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Coxswain Film

Sparks announces the release of a new film on the coxswain curriculum they’ve created over the last four years. Ryan Sparks, CEO, wrote in a recent e-mail: “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.”

2 Dominating the Coxswain Seat: How top coxswains learn to diagnose technical errors

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.

Coxswains Questioning Coaches: The No-Win Situation

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.

Dominating the Coxswain Seat: How top coxswains develop razor-sharp judgment

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.

Dominating the Coxswain Seat: How good coxswains figure out what to fix

In the last DTCS article, we took a closer look at the core skills that top coxswains use, but don’t talk about. Specifically, we discussed how top coxswains operationalize rower feedback to hew their calls into tight, effective pills of boatspeed.

This time, we’ll talk about how requesting feedback makes coxswains more capable of prioritizing what to fix in the boat.




In both cases, coxswains are learning to consider two separate points of view on how the boat is moving. Coxswains see, hear, and feel something very different from what rowers see, hear, and feel in a boat. So by learning about how rowers operate, coxswains can better bridge the gap between their viewpoint and their rowers’ viewpoint – and make the calls that help the rowers perform at the top of their game.

A lot of the differences in perception between coxswains and rowers don’t ever get pointed out to the coxswain. Those are the little things coxswains do that confuse and distract rowers, which we started talking about in the last article.

Learning to prioritize can be another case of those little differences that turn into major speed leaks.

Take this example: a beginner coxswain, who doesn’t have much of a feel for the boat yet, makes most of her technical corrections by what she can see – which is basically the blades. To her, who is feathering when is an easy thing to spot – so she will focus on something like getting everyone’s feathering timing to match up. However, synchronized feathering is by far not the most influential technical element for making a boat faster. The rowers would much rather have a strong, synchronized leg drive. Thus, it’s very annoying for rowers when the boat clearly needs to focus on their leg drive and the coxswain is going on about the feathering.

That, and subtler versions of that, exemplify the gap between coxswains and rowers. The coxswain is responsible for minimizing the gap. That’s where rower criticism comes in. Rowers notice those gaps.

As multiple rowers point out multiple gaps, top coxswains can find the common thread. They notice, say, if rowers are wondering why the boat can’t get their catch timing together. While the whole boat is trying to perfect this fundamental component of fast rowing, it makes sense for the coxswain to focus on this in practice, even if the set isn’t perfect yet and even if  some other, less influential element of the rowing stroke is somehow lacking.

And the answer is not, ever, to call out all three of those things at once. Rowers can focus on one thing at a time. No one has the bandwidth to execute on that many things, at once. Also, unlike the coxswain, rowers are trying to perform physically while they are executing the commands. This is the essential point that intermediate coxswains miss. So it goes something like this:

beginner coxswain: calling the wrong technical change

intermediate coxswain: calling all the technical changes indiscriminately

advanced coxswain: calling the correct technical change and ignoring the others until the most important one is fixed

By turning the rowers’ perspective into ammo, coxswains can figure out where the most important changes might be, then test those changes to see which ones impact boatspeed the most. The easiest technical changes to see  are not always the most important ones to correct. 


Dominating the Coxswain Seat: How the pros de-fluff their calls and find impeccable phrasing

In the last article, we discussed what top coxswains do to become, and to stay, the best in their leagues. We learned that those coxswains gain the surface skills that few coxswains manage to develop by first mastering a completely different set of skills – the core skills.



Now we’re going to start talking about how those core skills translate into surface skills – the green arrows on the map above.

Let’s begin with the first green arrow – how do coxswains learn clarity and succinctness from utilizing criticism?

To discuss this question, we have to step away from the world we would like to live in and talk about the world that we do live in.

We would, of course, like to live in a world where all coxswains learn to row – preferably before coxing. Unfortunately, though, many coxswains do not. Additionally, among those that do, many learn to scull – and in so doing, row primarily in uncoxed boats. For this reason, most coxswains have listened to very few other coxswains and have never tried to actually execute another coxswain’s commands.

This is why coxswains have so much trouble delivering clear, succinct commands – they have never themselves experienced the problems that their commands cause, and those commands sound fine until you actually try to obe them.

Take the poster example: “weigh enough in two.” This command sounds fine, right?

Here’s the problem with it. If the coxswain says that command just a little too slowly, rowers get really confused after “weigh enough.” That’s because they don’t know if the coxswain is going to say “in two.” So some of them might decide to weigh enough right away, and others might decide to keep rowing until they hear “in two.” This is stressful and annoying for the rowers, who shouldn’t have to think about the coxswain’s commands.

Coxswains don’t notice why that is annoying because they have never done it.

Coxswains also don’t inherently understand why they should summarize the workout after the coach says it. The coach just spent two whole minutes explaining the workout. Why should the coxswain repeat it? Coxswains don’t realize that that’s exactly the point – coach just spent two whole minutes talking about the workout – when they’re thinking about the workout in their head, are they going to remember that two minute explanation? No. They want the easy version: “Three minutes on, one minute off. 22, 24,26. We do that three times.” Even better, rather than keep repeating the entire workout, a good coxswain can drill down on the piece of the workout relevant to the rowers at that moment. “Next is 3 minutes at a 24. 3 minutes with perfect catch timing. Sit ready.”

Because the coxswain is not sweating from the warmup and adjusting her foot stretchers and drinking water during the coach’s explanation, she figures that longer is clearer. To the rowers, longer is not clearer. But how does the coxswain know that?

She doesn’t know that because she probably doesn’t row. And even if she did row at some point, she might forget about this issue because she has never had a coxswain do it right before.

So if the coxswain has never rowed and therefore has no basis on which to judge how to make the calls in the clearest possible way for rowers, who can she ask?

It’s easy! Ask the rowers.

A note of caution: rowers do not know much about coxing, either, so they don’t always give the greatest feedback on all areas of the job. On this specific area, though, they do provide pretty accurate feedback. They know why that call was annoying, and they know how to make it work better. Or, at least, if they don’t know how to make it work better, they know that something the coxswain said, or didn’t say, was annoying.

It can be a tiny thing that the coxswain just doesn’t notice. The rowers notice, though. And chances are, if a coxswain continually asks all 40 of the rowers on her team for feedback, 3 or 4 will become goldmines for pointing out places where the calls need tightening up. They may not always know how to tighten them up, but they’ll know where.

So, the coxswain’s job is twofold:

1. Develop a thick enough skin to ask for and receive rowers’ complaints about the calls.

2. Develop the problem-solving skills to strengthen the calls once rowers point out that they are weak.

By perfecting a call or two each day, or even each week, coxswains become much clearer, more succinct, and more capable over time. Rowers follow their orders with ease, and so their command of crew increases. They also say less to get what they want and can spend more time paying attention to other things. It’s a virtuous cycle of coxswain awesomeness.



Why Coaches Don’t Coach Coxswains

It’s among our sport’s worst-kept secrets: on average, coxswains receive significantly less coaching than rowers do.

As with most systemic problems, this doesn’t happen because of individual members of the rowing community maliciously depriving coxswains of coaching. It happens because of the way we structure our programs and the expectations we place upon our coaching staffs.

After all, the majority of a rowing team comprises rowers, so we strategize how to make the rowers faster. We plan largely according to that strategy – training plans, lineups, et cetera. We design a coaching staff that has succeeded, either personally or professionally, in those areas. And then we turn around and expect those coaches to teach coxswains as well.

That is, we ask coaches with zero coxing experience to coach coxswains, and we fault them for not having the answers – when they have never been in a position to get those answers in the first place.

That expectation has consequences for coaches and for coxswains.

Coaches get placed in an uncomfortable position when a coxswain comes to them to ask a question. The question might be about something that the coach completely does not understand, having never been in the coxswain’s place, but the coxswain, rowers, and other coaches nevertheless expect an answer. The coach has three options: admit that he doesn’t know the answer, fudge an answer, or ignore the question. None of these choices is ideal, of course.

Eventually, the coxswain gets used to one of these three responses and stops asking questions of the coach. Then, here’s what happens: the coxswain becomes a loner on her own team. Yes, she still socializes with her teammates, but when it comes to her skill development, she has no one to whom she can turn.

She has stopped turning to the coach. The rowers, of course, don’t cox, so they cannot understand her perspective. That leaves only the other coxswains on the team. For several reasons, the coxswain group at most programs is not a very close-knit one, and even among coxswains who are friends, coxswains are reluctant to bounce ideas off of one another or share their challenges and weaknesses. At our coxswain-only camps in the summer, the major takeaway for many coxswains is the opportunity to meet “their people.” They all share the same role, and they can talk openly about it. It’s exciting and relieving for them – which says something about how they feel on a day-to-day basis.

Though we know that our rowing programs have this problem, it’s untenable for every single program to go hire a coxswain-specific coach. What’s more achievable, in the short term, is to talk about healthy ways to encourage coxswain improvement on the team, even if the coach himself did not cox.

So let’s back up for a second.

When a coxswain asks a coach a question to which he doesn’t know the answer, the coach has three options: ignore the question, fudge an answer, or admit that he doesn’t know. Which one do we choose – and why? And then – what comes next?

We’ll take a look at this question in the next post – there’s more to unpack than you might think.

Dominating the Coxswain Seat: Behind the Scenes, Part 2

In the last article, we talked about the qualities that separate top coxswains form the rest of the pack.

We learned what top coxswains say when asked about their success. However, the things that they say represent only half of the story. By watching what those coxswains actually do on and off the water, we dig out the real underlying skills that separate them from 99% of fair-to-middling coxswains.

There on the right, we have the list of skills that most top coxswains mention when we ask them why they became so successful. Then on the left, we have a different list – a list of things that few coxswain mention.

Top coxswains are, invariably, autodidacts – they teach things to themselves. They have a skill (or, really, a set of skills) that allows them to develop still other skills without explicit direction. We call those skills core skills, and they lead directly (see the green arrows) to the development of the very coxswain skills that so many coxswains wish they had.

This stuff is central to the behavior of the top coxswains.

There’s something else cool about the core skills: they are not independent of one another. Rather, a coxswain (or anyone, really) can use the first one to develop the second one, and the second one to develop the third one, and so on. Then a coxswain can use the full suite to develop insights that render their competitor’s platitudinous coxing knowledge completely obsolete.

The pink arrows indicate how, in most cases, coxswains seem to progress from one core skill to the next.

Ponder this picture for now, but throughout the rest of the year we’ll follow the green arrows to find out how the core skills translate into coxswain-specific surface abilities. After that, we’ll rewind to the beginning of the core skills and talk about how one leads to the next.

1 Dominating the Coxswain Seat: How the pros stay on top of their rowers without offending them

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 ask questions to sharpen their judgment.

This time, we’ll talk about how using rowers’ criticism teaches coxswains to give productive criticism. When coxswains learn how to talk to rowers about improvement without condescending the rowers or making them anxious, they can get away with making the sort of demands that would make the average coxswain’s heart drop into her stomach.




What kind of demands am I talking about?

Well, some of you may remember Edmond the Terrible Rower from one of our previous posts:

Think about the last time you were in a novice boat with a majority of people who were technically pretty solid and then one or two rowers who just…did not…get it…at all. They didn’t really make changes when you asked them to, they always missed a ton of water, and they were generally regarded as an anchor who was slowing down the boat.

How much time did you spend trying to fix this rower?

You tried for a while. Eventually, you either gave up, or you decided not to make any technical comments to this rower except for “Edmond, take two breaths on every recovery” because you figured that his astonishing slide rush was about as much as he could focus on that day.

How frustrating is this? You know something specific needs to be improved in yout boat and you know exactly what it is, but – there’s nothing you can do about it. You feel powerless. And why?

Because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen if you keep calling out this rower.

Best case scenario, it’s a waste of your time and there are no other consequences. Worst case scenario, Edmond gets offended and hates you, or gets stressed out and starts rowing, Heaven forbid, even worse than he was rowing in the first place.

The latter prospects are more terrifying still when the rower you’re correcting isn’t Edmond the Terrible, but rather some other rower who is actually quite fast, or has the potential to be quite fast, or whose opinion is extremely important in team politics.

As you ponder these possibilities in your head, you can feel the boatspeed slipping through your fingers with every passing stroke.

What if I told you…there’s a way past this problem?

That there are ways to ask rowers for improvement, repeatedly until the rower succeeds, without making them want to kill you?

There are, and the best way to fully understand them is to welcome rower criticism yourself.

As you become more accustomed to asking for feedback from rowers, you’re going to hear them say all kinds of things. Some of them are going to hurt you and do absolutely no good. Some of them are going to make you feel sad, but will help you become a better coxswain (don’t worry – the sad goes away when you realize that it’s a compliment for the rower to invest his time in you). Then, some rowers, especially over time, provide you with feedback that not only helps you improve, but also encourages you. Maybe it’s because they tell you when you have made an improvement. Maybe they give you an excellent metric to track your progress. Maybe they spend extra time making sure you understand exactly what they want from you. Whatever it is, you notice, as you collect feedback, what makes you perform better and what makes you perform worse, what you want more of and what you want less of.

You might have already figured out where we’re going with this. Those types of things that you want more of? There’s a good chance that those are the types of technical corrections that the rowers want more of, too. If you’re having to make a technical call over and over, how can you ask for that change the way your best feedback-givers ask you for changes?

A little observation and a little empathy can teach you how to take a rower, in the course of three practices, from chronic, boatstopping lungeing to something decidedly less so – without making that rower hate you.

By persisting in the right way, the way good feedbackers persist in the right way, you can encourage a rower and demand more from them at the same time.

Dominating the Coxswain Seat: Behind the Scenes

For the past couple of months, our series, Dominating the Coxswain Seat, has divulged the untold secrets of coxswain success.

The data that led to that article series is truly fascinating, and we’d love to share some of it with you. Our researchers took the time to observe youth coxswains, college coxswains, and national team/olympic coxswains in the rowing world to look for similarities and differences in their opinions and their methods.

If you ask the very best coxswains – the 1V coxswains at fast schools and the national team coxswains – how they became so successful, many of them give you a variation on this list:

This is similar to the list that a non-coxswain might come up with to describe the abilities of an ideal coxswain (with one exception: sometimes non-coxswains include “motivation” on this list, and the fastest coxswains in the country do not include it).

Take a look at this list: how far down this list do you get before you hit something you aren’t so good at? Let me guess: at best, you are struggling with keeping the rowers consistently informed on the rate, split, position (in meters on the course), and competition (compared to them in seats or inches or seconds).

Then the rest of the list is, like, dreamland. So how do coxswains learn to hit the latter half of the list consistently?

This is where it gets interesting.

Top coxswains talked about that list, but when they are in action, they all accomplish that list in different ways. They prioritize a little differently. They prepare a little differently. They use a little bit different language. What’s more, they don’t appear to employ any special, exciting tactics on the water. What gives?

There’s something else there – something else that no one is talking about. It’s a set of skills that few of the coxswains mentioned in discussing their success.

Coxswains don’t think about this other, unspoken skill set, but the top coxswains all invariably have it – and the mediocre ones invariably don’t.

That list above, it only shows us half of the picture. The other half shows us how coxswains obtain the ability to consistently do all the things in the list above.

Next week, we’ll look at a completed picture with the other half of the list filled in.

But in the meantime, a question for you:

1. Remember a time when you really struggled to learn one of the things above. How did you try to understand? Did it work?