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The Point of Summer Camps for Coxswains

By Sparks Editorial Staff

Ok. So this will obviously be biased given we run the most coxswain camps in the world, but nonetheless it will be entertaining – and we’ll cover getting the most out of your camp experience regardless if you’re at our camps or someplace else.

What’s in a summer rowing camp for coxswains? You could argue that some summer rowing camps may be more beneficial for coxswains than rowers. Because whereas rowers cannot improve on the whole (physiologically) at five day camps, coxswains can. Depending on how they use the experience.

So, should you just show up and hope for the best? No. Good coxing relies on a proactive, organized mindset. Showing up at camp and hoping someone else will do that for you is like getting in the boat and thinking someone else is going to steer. So, here are some points to get the most out of camp this summer:

1. Humble thyself. You may have had to do everything yourself up until now, and you’ve just managed to make it to camp. Read more

Coxswain Recordings

by Marcus McElhenney

Coxswains are always asking what it takes to make a good recording.  This is the same as, and more specifically, exactly what coaches and athletes want to hear during a race.  After consulting hundreds of coaches, coxswains and athletes over the years I have found that there are three simple rules that need to be followed to guarantee a good recording.

1.) Have a plan.  Race plans can be detailed and scripted.  This is true even if coxing newly formed or unfamiliar crews and racing unfamiliar opponents.  Having a plan makes sure everything is executed the the way it should be and when it should be.  Of course one can build in variability when deciding on calling big power moves or which different technical aspect to focus on during a race.  But this variability should be planned within a reasonable framework.  For instance, the power move , at the 1000 meter mark can be delayed 100 meters if your crew is in the lead. But waiting until the 1500 meter mark will confuse your crew and disrupt a cleanly executed last 500 meters of the race.  If there is no plan, the coxswain will sound messy and disorganized.  They will also be thinking on their feet and not focusing on their steering.  Plans do not only include how many high strokes at the start or when they should sprint.  A proper coxswain race plan will have scripted different technical focuses that the crew has been working on during training the past week.  It will have the tone the coxswain should be conveying and addressing the speed.  It should address not only power moves, but how the crew plans on making those moves.

2.) Details, details, details.  Athletes should her distance, rate, and margins at least every 250 meters.
This sounds simple, but most coxswains almost never call these details.  They often also miss calling several distance markers.  Our athletes are fine tuned machines that train on ergs and are used to knowing the rate and distance at all times without having to think about it, or ask for it. If they have to think about it during a race, they

The Independent Team Player

by Kristen Kit

A coxswain has an incredible amount of control. We are responsible for the crew rowing together technically and strategically, yet we are in a completely unique role. We can make or break a race simply through attention to what our crew needs in practice and in the heat of a race. I learned early on that my crews would have a better chance at winning if we pushed as a team than if I worked independently. This is a big part of a coxswain’s mystique, however I didn’t always understand this. Let me explain with a personal example.

I’ve always been a competitive person by nature. I love winning. I grew up competing from a young age, and I know the feeling of accomplishing a much sought after goal. Until I entered high school, most of my awards lay within individual sports and activities. It wasn’t until I was encouraged to try coxing that I learned how to work within a team to achieve a common result.

It came to me during a particularly cold morning on the Martindale Pond. I was coxing my high school women’s lightweight four. There were three experienced rowers and two novices, including myself as a novice coxswain. We had the opportunity to do a side by side piece with the grade twelve heavyweight women’s four- not only were they hardened rowers, but they were the cool seniors! It was time to impress.

Read more

Coxswain Film

by Sparks staff

We at Sparks announces the release of a new film on the coxswain curriculum coxswain staff has created over the last four years. Ryan Sparks writes “The curriculum is result of the work and thoughts of more brilliant, successful coxswains than I can count on both hands (Marcus deserves his own hand, though). We hope the film does more than advertise. We worked to make the film hold real information and inspire others to try utilizing what we’ve built with or without us.”

Seat Racing Coxswains.

by Marcus McElhenney

Recently I was asked my opinion on seat racing coxswains. Over the years I have been involved in several and have witnessed many more.  I actually have done quite well with them, but regardless I do not support them.  Let me know what you think for my reasons why below.

Okay, generally I do not like or support coxswain seat races.  Mostly because they are not done properly, or to be fair…cannot be done properly.  First thing though, is as a coxswain you should stay away from conversations about how good you are or how the coxswain should be selected.  As a coxswain you really should not get involved on engage your coaches or athletes in anyway about coxswain selection.  Basically because it is generally not your place to discuss your situation on the team with them.  Getting feedback, sure…but we do not want to be viewed as talking our way into a boat.  Politicking is not a good way to go about being selected.  It might work in the short run, but never pans out in the long run as the boats never do as well.

As for the seat racing, there are just too many variables when switching a coxswain that cannot be accounted for which could have a big impact.  The major one is the fact that you are switching into a boat that is not prepared to have you.  So no matter which coxswain you are, you are not going to be as effective as the other because you did not prepare them or warm up with them.  You will not be the guy who organized (or did not organize) them on and off the water.  So you could be a terrible cox who switches into a boat that had a good coxswain that started the day right and they are ‘on.’  On the flip side, the good coxswain who did it all right gets dropped into a boat that cannot dig itself out of a hole.  This is because the terrible coxswain did not do his job in getting the boat organized on the water.  Now the good coxswain effectively beat himself through no fault of his own.  And the terrible cox receives a windfall.  So generally this is a no bueno.  Even a good coxswain will have extreme difficulty in turning that around in only a few short minutes.  (For rowers it is different because the feel of the boat actually changes immediately and it is easier to hit that reset button.)

The other way to do it would be to give each coxswain a day and compare them across days.  But you obviously see the flaws in that scenario.

So no, I do not support coxswain seat racing…unless it is to show basic steering or weight issues.  Even then though it has to be taken with a grain of salt and closely monitored.  Of course this is not even factoring in the fact that you are dealing with hormonal boys & girls who get upset and have wide ranges of performances from day to day and even piece to piece.  (Less so with National Team athletes-but believe me I have seen it, and it does happen!)

You want the best coxswain?…you select it over time.  You steer better every day.  Your calls must be better and you must be effective.  Every day.  That is how the best coxswains are chosen for the job.  Not because the guys like you, not because the coach likes you, not because you win a seat race.  But because you are the best, each and every single day.

Go fast,


How top coxswains learn to diagnose technical errors

by Chelsea Dommert (Guest Writer)

We’ve been looking at the core skills that top coxswains use, but don’t talk about. In the last article, we discussed how top coxswains can learn from rowers’ criticism about how to give criticism productively and positively – and get away with calling out the important things when they’re not getting fixed.
But how do we diagnose those technical errors in the first place? There are a few ways to get better at this (asking coaches, observing coaches, listening to rowers’ suggestions), but the best coxswains have another core skill in their employ that helps them supercharge this ability.

It’s a self-evaluation exercise that requires a deceptively simple shift in thinking.

You have to be prepared to recognize and acknowledge when things did not go your way, then decide what you can do to change that.

It actually isn’t even about blame. It’s not about whether or not something was “your fault.” It’s about the fact that, for some period of time, you and your rowers were unhappy, and there’s only one person in your employ to make sure that that thing does not happen again.

That person is you.

So, when the boat ends up rowing in its own puddles or gets passed by another boat or falls to pieces at the 1000m mark, you get to decide, unilaterally, what you might be able to do to make that bad thing not happen anymore.

Also, when your boat does something awesome, you get to decide, unilaterally, what you might be able to do to ensure that that thing keeps happening in the future.

This is no more true at any other time than when trying to correct technique in a boat.
If you’re asking for a certain correction, and the boat makes the change and gets faster, then you can make a note of the situation and what you did that might have made things better.

Conversely, if you’re calling for a certain technical error and it’s not making the boat faster, either a) the rowers are not executing on your call or b) they are executing on it, but it doesn’t increase boatspeed. We already know how to utilize rower feedback to reduce the likelihood that we get caught on the first of these two failure points. It is the second one where you gather the best data about which technical changes work when. That data (which you’re hopefully recording after practice in some sort of coxswain journal) will help you assess the situation more quickly and accurately next time.

This sounds obvious, but the active acknowledgement of helpful versus unhelpful attempts at technical changes works far faster than the passive expectation that you will “gain experience over time.” It’s a self-coaching exercise that the top coxswains systematize to use in their everyday training regimens.

Coaching Coxswains

by Marcus McElhenney

How do you coach coxswains?

Coaches regularly ask me how to coach their coxswains.  Most coaches have never been in a coxswain’s seat or steered a boat.  They have no idea how to actually make their coxswains better.  They can tell them what not to do, but they have no idea how to tell them what to do.  The answer is fairly simple, coach them and treat them like you do any other member of the team.

I know that this sounds a little over simplified, but stop and think about it for a second.  How much coaching do coxswains receive?  Next to none.  How much coaching to rowers receive?  It is constant.  To be more specific, how much feedback do they all get?  Rowers are getting feedback from coaches and coxswains constantly.  What they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, how the boat feels and looks.  On the other hand, most coaches (and rowers) never say anything to a coxswain…good or bad.  There is no feedback, there is no instruction.  It has nothing to do with being positive or negative, it has everything to do with guidance.  Even if you do not know how to do something, coaches can still tell a coxswain what they are doing right and wrong.  Stop sending them to the internet to do ‘research’ and to books to figure it out on their own…actually tell them.  Engage them regularly, every day the same way you would a rower.  It has to be regular, constant and often.  Coxswains do not need anything special, they just need a coach.

That being said, there are better and easier ways to actually coach a coxswain.  First you need to raise their awareness.  This is best accomplished by not letting them speak for a while.  I mean, no speaking at all.  This allows coxswains to focus in on what is going on around them.  They can listen to their athletes, listen to coaches, feel the boat, notice what the weather conditions are doing, steer, etc.  Many coaches already do this, but the trick is taking it to the next step.  Coaches need to ask and engage the coxswain to find out what they are feeling and seeing.  Getting feedback from them allows the coach to see whether or not the coxswain is actually figuring it out.  It promotes a conscientious coxswain that will constantly improve themselves though the guidance of the coach.  Then slowly add the talking and calls.  The coxswains will use phrases that they know work because they heard the coach use them for the preceding weeks of silence.  They will be able to incorporate what they have heard from the athletes and their own boat feel to make the boat faster.  They will also be steering better.  Only by quieting down can we really focus on what is going on around us and improve.

So to make a seemingly complicated topic simple, if you want better coxswains…just coach them.  Treat them like everyone else.  Regularly engage them and ask them what they are thinking and feeling in the boat.  Ask them to quiet down and actually work on getting better.  If you challenge them, they will rise to the challenge.  All coxswains want to get better, but they need your help.

Coxswains Questioning Coaches: The No-Win Situation

by Chelsea Dommert (Guest Writer)

In a previous article, we talked about the difficult situation coaches face when a coxswain brings them a question to which they don’t know the answer. This happens relatively often, since we expect coaches with zero coxing experience to teach coxswains how to do their jobs.

You may be one of the lucky few coxswains who’s had excellent coxswain specific coaching.  But it’s rare precisely because most coaches weren’t coxswains, and this post addresses the challenges that face that majority of coxswains and coaches in our sport.

So when a coxswain comes with a question to which the coach does not know the answer, the coach can ignore the question, fudge an answer, or admit that he doesn’t know.

Believe it or not, many coaches ignore the question. These tell themselves that, since they succeeded handsomely in rowing without having to know the answer to coxswain questions, those questions must not be very important when it comes to winning races. Underneath that, though, they feel insecure because they don’t know how to answer the question. They fear that, by admitting a gap in their rowing knowledge, they invite the team to question their authority. So they brush off their coxswains, walk into their offices, close the doors behind them, and expect the issue to go away.

Coaches who do this: your coxswains loathe you. They also question your authority, so you didn’t avoid that one. This is a terrible way to handle coxswain questions.

Luckily for us, the type of coach who reads this blog is usually not the type of coach who does that.

More of us are choosing between the remaining two options: fudging an answer or admitting that we don’t know the answer.

Why might we fudge the answer? Well, we appreciate that our coxswain has asked a question, and we want to provide the coxswain with something rather than leave them hanging. This is understandable, and it’s coming from the right place. The problem, though, is that telling the coxswain the wrong thing can be just as bad as not telling the coxswain anything at all.

Example: it’s astonishing how many coxswains think motivation is their primary responsibility. What’s even more astonishing is how many of them learned this from a coach!

Why does that happen? Well, it goes like this. Most coaches go into coaching after careers as excellent athletes. Because of this, they spent many years, especially their final years of competition (which they remember the best), in boats with good coxswains. The coxswains were already so good at ensuring safety, steering the boat, and executing the workout that those fundamentals were non-issues for the boat. The rowers didn’t notice them because they never had problems with them. So when those rowers go on to become coaches, they teach coxswains the things that did differ between coxswains, that they did notice, and that they did use to choose coxswains at that high level – among those, motivation.

Another one that’s disturbingly common: coxswains who were told that steering an eight is “just like steering a car.” What? No it isn’t. First of all, the circumference of the steering wheel and the circumference of the toggle steering system go in opposite directions to turn the same way. Second of all, a boat is five times as long as a car and is moving with significantly less braking power on a surface with a much lower constant of friction than asphalt.

Why does this analogy persist? Coxswains ask coaches how to steer, and coaches don’t know, so they share what they assume it’s probably like. The assumption just happens to be wrong.

Fine, so if we don’t answer, then that makes us bad coaches, but if we do answer and we get it wrong, then the outcome is just as bad. What gives?

Well, the only answer left is to admit that we don’t know the answer, but that doesn’t seem like it would be so helpful to the coxswains either! There is no good choice!!

Well, no, there is no perfect choice. But actually, the best approach is to admit when you don’t know the answer – combined with specific follow-up activities. They’re things that you can learn to do in just a few minutes, and you can implement them on your team in under a week. We’ll go over why and how to do that in the next article.

How top coxswains develop razor-sharp judgment

by Chelsea Dommert (Guest Writer)

We’ve been looking at the core skills that top coxswains use, but don’t talk about. In the last article, we discussed how top coxswains collect rower feedback to establish their priorities for technical calls in the boat.

This time, we’ll talk about how top coxswains ask questions to sharpen their judgment.

As coxswains, we all wish we knew exactly what calls to make, and when. We sometimes wish that we received more coaching to correct this.

But even as we wish that, are we asking our coaches questions about why they call what they call? About why they choose the drills they choose? Are we asking ourselves those questions? Are we coming up with hypotheses, and asking our coaches to confirm them off the water? These are not conversations for on the water, perhaps, but any good coach will gladly discuss these things with his coxswains later on. Good coaches know that savvy coxswains make practice run smarter, easier, and more smoothly, and they’re happy to invest in having that kind of coxswain.

Coxswains can also ask older coxswains on the team why the team does things a certain way, or in a certain order. Of course, most coxswains would stick a fork in their hand than ask for help from other coxswains on their teams. This is where top coxswains differ.

In fact, top coxswains are constantly talking to one another, bouncing ideas off of one another, and asking each other questions. By making each other better, all the coxswains get better themselves – and at a much faster rate than they would if they tried to keep all of their calls secret. Newsflash: the rowers share your calls with the other coxswains. So the secrecy game doesn’t work anyway. Now that everyone knows that, it’s downright advantageous for everyone when one coxswain approaches another and asks “Hey, why did you make that call instead of this call?” The asker gets the benefit of a new perspective on the issue, and the answerer gets to practice for the inevitability of a rower asking them that same question.

The common lore is that coxswains are supposed to know everything, and if they don’t know everything, they should pretend they do. That’s totally bunk. If a top coxswain is asked a question to which she doesn’t know the answer, she would rather admit that she doesn’t know than get caught in a fakeout where she gives the wrong answer. No one knows everything. Wouldn’t she rather be honest  than be dishonest and wrong? This is one of those places where the pros do the exact opposite of tradition.

By the way, once the coxswain answers “I don’t know,” she’ll make a note to find out the answer from a coach, a rower, or a peer, and she’ll be a better coxswain for it.

Getting Out of a Rut!

by Marcus McElhenney

Last week I received an amazing email from a sophomore in college asking for some help.  I chose to answer this reader submitted question first, because it really pertains to so many coxswains out there making the transition from one level to the next.  The general call of the questions is:

“What is throwing me off, I think, is I can feel the rowers comparing me to the better coxswains they have been able to work with this year.  They question the small decisions I make and I get a lot of comments in the boat.  I know I shouldn’t let that happen, but right now I feel like they know more than I do.  I feel lacking in every angle of the job, and now my confidence has essentially taken a huge blow.  I get really flustered when it comes to handling situations I’ve never been in before on the water, and I know as a cox I’m supposed to fake it ’till I make it, but it’s just not meshing right now.  What can I do to help my decision making?  Are there any specific resources I can look at to help me with making technical calls during steady state pieces?” -Andrea

Now the mistake that Andrea is making is not the little things that should be perfect but are not.  It is the fact that she is assuming that she is not able to make mistakes or has to ‘fake it till she makes it.’  Quite the opposite is true.  The thing is that generally, rowers know more about rowing then most coxswains.  Most coxswains do not even know how to row or have never done it.  Most do not erg or will ever be able to pull the fastest score on the squad.  And even those that row, do not do it nearly as much as the rowers in their boat, so they therefore have less experience.  So do not feel like they know more then you do…know that they do and accept it.  This should be done both internally and externally.  By what you think and what you do.

“But Marcus, this means that they will not think I am confident.”  No Andrea, it will show that you are confident and will also allow you to better connect with them as athletes so that they can help make you better instead of just getting frustrated.  Let me give you an example. When I first joined the National Team at the Olympic Training Center, I was only three months out of college and had only been to one World Championships in a JV boat.  I was now in the mix with multiple National Teamers and Olympians who have been crushing it for over a decade.  Did they know more than me?  Heck yeah.  More experience?  Of course.  What I did was openly accept that they were more talented and qualified and I informed them of that.  I even specifically sought out athletes and told them what I thought and that I needed their help.  That I was open to any and all comments and criticisms and that if they think of anything that might help me improve then please let me know.  And you know what, they did.  It was not all easy to swallow but they gave me a lot of feedback and I kept a record of it all.  Then I started to improve…a lot!  The more open I was and the more I improved the more the athletes started to respect me and trust me and they opened up even more and became even still more helpful.  The little mistakes from time to time were not so important as they were becoming less often and the guy recognized this.  And when I made a mistake, I owned it right away.  Not, “my bad.”  But an actual, “I apologize for doing that guys, it will be better next time.”

My ability to be mature and recognize that I was not as talented (or experienced) as these guys showed a great amount of confidence in who I was and my ability as a cox.  I am terrible at playing soccer but it does not disturb my confidence when I am playing with the guys and gals at the California Rowing Club.  Quite the opposite, my recognizing my skill level (or rather lack of it) is in itself a form of confidence.  I am not embarrassed, I know my level and can therefore work to improve knowing exactly what I need to do to get better.  As for connecting with the other athletes, I think my example speaks for itself.  And I was not the top coxswain; I was the bottom ranked guy on the team.  Yet people worked with me and were very helpful in making me improve.  They recognized that even though I might not be as good as them, that I was still in a boat with them.  That it would be in their best interest to help me improve so the whole boat could do as well as it possibly could.

So to answer your specific questions…You want to make better decisions?  Ask your rowers how they would do it or how would they like it done.  Are there any specific resources?  Yes, you rowers and coaches.  Ask them, openly and honestly how they would like you do do just about anything.  And not just, “Am I getting better?”  (Covered in a previous post) But a specific question on the who, what, when, where and how to do something different or better.  We are often to shy or embarrassed to ask these hard questions because we do not want to get criticized.  But if you want to succeed you must ask these questions and make the changes.  So check your ego, recognize your athletes and get faster!  You will thank me for it later.

Thanks for the question, Andrea.  If any of you have any other questions please email us at or twitter @USOlympicCox.  Thanks for reading and go fast.


(The entire email question and circumstances are posted below.  Name was changed and a few details have been omitted to protect the privacy of the poster.)

[Hello, Marcus!

I just found this blog and I can already say that just reading it has helped me out.  My name is Andrea, I am a sophomore in college, and I am currently at the end of my first year on my varsity rowing team.  I was on novice last year, and I felt pretty confident about how I was doing by the time we turned in for the summer.

Because this was just my first year on varsity, I am at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to coxing abilities.  I started off feeling pretty confident about coxing in the fall.  I raced fours, however, our team took a really long indoor stretch this spring.

My first time back on the water was this past week, and I ended up clashing oars with another boat when we were doing pieces on the water.  Another practice, the wind was blowing our boats across stream so I tried to correct my point as quickly as I could but I couldn't do it fast enough.  Because I don't have as much experience as the other coxswains I do not get boated as often.  So I am not improving and I feel like I'm going through a really bad rough patch

What is throwing me off, I think, is I can feel the rowers comparing me to the better coxswains they have been able to work with this year.  They question the small decisions I make and I get a lot of comments in the boat.  I know I shouldn't let that happen, but right now I feel like they know more than I do.  I feel lacking in every angle of the job, and now my confidence has essentially taken a huge blow.  I get really flustered when it comes to handling situations I've never been in before on the water, and I know as a cox I'm supposed to fake it 'till I make it, but it's just not meshing right now.

We're currently seat racing to determine line ups for Champs, and though I know I probably won't be racing in it this year, I want to get my mojo back at practices so I can feel confident going into next year.  What can I do to help my decision making?  Are there any specific resources I can look at to help me with making technical calls during steady state pieces?  The confidence aspect is going to come with time, but I need to jump start my coxing.

I know this was a long email, and I apologize, but I really need to find a way to fix what I'm going through and I thought that this might help.  Thank you for your time!  -Andrea]