Question of the Day

I was talking to my coach about what boats I was in consideration for going into the following year, and I got some really great news – he’s looking at me for our V8+ (top boat at my club)! The only bad thing is what came after that. Basically he said, “you could be coxing the V8+ … if you get your anxiety under control.” At first, I thought that was way out of line, but honestly, the havoc my anxiety wreaks on my overall mental health and well being is debilitating, and there’s really no way improving that could hurt in any capacity, so I’m realizing he’s probably got a point. How do you suggest dealing with overall rational requests of a coach when they entail changing something a bit more personal than technique like this?

This is a great question. I definitely see how your first impression was that it was out of line but if you’ve got a good (or at least cordial) relationship with your coach and they didn’t say it with any biting undertones then I wouldn’t take it the wrong way. I’ve said pretty much the exact same thing (with varying tones of empathy and frustration depending on the situation) to one of the MIT coxswains but we’ve had a great relationship for the last three years so even when she’d get pissed at me for saying it, she knew it was coming from a friend who genuinely had her best interests in mind.

I deal with anxiety too and agree that it wrecks havoc on pretty much everything … and the fallout from that just creates even more stress. When it comes to managing it in the context of coxing for example, it seems like a common mistake (that I’ve definitely made too, numerous times) is finding ways to deal with it only in the context of coxing rather than trying to identify and address the actual underlying causes/issues. Like, you can get better at steering or whatever if that’s something you’ve struggled with but if you still suffer sudden and intense bouts of anxiety when you’re on the water, basically all you did was the equivalent of putting a band aid on a bullet wound.

Here’s a couple suggestions – some traditional, some anecdotal – that you might consider.

The first approach is to talk to someone. Not just anyone either, someone who ‘s trained in dealing with stuff like this. If you’re in college, reach out to student health or whatever your version of student support services is and make an appointment. You typically get a certain number of free appointments each semester or year before your insurance takes over so take advantage of it. Similarly, most athletic departments will have a sport psychologist on staff or they’ll have a relationship with one in the local community that they can set you up with.

If you’re still in high school, on your parent’s insurance, etc. … basically if you’re in a situation where you can’t seek treatment without their consent/approval … that’s obviously tough. And yea, it’s probably tempting to not say anything at all because you think it’s embarrassing or whatever but you’ve gotta gauge your personal situation and make that call. Some parents are cool about working with you on stuff like this (and not making a big deal out of it, which is key), others not so much. I think most parents are decent enough though that they’ll get you the help you need if you talk to them about it (as frustrating or awkward as that conversation might initially be).

The second approach ties into the first but in terms of managing your anxiety, behavioral therapy or medication are two options. I know people who utilize CBT, others take medication, some do both, and a couple do neither. One of those friends was a coxswain and he took medication to manage the day-to-day symptoms while also working with a sport psychologist and doing CBT during the school year to help him develop strategies to deal with the rowing-specific symptoms.

Another friend (who didn’t row but did track & field for four years in college) takes a very #millennial approach and uses two apps – Headspace and Pacifica – to help her keep things under control. She said she’s been using Headspace since her senior year but just started using Pacifica after her anxiety got worse while studying for the bar exam two years ago. She didn’t have time to make regular appointments with a doctor or deal with any potential side effects from medication (on top of not having health insurance) so that’s why this approach made the most sense for her.

The bottom line is that stuff like this is just as much of a normal medical problem as any other illness we encounter and we should treat it as such. Have you ever gotten a cold and ignored it because “it’s not like I have pneumonia, it’s not that serious” but you were miserable as fuck for the duration of it, even though you could have knocked it out in two or three days if you’d just gone to the doctor? Whatever preconceived notions you might have about whether people will take you seriously, judge you for asking for help, or think you’re “just not tough enough”, you’ve gotta put that out of your head and not let that keep you from doing what’s best for you. Coxing only lasts for a short period of time but you’ve gotta live with yourself forever so, like you said, it’s not like taking steps to improve your overall wellbeing can hurt.

Below is an email I got from a college coxswain about her experience with anxiety, how she handles it, and how having less-than-supportive coaches can undermine your efforts to get better. There’s a whole “devil’s advocate” discussion to be had about taking someone out of the boat for a short period of time vs. actually kicking them out of it permanently that I won’t get into right now but for the coaches that are reading, seriously, don’t be dicks about shit like this. If your athletes are confiding in you, especially on the recommendation of their doctor, maybe work with them instead of kicking them while they’re down. I can’t believe that’s something that even needs to be said.

“I’ve been coxing at the collegiate level for over two years now..and I’ve had my current coach for two years. I was encouraged by the sports psychologist at school to tell my coach, as she said he couldn’t use it against me. Despite my better judgement, I went ahead and told him. Things were great at first, but I went from being with the top two boats to not having a boat.  He brings up my anxiety every time we talk, and I have come to feel as though he’s put me in a corner as a result. My psychologist at school is actually going to be talking to him about this because the fact that he always brings it up, makes me anxious. It sucks and it’s not fair.

I have really bad anxiety and have played sports competitively my entire life. I’ve always managed to “face my fear” and have learned that by doing so, it makes my anxiety a little more tolerable. It’s not something that goes away(even though I take medication for it and use various techniques as well), but rather something I’ve come to accept and make the most of. I try to remember that they’re only feelings, although easier said than done.

I don’t recommend telling teammates, as they have never been able to understand and basically have just used it against me and underestimate my ability to cox. Especially when it comes to racing, which is one of the times I know how to handle my anxiety best(from experience and sports background). I kick ass when it comes to racing, but it’s more so practices that are a bit of an issue. I tend to second guess myself a lot because of my anxiety, and don’t allow myself to take as much credit as I should. For example, I am notorious for my ability to steer a great course, however if I think about it too much, I start worrying and begin to snake.

Anxiety is a real bitch, but I’m learning to “stay in the present” which has been really helpful. There’s a super short and helpful book that I recommend to just about everyone (those who have anxiety as well as those who don’t) called “F*CK Anxiety; Hardcore Self-Help” by Robert Duff. He’s so funny and down to earth, yet helps you better understand your anxiety regardless of the type. He provides helpful tips for what to do when you are anxious and how to essentially prevent your anxiety from taking the joy out of things. For those looking to understand anxiety a little better, I highly recommend it. This book has changed my ability to cox and has helped me better cope with my shitty anxiety.

But as far as whether to tell coaches and teammates, that depends. Just know there’s a big risk in doing so, as I have learned the hard way. My last coach used it against me as well. I have one year of coxing left, and I’m determined to get a good boat. I wish someone had been able to provide me with this info back when I started, which is why I felt so compelled to share my experiences.”

A couple other coxswains (four collegiate, two junior – two guys, four girls) also emailed to say that they deal with varying levels of anxiety that have at one point or another kept them out of a boat they were in competition for. Even though the situations differed (coxing people they were unfamiliar with, feeling underprepared and overwhelmed, not feeling confident in a given skill (steering and technique being the main ones), etc.), the common symptom, side-effect, whatever you want to call it … was that they’d just shut down and not talk for the majority of practice. Two of them said they were actively taking medication and the others said they weren’t doing anything for it (either because they aren’t sure what to do, don’t want to bring it up to their coaches/parents, etc.).

So … you’re not alone in this. I think we all experience anxiety to some extent during our careers but not all of us know how to get help or handle it so hearing the perspectives of our peers can make a huge difference. Like you said, your coach’s request was a rational one that can only benefit you in the long run so I hope there’s something up there that helps. Feel free to shoot me an email though if you wanna talk more about this and if anyone else has any other advice they wanna share, please leave it in the comments!

Question of the Day

Hi! Over the last year I have become very close with my coach. He has helped me improve into the coxswain I am today. I coxed our V8 and V4 all year and my team just got back from nationals. The reasons I was in these boats is because he believed in me all year and helped to improve. Today however, at our end of season wrap up practice, he dropped the news that he would not be coaching next year. I still have two more years on the team and we don’t know who the new coach will be. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with losing a coach? And how to adapt to a new one? I’m afraid they won’t understand the fun loving environment my team is and it will be hard for me to create that good coach and coxswain relationship like I had with my previous coach. Any helpful tips would be great.

Why would you assume they wouldn’t understand the team culture/environment? That’s kind of an unfair judgement/assumption to put out there. Just because your current coach was dope and you had a good relationship with him doesn’t mean that the same can’t be true with whoever’s taking over for him.

I luckily only had to deal with one major coaching transition while I was in school and the best advice our team got came from our assistant coach – “accept that the change is happening and keep an open mind”. I’d say the same to you too. It’s happening so you kinda just have to deal with it but the important thing is to keep an open mind and not automatically resign yourself to being anti-whatever new things he/she brings to the team just because they’re different than what you’re used to.

Whatever you did to cultivate the relationship you have with your current coach … do that with the new one. The new coach isn’t going to be a carbon copy of your old one (nor should you expect that) so obviously you might have to tweak a few things here and there but it’s not like you’re starting back at square one. You already know what made your current coach-coxswain relationship great so make time to have a one-on-one with the new coach so you can communicate that stuff to them. This applies to pretty much everything you’ll ever do but the more up front you are about how you work/communicate best, the easier it’ll be for everyone in the long run.

That was actually one of the questions I was asked when I was interviewing for my current job and having worked with some incredible coaches at MIT the last three years, I had a pretty rock solid idea of what I needed to feel confident and empowered in executing whatever I was doing. I specifically used the example of how they gave me a pretty unprecedented amount of freedom to work with our coxswains and really integrate my philosophy on all that into the broader team culture. I could have stopped there (and if I was less experienced in the interview game I probably would have) but what “sold” it was following it up with specific examples of how that helped me grow as a coach (in terms of building my confidence, refining my communication skills, and developing relationships with everyone on the team) and why that kind of “management style” is what I respond best to. Out of all the back and forth we did, I think the conversation we had around that one question was one of the main things that eased some of the doubt I had about joining a new coaching staff.

I get where you’re coming from because I honestly felt the same exact way when I left MIT for Columbia. I’d grown (and thrived) so much in that environment with those specific people and I was worried that it wouldn’t be the same here and I’d be miserable but, like I said earlier, while that can be a valid concern, it’s also an unfair assumption to make. Keep an open mind, be (even more) flexible in your approach to whatever situations you encounter (new and old), and communicate early and honestly about what you need from them to help you continue developing as a coxswain (with, I assume, the goal of staying in the V8 and V4).

As for everything else … just go with the flow and trust that whoever the new person is has the team’s best interest in mind. Most coaches do.

Question of the Day

Hi! I’m a coxswain who just finished my second season (as in I’ll be varsity next season). My novice 8 did very well, placing at Midwest Youth Championships! I’m so proud of them, and I really love coxing, but as the season goes out, I’m wondering, is it the best thing for me? I feel a lot of pressure to be at the 110-pound minimum, and so when the Tuesday before the race I weighed in at 116, I was devastated. I spent the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of that week living only of multivitamins and one bottle of water a day. The Saturday and Sunday of racing, it was virtually the same, except I ate one clementine each day as well. I did meet minimum as I hoped I would, and was actually under, being sandbagged for 0.8 pounds, but I recognize this is incredibly unhealthy, and unfortunately, it falls in line with other unhealthy behaviors I’ve had a tendency to engage in for a few years now. I truly love coxing but I’m not so sure my mental health would do at all well if I continue. Thoughts/advice?

Eating Twix bars and pizza for a week is unhealthy. A single bottle of water and a multivitamin for five straight days is stupid and dangerous. I don’t say that to be an asshole either, I just really hope you recognize that there’s a big difference between the two.

The simplest and most straightforward piece of advice I can offer is that you’ve gotta do what’s best for you. And I get that that probably seems like a vague non-answer but it really is the only thing you have to consider here. If you notice yourself involuntarily (or even voluntarily) falling back into self-destructive habits then I think you need to take a step back and reevaluate what you’re taking away from the sport vs. what the sport is taking away from you.

Being around your friends and “having fun” is great and all but way too many people use that as an excuse to stick with sports when it’s clearly not a good thing for them as an individual. That’s my other piece of advice – forget your friends, teammates, coaches, parents, whoever you think will be pissed if you stop coxing. (They won’t be.) Whatever decision you come to has to be made for youby you and not influenced by what you think other people would want.

I don’t wanna get into all the reasons why you feel pressured to be at 110lbs (especially since you were coxing novices…) because it just makes me very rage-y but I will say this: if you stick with coxing and feel similar pressure going forward, the kind that makes you want to go on a water + multivitamin diet for a week, you really need to stop and ask what’s going to allow you to be the most effective coxswain on race day. Being 116lbs, clearheaded, and energetic or 109lbs, stressed, and lethargic? Don’t let the “boat servant” etymology get in your way here. Yea, you’re there to do XYZ for the team but you can’t do any of that if you’re not in the right frame of mind to begin with. Been there, done that and trust me, it’s hard as hell trying to focus on getting your boat out of racks, let alone down the race course, when you’re dehydrated, dizzy, and exhausted from not eating all week just for the sake of being able to say you’re under 110lbs.

If you haven’t, check out the video below. It’s from a camp I was at two years ago and there’s a good anecdote/wake up call at the end from Marcus about a coxswain who took similarly drastic measures to cut weight over the same period of time as you. Also check out this article from ESPNW that came out a few weeks ago. It’s no secret how much issues like this get under my skin so I was thankful they asked me to be a part of it. It’s a good read and an eye-opening one at that so definitely check it out when you’ve got a sec.

Question of the Day

Hi! Do you have any resources (or can point to any resources) for practicing how to spot problems that rowers are having/how to identify what corrections to call for while coxing? In my head, I’m imagining videos from the coxswain’s point of view (in an 8) and you have a clip during which you take some time to try to notice what needs to be fixed on your own, and then can look up the “answers” after to see what you missed or if you misinterpreted what was going on and got it wrong. So for example if there’s a clip that demonstrates late catches from bow pair and rowing it in from 5 and 6 seats, someone could watch the clip and write down what they see and then after can look at what a more experienced coxswain would say the problems are and compare them, i.e. see if you saw the catch and rowing it in issues yourself.

Does this kind of thing exist somewhere (and did my description make any sense at all)? It would just be nice to get a visual of what the different issues look like from the coxswain’s seat and be able to practice recognizing them, especially because I cox very good rowers and sometimes the issues are nuanced and I just don’t have the experience to notice them yet.

I definitely get what you’re saying. An exact resource like the one you described doesn’t exist as far as I know but there are plenty of ways to achieve the same effect.  I usually try to do something similar with the coxswains during the winter when we’re bored and there’s nothing else to do while the guys are doing steady state. We’ll pull up a race, listen/watch, slow a few clips down to watch it in slow-mo, and just talk through it. What we’re seeing, what we’re hearing, stuff like that and usually we’ll end up doing the same thing that you described.

This was actually a big part of what I did with the coxswains at the camps I coached at last year too (as well as with a few coxswains I’ve worked one-on-one with) – we’d watch a race, they’d take notes, and then afterwards point out what they saw, ask questions on it, etc. and I’d answer them while also pointing out anything they might have missed, interpreted incorrectly, or weren’t sure of a fix (or appropriate call) for.

Point being I guess is that what you described is a good idea but the benefit (in my opinion) from doing something like that comes in talking through it with other people, whether it’s another coxswain, your coach, etc. Every coach I’ve ever had or worked with has taken tons of video of their crews and they’ll usually spend a couple minutes going over it with the team or individual boats, again basically doing close to what you described. It’s up to you in that instance to take the opportunity to pay close attention to what you’re seeing and then compare that to whatever your coach points out.

I always did that whenever we’d go over video at MIT and every time there was something I’d miss that I’d not realize until one of the other coaches pointed it out. This helped me help the coxswains too because I took notes on whatever we’d go over during video review and then make a point to pay attention to that stuff when we were on the water. From there I could spot the nuances more clearly and give the coxswains further details or clarifications on calls that might help fix the problem, reiterate a particular point, etc.

This is also why I encourage coxswains to use GoPros. I get that they’re not the cheapest things but they’re such an invaluable tool in your development because it lets you re-watch your own rowers again and again rather than someone else’s crew who might not have the same problems that yours does (or the same problems in the same way). At the very least, have your coach get video of the crew and then spend a couple minutes going over it with them after practice once or twice a week. A good app to do this with and one I like to use  is called “Coach’s Eye” but you could of course always just use your phone’s camera and play it back like that.

Question of the Day

Hello! First thing I just wanted to say is you have helped me so much with coxing and thank you for that. I am in 8th grade and I am on the Freshman crew on our team. I cox the Fresh 8 and it has been said that I am competition for varsity coxswains. My boat just won sweep states and I had an amazing race. I steered perfectly straight the whole way through and I called great calls, in my boats opinion. So you could say I’m pretty good.

I have a bad problem though. I have no confidence. No matter how good I am I still seem to think I am doing something wrong. I don’t know if it is because I don’t get much compliments from the coaches, even though the rowers get a bucket load, or if I feel I am too young, or anything else. I was coxing the 2V today and I got really nervous and started doubting myself more than usual and I got really self conscious about my abilities. I don’t know why but whenever I am not racing, I overthink things and get nervous about everything I say. When I am racing, I feel like it is just me and my boat who I know and trust and feel like they won’t “judge me”. When I am out on the water during practice, I just keep thinking in my mind I am going to do or say something wrong. What I am really asking is … how do I boost my confidence?

I (and I’m sure a lot of other coxswains) relate to this hard. One of the things you learn (and have to accept) early on is that you’re most likely not going to get a lot of external validation from your coach(es). It doesn’t mean they think you suck or anything else, it’s just the way it is. If you’re doing your job right, you frankly shouldn’t even be a blip on their radar during practice anyways because the majority of what you’re doing isn’t going to be that blatantly obvious. If you screw something up though (steering being the obvious thing) then it’s super obvious to everyone, even the casual observer (think of the Snowflake Regatta shitshow), and you’re more likely to get an annoyed and probably deserved call-out thrown your way.

One thing that helped me was accepting the stuff I know I’m good at and not trying to find ways to discredit or undermine myself. I tend to write off my accomplishments by lessening them and focusing on what could have gone better, what I could have done instead to achieve an even better result, or by saying “it’s really not that big of a deal, literally no one else is gonna care about this, etc”. That’s a pretty shitty approach because all you’re doing is taking stuff that should be inherent confidence builders and not even giving them a chance to lay that foundation that the rest of your confidence is built on. And trust me, that’s a deep and unpleasant hole to try and dig yourself out of.

Related: Notebook “hacks”: Post-practice affirmations

The “too young” thing, I totally get that too because I feel the exact same way whenever I’m at a camp with other coaches and I’m one of, if not the, youngest one on staff. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you do feel so behind the curve but whenever I think I shouldn’t be there because I’m nowhere near as experienced as them, I remind myself that I have just as many years coxing (almost 15) as some of them have coaching. When you look at who we’re coaching (rowers vs. coxswains), we’re basically on a relatively level playing field. That might be completely bullshit logic but it’s how I justify it to myself and it lessens my anxiety about not being taken seriously because I’m 10+ years younger than almost everyone else and haven’t been coaching nearly as long. I know I’m good at communicating what I know and other people must think that too, otherwise why would I be there to begin with? That’s kind of what it comes back to – you are where you are because somebody believes you’ve got the necessary skills to own that role and succeed at it. If they didn’t think you could do it, they’d have already found someone better to replace you with.

Related: Do you have any tips for dealing with confidence? I’ve been coxing our team’s 1V since fall and I’ve been praised as being our team’s “best” coxswain for quite a while, I was even selected from 20+ others as one of the best two coxswains in our division last spring, but I still get very anxious/nervous because I think I’m not very good. I always strive to put in my very best effort and always look for ways to improve but I just feel that I’m not good enough and should quit. There are also some teammates who favor their friends who are coxswains over me, which impacts my confidence a bit as well, which I know is silly but it hurts to be seen as less by some of my teammates despite constantly working my ass off to make the entire team improve. What can I do? I feel like this issue is making me want to quit because I don’t believe I’m helping our team.

I and probably 95% of the other coxswains reading this overthink our calls, wonder if they’re are gonna be good enough, wonder if we’ll sound stupid when we say “cha” between strokes, get nervous before practice pieces, etc. It’s fine as long as you remember that even though people might have feedback on what you say or do, you care a lot more about the minutiae of your coxing than anyone else in your boat. Once you get past that and accept that regardless of whether they like it or don’t like it they’ll tell you, that self-conscious barrier kinda goes away and you’re more open to just going with the flow of practice and seeing what works and what doesn’t. The more stuff you find that works, the more confident you’ll be because you’ll feel more in charge and less overwhelmed by uncertainty and anxiety.

Related: Making Mistakes

You’ve also gotta accept that mistakes are gonna happen and then own them when they do. Making mistakes is one of the best learning tools you’ll come across as a coxswain so you shouldn’t let them be confidence-killers. If you spend your entire practice being scared to mess up or nervous that you might say or do something wrong, you’re not even giving yourself the chance to do it right. You’ve got a 50-50 shot regardless so you might as well do it with the assumption you’re gonna do it right and then see what happens. I’m sure others can attest to this, it is the best feeling when it actually does go right because you get the biggest surge of confidence and you just feel good. There’s no magic formula to building confidence but riding that high and building on it each day at practice is definitely part of the process.

Question of the Day

Hi there – I’ve just come out of my first racing season and after talking to my crew and coaches, my weakness still lies within steering; more specifically oversteering.

My racing season consisted of Sykes bow-loaded fours (so steering is done with the rod). The steering system is an AEROWFIN. From the other fours I’ve coxed with the traditional square fin, this one is obviously more touchy and responsive (which has its pros and cons). The problem is that at the tip of the fin, (the point on the rudder that is furthest away from the hull) there is a small crease/slight bend in the rudder. I’m not sure whether this may contribute to some of the steering issues I’ve had.

In the eight that I’ve raced once, we have stuck an oversized fin for the Head of the Yarra we do every year and left it on for the whole season. The rudder does not, however line up dead straight with the fin, it is 1-2mm wide of it. At the beginning of the season, I tried lining up the rudder to be dead straight but moving the rod (while on slings) and looking from the stern down towards the bow at the rudder in order to gauge its “straightness”. I’d then mark the point in my seat to which the position of the rod/string corresponds to a straight rudder. However, I struggle to think of a time when leaving the rudder at that point does not stop the bow ball drifting to either side.

The possible factors I see which might be the cause of my oversteering.
– Power Imbalance
– Current/Wind (Although I’ve steered in near flat conditions and it still occurs)
– Rudder Defect(s)

Often when we train, I’m autopiloting the steering aspect because the river is very simple with gradual turns. But come race day on a buoyed course, it becomes pretty awful. Talking to my stroke, he said that it wasn’t like I was changing the direction of the rudder every three strokes, but it was more of a gradual snaking which was costing us metres. The four I cox have spent a lot of time in the 4- and tbh can steer straighter than I can (although this is an example of a different occasion, with different conditions and a different body of water).

The fact is that I’d like to rectify my steering issues, the next few months will be primarily Winter Training or Head Racing. How do I do it? Do I start from scratch and focus all my attention on steering? What is a good way to know that you’re steering straight (because it seems like I’m steering straight on home territory however as soon as we hit the buoyed course it becomes awful)? Some coxes have the liberty of training on rivers/lakes with buoys all year around whereas the river we row on doesn’t have this, how can I practise? Thank You Very Much!

I love the Aerowfin. We switched it on to one of our Empachers in the fall and it made taking the tight turns on the Charles so much simpler.

Related: Taking the Weeks turn with the Carl Douglas “Aerowfin”

I was texting with one of the MIT coxswains last week about similar steering issues and my first question was whether or not she’d checked the equipment. Not to shirk responsibility or anything like that but because even though 99% of the time the problem is us, that 1% where it’s the equipment can be really validating if you feel like you’d been doing everything you were supposed to in order to steer a good line. (Her problem ended up being an issue with the cables.) It sounds like you’ve already done the leg work in that area so I’d bring that info to your coach and/or boatman and have them look at to confirm if that’s the problem. Very rarely, borderline on never, do I suggest looking at the equipment first instead of yourself as being the problem but the fin having a bend in it and the rudder being a few millimeters out of alignment makes me think that it’s the problem, not you.

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering, pt. 1 (Oversteering)

I don’t think you need to start from scratch but maybe talk to your coach about taking out a different four to see if you have similar issues in that boat as you do in this one. If you do then the problem is clearly you and you’re gonna have to spend some time at the drawing board evaluating how you’re steering now and what adjustments you need to make. If you don’t have any of the same issues then that most likely will confirm that the other boat is the problem.

Not having a buoyed course or unobstructed straight water to practice on is the most played out excuse for why coxswains can’t steer straight. It is highly unlikely that whatever body of water you’re on doesn’t have at least 100m of water with no curves that you can practice “steering straight” on. Those are opportunities that you’ve gotta open your eyes to and be aware of so that as you’re coming up to them you can say to yourself “OK, this is the only time today I’m gonna have to practice my race steering…” and then do whatever you need to do to work on that. Tell the rowers too that you’re coming up on the part of the river where you want to practice your race steering and then afterwards, ask your stroke seat how your point looked – did it seem from their vantage point like you were snaking around or did it look relatively straight?

Related: Coxswain skills: Steering a buoyed course

Autopilot is fine when you’re warming up, executing drills, etc. but every so often you’ve gotta snap out of that habit (especially during steady state or pieces) and pay attention to every single aspect of your steering, from your hand placement to if you’re reacting to the boat’s movement and knocking the rudder, etc. All those things add up and are super easy to ignore if you’re not making a conscious effort to pay attention to them.

Related: Coxswains skills: Race steering

You’ve gotta use every practice as an opportunity to work on your steering. If you only decide to work on your steering when you notice there’s a problem (or worse, a rower or coach points it out) then it’s basically too late because now you’re hyperaware of it and that tends to exacerbate the problem. Steering is not that hard. It just isn’t. We overthink it and make it hard, which is what tends to be our downfall 99% of the time.

Question of the Day

Hi! So I’m a collegiate coxswain with about 8 years of experience and I’ve been struggling with fours for a while now. I’m pretty good in eights and have great boat feel, but as soon as I hop in a four everything goes south. I struggle to diagnose problems, stumble over my words, become repetitive, steer poorly, etc. etc. It also doesn’t help that I’m in eights most of the time, so it’s near impossible to fix problems for next practice as the next fours practice might be 8-10 practices away. Do you have any advice?

This is how I feel whenever I get into a four too. The ratio of time I’ve spent in eights vs. fours is pretty lopsided and even now (especially now) whenever I hop in a four, whether it’s filling in for one of the coxswains or actually racing, it feels like it takes forever for me to get in a groove with feeling what’s going on, making calls, etc.

When I was just learning to cox in fours my coach’s advice, which I still rely on today, was to not look at it like you’re starting from scratch anytime you go from an eight to a four, especially since we were also in them infrequently. In my experience that’s what tends to trip coxswains up and cause them to get overwhelmed – that was definitely the case for me. I’d get in the boat and immediately overwhelm myself by thinking about not being able to see anyone instead of just slowing down and using everything I knew about the rowers from being in the eight to guide whatever I was saying or interpreting via boat feel.

That’s why whenever I’m in fours I talk a lot less than I do when I’m in eights. Rowers (at every level I’ve coxed) have pointed it out too and my response is always that it’s not because I’m zoning out or not paying attention, rather it’s the exact opposite – it’s a different environment so I’m trying to focus, feel, process, etc. more and I can’t do that if I’m talking all the time. If I’m talking the same amount in a four that I am in an eight, that’s a pretty clear sign that I’m just completely bullshitting my way through practice.

When it comes to diagnosing problems, I heavily rely on whatever’s been going on in the eight to act as my “baseline” for the four. Before going out or while we’re warming up I’ll usually say something like “We’ve been working on ABC in the eight so now that there’s just four of you, let’s really hone in on XYZ today – the less time we spend worrying about setting the boat the more time we can spend on just moving it.” and then quickly run through one or two individual things that I want them to focus on. By this point in the season  you know what’s going well, what’s not, etc. which makes it a lot easier to narrow the scope of practice vs. “starting from scratch” where it seems like every technical issue known to man could be the problem. Plus, the smaller the boat you’re in the more noticeable technical issues are going to be. If you know what to look/feel for based on the stuff you’ve already been working on, that makes things a lot easier for you.

If I knew we were gonna go out in fours I’d talk to my coaches about the lineups, anything in particular I should focus on (i.e. 3-seat in the eight isn’t used to being in stern pair so now that he’s 3-seat in the four, making calls about syncing up with the stroke would be beneficial in the first half of practice), stuff they’ve seen from the launch, etc. – pretty much the same stuff I’d talk about with them normally anyways. Taking the feedback I got from those conversations and meshing it up with my own observations from the eight made getting into the fours a lot less stressful because, like I said earlier, it helped narrow my focus.

Stumbling over your words and getting repetitive is usually a sign that you need to take a step back and (re)focus. You also just need to be honest with the boat. If I know something feels off but can’t figure out what the problem is then I’ll just say that and ask them what they’re feeling. I know a lot of coxswains are kinda timid about doing this because they think it’ll make them look bad but it really doesn’t. Making useless calls and being ineffective in general makes you look bad … admitting you’re off your game today and can’t figure out if what’s throwing the boat off is X or Y demonstrates a level of self-awareness that far too many coxswains lack.

Steering poorly, you can’t really justify or make any excuses for that. You’ve got an unobstructed view and technically that should be your primary focus anyways. If you’re steering is bad/unsafe then that’s a pretty clear sign that you need to slow down, stop talking, and get that sorted out before trying to do anything else. It also baffles me when coxswains come off the water complaining about how practice didn’t go well because the boat was unset all morning and nothing they said fixed it … did you ever consider maybe not touching the rudder every three seconds? That’d probably help.

Anyways, my advice is to talk less (way less), incorporate in your observations, the rowers’ known tendencies, etc. from the eight rather than starting from zero every time, and when in doubt, crowdsource ideas from the boat if you’re stuck on something. Last piece of advice is to talk with the other coxswains regularly enough that you at least have a basic idea of the strengths/weaknesses of the rowers in their boats, that way if you end up coxing them in a four instead of the people who are usually in your boat, you won’t be in the dark about what they’ve been doing or where they’re at technically. This will benefit you regardless of the boat you’re in and it helps make you a more versatile coxswain.