Words.

Being an Oarsman is bigger than just getting in a boat and rowing. It’s how you carry yourself outside the boat. It’s how you treat your teammates and it’s how you treat your competition. There’s a level of respect there and a level of perspective where you fit in the sport, and the history of the sport, and everything that’s happened before you, sort of being a part of that.

Words.

It is the coxswains’ job to earn that trust. “We must”, in Shakespeare’s words, “study deserving” to be our best for our rowers, to learn our craft with the same intensity as they learn theirs, to contribute to the boat in every way, and to become that invisible extra oar. We coxswains may joke about “coming second after God” but we know it is the rowers who give us everything.

Question of the Day

Hi I’ve been recently reading your blog really enjoyed your posts. I have a question to ask you. I am in a high school crew and last year was my novice year. I spent the whole fall season rowing and also did winter conditioning, but I hoped I could become a coxswain. About half way through spring my coach realized that we needed a coxswain, and since I was light and eager to cox he used me as coxswain about once a week and I was able to cox four 4+ races, but they were always B boats because I was only the “part-time” coxswain. In the summer I rowed. Then this fall, my first varsity season, all but one of our coxswains, a girl who had coxed the guys novice last year during the spring were gone, participating in other activities. The coaches decided to make me the head girls varsity coxswain and, we’ll call her Maddie, the head boys varsity coxswain. At first I struggled a lot because I had hardly any instruction, and I was basically a novice varsity coxswain. Many of the rowers became exasperated with me. They would talk bad about me in the boat and at the boat house, and they would frequently decide to tap or back seat cox. About two weeks into the season, Sarah, a coxswain who has been coxing for 5 years and just last spring took a lightweight men’s 4+ to Nationals and placed 2nd, returned after being begged by one of our coaches. Instantly my problem became worse and the rowers would compare me to Sarah and wouldn’t take me seriously. Sarah and Maddie became close friends and have been excluding me and telling the rowers I am the worst coxswain to ever exist; they don’t take me seriously and think of me as a rower. The problem has only gotten worse as I’ve improved because Maddie seems to feel threatened by me because we are both in the same grade. So, my question is: how can I gain the respect of my fellow coxswains and the rowers after rowing for a year? Thanks for reading my long question, and I really hope you can answer it and help me gain some respect.

Check out this post (and the links included at the bottom) as well as the “respect” tag. There’s plenty of stuff in both those links that’ll give you ideas for how to earn respect from the rowers.

As for the coxswains, you kinda just have to be the bigger person, ignore their bullshit, and find a way to communicate/work with them. Icing out another coxswain because you’re “threatened” by them or don’t like them or whatever is just petty and I get that you’re in high school so that’s like, the norm for that age but at some point you have to wake up and realize that doing that isn’t just hurting whoever’s on the receiving end of it, it’s hurting the entire team. You can say exactly that to them too (nicely but still firm enough to make your point) and to be honest, you probably should. Maybe part of the reason why they say this stuff about you is because they think they can get away with it because (they think) you won’t stand up for yourself or say anything back to them. I don’t think you need to engage them in any way but you shouldn’t let them walk all over you either.

If Sarah is a good coxswain, which it sounds like she is, then presumably you have stuff you can learn from her so try to get on her good side by asking her questions, talking to her about how she’s coxed the boats she’s had in the past, proposing hypotheticals like “how would you deal with XYZ if this was your boat…”, etc. Sometimes that’s the best/easiest way to deal with a difficult person … flatter them and make them feel like you getting to learn from them is the greatest experience ever. Don’t be over the top about it or come off super fake because then they’ll just think you’re being passive aggressive (which in turn will only ramp up their collective attitude problem) … just approach it like you would a normal conversation with any other person. Hopefully doing that will give you a chance to develop a better working relationship with her and let her see that you’re not the enemy just because you’re a new-ish coxswain who’s still learning the ropes.

Question of the Day

Hello! I was wondering if you have any tips for when you feel burned out with coxing. I just don’t feel like I’m really doing my best in the boat and I feel like I have rowers who do not appreciate me or all the stress that I’m putting in to be the best I can be. I’m not getting any feedback even though I repeatedly ask for it and just don’t feel like a respected part of the team and while I love this sport I don’t really know what to do.

It’s easy to get burned out on coxing, especially when you’re trying to get better and feel like you’re hitting a wall with every attempt you make. When it comes to asking feedback, more often times than not the reason you’re not getting any is because you’re not asking the right questions. That may or may not be the case here but whenever you talk to your rowers (or coaches), ask them about one or two specific things rather than just “how did I do today”. For example, if you’ve been working on your technical eye say something like “I’ve been trying to get better at spotting and calling out technical issues, particularly when we’re going through drills. Today I was focused on the catch and wanted to know if you had any feedback on the calls I was making – were they still too vague or do you think they were better at pointing out the issues and what changes had to be made?” The caveat to asking the rowers stuff like this is that there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll say “uh…I wasn’t paying attention sooo…” or “I don’t remember…”. To combat that it’s best to talk to a couple rowers before you go out and say “this is what I’m working on today, can you give me some feedback after practice?” and then approach them again later once you’re off the water. The same idea applies to your coach when it comes to stuff like steering, developing a better understanding of drills and workouts, etc. The more specific your questions the better the feedback you get will be.

As far as not feeling like a respected member of the team, talk to your team captains about this (if you have any) and explain why you feel that way. If you don’t have team captains or a varsity rower/coxswain you feel comfortable talking to, approach your coach and ask to meet with them one-on-one. Tell them how you’re feeling and that the result of everything is that you feel really burned out and aren’t sure where to go from here. Hopefully they’ll be able to give you some advice on ways they feel you can improve that you might not have thought of yet and how to work towards earning the respect of the rowers (for more on that read this post, this postthis post, this post, this post, and this post). The thing about coxing is that you have to accept early on that pretty much no one is going to know what you’re doing off the water to get better so you have to take all that behind the scenes work and manifest it into actual actions  on the water … otherwise you’ll just come across as all talk and no game and people will wonder why you’re so stressed for seemingly no reason.

If worst comes to worst, you can always take some time off to clear your head and figure out what your next move is. Sometimes taking time off is a good solution because it lets you look at things more objectively whereas when you’re stressed and irritated it’s harder to see where you can do things better/differently. You might also come to the conclusion that as much as you love coxing, the team environment isn’t giving you what you need to make continuing to cox worth it and that walking away from the sport is your best option. The good thing is that we’re nearing the end of the fall season which means you’ll likely have some time to do this before winter training picks up or if your team doesn’t do winter training, you’ll have plenty of time to think about all this before the spring season rolls around.

Video of the Week: Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY Awards Speech

The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is an award that ESPN gives out at the ESPYs each year to someone, usually an athlete or former athlete, whose actions or contributions to society transcend sports. Caitlyn Jenner – former decathlete, “world’s greatest athlete”, and Olympic gold-medalist – makes an excellent point in her acceptance speech that everyone should take to heart as we get closer to the start of a new season when we’ll have new crops of athletes joining our teams: “We are all different. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing and while it may not be easy to get past the things you do not understand, I want to prove that it is absolutely possible if we only do it together.”

Related: Mental health + rowing

We’re all athletes and because of that, we all inherently respect each other because we know the amount of time, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into what we do. That same respect HAS TO transcend rowing though and extend to our everyday lives. Support your teammates, accept them for who they are, and be willing to shut down anyone who acts differently. It is so cool to watch history change right in front of our eyes like this but it takes everyone stepping up and doing their part to make a lasting difference and as Caitlyn said, “a more empathetic society and a better world for all of us”.

Question of the Day

Hi I am a coxswain, my coach is not afraid to show his disdain for coxswains but the girls in my boat for the most part do make some backhanded comment or when needed, stand up to the coach. That being said I feel like coaches and novices should have some sort of coxswain sensitivity training. Like a portion on being a decent human being in the cheesy safety video. But seriously coaches need to remember that often these PEOPLE are young impressionable girls who will take what you say to heart.

Not just girls – guys too. Granted, I do get more emails about the stuff I talked about today from young women but I do get a handful throughout the year from guys (mostly college ones) too.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think coxswains are a bunch of super special snowflakes that have to be praised every second or are incapable of taking/handling criticism (and if they are, GTFO because this isn’t the role or sport for you). I don’t think they deserve any more or less respect than anyone else on the team either just because they’re a coxswain. What I do think they deserve is an equal amount of respect and it’s pretty clear that that’s not a common practice.

It’s ridiculous that you even have to make the suggestion of “coxswain sensitivity training” because it’s not something that should be necessary in the first place. The whole “being a decent human being” thing should come pretty standard, regardless of whether you’re dealing with a coxswain or another rower. Who it is shouldn’t matter. I know some people will read this and think “OMG suck it up, it’s not that bad” and I get that – there are times when I think coxswains take things way too seriously or personally (note, this isn’t one of those times) and I say the same thing in my head but like the other person who messaged me said, the overall attitude that coxswains don’t do shit and are responsible for everything that goes wrong is way too prevalent. It seems to be more of a thing at the junior level than anywhere else (although it’s not exclusive to them), which makes sense because you’re a teenager and teenagers aren’t the most socially graceful people on the planet but again, that’s why having coaches, captains, and other team leaders not let it get that far in the first place is important.

Coxswain “Appreciation” Week

You don’t have to search that far back in the blog (like, 24 hours maybe…) to find a post from a coxswain asking how to deal with rowers (or coaches) who are treating them like shit, disrespecting them, and all in all being pretty unappreciative of their contribution to the team. I was also pretty annoyed in a “I shouldn’t be this annoyed but I am” kinda way on Sunday when I saw that this whole week of “appreciation” was being being promoted by an organization that doesn’t really do much for coxswain education. Sorry but piggybacking on someone’s idea to make it seem like you “appreciate” and “support” coxswains is bullshit when you do little to nothing for them the other 360 days of the year. I’m not saying that every day needs to be “kiss your coxswain’s ass and make them feel like the super special snowflake they are day” but actions speak louder than words. You can hashtag as many tweets as you want but at the end of the day, is that really going to be what makes coxswains not feel like an afterthought on their own teams or in the sport in general?

I’ll spare you the rest of my rant and skip ahead to the list that I’ve been thinking about of ways that you could actually show your appreciation for your coxswains – things that they would actually notice and appreciate themselves.

Rowers

If your coxswain doesn’t have a basket or bucket-like contraption to carry down/up everyone’s water bottles, 43 layers of clothing, shoes, hats, sunglasses, and whatever the hell else you bring down to the dock with you, maybe consider not piling one more thing on top of their arms and making it even harder for them to carry everything while they try and cox the boat. If you can see they’re already trying to juggle six wattle bottles, their cox box, and whatever else you’ve given them, stick your water bottle in your spandex and carry it up yourself. It kills me when rowers pile tons of crap into the coxswain’s arms and then yell at them when they have to drop everything to grab the bow ball or a rigger to keep the boat from hitting something.(Technically their hands should be free at all times for this exact reason but at most they should be carrying their cox box and that’s it.) If this sounds like something your coxswain experiences, consider going to the store and buying them a 17 gallon tub so that they have something that will actually carry everything they’re expected to transport on and off the dock for you.

Stop acting like you’re god’s gift to the sport and you’re the only ones that do anything just because you have an oar in your hands. If you’re not going to take the time to learn about the coxswain’s role on the team and what their responsibilities are (not what you think they are but what they actually are) then keep your mouth shut. Coxing is not an easy discipline to master. Shocking, isn’t it, that two things can be equally hard but for their own very different reasons? If you see your coxswain is struggling with something (particularly if they’re a novice), don’t harp on them even more. That’s not even your job anyways, it’s the coach’s. Instead, throw a compliment their way when you get off the water and say “hey, I noticed you were struggling with finding the right calls today but you held a great point and did a really good job steering throughout practice”. They spend so much time trying to find the right words to keep you going during practice, the least you could do is reign in your own egos a bit and do the same for them once in awhile. (Coxswains, don’t ruin the moment and shrug off their compliment. Accept it and say thank you.)

Know that your coxswains are doing a lot of work outside of practice in order to get better and help make your crew go faster. Stop assuming that your coxswains aren’t putting in just as much work as you are and understand that the way they put work in is different than how you do it. Improving for you guys involves erging, rowing, and other fitness-related things while improving for coxswains involves a lot of research and trial-and-error (more like trial by fire). Don’t discount the behind the scenes work they do just to prepare for what you might think is a relatively simple, no-different-than-usual practice.

Coaches

Set aside time once or twice a week specifically to sit down with just the coxswains (UNINTERRUPTED), either individually or as a group, and talk about how the week is going, ask if they have questions on anything, give them feedback on their recent performances, etc. Crazy idea here but maybe actually coach them instead of treating them like an inanimate object that you don’t have to pay any attention to until something goes wrong. If they say they don’t understand how this drill works or they need clarification on what you were talking with stern pair about the other day, spend a few minutes actually explaining stuff to them instead of giving them vague, useless answers. If they ask you about something related to coxing (or anything, really) and you don’t know the answer, just say “I don’t know, but I’ll look into it. Remind me tomorrow and we’ll talk about this more then.” That’s a hell of a lot more helpful than you just giving them some transparent answer that totally gives away the fact that you have no idea what to say to them. (And yes, based on the emails I get, coxswains are a lot more aware of this than you think they are.)

If/when something does go wrong, think about the part you played in it and recognize that 99% of the time, that part is indirect rather than direct. So your novice coxswain is taking forever to turn the boat around and the way he’s doing it is like, the stupidest, most inefficient way ever. Instead of getting frustrated with him and yelling at him to hurry up, ask yourself “did I ever teach him the correct/most efficient way to turn the shell around?”. Regardless of whether you did or didn’t, say something like “Hey Greg, I may not have taught you this but when you’re spinning the boat, the best way to do it is to have everyone row with just arms and bodies and alternate back and forth when each side is rowing and backing. This’ll get you spun around much faster so we aren’t wasting so much time spinning.” Simple as that.

Ask their opinion on things and actually take into consideration what they’re saying. They have a completely different vantage point than you do and can actually feel what’s going on in the boat. You’d be foolish to not take advantage of that. Not only does this let you know how lineups are working, how effective certain drills are, etc. but it also empowers the coxswains and helps build their confidence if they feel like the coach genuinely values their opinion. It also forces us to start really paying attention to what’s going on in the boat so that when you say “Hey, so how did you think Lou did moving from stroke to 6-seat today?” or “What’d you notice about the port blades today when we were doing that drill? I didn’t get a chance to get over to that side so I couldn’t see what their catches looked like.”, we can actually give you an informed, thorough answer. Being able to do this and know that you’re actually listening to them works wonders for maintaining good lines of communication between the two of you.

USRowing: Do something … anything … for coxswains that isn’t about making as much money as possible while providing them with as little useful information as possible. You want to host clinics? Awesome. Live stream them on YouTube so more people can get in on the action and not feel like they’re getting left behind because they can’t afford to go in person. I fully understand that these things cost money and you’ve gotta charge something but I really think there needs to be a point where you ask yourselves if it’s more important to make a profit or impart some wisdom on these people that we’re entrusting with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. You’re the national governing body for the sport, shouldn’t it be up to you to be setting the standard when it comes to educating coxswains?