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.

Pro tip: Advice from a former novice, pt. 2

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

This is an email I got at the end of the 2014 spring season from a (then) novice coxswain at a men’s program here on the East Coast. I’d included it within another post at the time but felt it warranted it’s own post, particularly since the first “advice from a former novice” post (linked above) got a lot of a positive feedback.

“Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you all a couple of things that I learned after I walked on to my team as a novice coxswain. No experience at all in anything crew related. All I knew how to do was compete (I had been a varsity athlete in high school). In fact, I didn’t even know how to say starboard or skeg properly. The point is, I learned a lot along the way and ended up in the third varsity boat of a silver medal winning crew for a division one program, so anything truly is possible.

For the novices (and more experienced coxswains) out there, I have a couple of things to say that I feel are sometimes overlooked or forgotten.

Your job is to steer

I think this always bear repeating and it is certainly something that my coach harped on many times. You can’t let your emotions or competitive spirit get in the way of your main priority. And, I would say to not worry too much about your calls until you can steer, because steering takes up most of your focus. Calls will always be secondary to steering straight in a race since snaking adds meters and time to your crew’s efforts. Guys know how to motivate themselves, so really the best thing you can do is give them the shortest course, which occurs when you steer straight.

Tone matters

This is something that I didn’t realize I was missing until I listened to a recording of myself (which is why you should record yourself). When my coach gave me feedback, he said that I at times sounded frantic or doubtful, which not what you want your crew to hear. If I don’t know something, I either don’t say anything at all, or I just make something up (not always the preferable thing to do, but sometimes necessary). But no matter what, I’ve learned to sound confident in the decisions that I am making on the water. Also, when you get into a race, it shows that guys that you are just as invested as they are in winning, which is important for their mentality. They also appreciate it when you care just as much as they do.

You win some, you lose some

Sometimes you put in a lot of hard work and come up short. Other times you win by a foot. Just know that when you have done the best job you can do, there might be times when another crew rowed better. The sport is about working hard and always improving. You should always appreciate the work that you do, and strive to improve so that you have no regrets. It goes for coxswains just as much as it goes for rowerscoxswains can always improve as well.

I know this sounds simple, and it might not mean much coming from a novice rower, but as a coxswain looking back on my first year, I feel like these three things come up in a lot of the races I was lucky to be a part of. Listen to your coaches, work with your rowers, and best wishes to all.”

Question of the Day

Any suggestions for how to handle differences in rower-coxswain experience levels, i.e. when the coxswain is more experienced than the rowers or the rowers are much more experienced than the coxswain? I’m a rower in a boat in the latter situation currently and want to be able to give the coxswain suggestions on what to do specifically but because all the rowers are new to the team (and because I’ve never coxed), it’s a little hard.

I’ve touched a bit on this previously in the post linked below. That question wasn’t exactly the same but it’s similar enough that I think most of what I said there can apply here too.

Related: Thoughts on stroke seats yelling at coxswains and telling them to do things during pieces?

If you’re an experienced rower in a crew with a novice coxswain or one who is inexperienced by comparison, I do think that you should feel a sense of responsibility to help get them up to speed. Obviously it’s not solely your responsibility (let alone a primary one) and you shouldn’t interpret it as such but if you want them and by extension, the boat/team to get better, taking the initiative to help them out will go a long ways. (That being said, this is a lot easier to do when you’re the stroke vs. if you’re like, 3 seat because you can talk about this stuff in real-time on the water vs. having to wait to talk about it off the water to avoid yelling from one end of the boat to the other.)

Think of it like a wide receiver and somebody who just started at quarterback. The WR might not be able to help much with some of the more nuanced QB skills, like moving inside the pocket, scrambling to escape a blitz, or the proper hand placement to ensure a clean ball transfer from the center but they can help with the broader foundational stuff, like running through passing drills to help them work on their accuracy and spending time talking through the playbook so they can learn the plays, coverages, etc.

The same thing applies here – you might not be able to help them with coxswain-specific stuff like how to steer but you can help them understand the purpose of the drills you’re doing (and how to execute them) and the basics of the rowing stroke and general technique. Even if you’ve only been rowing for a year, you should have a decent enough understanding of those three foundational things that you can communicate the bare minimum of each one.

This is what my coaches in high school did with us and I still credit it as being a big part of why I and the other coxswains were always able to pick up coxing so quickly. Novice coxswains went in varsity boats and the experienced strokes would guide us through how to call a drill or explain how on that last piece they felt X which translates to Y so on this next piece, try to look for Z with the blades and see if you can make the connection between what you’re feeling and seeing. It wasn’t like they were holding our hands either, the majority of the responsibility was still on us to make the effort (and make mistakes) in an attempt to learn how to do stuff but on the water they were our biggest resource if/when we needed it and the ones we relied on to hold us accountable if we screwed up (without being dicks about it).

If you have trouble doing that, for whatever reason, then talk with the experienced coxswains and explain to them whatever it was that you wanted to say and see if they can bring it up with your coxswain. I wouldn’t get in the habit of doing this because you’re the one in the boat with them so you should get comfortable communicating with them (and it gets super frustrating having to be the middle man for a boat you’re not even in) but if there’s something that you can’t figure out how to explain that they might be better able to do, by all means ask for their help.

Best advice I can offer to you or anyone in a similar situation though is to get over feeling like you can’t say something because of some arbitrary reason like “I’ve never coxed”. Don’t get me wrong, I fully get where you’re coming from when you say that and I can see how that might make you apprehensive about speaking up but you don’t need to be a coxswain to explain why certain tones of voices are more effective in different situations or that if the boat is falling to starboard, XYZ needs to happen. Be humble enough to know when something is out of your “area of expertise” and what’s best left to other coxswains to explain but don’t be so concerned about stepping on toes that you inadvertently hold them (and your boat) back just because you don’t think you’re qualified enough to offer up a suggestion.

Question of the Day

Hi! I’ve been a novice at my local rowing club for about two months now. I’m a coxswain but I’m not sure if I’m cut out for it. I enjoy it but I have so much trouble making calls and being motivational and speaking throughout a whole piece. Is this just because I’m new to this? Or are most coxswains good from the very beginning? I guess I’m wondering if it’s possible to improve or if I’m just not cut out. If you have any tips that would be great. Thanks!

It’s always possible to improve if you’re willing to put the effort in but to answer your question, yes, it probably just feels like that because you’re still new to this. If you’re still feeling the same way at the end of the spring season or next year or whatever then yea, it might be time to revisit that question.

Related: Advice from a former novice

I don’t think that’s a bad thing either – to be honest, more coxswains should ask themselves that. I don’t think you’ve gotta be “the best” at something in order to keep doing it , especially if it’s something you like doing, but coxswains kinda need to have the self-awareness to know when that’s a necessary conversation to have with themselves.

Related: Some things to know as a novice coxswain

I wouldn’t say most coxswains are good from the very beginning. Some are but in most cases it’s like any other sport – most people suck and make a lot of mistakes but at some point they buckle down and make the decision to do and be better. It all comes down to self-discipline and what you’re willing to invest to get where you wanna be.

Related: Five things to do as a novice coxswain

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you start out because there’s so much you have to learn and do, which is why I equate it to trial by fire so often. Just focus on getting the basics down, starting with steering. Forget motivation. Seriously. It’s not important at this stage and shouldn’t be a priority right now.

Related: What do coaches look for in a coxswain?

Same with trying to talk through a whole piece. Eventually yea, you should be able to do that but right now you (most likely) don’t have a good enough grasp on the technical aspects of the stroke to be able to do that. That’ll come in time but you can expedite it by putting in the time off the water to read up on technique, talk to your coach about the purpose and goals of the drills you do during practice, etc.

Related: Do you think it’s possible that rowing isn’t “my” sport ? I started late summer but I have been erging for a few months with a friend who is a rower too. Anyway, I feel like everyone is getting better (even the fall novices are almost better than I am and they have been rowing not even 2 months. I feel like my technique/strength/endurance is on a plateau and I feel shitty. I won’t even talk about the 3 awful races I had in the last weeks. IDK, i feel hopeless. How do i know if I’m a bad rower?

Don’t assume you’re not cut out just because it’s still hard after two months. I’ve been coxing for 14 years and I still think it’s hard. Stuff like this doesn’t get easier, you just become better equipped to deal with whatever challenges you face. Lower your tolerance for asking for help so that you can soak up as much information, advice, and feedback as possible and find ways to apply what you learn to what you’re doing on the water. That’s the fastest and easiest way to get better.

Five things to do as a novice coxswain

If you’re new to the sport of rowing and got tapped to be a coxswain, here’s a few things you should do to help make sure your first few weeks go smoothly.

Establish a relationship with your coach.

Don’t be intimidated by them. Communication and trust are intangible assets when it comes to the coach-coxswain relationship so establishing them early on in your career can only help you. Talk to them regularly before and after practice and find out things like how they like to run practice. Coaches will vary on how much involvement they have, as well as how much involvement they’ll want from you when you’re just starting out. It’s definitely their responsibility to tell you this stuff up front but some won’t or will forget so take the initiative and ask yourself.

Listen and learn.

Observe everything. Ask lots of questions – even if you think they’re stupid, you get a pass because you’re new. Engage. Seek out and accept feedback/critiques on a regular basis.

Related: Advice from a former novice

Use your time wisely

As a novice you’re not going to have a ton of responsibilities right off the bat so use any “down” time (i.e. when the rowers are erging or you’re riding in the launch) to talk to the other coxswains and learn about the boathouse (where stuff is), procedures (getting the boat in/out), equipment (which boats/cox boxes you use), team culture, etc. Don’t be a wallflower or you’ll fall behind fast.

Reflect.

There’s a lot you have to learn and be in command of so establishing what your personal goals are (why you’re doing this, what you want to get out of it, etc.) and prioritizing the skills you need to master ASAP (steering…) will give you a framework to go off of, which will give going to practice every day an added sense of purpose that you might not otherwise have right off the bat.

Find a mentor.

Ideally this would be a varsity coxswain but it can also be a coach, team captain, etc. Basically you want to find someone who can help you get up to speed, answer questions, and just be a resource when needed. We did this in high school and we do it here at MIT too. It’s great because you have single source of contact so you never have to worry about who to ask if you have a question. Here we try to pair the guys off with other guys in their major so that if questions arise about classes, professors, advisors, internships, jobs, etc. they’ll be able to ask someone who’s experienced it all while also being a full-time student athlete. Plus, it helps with retention if people feel like they’ve got a friend on their side from the beginning vs. feeling like they’re going at this on their own.

Keep in mind too that this doesn’t only apply to novices, it applies any time you join a new team, even if you’re an experienced coxswain. If you’re a week or two into your freshman year of college and haven’t done any of the above yet, make it a priority this week to, at the very least, have a conversation with your coach and find a peer mentor on the team if they’re not already assigned to you.

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.

Video of the Week: Novice boat handling skills

This is a great instructional video for novice rowers (and coxswains, but mostly rowers) because it walks you through the entire process of getting the boat out of and back into the racks, how to carry the oars, adjusting the foot stretchers, getting in/out of the boat, etc.

Related: Coxing a boat in and out of the house

In the moment of trying to do all these things it can be kind of confusing and this video does a good job of showing what each part of the process looks like, as well as demonstrating what the applicable commands are.