HomeNewsFlattening the Learning Curve

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    Late summer and early fall are when I begin getting questions from coxswains, both novice and varsity, about how they can learn everything they need to know faster. I understand it; you want to get up to speed and not feel like you’re behind the eight ball. That’s valid, but you have to respect the process. This stuff takes more than a single practice (sometimes more than a single season) to nail down, and that’s OK as long as it’s not taking an inordinate amount of time because you’re unwilling to do the work (the “work” isn’t poring over YouTube videos). 

    Don’t reinvent the wheel.

    This is something I’ve had to remind myself many times over the years. Don’t be stubborn about asking for help. You can save so much time and stress by talking to people who have already done the thing you’re trying to do and using their insight and advice as an instructional North Star. Model those who have forged the path already. That means talking to the coaches and more experienced coxswains on your team and asking them to explain the processes that are already in place for the more prescriptive parts of practice—land warm-ups, launching/docking, spinning on the water, etc. (It’s an endless list, and you’ll know what’s on it only if you ask.) 

    When I was a novice coxswain, I leaned hard on the varsity coxswains to help me learn how to steer because I knew it was a skill I needed to pick up quickly. I asked a ton of questions (the same ones multiple times to each of the older coxswains) and used bits and pieces of the advice they gave me to shape my approach to steering, and that’s held fast for the last 20 years. I’ve integrated new things as I’ve gotten ideas from other coxswains, but the foundation is an aggregate of my teammates’ experiences in learning that same skill. This probably saved me weeks (and a few busted bow balls), because rather than starting from scratch and trying to do it all on my own (without actually knowing where to begin), I modeled the coxswains who’d already been where I was.

    Seek feedback.

    If you wait for feedback, you’re going to get it only when you’ve done something wrong. It’s not a bad thing when someone points out your mistakes, by the way, but you’ll be able to process it better emotionally and strategically when you acknowledge it yourself and ask for advice about how to improve rather than having an annoyed, frustrated rower seek you out to inform you that you screwed up. This is why I stress the importance of coxswain evaluations, because you won’t get better if they’re not part of your approach to self-improvement. 

    You can’t go on the water just to cox—by which I mean you can’t go out there and assume that merely sitting in the boat will make you better by osmosis. That’s not what “putting in the time” means. You’ve got to go out with a purpose (beyond whatever the team’s actual plans and goals for the day are) and be able to go to people at the end of the week and say, “Hey, I’ve been working on trying to call the drills better this week and incorporate more technical feedback. How do you think that went? Were there any calls you think worked well? Or didn’t work at all?” When it comes to soliciting feedback, go with less generality, more specificity.

    Take advantage of every opportunity.

    Item: You began coxing only last month and you hear that the masters who row out of your boathouse need a coxswain for practice this weekend. Volunteer to cox them. 

    Item: Your coach wants to switch another coxswain into your boat for the day and have you ride in the launch. Instead of staring blankly at whatever the boat’s doing for 90 minutes and fuming silently about being switched out, have a conversation with your coach about what you’re seeing, what he’s seeing, his goals for certain drills or pieces, stuff you’ve been working on yourself, your personal goals for the season, etc. 

    Item: Your boat (the 1V) is doing a land workout today, and the 3V coxswain has a dentist appointment, so their boat might get stuck on land, too. Ask if you can take them out, since you’ve never coxed that crew and you haven’t been on the water with your assistant coach in a while.

    The more opportunities you seek, the more they’ll be presented to you in the future, and the more chances you’ll have to practice and refine your skills. Don’t just cox the crews you’re assigned or the ones you’re comfortable with, and do not avoid volunteering to cox a crew because you think they’re beneath your skill level. None of us is that good that we can’t take out the 5V for a day. There’s something to be learned from every boat you get in, and if you limit yourselves to the lineups your coach puts you in, you’re limiting your ability to get better.

    Deconstruct the skill you’re trying to learn.

    When it comes to getting through my to-do list, I break down each task to its components so I can get a better sense of what the task entails and how long it’ll take to complete (based on the number and complexity of the components). It also helps ensure that nothing is overlooked along the way. I do this all the time, especially now (you wouldn’t believe how many moving pieces there are to scheduling an official visit), but I did it a lot while coxing, too. I say “respect the process” a lot, and this is one of those things that helps you become comfortable doing that, even if it is a little daunting at first seeing…everysinglething…written out in front of you.

    For example, saying you want to get better at steering is fine if you want to alert yourself that it’s something you need to do. If you’re trying to develop an actual plan of attack to improve that skill, though, you have to break it down into each of the things that goes into maneuvering a watercraft that’s 57 feet long—from how you’re positioning yourself in the boat (broken down further into how you sit and how you position your hands) to understanding how your point is affected by a technical issue (and what to say or do to fix that first). 

    Once you know all the components that make up steering in general, you can pinpoint the ones you didn’t know played into that—the ones you already know you need to improve—and begin working on them one by one. As you improve each of those things, you’ll notice over time that your steering is getting better—not because you’re “working on your steering” broadly but because you’ve determined the elements that comprise steering as a whole and are addressing them methodically.

    Repetition, repetition, repetition. 

    This is the only time I’ll tell a coxswain that being repetitive is a good thing. If you want to learn how to do something, you must do it often and persist in doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature. As the saying goes, “expert-level performance is the result of expert-level practice.” Rarely, if ever, do coxswains excel at something because of innate talent alone. It’s certainly a factor—three percent, maybe—but mastery and success result more from stubborn dedication to committing the fundamental components of a skill to muscle memory.

    This is one of the few things that doesn’t fall under the “it’s worked for me but it might not work for you” caveat that usually accompanies the advice I give. All of the things above will work for you if you integrate them into your routine. As I said at the beginning, you’re not going to pick up all the nuances of steering or how to cox a 2K in a single practice, but if you heed and apply my advice, the learning curve, especially as a novice, won’t feel nearly as steep.

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