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Preparing & Steering: Head of the Charles

by Marcus McElhenney

Fall racing is my favorite time of year. Instead of getting just five and a half minutes of racing, we get to race much longer distances. This allows us coxswains to use more calls where we really get to work strategy in a much more significant way. Additionally, steering aggressive turns comes into play and we are really allowed to strut our stuff. The interesting thing about all this, is that it is so very different from what we are expected to do the rest of the year. So preparing for these types of races can be a very challenging task. This is particularly true when preparing for the Head of the Charles. Since I so often get asked how I prepare for the Charles, I figured I would share that with you all.

To do well at the Charles, a coxswain has to be mentally prepared. In order to do that, one needs to look at it in a certain light. The Charles is not some elite, fair, balanced and objective race where the best truly win. In actuality, it is quite the opposite. The Charles is a total circus. Generally there are too many boats, the weather is terrible, crews are improperly seeded, coxswains are unnecessarily aggressive, many are using borrowed equipment, and the course is challenging. I do not say this to knock the regatta, but instead to point out what most coxswains do not expect. There are many pitfalls that one needs to prepare for when racing in Boston. If a coxswain or crew admits that there are too many boats on the water, then they will know that they will not be able to get a good warm up on the water. They can then plan for this and practice longer land warm ups the week before and day of the race. This can be applied to all of the trials and tribulations that the Charles will throw at any coxswain and crew. So first things first, be aware that the Charles will be a nightmare. Know that nothing will work out according to plan. And know that it is all to be expected. Once you do, you can start really preparing for the race.

Once I get into that mindset, I try to account for everything that can go wrong off the water. With a bunch of guys traveling in for the race I need to know where our equipment will be, and in the event of an equipment failure, where I can get some replacements. This applies to boats, oars, spare uniforms, ergs for warming up, you name it. Obviously we don’t all travel with spare boats, but we should have spare cox boxes, watches, skegs, tools and hardware for rigging. We should also know where we might be able to find or borrow a boat in case ours get damaged in transit. While this is technically the coaches responsibility, a good coxswain will always have a reliable suggestion or two for the coach in case of emergency. This will come in extra handy to get you out of hot water when you get into a scuffle on the water with Syracuse and they put a hole in your boat on Friday evening’s practice run! This list is not exhaustive, and a coxswain should prepare for anything. But it does give an idea of a few of the more important items.

Once I prepare for all the off the water stuff, I start to prepare for the on the water. This starts at least a week out so I can get my athletes mentally prepared. I will write out my race plan just like I would for any other 5k race. I include the calls and focuses that I plan on using on race day. I get out my map and I break it down into usable chunks that make it easy to remember. The first part is easy with the start, then magazine beach, then the powerhouse stretch. The second part of the race begins with a hard turn at Weeks bridge, a quick straight away, followed by another hard turn to starboard. The final part then takes over with a long easy turn to port, followed by the Elliot Bridge turn and the last 500m. Once I break it down like that, I can pick out markers to signify how far we have gone and I will know where we will want to make our moves and technical changes. Once I have that all written out, I start to practice it with my guys. When we might be doing a 5k steady state piece, I will do some race rehearsal where I call out the markers, technical focuses and some imaginary opponents. I get my guys into the mindset that they will have to be on race day. They focus on the rowing, where we are and what we need to do. I focus on letting them know about all of the obstacles and how to avoid them while implementing the race plan. I do this over and over again, so that on race day, there are no surprises. One thing I know about rowers, is that they hate surprises and perform better when they know what is coming.

Once I have the mind set established and the race plan laid out, I start to focus on my implementation and course. Many coxswains get all worked up about how difficult it is, and if they just sit back and relax for a second they will realize it is not that hard. There is just so much unnecessary hype around the regatta that they get caught up and focus on the wrong things. But if they do what I have already described, then they will be too busy to notice the hype and instead will be focused on their boat and actual race. When preparing for the steering, first I make sure not to over think it. This race has been going on for over 50 years and of the hundreds to thousands of coxswains to make the run, almost all have made it down unscathed. I speak from experience when I over thought it in 2004 and almost hit the Elliot Street bridge. Anyway, when planning for these turns, just know and be aware that they will be difficult. Before the race I will try to make some of the turns like I will on race day. I do this as much for the athletes as I do for myself. I get them prepared to go harder on one side and easy on the other. I get them used to how disrupting the rudder will feel on the hull and how it will decrease the boat speed. I also get them used to getting the rhythm back as soon as we are straight. You only have to do it a few times and you and your crew will be prepared. It is really that simple.

Finally, I prepare my guys for dealing with idiots. And during the Charles, Boston is full of them. There will be coxswains trying to cut your boat off, rowers trying to clash blades, people yelling terrible things and traffic so bad it would make Mother Teresa swear. You name it, it will be there. I prepare my guys for it, so we can stay above it. I will go to any length not to clash oars or get my guys aggravated. Not only can that annoy my athletes, but some things can actually put them in danger. I rather lose a race then injure one of my guys. They know that, trust me, and love me for it. I also prepare them for the circus so that they are not distracted by it and instead focus on the rowing. This allows them to get that boat down the course as fast as possible.

So while none of this is a super secret to success, it has allowed me to do well and win this event several times. The best way to prepare for the Charles is to get ready mentally. The rest will fall into place. Good luck, steer well and go fast!

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,

Marcus

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.