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.

Defining the role of the coxswain: What’s keeping you out of the 1V

You could apply this to any boat that you aspire to be in but since “how do I get in the 1V” is a frequently asked question, that’s what the focus of this post is on.

You’re not being proactive

Showing up every day isn’t reason enough to get put in the 1V. It’s mind boggling the number of coxswains who think that that’s all it takes. It is but one very small piece of the puzzle. You need to be proactive every single day (yea, even in the winter) about learning the required skills, striving to perfect them, and regularly communicating with your coaches about … pretty much everything. If you’re not doing those things, you’re not doing nearly enough.

You seem uninterested

You don’t have to be the peppiest person ever but you do need to convey some level of energy and enthusiasm. If you go about practice with an apathetic demeanor, there’s nothing about that that indicates to your coaches that being in the 1V is something you’re motivated to work towards. Apathy is not a leadership quality either so if that’s your general attitude, you’re not going to be a very inspired choice for the coaches to consider.

You don’t make a case for yourself

You need to objectively know your strengths and weaknesses and be able to sell yourself if/when you coach asks why you should be considered for the 1V. Consider it like any job interview you’ll ever go on – your coach, like an employer, wants to know what you can do for them and the team, not how this is going to benefit you. Confidence and humility are key; acting smug and cocky can/will make it easy to dismiss you.

You haven’t researched the job

Find out what the coaches and rowers want in a 1V coxswain in terms of skills, abilities, personality, etc. and talk with current/former 1V coxswains so you can get a sense for what it takes to be in that position and what the expectations are.

You’re not good enough or are under-qualified

It’s fine to aim high but you need to be realistic and not get pissed when someone says you’re not ready. If you’re just coming off of your novice year or you’re a junior who still hasn’t come to terms with what a straight line looks like, you’re not ready to be in the 1V. It’s not a dig or demeaning or bullying or whatever else to be told that … it’s an objective fact based on your current skill level and should motivate you to figure out where you can/should improve so you can make a stronger, more grounded-in-reality case for yourself next year.

You lack chemistry with the team and coaches

If the coaches find you difficult to work with or hard to coach and the rowers find you to be a power tripping try-hard, you’re gonna have a hard time getting them to advocate for you. You need to earn their respect and trust and if you lack that, your bid for the 1V just got a lot tougher.

You’re not learning from your mistakes or you get complacent easily

Your successes have to be given the same treatment as your failures – accept whatever happened, learn something, and apply it going forward. If you’re consistently making the same mistake(s) or you get cocky and stop paying attention, your judgment, decision-making, and (self-)awareness (all critical necessities for a 1V coxswain) are going to be called into question.

You’re entitled

This is, in my opinion, the number one reason why you’re not in the 1V. So many of the emails that I get about this reek of entitlement and arrogance. You don’t deserve the 1V just because you’ve been there the longest. You don’t deserve the 1V just because some of the rowers like you better than the other coxswain. You don’t deserve the 1V just because you did this pretty inconsequential thing that anyone with half a brain and an ounce of common sense would know to do. If you spent half as much time on actually improving yourself as a coxswain as you do complaining about why you’re not being given the 1V on a silver platter, you’d be in the 1V already.

All of this is good food for thought during the summer since things are a lot more low-key and you have the ability to look at the previous season or year’s performance with more objectivity. If you spent the spring season frustrated because you felt like you weren’t in the boat you “deserved”, consider what’s up above and think about the role you played in your coach’s decision because at the end of the day, this quote applies just as much to coxswains as it does to rowers.