BY KAYLEIGH DURM | PHOTO BY ED MORAN
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Coxing novices when you’re all novices isn’t that hard, but doing it as an experienced coxswain can be tough. There aren’t many things you’ll encounter during your career that will test your ability to communicate quite like working with novices. Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” You’ll realize how true that is when you’re trying to explain the stroke sequence or the nuances of the catch to a group of people who are new to the sport.
Twice in my career, I’ve had moments when I’ve questioned whether I actually knew anything about rowing—once in high school when I was asked to cox our novice eight (as a senior-varsity coxswain), and again a few years later when I began coaching. I’d think what I was saying was clear and made perfect sense and later someone would tell me, “I knew what you were saying because I’ve rowed for several years, but they didn’t understand it at all.”
Consider your audience.
Not only are they not rowers, some of them aren’t even athletes. You have to tailor your language so that it makes sense to everyone, regardless of previous exposure to rowing or sports in general. The nomenclature of rowing is puzzling to those who aren’t familiar with it, so before you say, “Sit ready at the catch with the handles off the gunwales and the blades buried,” take the time to explain what all the sport-specific terminology means. Don’t be that person who tries to impress people with big words just to make it seem like you know what you’re talking about. Nobody cares what you know if you can’t communicate it to the masses in a way everyone can understand.
Have you ever sat through a class and with no idea what’s going on because the instructor is throwing so much information at you? Trying to absorb too much material in too short a time can leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused. It’s the same with rowing. You can’t try to teach the entire stroke in an hour-long practice and expect tyros to get it. (Naively, I tried once; it was a disaster.)
A coach told me once that you should view novices as babies who will choke on their food if it’s not cut into small pieces. Rather than trying to “feed” rowers the entire stroke all at once, break it down. Then break it down further. For good measure, break it down again.
I’m a visual learner, so one thing I did when I began coaching (at the suggestion of another coach) is to write out what I wanted to cover in practice (the recovery, for example). I then made branches from there to the subtopics the concept entails. It can get involved, but it makes it easy to see each “bite” (and how many there are), in addition to helping organize your thoughts so you’re not bouncing from idea to idea while on the water.
Keep your delivery simple.
Stay focused on one or two points at a time and try to comment only on them. This is something I have to remind myself because it’s so easy to get caught up in everything that’s wrong instead of focusing on improving one thing at a time.
If your coach is working on body prep, for example, make sure your calls relate to that and ignore for now the fact that the timing is off, five-seat isn’t burying his oar all the way, and seven-seat is coming out way too early. The time will come for commenting on all that, but for now, when they’re just learning how to take a stroke, keep your focus sharp.
This applies also when you’re not focusing on anything and are just trying to get some strokes in. It’s OK to let them just row without getting hung up on every little thing you see that’s off. If you do want to make a correction, make it something “big picture” so they don’t get too overwhelmed trying to process what you’re saying.
Give them actionable takeaways.
As coxswains all know, it’s a lot easier to work on something with feedback that’s concrete and specific rather than abstract and vague (e.g., “Hook your pinkies over the gunwales so you’re less inclined to use your whole hand and end up oversteering” instead of “Steer straighter”).
A common way for coaches to end practice is to recap what you did that day and give the crew or certain rowers a takeaway they can continue working on tomorrow. I got in the habit of doing this as we were coming in to dock, usually because everything was fresh in my mind. If our coach wasn’t able to meet with us, the rowers would get at least some feedback they could use for the next practice (while it was all still fresh in their minds, too). “Keep working on timing” is too vague, but something like “Matt, the timing looked better today. Keep working on getting the body set sooner on the recovery so you’re moving right with Nate” gives them feedback on the big picture (timing) and a specific focus for their improvement efforts (body prep).
Your patience will be tested when you cox novices and you may find yourself getting so frustrated that you lose sight of the goal. Yes, you’ll have to repeat things numerous times, and you’ll get aggravated when they keep doing whatever it is you just said to stop doing. There may even be times when you question how common “common sense” really is. But remember: They’re not being obtuse deliberately. They’re just learning, and you were in their shoes once, too.
If you have the chance to cox at a learn-to-row camp or if your coach throws you in with the novices this fall, don’t begrudge the opportunity, embrace it. It’s a chance to work on your communication skills and test how well you understand the technical aspects of the stroke. If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, it can help you escape by forcing you to abandon autopilot and begin thinking again about what you’re seeing and the calls you’re making.