The sound of eight aggressive catches, the surge of the boat underneath the seat, the droplets of water flying off stroke’s oar, even the annoyingly squeaky oarlock at 5-seat—for a coxswain, these all signify speed on the water. And coxswains love speed. So, what are we to do when we rack the boats, sweep out the boathouse and head back to our indoor training
facilities for the winter?
In two words: get faster.
Just because we’ve moved inside doesn’t mean we have to give up all of the skills that we use to make our crews successful. In fact, not only can we continue to be the X-Factor for our crews, drastically improving the effectiveness of the winter training program, but we can also dramatically improve our own abilities. In the same way that winter provides rowers with a foundation for spring speed, it should also be a springboard for coxswains. All you need to do is prioritize and be mindful and goal-oriented about your time indoors.
Whether you are a novice or a seasoned coxswain, you can work through these focus points in priority order. You can choose to master one and then move along, or set a different focal point by day or week. Using the Coxswain Goal Card (developed by Jodi Hope, USCG Women’s Head Coach; see page 26), you should always have a personal goal for practices and a way to track your progress.
1. Run the Practice
When you remove the priority of keeping personnel and equipment safe from harm, you free up an impressive amount of time and space to focus on your own development. But, you should still stay focused on the vital role you play in practice. A disciplined and synchronized erg room signifies that serious work is getting done. And running the workout on land just as you would on the water is a win-win-win. Your coach gets the opportunity to focus on coaching; your rowers are reminded that an indoor practice is as important as an on-the-water one; and you get to improve your practice management skills.
Everything should sound the same as in a boat—use the same calls and terminology as you use on the water and be just as efficient.
Run the warm-up. Call switches (time, rating, rest). Execute drills. Keep rowers on task and on time.
2. Run the Numbers
Being focused on the process will lead to the achievement of your goals by spring.
Measuring the incremental successes your team achieves each day not only helps each individual set her daily goals, but it also enables the team to see the big picture of its collective progress.
Data management also assists your coach as she analyzes the team’s progress and adjusts her training plan. There are many different ways to post online; here are a just a few. Google Sheets is easy to access, but can’t do tenths or hundredths in the time function (without a special formula). OneNote uses Excel which can manage decimals in the time function. And Evernote allows attachments of Excel sheets as well.
Choose your online resource and set up sharing between coxes (editors), coaches (editors) and rowers (viewers). Organize your data in a way that makes sense for your team. I recommend setting up a separate tab for all workouts in a single Excel notebook. Then, you can just click on the tab for the workout you just did and a have a historical record of all scores for all time.
Make sure your data set contains the numbers that make sense for that workout. A pyramid might require total meters and average split while a 10K piece demands total time and average split. Remind (or have your coach remind) rowers that their data is online and to use it to set their daily goals. Update the workbook after every practice—it is only as useful as it is timely.
3. Improve Your Volume and Control
Managing a larger space filled with spinning ergs, splashy tanks, or clanking weights means you have to be louder and more commanding. Developing your diaphragm and, along with it, the volumes and tones that help you have authority in the space will be a huge asset on the water where a diverse vocal skill set creates a more sensitive accelerator. When you engage your voice, it also signals your own engagement with the practice and the team. They will get more out of their training because your voice keeps them invested.
Access your chest and belly voice to reach the back of the room—everyone should hear you regardless of where they sit. Station a fellow coxswain at the furthest reaches and look for a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether she can hear you. Use this feedback loop to make and practice your change throughout the season.
Limit your syllables—rephrase your thoughts so they can be expressed in three to five syllables between strokes, or, if the idea is more complicated, over two strokes. This will help you to be clear and efficient on the water.
By using fewer syllables you will also establish stronger rhythm. Your voice and cadence are a lifeline during races. Practice combining good information with the rating as your metronome, in order to develop intuitive rhythm. As ratings go up, you’ll need to cut down on your syllables or do more phrase-straddling over multiple strokes.
Be expressive—not everything has to be a command. Practice using a variety of emotions along with your volume. Excitement, joy, appreciation—these are all emotions to be leveraged on the water.
Be evaluative—how are your voice changes impacting speed? Watch monitors to see what the effects are.
4. Improve Your Ability to Motivate
The coxswain is the ultimate motivational speaker. You’ve got to give your crew reasons to choose “go” over “don’t go.” But, being a motivator all the time takes creativity and a strong sense of your personnel, their goals and their capabilities. Being indoors gives you the chance to literally look some rowers in the eye who you can’t see on the water. It also enables you to see how your presence and words impact their speed. As you try out different content, keep track of how it impacts each teammate.
Get to know your rowers beyond the boat. What are their goals and what motivates them to succeed? Don’t forget that connection is a two-way street. They should get to know you better, too. When they learn that you’re as competitive and committed as they are—they’ll dig deeper for you.
Try out different motivational strategies. Is praise a better route than anger? A little smack-talk better than seriousness? Each rower will have her preferred style but sometimes you’ll get a better reaction when you give her something unexpected.
Keep pushing the team and coaches’ agendas forward. Keep the big picture in mind and work it into your content.
Be incremental. Ask for–and celebrate–the small, daily gains in speed that make a rower’s process successful.
Compliment your coach (not literally). Make sure your content supports your coach but fill in where she might have a difference in style.
Make sure your fleet rows together. You’ll establish a rhythmic synergy between the stroke and your calls.
5. Get More Creative
There’s nothing more boring than staring at a wall all winter long. A creative coxswain can build a world with her words and keep the monotony at bay. Wouldn’t you rather be racing than walking between rows of ergs? Invent realistic racing scenarios and then tie them to the data on the monitors and the structure of the practice.
Start off with racing your team against a typical rival. Rivals should vary each scenario and have different levels of competitiveness.
Set up the scene: “I’m sitting bowball to bowball with Row Fast College. We’ve got 700 meters to go. I want a seat in the next 10 strokes.”
Call moves and give updates just like you would in a race.
Watch the monitors—if your team goes faster, give them the seat. If the team goes slower, lose a seat.
“That’s a walk! We just took a seat. Hand me another.” Or, “I need more grit. We’re one seat down. Going for more. On this one!”
Finish the scenario with respect to the effort and reactions you see. It is not only OK to let the team fail but it is also important. Failure in your scenario gives you the opportunity to explain what you observed and set them up for a change in the next piece.
Additionally, all coxes have stock filler—phrases we go to when we think the space needs to be filled but we don’t have anything specific to say. Setting specific goals to increase your lexicon will give you endless effective phrases that can replace your ineffective filler.
Set specific goals to improve your vocabulary in specific areas. How many different ways can you say “pull harder,” “be tougher,” “improve your catches,” or “have strong releases?"
Prepare for practice by writing down ten or more phrases you want to practice each day. Coordinate with your coach so that the goals of your vocabulary building match whatever her practice goals are for the day.
Steal phrases from other coxes and your coach. Spend time thinking about how you can be clear but original in what you say. Don’t be afraid to come up with new imagery, or new kinesthetic descriptions that will create a speed breakthrough for your crew.
Coxes in a program should be distinct but their impact on the speed of the boat should be the same.
Test new phrases by watching facial expressions, body language, and monitors to see the impact. Get feedback after practice from your rowers to decide what makes the cut.
6. Be a Better Technician
It’s race day. Your coach has launched you, given you a good-luck handshake and you are executing the warm-up. But...something is not right. The boat has no run, it feels short and isn’t set. What can you do to fix it in the short amount of time you have? The cox who has spent her winter increasing her knowledge about technique will know exactly what to do.
Shadow your coach. Listen carefully to her corrections and find out why the error is occurring as well as how to fix it.
Ask the rower or the coach how the change feels on the rower’s body. What sensations are different and how does she describe them?
Watch from the side as much as possible. This will show you how the physics behind the stroke work. Then, watch from the front—just as if you were in the seat. What has the rower changed in her body mechanics when she fixes her error?
Test yourself. Walk through the room and see what errors you can identify. Then, either check in with your coach to see if you are right or, if you are confident in your diagnosis, go ahead and help your rower improve.
Add a record of persistent errors and how to fix them into the same notebook where you keep notes on rower’s personal motivations. Remember to update this list as it will change as your team improves.
Get on the erg or in the tank. Master the stroke yourself so you can explain it more clearly.
7. Get Fit
Many people don’t realize it but coxing takes stamina and strength. If you get out of breath during racing, your aerobic base may be at fault. If you don’t have enough volume or tone control, you lose your voice or rip your throat raw while coxing, your core strength is to blame. If you have a large enough coxswain corps, you should also workout with the team. You’ll improve your fitness, strength, experience the challenges of the workout, make weight management easier and gain respect for pushing yourself physically as hard as your rowers.
When possible, do the same workout as your rowers. If your strengths are in running or circuits, use your athletic skills to push your teammates—as their direct competitor!
Do more core. Get in 30 minutes of core workouts at least twice per week. This is especially important for coxes who spend a lot of time in the bow-loaded Four.
Experience racing. Enter a road race, triathlon, intramural or other kind of competition. This keeps your competitive juices flowing and keeps your mind open to ways you like to be motivated—which will translate into ways you can motivate others.