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Getting Started With Coxswains

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY LUKE REYNOLDS

The year 2021 ended with an email from an old friend who coached with me at Trinity College:

Dear Doc,

Thought you’d be amused to hear that I’m soon to return to the coaching life—after a 40+ year layoff—at a local Catholic girls high school. Just a few miles from my house—85 percent minority students and the only girls crew in the area. Not sorted whether I’ll be coaching JV crew or novices, but think I might prefer the former. Was telling the athletic director and the head coach that the only aspect (despite the layoff) I feel a bit unprepared for would be coaching novice coxes. In any case, I’d like your thoughts on best coaching practices nowadays, good YouTube sources, etc. This is a pretty new program and operates only January through May as they have insufficient funding for a full academic year.

With USRowing’s focus on reaching out to underserved rowers, I wonder if you have thoughts about potential funding sources. A very little money could have significant impact. For some of the families, even coming up with the $350 fee is pretty tough. In any case, if you have a few minutes later this week for a phone/Zoom call, I would appreciate it. Thanks.

Dear Old Friend,

As I told you last night in our Zoom, which included another college friend who is coaching in a young program near me in Massachusetts, I’m delighted to hear that you are getting back to coaching and giving back to the rowing world, from which we have all benefitted. I think that you’ll find it to be a lot of fun. Coaching coxswains is always a challenge, but jump right in. They are essential, no matter what you old-school oarsmen think. (Doctor Rowing was a coxswain and took a lot of guff. All ’swains do.)

The first thing coxswains need to know is that the safety of their crew and their equipment is paramount. It is exactly the same as driving a car. That means learning the traffic pattern of your river and knowing when to start and stop rowing. I always tell my coxswains that of the many responsibilities that the position entails, the only one that cannot be performed by anyone else is steering. A rower could give commands, could call 10s, but no one else can steer. So that should always be their priority, especially at the beginning. 

Here we got into a discussion: “I hate that all the fours nowadays are bow-coxed so that the coxswains can’t do any coaching,” said my friend. “How can they coach the boat on timing or bladework?” 

I heartily disagreed. It takes a lot of experience for a coxswain to be able to provide valuable coaching. In the early stages of their careers, coxswains should work on steering and boat management. Let the coach do the coaching. There’s so much they need to master—starting pieces even with other boats and at the same time. They need to make sure that the shell is always pointed correctly down the river. They need to learn the commands and give them at the right time and with an authoritative voice. And it is crucial for coxswains to be able to see where they’re going, hence the bow cox. For high-school rowing, give me safety and not hitting things any time.

Teach your coxswains, not by giving them something to read or a video to watch, but by spending time with them. The first day, tell them to stand right next to you, as you give all the commands while they listen and watch. “Hands on. Lift it out of the rack. To the shoulders, ready, up. Walk it out.” Etc. Give the commands on the dock, putting the boat into the water, getting into the boat. On the second day, tell them, “I will say the commands quietly, and you will repeat them.” Inevitably, they will either scream them out, or more likely they will repeat them in a conversational manner. “These are commands, Roger. Make them sound commanding.” Demonstrate. On the third day, ask the coxes if they are ready to do the whole thing themselves. Maybe they will ask for another day before they are ready. That’s OK. You want them to be assured so the crew will have confidence in them.

At the beginning, if you are rowing with either a pair or a four, they will complain that the boat doesn’t steer. That’s true; it doesn’t steer well with so little momentum, especially if the rowers aren’t putting much power on it. The tiller is useful only if the boat has some movement. If they can’t keep it from going to starboard with the rudder, starboard needs to put more pressure on.

An incredibly valuable video is the USRowing safety video on its website. It shows coxswains and rowers what could go wrong. They will tremble and laugh at the Ejector Crab sequence, but it is vital that they know what to do in case of mishap. NEVER SWIM AWAY FROM THE BOAT should be repeated over and over. I begin every new season showing this to everyone. There are a lot of good videos of drills on YouTube. Search out the ones you deem appropriate for the right time of your season.

Here’s an important thing: Never let go of your oar. Your oar is your friend; you need it to balance the boat; you need it to row the boat. Only bad things happen if you let go of it.

There is information out there about funding and inclusion, too. It’s a vital part of the sport. Confer with other coaches in your area. I will come back to this in another column, but as you note, it is a priority for USRowing.

My final words are: “Make it fun.” It’s awesome to be in a shell that begins to move. Introduce pulling hard as soon as you can. That’s when you begin to see those little smiles cross their faces. “Wow!”

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