whereas the river we row on doesn’t have this, how can I practise? Thank You Very Much!

I love the Aerowfin. We switched it on to one of our Empachers in the fall and it made taking the tight turns on the Charles so much simpler.

Related: Taking the Weeks turn with the Carl Douglas “Aerowfin”

I was texting with one of the MIT coxswains last week about similar steering issues and my first question was whether or not she’d checked the equipment. Not to shirk responsibility or anything like that but because even though 99% of the time the problem is us, that 1% where it’s the equipment can be really validating if you feel like you’d been doing everything you were supposed to in order to steer a good line. (Her problem ended up being an issue with the cables.) It sounds like you’ve already done the leg work in that area so I’d bring that info to your coach and/or boatman and have them look at to confirm if that’s the problem. Very rarely, borderline on never, do I suggest looking at the equipment first instead of yourself as being the problem but the fin having a bend in it and the rudder being a few millimeters out of alignment makes me think that it’s the problem, not you.

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering, pt. 1 (Oversteering)

I don’t think you need to start from scratch but maybe talk to your coach about taking out a different four to see if you have similar issues in that boat as you do in this one. If you do then the problem is clearly you and you’re gonna have to spend some time at the drawing board evaluating how you’re steering now and what adjustments you need to make. If you don’t have any of the same issues then that most likely will confirm that the other boat is the problem.

Not having a buoyed course or unobstructed straight water to practice on is the most played out excuse for why coxswains can’t steer straight. It is highly unlikely that whatever body of water you’re on doesn’t have at least 100m of water with no curves that you can practice “steering straight” on. Those are opportunities that you’ve gotta open your eyes to and be aware of so that as you’re coming up to them you can say to yourself “OK, this is the only time today I’m gonna have to practice my race steering…” and then do whatever you need to do to work on that. Tell the rowers too that you’re coming up on the part of the river where you want to practice your race steering and then afterwards, ask your stroke seat how your point looked – did it seem from their vantage point like you were snaking around or did it look relatively straight?

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering a buoyed course

Autopilot is fine when you’re warming up, executing drills, etc. but every so often you’ve gotta snap out of that habit (especially during steady state or pieces) and pay attention to every single aspect of your steering, from your hand placement to if you’re reacting to the boat’s movement and knocking the rudder, etc. All those things add up and are super easy to ignore if you’re not making a conscious effort to pay attention to them.

Related: Coxswains skills: Race steering

You’ve gotta use every practice as an opportunity to work on your steering. If you only decide to work on your steering when you notice there’s a problem (or worse, a rower or coach points it out) then it’s basically too late because now you’re hyperaware of it and that tends to exacerbate the problem. Steering is not that hard. It just isn’t. We overthink it and make it hard, which is what tends to be our downfall 99% of the time.

Question of the Day

Hi! So I’m a collegiate coxswain with about 8 years of experience and I’ve been struggling with fours for a while now. I’m pretty good in eights and have great boat feel, but as soon as I hop in a four everything goes south. I struggle to diagnose problems, stumble over my words, become repetitive, steer poorly, etc. etc. It also doesn’t help that I’m in eights most of the time, so it’s near impossible to fix problems for next practice as the next fours practice might be 8-10 practices away. Do you have any advice?

This is how I feel whenever I get into a four too. The ratio of time I’ve spent in eights vs. fours is pretty lopsided and even now (especially now) whenever I hop in a four, whether it’s filling in for one of the coxswains or actually racing, it feels like it takes forever for me to get in a groove with feeling what’s going on, making calls, etc.

When I was just learning to cox in fours my coach’s advice, which I still rely on today, was to not look at it like you’re starting from scratch anytime you go from an eight to a four, especially since we were also in them infrequently. In my experience that’s what tends to trip coxswains up and cause them to get overwhelmed – that was definitely the case for me. I’d get in the boat and immediately overwhelm myself by thinking about not being able to see anyone instead of just slowing down and using everything I knew about the rowers from being in the eight to guide whatever I was saying or interpreting via boat feel.

That’s why whenever I’m in fours I talk a lot less than I do when I’m in eights. Rowers (at every level I’ve coxed) have pointed it out too and my response is always that it’s not because I’m zoning out or not paying attention, rather it’s the exact opposite – it’s a different environment so I’m trying to focus, feel, process, etc. more and I can’t do that if I’m talking all the time. If I’m talking the same amount in a four that I am in an eight, that’s a pretty clear sign that I’m just completely bullshitting my way through practice.

When it comes to diagnosing problems, I heavily rely on whatever’s been going on in the eight to act as my “baseline” for the four. Before going out or while we’re warming up I’ll usually say something like “We’ve been working on ABC in the eight so now that there’s just four of you, let’s really hone in on XYZ today – the less time we spend worrying about setting the boat the more time we can spend on just moving it.” and then quickly run through one or two individual things that I want them to focus on. By this point in the season  you know what’s going well, what’s not, etc. which makes it a lot easier to narrow the scope of practice vs. “starting from scratch” where it seems like every technical issue known to man could be the problem. Plus, the smaller the boat you’re in the more noticeable technical issues are going to be. If you know what to look/feel for based on the stuff you’ve already been working on, that makes things a lot easier for you.

If I knew we were gonna go out in fours I’d talk to my coaches about the lineups, anything in particular I should focus on (i.e. 3-seat in the eight isn’t used to being in stern pair so now that he’s 3-seat in the four, making calls about syncing up with the stroke would be beneficial in the first half of practice), stuff they’ve seen from the launch, etc. – pretty much the same stuff I’d talk about with them normally anyways. Taking the feedback I got from those conversations and meshing it up with my own observations from the eight made getting into the fours a lot less stressful because, like I said earlier, it helped narrow my focus.

Stumbling over your words and getting repetitive is usually a sign that you need to take a step back and (re)focus. You also just need to be honest with the boat. If I know something feels off but can’t figure out what the problem is then I’ll just say that and ask them what they’re feeling. I know a lot of coxswains are kinda timid about doing this because they think it’ll make them look bad but it really doesn’t. Making useless calls and being ineffective in general makes you look bad … admitting you’re off your game today and can’t figure out if what’s throwing the boat off is X or Y demonstrates a level of self-awareness that far too many coxswains lack.

Steering poorly, you can’t really justify or make any excuses for that. You’ve got an unobstructed view and technically that should be your primary focus anyways. If you’re steering is bad/unsafe then that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to slow down, stop talking, and get that sorted out before trying to do anything else. It also baffles me when coxswains come off the water complaining about how practice didn’t go well because the boat was unset all morning and nothing they said fixed it … did you ever consider maybe not touching the rudder every three seconds? That’d probably help.

Anyways, my advice is to talk less (way less), incorporate in your observations, the rowers’ known tendencies, etc. from the eight rather than starting from zero every time, and when in doubt, crowdsource ideas from the boat if you’re stuck on something. Last piece of advice is to talk with the other coxswains regularly enough that you at least have a basic idea of the strengths/weaknesses of the rowers in their boats, that way if you end up coxing them in a four instead of the people who are usually in your boat, you won’t be in the dark about what they’ve been doing or where they’re at technically. This will benefit you regardless of the boat you’re in and it helps make you a more versatile coxswain.