Daniel Gilbert  (photo courtesy of Daniel Gilbert)

As your boat shoves off the dock you suddenly get a feeling that your crew is missing something.


You may have felt this way as you reviewed the race plan with your coach, rigged the boat with your teammates, or finished up your tune-up practice the day before.

As a coxswain, you spend the majority of your time observing athletes. As the key witness to their overall performance during practices, erg tests, and regattas you assume the role of counselor and adviser to your teammates. You are in the front row for every success and failure. 

You are the coxswain. And this ticking time bomb is about to go off...


“Defusing” the athletes on your team is a real challenge, because you need to be good at reading people. Even if you are not a “people person,” you still can make and record observations. 

Behaviors are observable. Depending on the situation, your teammates will behave differently before, during, and after every practice, erg test, or regatta. Their behaviors are influenced by fatigue, stress, expectations of others, and the perception of themselves.

Your notebook is a powerful tool. It allows you to write down drills, race calls, and practice results. You can now add one more piece of information–the behaviors of your teammates.

Defuse this ticking bomb before it explodes. But, first, you need to know your teammates.



Dylan is the “man.” He competes at everything: first to practice, breakfast, and reminding everybody he's first. He is a phenomenal stroke, but if he sits anywhere else, then he will grow impatient. “Go faster!” His goal is simple: win.

Time is ticking…

Dylan needs to compete–eating contests, carrying the most oars, holding his breath, etc. This is a signal that he is not being challenged enough. Dylan runs the risk of overtraining and aggravating his teammates because he is always racing. He holds himself and others to high competitive standards. If he fails during an erg test or race he will be extremely hard on himself and on others. 


Keep Dylan challenged in a positive way. Tell him that he is your “secret weapon” in the boat, and you need him to be the best at focusing on A, B, or C. “Dylan, I need you to focus on squaring your blade early because it makes the boat go faster.” Dangle that carrot in front of Dylan because he is going to focus all his energy getting it. On race day, monitor Dylan and how “combative” he is. Keep him contained until it is time to “Release the Kraken!"



Elizabeth or “Izzy” loves rowing and she loves her teammates. Rowing is just another excuse for everyone to get together to focus on going fast and having fun. She knows everyone and everything about her teammates. She will organize team sleepovers, set up erg playlists before every erg test, and have the right joke or song to break the tension as you row to the start. She is the team cheerleader and the team “mom.”

Time is ticking…

Izzy takes things personally. When your coach is angry, Izzy blames herself. As the self-appointed peace keeper, Izzy wants everyone to “just get along.” Jokes and songs don’t always work, and your teammates may get annoyed with Izzy because she is uncomfortable with silence. Before erg tests and regattas Izzy may become overwhelmed because “everyone is so serious.”


Izzy needs to know someone has her back. Winning is important, but it needs to be accomplished as a team. Remind her to do her best and who she is taking every stroke for–her teammates, her coach, her family, her pet…whatever motivates her. Izzy will row hard because you believe in her.



Sophie is the “Excellence of Execution.” Her rowing technique on the water and the ergometer is impeccable. She is friendly but quiet as she avoids being the center of attention. Sophie loves data and wants to know the intricate details of every workout. If she is your stroke, she sets a good rhythm and is easy to follow. She will do anything you ask; you just might need to write it down. 

Time is ticking…

Sophie hesitates. Before an erg test she will create a good race plan, but tends to over-think it in the clutch. Your team may accuse her of being “soft” and not having a “killer instinct.” She needs confidence that she can take a risk and not fail. Sophie takes a long time to make technical changes, and will blame herself if things go wrong in the boat. She hesitates because she is trying to decide the best time to make that change without disturbing the rhythm of the boat. She needs your help! 


Sophie just needs you to point her in the right direction. Give her time and space to adjust to change, but set time limits. In the boat, give her five to ten strokes to make the technical change you want. Review the race plan with her to make sure it is clear in her mind. It is okay for her to take risks, because success is one more thing to check off her “list.” Help your coach and your team see the reliable “rock star” she is.  



Carter is loyal to your team and to his teammates. Rowing is about pride in himself and his school. He is on a mission, and he knows the best way to accomplish this mission. As the silent leader on the team, he leads by example and inspires everyone from within.

Time is ticking…

Carter tends to be an “expert” on everything and will tell everyone how to row and what they are doing wrong. He may blame things on others in the boat when things are not going well. He will yell at Izzy for talking in the boat, question Sophie’s dedication to the team, and argue with Dylan because Dylan never sticks to the stroke rate. The moment Carter tells you how to be a coxswain, you'll know that it is time to step in. 


Remind Carter that everyone is here because they believe in the team and the overall mission; they just do it in a different way. Praise and promote Carter’s dedication, and be sure everyone hears you. Look to Carter for constructive feedback on how the boat can move better, but be sure to do it out of earshot of other teammates. He will appreciate that you came to him, and you can set up meetings to discuss his improvement plan. 


Understanding your teammates is a lot of work. However, you have time. In addition to all the technical notes and erg scores you've been writing down, make notes about the behaviors of your teammates. Establishing patterns of behaviors allows you to understand who your teammates are and build trust in your boat. 

Trust that your coach and teammates want you to lead them.

Start with yourself. Which behaviors mentioned in this article apply to you? Manage yourself first.


Kayla Patitucci washing her boat