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I Call BS on 'the Coxswain is a Coach in the Boat'
posted on May 2, 2013

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So I saw still another one of these "the coxswain is the coach in the boat” articles, and could not resist – let's call BS on this once and for all. It's worse and lazier than a "row, row, row your boat" headline – but this time the laziness is our own fault, not the local newspaper headline writer's.

Here is just a sampling of what a coxswain is expected to do in a practice or race:
  • Get the crew assembled for a boat meeting
  • Take care to make sure all their electronic tools are working
  • Get the crew launched on time
  • Run a full warmup, usually from memory
  • Understand and deal with rowing on new and sometimes unusual waterways
  • Get the crew to the line on time
  • Get on the stakeboat without drowning any volunteers
  • Execute the race plan
  • Motivate eight very different people to work together
  • Steer straight!
Is this not enough? Is this not hard enough? How many coxswains are truly GREAT at these things?

In over 35 years of singing, I have had one or two coxswains who edged up to the level of a "coach in the boat.” One was good enough that he could truly influence the outcome of seatraces - to the extent that he was pretty much disallowed from, well, coxing, during seatraces. He could change race plans mid-race, calling audibles that I saw win races that seemed lilke lost causes. But even then, maybe he was more like an offensive coordinator – or how about a truly great coxswain?!? Why is that not enough?

But let's ignore the very best coxswains as outliers; it is probably true that your average college coxswain only really becomes even a good coxswain after several years of effort. Kind of like a rower, eh? Rowers have plenty of information on what is going on in the boat, as much or more than the coxswain. So what if every rower figured they were the coach in the boat as well?

If the bow seat, who can also see most of the same stuff the coxswain can see, but also has the added information of actually rowing for a few years, and even more is actually going up and down the slide, started spewing about how seven-seat does this, and how the stroke should fix this, and why the crew should row a 33, not a 33.5, and who should sit here - in short, started COACHING - they’d be run out on a rail. Their job is to row the bowseat. And the coxswain's job is to coxswain.

Does a franchise owner say "the French fry kid is like the McDonald’s owner covered with vegetable oil and animal fat?”

Or much more charitably, does an orchestra leader say "the first violin is like the conductor in the violin section?” No – the first violin is the first violin. It’s a hard job, and few can do it well.

So how come every second-year coxswain thinks (and is told) they’re the coach in the boat? How come, every spring without fail, newspapers from east to west run article about a second boat coxswain who is "the coach in the boat?”


The goal for a young coxswain should not be to become the "coach in the boat;" a coxswain might want first to try to be a coxswain. Steer straight. Make your calls concisely and clearly. Call the race plan. Read the coxbox correctly. Say where the boat is on the course. Tell where the other boats are. Tell whether the crew is moving on the field or not. It is plenty hard and rare enough - almost impossible, on the evidence - to do all of these well as it is.

So let's call BS on "the coxswain is the coach in the boat," and maybe, if you're as nice a guy as I am, three cheers to simply good coxswains.


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02/12/2016  10:54:19 PM
How does the coxswain deal with rowers who don't listen when the coach is not around? I've hear that a coxswain is supposed to lead without authority, is that possible? What do you do when the coach belittles the coxswain or just doesn't simply support the coxswain? Any input is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

05/31/2013  8:02:58 AM
When we have one coach out with four or five boats, it becomes necessary to rely on the coxwain for coaching stuff, otherwist you arent going to get any coaching.

05/04/2013  3:05:53 AM
1 people like this
Love coaches with egos too big to let anyone question their authority. Or more to the point, coaches who want robots, not thinkers. I want coxswains who can learn, who can adapt to their situations and who can think on the fly. What this article fails to remember is that coaches aren't on the race course, and have no contact with their coxswains. Leashing your coxswains to what you can't see, or possibly know is a sure fire way to fail each and every time and will lead to plenty of post race meetings that revolve around, "Well yes, but your race plan said..."

05/04/2013  4:04:35 PM
@RowCA - While i tend to agree with your statement, "I want coxswains who can learn, who can adapt to their situations and who can think on the fly," my college program stressed these ideals during practice/ seat races etc. Our view, right or wrong, was that our goal on race day was to execute our race plan to a t, and that practice was the time to a) practice the race plan and b) make adjustments as needed. Obviously this depends on the level of rowers, length of season etc and my view is somewhat simplistic - but I do feel it helped us stay internal and really control the one thing we could on race day- our own boat.

05/03/2013  12:08:22 PM
"One was good enough that he could truly influence the outcome of seatraces - to the extent that he was pretty much disallowed from, well, coxing, during seatraces. " Aren't coxswains supposed to just simply steer the boat during a seat race? This is a horrible rant. I usually hear people say the coxswain is LIKE a coach in the boat. Obviously they're not THE coach. It just so happens the responsibilities of the coxswain can be "coach-like" at times. If you don't like it then that's why doors have hinges.

05/02/2013  8:15:45 PM
"The goal for a young coxswain should not be to become the "coach in the boat;" a coxswain might want first to try to be a coxswain. Steer straight. Make your calls concisely and clearly. Call the race plan. Read the coxbox correctly." This is great advice for any coxswain - it took me almost 10 years to get close to "coach in a boat" but this was only because 1) I focused on steering straight and 2) called the race plan effectively.

05/02/2013  2:46:01 PM
well done, Tony, very enjoyable article. I like to call the coach "the cox'n in the coaching launch". The only duty he performs of any added value is to pick up logs and debris in the water that a shell might run over. Oops, what? coaches don't do that anymore?

05/02/2013  2:17:50 PM
1 people like this
Bow seat is indeed a "coach in a boat" -- just that bow seat mutters to him/herself under his/her breath. In fact, that's how you can identify a bow seat away from the boathouse -- the one walking down the hall, muttering. And by "BS," do you mean "Bow Seat"?

05/02/2013  3:03:57 PM
1 people like this
Agreed; my college bowseat, who shall remain nameless, kind of crushes it as a coach these days. He muttered and it made me better.

05/02/2013  1:01:37 PM
yay for this article. what a relief to hear such fearless honesty.

05/02/2013  12:42:53 PM
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before you go too crazy and post really long rebuttals or the like, look up Tony Clifton on Wikipedia. tony's last article was about pizza, btw. I already heard a complaint that "Tony Clifton is getting WAY too nice" - !!! I ran the article past a couple very seasoned coxswains yesterday as well, both liked it and said to post it. Can't please everyone; or if you are Tony Clifton, can't please anyone. Have fun out there!

05/03/2013  11:34:34 AM
Think this one might be over those younger kids' heads. Even Man on the Moon was 14 years ago.

05/02/2013  12:17:19 PM
No offense Tony, but if you can say that my assumption is that you have never been around a really good cox.

05/02/2013  10:33:10 AM
Although I agree with the sentiments that a coxswain's job is to be the best coxswain they can be, first and foremost (and I'd move safety to the top of your list of functions), at the end of the day a coxswain is always a coach. A coxswain identifies issues in rowing technique, in motivation, and works to address those inefficiencies by pointing them out and giving proper instruction for correcting them. Is that not coaching? Now, at what level a coxswain should be focusing on this sort of activity is in itself a topic for debate. Depends on the individual coxswain and what their experience and maturity present on the water. I have 2nd or 3rd year HS coxswains who I trust to give the same sort of input to rowers as I would. I see former college coxswains coxing for clubs that I'd not even want to put in a boat. Ultimately making a defacto statement that coxswain as coach is BS is in fact BS. It serves no purpose to lessen the role of the coxswain, but better to raise the level of coxswains and give every individual their due when they are ready. Good coxswain identification and coaching goes a long way towards making this happen.

05/02/2013  8:19:24 AM
2 people like this
Hooray! Good sense on a Thursday morning.

row2k author
Tony Clifton

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