Keeping Your Boat on its A-game between Moves
August 10, 2009
Every so often, someone will draw the rowing world's ire down upon his or her head by commenting that "a coxswain is like having a second coach in the shell." Responses to this range from, "No, a coxswain is like having a sand bag that talks," or "A coxswain is like a potato in a survival suit," or even "Having a coxswain in the coach's launch is like not having him in the shell." (I've heard less polite ones, but will leave those to your imagination.)
…what the cox can do is reinforce good habits in the boat after the coach has taught them. Being in a position to feel the change in the boat's movements, the cox can signal to the rowers when they have made the right changes. This keeps the boat sharp. The coach instructs the changes, but a phrase from the cox ("Yeah, that's it; I can feel that power now," "Yeah, good change!" or "Those last ten strokes were so much better.") can provide the visceral feedback that really makes the good news stick. Without this reinforcement, rowers risk falling back into old habits. The coxswain, "the Reinforcer," can do a lot to help embed the changes in the muscle memory.
One of the coxswain's most valuable contributions is to keep the boat sharp when it comes down off a power piece or finishes a drill. This is to avoid the dreaded "two boat" syndrome -- a boat being really sharp and moving impressively when it is "on," but which then sags and becomes an entirely different boat in between. The coxswain must work to make sure that Boat A is the one that shows up all the time.
This is your opportunity to do some true coxing magic. Test yourself in practice, what is the first thing that goes bad when the boat comes down off a piece? Set? Blade heights? Catch timing? Finishes? Heads and hands dropping at the catch? It's different for every boat. Whatever the break is, spot it, and get in the habit of making the reminder call in the same breath as you call the final "10" or "20" or "paddle" -- before the technique break has a chance to happen. "19...20eyesupatthecatch." Odds are good that if you keep that first crack in the edifice from opening, the others won't either. They compound each other.
At the same time you are doing this, pick out the thing your boat does especially well when it is really moving -- it may be strong finishes, getting the knees down quickly, firm catches -- and reinforce this in the very next breath. Deal to your boat's strengths. The combination of emphasizing the positive while staving off the weak point will keep your rowers on their A-game between moves.
Since every stroke should be "on" in some way, I hesitate to refer to them as "off" or "down" strokes, and referring to them as "the strokes in between" is cumbersome. Anyway, you know what I mean. The strokes between moves, or the strokes between power pieces should be used to refocus and recharge the boat for the next move or piece. Make them into opportunities to sharpen up, to regain poise, to collect timing, and to prepare for the next attack. This will not only keep boat speed up through the body of the race, but also make your moves and sprint that much more effective. Your tone of voice will convey much of this almost without your being conscious of it. If you come down off a piece focusing yourself, making precise calls, and staying sharp, your rowers will pick up on this. If it helps your rowers for you to spell it out ("200 meters to the 1000, let's refocus/recharge for our midrace move"), then don't hesitate to do so.
The coxswain is in a unique position to diagnose. The combination of feeling the motion of the hull, hearing the sounds of the slides and oarlocks, and seeing the puddles from behind, mean that a coxswain with good boatfeel can select drills for the best effect. Do not be afraid to try a succession of drills if the first one you choose does not do the trick. It often happens that a technique problem has multiple causes, and it is the layering of a series of drills which will eventually provide the benefit. Pay attention to which drills the coach uses in practice, and to how the boat feels in response to each one. Going through a series of drills is sometimes a process of elimination, and sometimes the one that works can be a surprise. Diagnosing is not the same as coaching, but it can be enormously valuable.
Sometimes the coaching tasks will be partitioned. A coach might tell a coxswain, "I'll coach the bodies; you coach the blades," in which case, yes, coxing does approach coaching. However, monitoring technique is only a small part of a coach's responsibilities, so this is still not quite the same thing. It's a division of labor and a way of increasing the number of eyes being brought to bear. The coxswain is still different from, but reinforces, a coach.