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Critical Reaction 

STORY BY KAYLEIGH DURM | PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY

After spending many hours on coxswain evaluations over the years—and occasionally feeling like pulling teeth would have been more enjoyable—I believe that it’s important for coxswains to learn how to handle negative feedback and constructive criticism.

Feedback, both positive and negative, is essential to your growth. When communicated properly, it should cover three areas: what you’re doing well; what you need to improve; and where you’ve made progress. This is why I revamped how feedback was delivered to the coxswains I’ve coached. Before, the coaches handed them 20 plus pieces of paper and left them to their own devices, but now it’s laid out in a single spreadsheet that deals with the three topics above.

Going over evals becomes a contentious and unproductive process when you take the negative feedback personally. Being told you aren’t doing something well can sting because of the amount of time we put into coxing, but if someone is critiquing your coxing, they’re not critiquing you. You have to separate you the person from you the coxswain and look at the situation objectively. If you’re not putting in extra effort outside of practice (or even at practice) or you show up every day with an attitude, you have no right to complain.

With that in mind, here are eight things you shouldn’t do when going over your evals.

Don’t get defensive.

It’s a natural reaction, but it can come off as immature. There’s a difference between defending your actions or making a case for why you did something a certain way and making an excuse. You can defend something you’ve done one time (i.e., going through the wrong arch because you were unsure of which one to use owing to construction on the bridge), but if you’re trying to defend something you’ve done multiple times (e.g., hitting the dock when coming in at the end of practice), then you’re just making excuses for why you haven’t adapted your steering to account for whatever was causing you to run into the dock in the first place (your speed, angle, line, etc.).

Don’t have an attitude or be sarcastic.

The bottom line is that you can be annoyed all you want, but don’t take it out on the people spending the time to go over this stuff with you because it makes them reluctant to do it in the future. If people are willing to discuss your performance with you, you’re foolish not to take advantage of it.

Don’t apologize 47 times for whatever mistakes you’ve made.

Say it once sincerely and move on. Don’t make your coaches coddle you and have to keep saying “it’s fine.” I’ve had to do this, and eventually it gets to the point where I have to say, “I don’t care if you’re sorry or how sorry you are, just do something different.” The more times you say you’re sorry (especially for trivial things that don’t require an apology) without actively changing your behavior, the less your apology is going to mean when you really do screw up.

Don’t react immediately.

If your immediate reaction is to blurt out “that’s not fair” or “I completely disagree,” you’ll look immature, even if the comments are unfair (which they rarely are) and you do disagree (which is fine, but see No. 1). Absorb the comments and think about what’s being said so you can try to understand why someone made the comment and then say you’d like to come back to it later, either after practice or tomorrow, after you’ve had time to think about it.

Attention, coaches: If your coxswain goes this route, respect it and say, “OK, let’s touch base later,” even if that means spending an extra 20 minutes at the boathouse. If you force the issue by saying, ”No, we’re gonna do this now,” you’ll make your coxes resent the evaluation process, and their confidence and ability will suffer.

Don’t dwell on it and let it affect future practices (or use it as an excuse for having a bad practice the next day).

If you were caught off guard by the comments, that’s fine, and you should take some time to deal with that, but you also need to commit to letting them go, particularly when it’s time to get on the water. No pity party or “woe is me” attitude, because the rowers don’t care, and the coaches have other stuff to focus on.

Don’t ignore comments you disagree with.

Not all feedback is useful, but disagreeing with a comment doesn’t mean you can ignore it, particularly when getting any kind of feedback is so tough in the first place.

Don’t waste the opportunity to discuss and strategize.

It’s like the end of a job interview when you’re asked if you have any questions. You should always ask questions. When I’d go over winter evals with coxswains, I’d tell them to bring questions, comments, matters  they wanted to clarify, a list of goals, an action plan for the rest of winter training, because this is the prime chance to discuss that stuff. I see and talk to them every single day, but direct one-on-one time like this is rare, as I assume it is with most of you and your coaches, so don’t waste the opportunity to harvest their thoughts when it’s offered.

Don’t be resentful. 

If your coach or the rowers have been telling you something for a while and it comes up in the evals, you can be sure they’re all thinking, “Well, we told you so.” This shouldn’t make you mad or bitter. Instead, it should be a wake-up call that you need to do some serious self-reflection and get it together. They are telling you this stuff for a reason. Don’t ignore them because you don’t think it’s important.

The more receptive you are to criticism and the more diligently you address any issues, the more likely that rowers will continue sharing their thoughts, since they’ll see you’re taking them seriously. If you’re aloof or combative, they’ll stop providing feedback, which means you’ll miss the opportunity to improve. 

It’s your call.

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