Mike Cipollone had the opportunity to sit down with Olympic gold medalist and world champion coxswain Pete Cipollone. Mike and Pete share a father-son connection in the coxswain seat.
Mike Cipollone is known for his coxing on the 1967 Junior national team and actively coxes on Boathouse Row in Philadelphia and at regattas around the world. Pete Cipollone is Mike's son and coxed his way through college at the University of California at Berkely and onto the men's national team, finishing his elite coxing career with an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 games. Pete's career has been, by all accounts, incredibly successful. He was a member of fourteen national teams, coxing his crews to four world championship golds, two silvers and a bronze. In 2004, at the Athens Olympics, his crew set the world and Olympic record in the men's eight, winning Olympic gold. Pete lives in San Francisco and runs InstaViser, a global sports coaching platform that delivers the world's best coaching to athletes of all levels.
Mike Cipollone: What is the most important skill a coxswain should learn?
Pete Cipollone: All coxswains should teach themselves to listen. There is something to that old saying about us having “two ears and one mouth.” Becoming proficient at coxing takes longer than becoming proficient at rowing. You will see more second-year rowers in the first boat than second-year coxswains.
The keys to becoming good are: Soak up what the coach is saying. Understand why–the symptoms and the cure. Learn to coach those symptoms yourself.
Don’t say anything unless it has a specific intended impact.
Listening is a skill that anyone can learn and it helps the other areas. If you are quiet you can learn how to steer, get better boat feel and concentrate.
Tell the crew, “for the next minute I'm going silent to practice going straight. Focus on leg drive and long finishes.”
MC: Pete, you have great boat feel. How did you develop it?
PC: Over a long period of time. I like getting really attached to the hull, wedging myself against the footboards and the back of my seat so that if the boat was turned upside down I would be the only one not to fall out. For example, I used to remove the back strap to get better connected to the hull. Keep your feet on the footboard. If you feel pressure on your feet at the catch, it means someone is pushing before the oars are in the water. Look at the blades to see who, then coach them to cover the blade before they push, until the feeling gets lighter or the boat goes faster at the same cadence and pressure.
You should always be taking in more information than you're giving out. That might be the one most important aspect of being a great coxswain. One of our key jobs is to take in everything that is going on around us, distill it, and make one crystal clear call to respond to it.
Take the complex commands and give them a single nickname, sort of like a football play. You can use the nickname to communicate the effect you want much faster than saying “In 2, hold the knees down off the finish, rebound to full body prep, and long up the tracks.” For that one, we used to call it the “Shift Out.” I could just say “Ready to Shift Out...on this one.” Everyone knew that play call and we could execute it in one stroke instead of four.
Great coxswains create that playbook, sort of like a quarterback. The two jobs are similar. If the coxswain is technically proficient and can call the plays, it makes the coach’s job much easier.
MC: If you were in competition with another coxswain for the first boat, how would you handle it.
PC: Practice. Be technically more proficient. Develop a playbook with concepts and teach these concepts. Pay attention and listen. Take the pressure off the coach by being present and paying attention. Be the coxswain the crew responds to. One example is: “500 to go–it’s now or never.” Drop all the other calls. If the boat goes faster and with less effort with you in it, it makes the decision easier for the coach. Work hard on what the coach is working on with the athletes.
Mike Teti was the “simplest” coach to cox for. At the beginning of each season, he would get the coxswains together and tell us exactly what he wanted from us. He'd say, “In racing, go bullet straight and execute the race plan as practiced. In practice, be level, on time, and on cadence.” Just because he was the simplest coach to cox for did not make him the easiest. If you were less than excellent at any of those things, you would hear about it immediately, loud and clear. It taught you to be on your game every day.
MC: Tell me about your racing career.
PC: It started young (age 12) and I was not good for a long time. All I could do was emulate better coxswains. My High School was St. Joe’s Prep and then to Cal. Getting my butt kicked in college was tough, but I think it accounted for a lot of success later.
MC: Pete, give us one of your memorable calls.
PC: It was 1995 Worlds in Finland, we were a very young coxed four with Olympic veteran Scott Munn and some guys who went on to be pretty good: Chris Ahrens, Porter Collins and Ben Holbrook. In the heat we led from the start, but at 350 meters to go, New Zealand just blew by us. I totally did not see it coming, but as Mike Teti says, “You only get the element of surprise once.” The final unfolded the same way. When New Zealand charged, I said, “If you want to be World Champions you gotta go...NOW!” The guys just unleashed it and we took off. We went stroke for stroke with the Kiwis until about 20 to go and then they cracked.*
*Video of this race is at worldrowing.com.