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Coxswains: What to do in the Off Season to Improve your Skills

by Kayleigh Durm

Hi everyone! My name is Kayleigh Durm and this is my first blog for As a former high school and collegiate coxswain, and now a coxswains coach for the MIT heavyweight men, I’m here to offer some practical advice for junior coxswains looking to take their skills to the next level.

For this first article, I’d like to tackle the question of what to do in the summer and winter “off seasons” in order to keep improving.

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Avoid Using Filler in a Race

Some points from Laura’s video:

* Are you in control of your race situation?
* Talking through moves
* Can the rowers understand what you’re saying?
* Don’t use filler
* Quiet time

Connect with Laura on Twitter @usjntcoxcoach

Also be sure to follow Marcus McElhenney @USOlympicCox

Steering the SDCC and Other Coxswain Tips

by Marcus McElhenney

Bullet points from Marcus McElhenney’s video on steering tips for coxswains:

  • How to prepare for San Diego Crew Classic
  • Biggest mistake is only factoring in the direction of the wind
  • Also need to consider the tides
  • Another factor: Buoys tend to be further apart
  • Sit up tall and find your point
  • How to deal with salt water

Connect with Marcus McElhenney on Twitter at @USOlympicCox

Also be sure to follow Lauran Simon on Twitter at @usjntcoxcoach

Make Small Adjustments: Coxswain Steering Tips from Laura Simon

by Laura Simon

Bullet points from Laura Simon’s video on steering tips for coxswains:

  • Coaches often say that coxswains shouldn’t be steering too much.
  • De-mystify steering: What coaches really mean is you shouldn’t be overcorrecting.
  • The best coxswains are steering all the time and making constant, small adjustments.
  • Pay attention and eventually steering becomes second nature
  • Make small adjustments and be consistent

Connect with Laura on Twitter @usjntcoxcoach

Also be sure to follow Marcus McElhenney @USOlympicCox

Steering the San Diego Crew Classic

by Laura Simon

One of the toughest races to cox is the 2K course at San Diego Crew Classic. The wind and tide of Mission Bay make it a particularly challenging course, and coxswains visiting for the first time should be prepared.  In this article, I’ll review the challenges and offer some tips on how to manage the race.

Racing at SDCC gets really challenging when the winds pick up. The prevailing winds tend to come in from the ocean and make their way to the racecourse from the southwest. If the winds are up, then coxswains will need to be prepared to contend with them at the 500 and 1250 meter mark. Learning to read the water for wind patterns is an essential part of handling the conditions and steering a straight course.

When practicing on the course, take some notes. How does the boat react to the wind? How far does the bow swing in different degrees of wind? How much does the wind affect the boat at different speeds?

As the wind builds strength over the water, it changes the color of the water. Typically the darker the water, the stronger the wind. Note the coloration of the water on different parts of the course and be able to react quickly. Let the crew know there about to hit the windy spot.

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Why I Love Winter Training

by Marcus McElhenney

As a coxswain, I love winter training. Yes, you heard me correctly…I love winter training! The reason is because I see a lot of opportunity to get better. So, while stuck on land during the cold months, I have three recommendations for coxswains who want to make improvements.

Shut Up and Observe

As coxswains, we are normally in a position where we have to have our heads are on a swivel while doing a million different things.  When on land, we can ignore all of that stuff and focus on our rowers.  I love watching and observing how they interact in a closed environment.  I notice who sits where on the ergs and why. I notice who hustles during the body circuit and why. I notice how my coach speaks to the rowers and tries to figure out why.

This information is valuable and I take notes throughout the winter. If I can better understand how my rowers and coaches think, I can better assist them and address their needs throughout the season. I figure out the calls I’m going to make and different motivational tools early on. All of the information is there, we just need to soak it up during winter training.

Get Fit

Another favorite thing about winter training is training with the rowers.  This has two major benefits.  One, it allows me (or any coxswain) to kick start their weight loss regimen so they can lose the winter weight in a healthy and controlled manner.  Instead of last minute weight sucking that is ineffective and dangerous, I can lose a few of those winter pounds early.

The second aspect about working out is gaining the respect of your athletes, demonstrating that you too are also an athlete! While you will never be as fast as them on the erg, if you sweat alongside them, the rowers will respect you more.  This also allows you to lead by example.  Be the first one to get going when the weight circuit starts.  Or the first in line for the run.  Do not try to show off, but bust your hump to do the best you can and focus on you.  If you do, your rowers will notice and love your commitment to the team.


My third favorite thing about winter training is being able to take a step back and go over my notes and logs from the previous seasons. This allows me to do my most favorite thing…Reinvent myself.  This concept was taught to me early on and has served me well.  If I had a bad previous season or made some mistakes, by reviewing I can figure out why.  I can also give the rowers a break from being in their faces.

Then I make a plan on how to improve moving forward.  Not just this dream board crap about setting goals…but actually how to achieve those goals.  I assess me and make me better, while giving the guys a breath.  Then when I come back as a slightly quieter and more in control person, they are surprised and amazed and more willing to work with me.  Especially if I have been busting my tail on the erg with them like I said above.  This allows for a great start to the season when we get back on the water and normally carries me to the next break.

No matter where you are as a coxswains, doing these three things will help you immensely. Take your time to sit back and observe.  Do this while working out with your athletes and lead by example.  All the while being introspective and figuring out your plan to improve and move forward.  Your athletes will notice you getting better without even knowing why…and that is the point.  Happy winter training and remember it is only a few short weeks until we are all back on the water.  Go fast.


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.

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