Making mistakes

It’s not like it’s any big secret that our generation doesn’t know how to fail at things. It’s definitely something I struggle(d) with but over time coxing helped me reframe it as a skill that can be developed rather than as some defining characteristic. You can’t be a coxswain – not even a good coxswain, just a coxswain – and not be OK with making mistakes. It’s going to happen, especially when you’re just getting started, and how you respond to those moments (and their aftermath, in some cases) can set the stage for how easily you adapt to adverse situations in the future.

Also, note to all the parents that are reading … public shaming in this context is a good thing. There’s no need to be traumatized for your kid (who, by the way, is a young adult and should be able to handle critiques and feedback by now) because they had to go a whole four days without being praised for walking upright and breathing without being told to. If the only thing you take away from them telling you about their camp experience is that “public shaming” is a thing they participated in and you subsequently focus on that in a negative way instead of asking them what they learned and took away from it, you. are. not. helping. them. Ask them questions about what they did wrong, how they reacted to getting called out for it, what they did differently next time as a result, etc. and help them learn that making a mistake is not some apocalyptic event that is going to derail their entire career. Be supportive but don’t coddle them – I promise, they’ll survive.

How to: Rotate through the Sixes

This regularly gets asked by new coxswains at the start of each season so hopefully this helps you learn the order of the switches, as well as who’s being switched in and out.

Related: Transitioning by fours in an 8+ always confuses me. I know you start with stern four, then stern pair out, then three four in, but what’s after that? Who goes in and out in what order? Thanks!

It’s not nearly as difficult as it looks but it does help to familiarize yourself with the transitions before you actually need to call them.

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

How do you avoid being repetitive if your boat keeps falling off the goal stroke rate? The boat I cox sometimes struggles to keep it up and I don’t want to constantly be calling “up two in two,” as I feel like it’s either not working (which is why we keep coming back down) or it gets annoying. Once we get up to rate I try to sometimes call for a “focus 5” to really focus on what the rate feels like and maybe help with building muscle memory of what the slide speed and drive speed should feel like and I think it helps a bit, but sometimes we fall back down anyway.

Also, how do you call a double pause drill (e.g., pause at arms over and at half slide)? Do you say “row” after the first pause, even though they’re not actually rowing but rather moving to a second pause? Or do you not call the pauses/”row”s at all and just let stroke seat take control? (I’m in a bowloader, if that makes a difference)

Thanks!

Good question about the pause drills. Check out the “relevant calls” section, specifically the first and second paragraphs, in the “Top 20 terms” post linked below. That addresses exactly what you asked.

Related: Top 20 terms coxswains should know: Pause drills

If for whatever reason you aren’t calling something, whoever’s in bow takes over making the calls, not stroke (and that’s rare too that they’d need to take over doing that). Being in a bowloader though is irrelevant. You don’t need to see them to feel when they get to the first pause and from there you just need to wait 2-3 seconds before calling them to half slide. Wash, rinse, repeat.

With the stroke rate issues, first thing you should do is talk to your coach. Explain that you’re having trouble maintaining the stroke rate and see if they can take some video of the crew that they can then go over with everyone later. This should help you narrow down what technical things you can narrow in on with your calls to help them hold the rate.

There’s plenty of things you could focus on but here’s three to start with..

Get the hands moving out of bow at a speed that matches whatever rate you’re at. You’re not gonna hit a 32 if your hands are coming away at a 26. Hand speed’s gotta match the boat speed. Get the body set before the legs come up too, that way you’re not dumping all your weight into the front end as you try to change direction.

Change direction at both ends in one fluid motion. When the slide/handle stops moving in one direction it should immediately start moving in the other. If you’re hanging at the front end or pausing at the back end the boat’s gonna lose momentum and whatever energy you could be putting into maintaining the rate is gonna have to go into picking it back up again (which is gonna feel super heavy and cause you to fatigue sooner which will also contribute to the rate falling off).

Get the rate on the drive. You’ve gotta build the pressure before the rate so as you’re building between the “off” strokes and the “on” strokes, don’t make it all about slide speed. Make sure the blades are fully buried and that they’re squeezing the legs the catch and getting a solid push off the stretchers that is then followed up by accelerating the handle through the second half of the stroke. If you can get the boat running well that’s gonna make it feel lighter at the catch which in turn will make it easier to pick up and turn around.

Focus fives lose their meaning really fast if you constantly call them without any sort of positive outcome. All you’re basically saying is that they just have to focus on X for five strokes and then they can go back to … not focusing on it. If something feels good, just say that. If you want them to do something, just say it.

I’m assuming you’re coxing a younger crew, in which case there’s not usually enough stability or consistency over five strokes to get a good idea of what good ratio feels like or how (for example) a 22 feels compared to an 18. Instead of doing a focus five, lengthen it out to 60-90 seconds … and be quiet during that time so they can actually feel the boat, process it, and commit it to muscle memory. This is a good thing to do during steady state and you can preface it by saying “the ratio here at the 22 feels pretty good so for the next 90 seconds, let’s maintain this by doing XYZ” … and then let them go.

How to prioritize and organize your calls

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat || How to cox (and coach) novices

One of the key parts of ensuring you don’t get repetitive or run out of things to say during a practice or race is prioritizing your calls and organizing them (and yourself). When you’re racing it’s also a key part in ensuring your race plan is executed efficiently and cleanly. At one of the Sparks camps I was at last month I was coaching with Malcolm Doldron, who is the lightweight women’s head coach at BU (and a former coxswain), and he laid out a unique plan for organizing your calls that I hadn’t seen before, at least not in this configuration. If being more organized on the water is something you’ve been working on or you have it set as a goal for the upcoming year, try this out and see if it works for you.

Related: Mike Teti’s “Three S’s of Coxing”

The first part of this is prioritizing your calls, which should go something like this:

1. Safety + steering
2. Distance, rate, splits (if applicable), and time
3. Rhythm + technique
4. Motivation

The second part is organizing yourself and knowing where to focus and what to say. Malcolm suggested thinking of it like a clock. To orient yourself, you/the stern are at 6 o’clock, the bow of the boat is at 12 o’clock, and laterally at 3 and 9 o’clock you’ve got the crews you’re rowing with, along with the buoy or shore line.

Looking straight ahead towards where you’re pointed and at your crew should be your main focus. This also corresponds with whatever “safety and steering” calls you make, as well as the “rhythm and technique” ones. From there you’ve got the information that’s right in front of you at 6 o’clock (the data from your CoxBox and SpeedCoach) and then whatever’s on either side of you at 3 and 9. Thinking about it like this is similar to your race plans in that it gives you a framework to go off of vs. just getting in the boat and having all this stuff around you with no semblance of how to cherry-pick the important stuff and communicate it to the crew.

It took me a sec before I fully understood how he was laying it out but once I processed it I realized that this is pretty similar to how I organize myself when I’m coxing. I’ve never laid it out like this but I know that when I’m on the water I’m constantly shuffling between 12, 6, 3, 6, 9, 12, 6, 12, 9, 3, 6, 12, etc. Most of you who have been coxing for awhile will probably realize the same thing it but if you’re new to coxing or like I said earlier, working to better organize yourself and your calls, consider this an option for how to go about that.

Question of the Day

Hey! I have a couple questions. 

1. I’m not very good at taking criticism. Mentally I don’t mind it and I try to use it and everything, but for some reason emotionally I seem to take it as an attack and always feel close to crying. I’m not sure why this is and I was wondering if you have any tips.

2. We just got a new coach and he’s doing a summer rowing program, which is great, but he’s trying to completely change my style of coxing. I understand that repetitiveness is something I need to work on, but he’s telling me that while I was coxing the rowers on the ergs that I was “singing” to them. He expects me to be much louder (which I can be when I choose to be- I prefer to save it and use it as a “wake up” call kinda thing to change the pace of the race) and also be more direct and short (which I understand that part of and agree with). How should I deal with this? Should I try to explain my ways (I did a bit) or just go with what he says? And how do you work on being less repetitive ?

Thanks!! (Sorry if the second one is kind of a loaded question. Today was the first day with the new coach and tomorrow is the first day on the water)

So this is always a question that I genuinely don’t know how to answer and always struggle with when people ask for advice on how to work through it. I think my initial thoughts on it tend to come off kind of flippant (unintentionally) which makes it hard to give legit feedback without sounding like an ass. My take on it though is that if you can acknowledge the value in what’s being said and are able to use it … I don’t see how at the same time it can be construed as an attack. You’ve gotta be able to separate you the coxswain from you the person, which I talked about in the post linked below. If someone says “you’re a bitch” then yea, that’s clearly a personal attack but if they say “you need to work on your steering”, that has absolutely nothing to do with you as a person. One of the things I learned early on in coxing is that you have to – have to – look at everything objectively. As soon as you start letting emotions cloud your judgement or how you interpret situations you’re shooting yourself in the foot and limiting your growth potential.

Related: Coxswain skills: How to handle a negative coxswain evaluation

Anyways, moving on. It kinda seems like you’re contradicting yourself a bit here by saying your coach wants to completely change how you cox … but you acknowledge that you could do XYZ better. Normally in situations where a coach is at odds with a coxswain’s style I’d advocate for them to, at the very least, explain their approach so the coach can better understand why they do things a certain way. In most cases I think that as long as your approach isn’t completely ass-backwards to the way things should be done (which some coxswains try to pass off as “their style”) and you’re able to clearly communicate how/why coxing this way works for your crew, most coaches will take a step back and let you do your thing. I’ve had to do that before (not even with new coaches either, with my coaches that I’d worked with for 3-4 years) and one of my coaches who was a coxswain said that even though he didn’t necessarily agree with how I was doing it, I presented it in a way that at least made sense and he could see that the crew responded well to it.

In your case though, I think you should just go with what he says for the time being (give it a trial period of a week or two) and see how it goes. Tell him that you’re going to be working on XYZ and ask if he can give you some feedback over the next few days about how you’re doing. After your trial period is up, compare and contrast the changes you made with how you were coxing before. What improved, what stayed the same, etc. Whatever improves, based on his and the rowers feedback, incorporate it and do it from now on. With whatever stays the same, explain that you tried doing [whatever] the way he suggested and the rowers didn’t really respond to it or felt kinda “meh” about it so you’re probably just gonna stick with how you were doing it before, at least for now.

With whatever suggestions you don’t use or incorporate, I’d at least keep them in your back pocket to use if/when you need to try something new. There have definitely been times where a coach has suggested something to me and I’m just like “lol no” because I know it won’t work or sounds ridiculous but other times, even if their suggestion doesn’t work at the time with whatever boat I’m coxing, I’ll try to remember it so if a time comes when I’m feeling burnt out or the crew I’m with is hitting a mental plateau, I’ve got something on hand that I can try. Why create extra work/stress for myself by trying to come up with new calls/strategies when I can just re-try or re-purpose ones that have already been suggested to me?

Related: Hi! I just started coxing this fall, and towards the end of the season my rowers told me that the calls I was making during our race pieces were good but that I should work on being more controlled with my voice. I think it’s because I’m nervous about being silent for too long so I rush everything out but then I also run out of things to say. I also think I need to work on being less repetitive and have a little more intensity to my calls. However, we went off the water right after that. Is there any way I can work on this over the winter? I really want to work on these things and I’m bummed I won’t really have a good opportunity the whole winter. I cox the guys on the ergs but it’s very different than being in the boat. Right now I’m just listening to tapes when I have spare time and taking notes, but is there any way to actually practice this before spring?

As far as how to work on being less repetitive, check out the post linked above. A good place to start would be to listen to your recordings and identify which calls you use most frequently, that way you can then think about what you’re actually trying to say and come up with more specific calls from there. If you’re one of those coxswains that says “let’s go” or “now” every 5 strokes during a race then working on creating a basic race plan would probably go a long way in helping cut down on the repetitiveness. The less room you give yourself to make seemingly random calls like that (outside of where they can/should be used), the better you’ll be at communicating effectively with the boat.

How to cox (and coach) novices

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice || Protect your voice || Pass crews during a head race || Be useful during winter training || Train when you’re sick (as a rower) || Train when you’re sick (as a coxswain) || Sit in the boat

Coxing novices when you’re all novices isn’t that hard but doing it as an experienced coxswain  … that can be tough (at first). There aren’t many things you’ll encounter during your career that tests your ability to communicate quite like working with novices will. There’s a quote from Einstein that says “if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough” and you realize how true that is when you’re trying to explain the stroke sequence or the nuances of the catch to a group of people who are completely new to the sport.

Related: My coach has enlisted the help of the rowers who’ve finished their last season at school to help with a learn to row program for the new recruits. We’ll be taking them out in quads for a couple of weeks. Do you have any advice on how to teach them to get the basics down? My learn to row experience is just a big blur now!

Twice in my career I’ve had moments where I’ve questioned if I actually knew anything about rowing – once as a senior when I coxed our novice eight and again four years ago when I started coaching. I’d think that what I was saying was clear and made perfect sense and it’d only be after the fact when someone would say “I knew what you were saying because I’ve rowed for ten years but they didn’t understand it at all…” that I’d realize how ineffective my communication style  was given the audience I was working with.

Below is some of the advice I’ve gotten over the years that has helped me improve how I cox (and coach) novices.

Consider your audience

Not only are they not rowers, some of them aren’t even athletes. You have to tailor your language so that it makes sense to everyone, regardless of whatever previous exposure they have to rowing or sports in general. Rowing itself has a pretty intense nomenclature that doesn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with it so before you say “sit ready at the catch with the handles off the gunnels and the blades buried”, take the time to explain what all the sport-specific terminology means. Don’t be that person that tries to impress people with big words just to make it seem like you know what you’re talking about – nobody cares what you know if you can’t communicate it to the masses in a way that everyone can understand.

Compartmentalize

Have you ever sat through a 90 minute long lecture and just had no idea what’s going on because the professors are throwing so much information at you? Trying to absorb all of that in a short period of time is hard and you tend to leave more overwhelmed than when you arrived. It’s the same here – you can’t try to teach the entire stroke in an hour-long practice and expect them to get it. (I naively tried once, it was a disaster.)

An analogy that I heard a coach use once was that you have to look at novices like babies who will choke on their food if it’s not cut up into small enough pieces. Rather than trying to feed the rowers the entire stroke at once, break it down … and then break it down even further … and then for good measure, break it down again.

I’m a visual learner so one of the things I did when I started coaching (at the suggestion of another coach) was I’d write out whatever it was I wanted to cover during practice (the recovery, for example) and then I’d make branches from there of what all that concept entailed. It can get pretty involved but it makes it really easy to see each “bite” (and how many there actually are), in addition to helping you organize your thoughts better so you’re not bouncing around from idea to idea to idea while you’re on the water.

Keep your delivery simple

Keep the focus on one or two points at a time and try to only comment on those things. This is something I have to remind myself of all the time (more so when I’m coxing, less so when coaching) because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything you see wrong instead of focusing on improving one specific thing at a time.

If your coach is working on body prep, for example, make sure your calls relate to that and ignore (for now) the fact that the timing is off, 5-seat isn’t burying his oar all the way, and 7-seat is coming out way early. The time will come when commenting on all that will be appropriate but for now when they’re just learning how to take a stroke, keep your focuses narrow.

This also applies when you’re not really focusing on anything and are just trying to get some strokes in. It’s OK to just let them row without getting hung up on every little thing you see that’s “off”. (This is in the same vein of “it’s OK to not talk sometimes”.) If you do want to make a correction, make it something “big picture” so that they don’t get too overwhelmed trying to process what you’re saying.

Give them actionable takeaways

As we as coxswains all know, it’s a lot easier to work on something when you’re given a tangible piece of feedback vs. something vague (i.e. “steer straighter” vs. “hook your pinkies over the gunnels so you’re less inclined to use your whole hand and end up oversteering“). 

A typical way to end practice for most coaches is to recap what you did that day and then give the crew and/or specific individuals a takeaway that they can continue working on tomorrow. I got in the habit of doing this as we were coming in to dock, usually because everything was fresh in my mind and if for some reason our coach wasn’t able to meet with us, the rowers would at least get some feedback that they could use during the next practice (while it was all still fresh in their minds too). “Keep working on the timing” is too vague but something like “Sam, timing looked better today. Keep working on getting the body set sooner on the recovery so you’re moving right with Matt…” gives them feedback on the “big picture” (timing) while giving them somewhere specific to focus their efforts (body prep).

My lack of patience is one of my biggest weaknesses and it is tested when I cox novices. You will have to repeat things numerous times, you will get frustrated when they keep doing whatever it is you just said to stop doing, and there will be times where you wonder if there are any neurons firing at all in the heads of the novices in your boat. I got a couple emails this spring asking how to deal with that and the best advice I can offer is to take a deep breath and, like I said above, find where you can break things down further. Being able to take a step back, analyze what you’re seeing, and then simplify it from there can/will alleviate that frustration because you’ll almost always pick up on something that you didn’t before that you can then communicate to the rowers.

If you have the chance to cox a learn to row camp this summer or if your coach throws you in with the novices in the fall, don’t begrudge the opportunity. It’s a great chance to work on your communication skills and really test how well you understand the technical aspects of the stroke. If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a plateau it can also help you get out of it by forcing you to abandon auto-pilot and start thinking again about what you’re seeing and the calls you’re making.