The Mental Chess Game: A Parent's Guide to Junior Coxing


Maybe you’ve heard coxing described this way: a mental chess game. Or maybe, if you’ve coxed, you’ve felt it yourself, as you looked across the boats during a sprint race and tried to find the words that would bring your crew to their best performance, nudging your bow ball ahead of all of the other boats. Coxing is, by all accounts, the most mental seat in the boat, a constant bout between your mind and the rower’s bodies, the efforts of the rowers coming to you through the hull of your boat while you try to capture that next bit of water away from your opponent.

For Rochelle Donkersley, coxing wasn’t the first time she played this mental chess game. For Donkersley, a high school-aged coxswain in dry and arid Phoenix, Arizona (yes, there’s rowing in Phoenix, on nearby Tempe Town Lake), the mental chess game she played first was in a fencing uniform. “Fencing is a solitary sport,” she says, when we talk, just after she’d coxed her crew at the San Diego Crew Classic, “a stand-up chess game.” She smiles, “The mental strategy crosses over into coxing.” Hearing this comparison, I wait for the young, astute coxswain to go on.

“Fencing is about predicting what your opponent is going to do. It’s the same in racing, really. You have to make a move before they do, or you have to counteract their move.” Donkersley is humble, knowing that her experience as a high school coxswain is just the beginning of her career. “I listen to recordings, go to coxswain-specific camps and read everything I can about coxing. I try to learn as quickly as I can.” Donkersley has coxed for her high school, Xavier Prep, in Phoenix, and has also spent time coxing for a Masters club.

“I thought I’d be scared to stand up to the rowers,” she says, “I thought I would be timid, but that wasn’t the case.” I can tell that coxing allowed her to find a part of herself that many coxswains do: finding a way to be a part of the team when your stature–but not your personality–is smaller than everyone else’s. “I figured out how to gain respect from people,” she hesitates for a moment, wanting to explain herself accurately. “Most people don’t expect a deep, gruff voice from a small blonde girl. My voice surprised me, actually.” Donkersley says that when she started coxing, she listened mostly to recordings of women coxing. “These women are loud and directive,” she explains, “and I thought, ‘I should mimic that.’ I added my own kind of style to it.”

Although coxing was Rochelle's idea, she was encouraged by her parents, Jason and Tishin. They bought her The Short and Snarky Guide to Coxing and Rowing, one of the premier books on coxing. Her parents had supported her in fencing, but the team aspect of crew seemed better suited to her personality. As a smallish athlete, the coxswain seat was best for her. And, says her mother, Tishin, it helped her daughter find that side of her personality that was bigger and more assertive than she had known before.

“She’s become more of a leader,” says Tishin. A small woman herself, she is fully supportive of her daughter’s crew experience. “What we hoped for for Rochelle, especially in that role [coxing], was that she’d be a kind of quarterback. When she went to a Sparks camp, they offered her guidance and gave her enough experience to really own that leadership position. They taught her that if you own that position, it will flourish. I’ve seen her really enjoy the relationships with the girls–that’s part of being a team player.” 

Coxing is–first and foremost–about safety. If your son or daughter is coxing, they have the responsibility to launch, race and dock safely. The boats cost tens of thousands of dollars; the coxswain is the one responsible for bringing the boat and the rowers back to the dock safely. When Rochelle Donkersley started coxing she asked her coach, “What if I hit something?”

Coaches will teach the basics of steering and safety, but the cox needs to work with the crew to successfully drive the boat, since the crew acts as the engine. Once the boat is launched, if your son or daughter is coxing, their next focus is on steering straight down the course and executing the practice plan or the race plan, depending on the day. If it’s a practice day, the coxswain will listen to the coach (who is riding alongside the crew in a motorized launch) and then relay the next drill or speed sequence to the crew. The cox will call the parts of the stroke that the coach is focusing on, reinforcing the changes the coach has asked for. It’s here that young coxswains learn to listen. Even though many people think that coxswains are in-boat coaches, it’s not necessarily true during practices. The cox’s job is to focus on the drills and skills the coach is trying to introduce to the rowers. Typically, the saying goes, there is no talking in the boat, except for the coxswain. If you have a child who is good at describing new tasks with clear and articulate words, coxing may be a good fit.

Coxswains should listen more than they talk, however. This is part of what makes the coxswain’s seat so demanding. Every coxswain will come to a moment when they realize they are a part of the crew, but they also have to call for more effort, or technique changes, or more power from the rowers. It’s a double-edged sword, one that is often likened to management skills. You’re a part of the crew, but you are also the leader. Verbal finesse is critical to a coxswain’s success.

Rochelle Donkersley explains it this way, “It took me a while to figure out what the coxswain was there for. I thought it was just to steer straight and to make sure the rowers are pushing. What I learned is that coxing is really about relationships and motivation.”

If it’s race day, your son or daughter coxswain will have a warm-up plan and a race plan they've practiced with the crew and plan to use. They have to launch the boat, go through a series of drills and stroke sequences to ensure their rowers are ready to race and arrive at the starting line at just the right time to get in position for the start–not too early and not too late. It's a good idea to get your son or daughter coxswain a waterproof watch.

Once the race begins, the coxswain turns into an informant, a bit of a drill sergeant and a motivator, all at the same time. The coxswain should be the only person in the boat looking across the lanes (even the turn of one rower’s head can off-set the boat when it’s at racing speed). They let the crew know if they’re ahead or behind other boats, and by how much. Both the cox and the rowers know the race plan, and exactly how many strokes happen during each part. The cox will call the stroke changes (rate, power, focus) throughout the race, trying to keep the crew synchronized and powerful. As the race nears completion, the intensity goes up. Way up. If a crew is leading, they know they’re being chased by every other crew. They also know that one missed stroke can change the outcome of a race. The cox has to feel if the crew is at their maximum effort, or if they can squeeze an extra ounce of power out of each stroke without tipping over their own abilities and risk missing a stroke (this is called "catching a crab," when an oar is caught by the water in an unstable position and gets stuck underwater, effectively stopping the boat). It is here, at the height of the intensity, that rowers must trust themselves, their rowing, and their coxswain.

Rochelle Donkersley explains it this way, “When I say something, they trust me. Even if it might hurt, even if they don’t want to do it, they’ll do it. But this respect was something I had to earn. I had to respect them first–in every practice, by steering straight and by always telling them where they are in a race. And, I had to make calls that actually work. When I ask for something–some change in their stroke–it has to get us something. I have to show them that I know what to call.”

The Donkersleys sent Rochelle to a coxing-specific camp and it has paid off. From the coxing notebooks the camp coaches taught her to keep (“Now I have a whole notebook full of calls,” she says), to the confidence to listen before she makes a call, Rochelle has grown quickly as a coxswain, and that growth has shown up in other arenas, too. “I’m more likely to speak in class discussion or in seminars now,” she says. “You put yourself out there. I could be right or I could be wrong, but I definitely just say it now.”

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When your son or daughter has finished the practice or the race, they’re responsible for docking the 60-foot-long boat, steering it with a rudder that is about the size of a playing card. They’ll call rowers to row slowly into the dock; younger coxswains often learn the principles of parallel parking well before they learn how to drive a car. But it doesn’t stop there. The last bit of work the cox does is to return the boat safely to the boathouse racks. Even here, on land, the coxswain has to have her head on a swivel, so to speak, and ensure the boat and the rowers are safe and finish the practice unharmed. Once the boat is safely stowed away, the cox can relax a bit, listen to the feedback from her coach and rowers, and make notes in her notebook. The sense of teamwork that comes from being part of a crew is tangible. Rochelle explains it this way, “I think the girls and I bond from the hard practices, the 5:00am practices, and the hard erg [indoor rowing] sessions. Through that–and two-a-day practices–it ties you together.”

Coxing is not for everyone, but if you know someone who is analytical, articulate, a good listener and a bit on the small side, this might just be the seat for them. As we finish talking, I ask Rochelle what she’d tell a novice coxswain who is just starting out with a crew. “Build relationships with your rowers from the start,” she says, without hesitation. “Know each of them as a person, be close to them. You need to make sure you protect those relationships. No other sport works you as hard as crew does.”