The Five Mandates of Coxing

There’s a lot of things about coxing that are steeped in logic and common sense – the five things below are a few of them. They fall under the umbrella of “the bare minimum you should be doing every single day”. Doing them doesn’t make you a good coxswain either, a good coxswain simply does them because a) bare. freaking. minimum., b) common sense, c) logic.

If you’ve been to Sparks you’ll probably recognize a couple of these. If you haven’t yet, you’re welcome for the heads up.

Wear sunglasses and a hat

The elements are a huge distraction for coxswains and one of the easiest ways to minimize that is to wear a hat and sunglasses. I resisted wearing a hat for a really long time but the first time I got sunburned and had to walk around school with that dumb ass white stripe across my forehead from the mic strap, you bet that changed my mind. Wearing a hat also keeps the sun, rain, snow, etc. out of your eyes, which gives you a clearer view of everything in front of your face, which I think we can all agree is an important thing for coxswains.

Related: What to wear: Sunglasses

Same goes for sunglasses. I wear regular glasses and paying a few hundred bucks for a pair of prescription sunglasses seemed foolish considering how frugal I needed to be with my money but I finally got a pair this year and they are so worth it. I’m not a huge fan of sunny days because I tend to get really bad migraines from the glare off the water or just the bright light in general but I’ve actually noticed over the last few months that I’ve had fewer headaches coming off the water than I have in the past because I wear my sunglasses every day instead of just relying on my hat to keep the sun out of my eyes.

Walk behind the boat

You will never be able to make a successful argument to me as to why walking in front of the boat is safer and more effective than walking behind the boat. Many have tried, all have failed.

When you’re in front of the boat you have no idea what’s happening behind you, which means you can’t see if a rigger or the end of the boat is going to hit something (or someone). Some coxswains will also say “but I need to tell people to get out of the way” … OK so, project your voice and yell “heads up!”. Protecting the equipment is more important than protecting people who are too dense to get out of your way despite your repeated attempts to get them to move.

“Behind” is not open to interpretation either. It literally means behind, not up by your bow or 2-seat because then you can’t see the rigger on the other side and that’s gonna be the one that gets slammed into the bay door when you swing out of the boathouse to go down to the dock. Whenever I’m walking a boat anywhere, I’ve got one hand either physically on the bow ball (usually as we’re walking through traffic at a race or out into the street to load the trailers) or up and ready to grab it if I need to prevent us from hitting something (usually as we’re walking in/out of the boathouse).

“Behind” also doesn’t mean being at the bow of the boat. Depending on where you’re walking (i.e. going out bow first), you might be standing behind the stern. This tends to be a point of confusion for coxswains but as long as you’re standing at the end that gives you a clear and full view of the entire shell and the rowers, bow and stern are irrelevant.

Be hands free

“But who’s gonna carry the rowers water bottles?”

Oh, I donno, maybe the rowers??? I don’t know where this idea that coxswains = pack mules got started but it’s bullshit and you all honestly need to start telling the rowers they can carry their own shit into the boat with them. They’ve got one extra hand they can carry their water with or they can do what everyone else does and stick it in the waistband of their spandex.

“I don’t mind doing it, it’s not a big deal, they asked me to, all the coxswains before me did it, etc.”

Don’t care. Your hands need to be free because if you’ve gotta suddenly grab the boat to keep from knocking a rigger on a light pole, it’s gonna be pretty tough to do that if you’ve got eight water bottles, two splash jackets, your cox box, and a partridge in a pear tree in your hands.

And yea, your cox box? That shouldn’t be in your hands either. Throw a carabiner on it (I use these s-biner ones) and attach it to your belt look, fanny back, backpack, or whatever you carry your tools and stuff in when you go out. Hands free means HANDS FREE.

Speak loudly, slowly, and clearly

This is first and foremost a safety thing. People (not just the rowers in your boat) need to be able to hear and understand what you’re saying, which means you’ve gotta project your voice, annunciate your words, and speak at a normal pace (i.e. not frantically rushing the words out of your mouth but also not taking a full sixty seconds to say five words). If you’re not a naturally loud person or you’re kinda shy and not super comfortable being that loud … suck it up, man. That’s the only pertinent advice I have for you.

Be beside the skeg on the dock

Fourteen years and counting as a coxswain and I’ve never lost a skeg, largely in part because my hand is on the boat guiding it away from the dock anytime we’re putting the boat in or taking it out of the water. It’s your job to protect the equipment and even though you’re loudly, slowly, and clearly instructing the crew to “put it out and in”, there’s no guarantees that the boat is always going to go out far enough before it goes in (especially if you’re coxing novices), which is why you’ve gotta have your hands free and be ready to guide it out further to ensure the skeg doesn’t get knocked off.

When you’re taking the boat out at the end of practice, standing there and watching the coxswain seat get closer to your face as the rowers lift it out of the water is not the same as putting your hand on the side of the boat and guiding it up out of the water.

This is another argument that coxswains have tried to have and lost. Those of you that have lost skegs on the dock, if you were standing there doing each of the things mentioned above, how many hours of repair work do you think you could have saved your coaches or boatmen?

We’re still pretty early in the season which means there’s plenty of time for you to start implementing these things and ingraining good habits in the coxswains on your team. The group that will benefit from this the most are the novice coxswains so varsity coxswains, it’s on you to set the example.

Defining the role of the coxswain: Leadership

It’s election night in the US so talking about leadership seemed like a fitting topic for today’s post. I came across this blog post from the Harvard Business Review a few days ago that talked about the skills leaders need regardless of where they fall in the hierarchy of their organization. The original question was “are some skills less important for leaders at certain levels of the organization or is there a set of skills fundamental to every level?” and what the researchers found was that instead of there being different sets of “core competencies” for each level of management (ranging from first-time managers to senior executives/CEOs), the skills that were perceived as most important stayed consistent across the board. The conclusion they drew was that as you move up the chain the basic fundamentals aren’t changing but their relative importance does.

The parallels to coxing and the sport might not be exact but they are there so this should give you a good idea of where you can/should focus your energy if you’re an upperclassman who is trying to step it up as a leader on your team or if you’re an underclassman who is taking on your first real leadership position.

For each of the top three skills listed above I’ve included a couple examples below of how you can approach and demonstrate each one with your team and/or boat.

Inspires and motivates others

We all know motivation is a tricky subject for coxswains but the leadership side of it is less about calls on the water and more about how you keep your boat/team striving for more. This starts with being one of the first team leaders to step up and start proposing realistic goals to work towards over the next month, season, and year.

Showing appreciation for your rowers goes a long way too in keeping them motivated, especially in the winter. It’s as simple as sending out a quick group text after a hard workout and saying “you guys crushed it this morning, great job…”.

Keeping everyone focused (and staying focused yourself) on the bigger picture is also key. Put it in the context of doing side-by-side pieces during practice. You have to understand the goal of the workout and know that just straight winning a piece is rarely its entire purpose. The bigger picture is leveraging the technical focuses from that week with the fitness you’ve been developing over the course of the season to see where your speed’s at, amongst other things. You can row well and lose, you can have a good piece and lose, you can row 10x better today than you did yesterday and lose. Don’t let a lost piece derail the practice or kill the energy in the boat. Keep everyone focused by highlighting the improvements you’ve made throughout each piece and noting where you can/need to do better … and then get after it on the next one.

Displays high integrity and honesty

This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is pretty straightforward and has to do with communication. Basically, are you giving your teammates the information they need in a timely and accurate fashion? Between technical feedback, your position, time elapsed, and a whole litany of other things, there’s a lot of information that you’re responsible for passing along to the crew. The more honest you are about what’s going on, the more the crew will trust you and the less backseat coxing (at the very least) you’ll have to deal with.

The second interpretation has to do with how to conduct yourself. Are you showing up to practice on time (and by on time I mean early) every day? Are you putting personal relationships aside and offering constructive feedback to everyone in your boat? Are you matching the effort put in by the rowers both on and off the water in terms of development and becoming more proficient at your job?

Solves problems and analyzes issues

This is where your technical knowledge can be a huge benefit to you. You’ve gotta able to feel what’s going on in the boat and then quickly and decisively translate that to a call that works to improve boat speed. By developing your problem solving skills by way of improving your boat feel, educating yourself off the water on the intricacies of the rowing stroke, understanding the style of rowing your coach is teaching, etc. your calls will become clearer and your command of the crew will improve.

There will also be times where you’ve gotta do some creative problem solving to deal with, for example, a shortened or lengthened warmup time on race day. Being able to shift gears and have a clear plan in mind that you can then communicate to your crew (in a totally chill manner that makes it seem like this was the plan all along) will again only increase their trust in your ability to lead them through adverse situations.

If you’re thinking of doing coxswain evals at any point, this would be a great addition to help give you an idea of what the rowers value when it comes to the coxswain as a team leader. Rather than give them this entire list and have them rank all 16 skills in order of importance, I’d get together with the other coxswains (and your coaches) and collectively decide on five at most that you all think are important and then have the rowers rank them from there. Alternatively, you could pick three and have them rate each coxswain individually on a scale of 1-5 (similarly to how I’ve got other skills set up on the evals we use with our team) to net you some feedback on how you’re doing in those areas and where improvements could be made.

Video of the Week: TIME Magazine’s profile on USA W8+ coxswain, Katelin Snyder

Both Katelin and Tom Terhaar do a great job of explaining our role in a way that I’ve never really heard verbalized before. It’s always implied but never just said, which I think is what lends to the ambiguity some coxswains encounter when trying to figure out what exactly it is that they’re supposed to do. TIME did a great job on this though. The video’s only about five minutes long but it communicates a lot.