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.

Video of the Week: The erg as a tool for learning technique

This is a talk that Bill Manning (formerly of Harvard, now with the Princeton lights) gave a couple years ago on using the erg as a tool to help develop better rowing technique. It’s a long talk (an hour and twenty minutes) but for coxswains who are looking to develop a better understanding of the stroke and technique in general, this would be worth watching and taking notes on, that way when you get back from your training trip and are back inside on the ergs you’ll be better able to coach the rowers if/when necessary.

Pro tip: Get on the erg

Previously: Advice from a former novice || Maintaining the set while on the rudder

I’m not talking in a “get a workout in” kind of way, I mean “get on the erg” in a “develop a better understanding of what the stroke feels like” kind of way. My coach had us do this and his reasoning (that I’ve since heard nearly every coach I’ve worked with repeat) was that when we’re communicating something about technique to the crew, we’re primarily doing it based off of what the bladework looks like. Visual cues aren’t what rowers primarily go off of though, they’re operating more off how their body feels.

By getting on the erg or in the tanks and going through the stroke yourself, you can get a better idea of how the body feels throughout the stroke – what muscles are engaged, which ones are stretched, what shouldn’t you be feeling, etc. Having a better visceral understanding of the stroke can help you make more efficient calls and in turn initiate changes faster because instead of telling the crew not to grab at the catch you’ll be able to say “feel the lats engage as we take the catch” or “as the drive starts let’s make sure we’re feeling that engagement with the lats rather than with the shoulders”.

Can you make those type of calls without taking a stroke yourself? Sure … and for a long time you will because you’ll be going off what you hear your coach saying … but at some point when you feel like upping your game and increasing your credibility, you’re gonna look for ways to do that and this should absolutely be one of them. When you hear rowers say they want you to get on the ergs and feel what they feel, that doesn’t mean you’ve gotta go crank out a 10k or do anything “workout” related either. Them seeing you on the ergs learning something and then actively applying that the next time you’re coxing them (regardless of whether that’s during the indoor season or the next time you’re on the water) will earn you just as much street (…water?) cred as if you did a 2k alongside them.

Question of the Day

What type of contact is permitted during the dead period? If I’m doing a 5k this week and want to send my time to a coach is that something that would be allowed?

During dead periods coaches can’t have any face-to-face contact with you, meaning they can’t visit your program to watch you row and you can’t come on visits during that four-day period. You can still communicate back and forth via phone or email though so it’s not a problem if you want to pass along your updated times.

Question of the Day

Hi!! I have a plica in my knee, I got the okay from our AT to row but it hurts a lot when I do. We’re in an erging stint right now and I don’t want to be seen as a slacker but I also don’t know if I can effectively do the workouts on the erg. I have no clue how to go about handling the situation.

If your coaches and/or teammates think you’re a slacker because you’re trying to figure out how to come back from or manage an injury, you’ve got bigger problems to deal with.

In my experience, both as an athlete and since I’ve been coaching, the people that think they’re going to be seen as slackers or whatever when they’re dealing with an injury (or academic/personal issues) are the ones that do literally everything but communicate with their coach(es). If your coaches don’t know that something’s going on and they see you pulling splits that aren’t where they’re supposed to be then yea, they’re probably gonna be thinking you need to get your shit together. After a few days or weeks of this when they finally ask you what the deal is and you casually say “well I’ve been dealing with an injury for the past month” they’re just gonna be frustrated and annoyed that you never said anything to them and just let them assume that you were slacking off. That’s entirely on you too so you can’t get pissed at them if and when they verbalize their frustration at your lack of communication. The vast majority of coaches will be willing to work with you to help you stay healthy, recover properly, etc. but it’s your job to speak up and advocate for yourself when something is going on.

Related: Hey! At the end of the spring season I was one of the best rowers on my team. I had some of the strongest erg scores and was stroking the 1V8+. However I was rowing through an injury, it was a plica so there was no structural damage, and after receiving a cortisone shot, the pain went down a lot, so I was cleared to row though they said to go see another dr. over the summer for potential surgery. The Dr. I saw over the summer took an MRI and decided to try PT and an anti-inflammatory. She also said to limit my exercise to non-impact workouts, which pretty much meant no erging/rowing, running, or biking. I did do some swimming this summer and focused on building core strength. Now I’m back at school in pre-season, it definitely helped, and my knee is better. However my erg scores (obviously) haven’t been where they were and it’s been discouraging. I’ve been going to every practice to gain an advantage, before mandatory practice starts, but it’s so hard motivating myself to go when I know I’ll be in the middle of the pack, even though I know the only way to get better is by going. What’s worse is that my coach ignores me. This sucks because I’ve picked up that that’s what he does to the girls who maybe aren’t the top rowers on the team. Do you have any advice on how I can boost my moral?

The best and first thing you should do is meet with your coaches before your next practice and update them on what’s going on. Let them know that you’ve been cleared by the trainer (you can probably ask the trainer to email them too to let them know what they’ve seen and done with you so far) but that you’re still experiencing a lot of pain when you’re on the erg. This past winter we had two or three guys working through knee issues and they would typically bike during practice or if we were doing something like 7 x 10 minutes, they’d start on the ergs, do 3-4 pieces, and then get on the bike for the last few. Another guy would go to the pool on campus and swim for 90 minutes. Try proposing one of those options and/or get some recommendations from the trainer for alternate workouts and then let your coaches know where things stand.

Regardless of how off-putting your coach might be, which I fully get is why some people are hesitant to tell them they’re injured, it’s still in your best interest to tell them stuff like this sooner rather than later.