A coxswain’s voice is his or her primary tool. It can also be the lifeline that your rowers hang on to during a long piece or a grueling race to guide them through it. Like any instrument, it is worth training and developing.
Matching your calls to the cadence of the boat is crucial, and should reinforce the rhythm that the boat is in. This should come fairly naturally if you are feeling the same connectedness that your rowers are feeling. Most of you probably do it instinctively already. Ideally, coxing is a two-way street; you are feeding off your rowers at the same time they are feeding off of you.
Now and then, listen to yourself (or to your recordings if you record your practices) to make sure that you are in the groove. Coxswains who use “push, chaa,” “catch, send” or variations of those, should make sure that their timing is correct so that they reinforce -- rather than throw off -- the boat’s rhythm. You’d be amazed how many coxswains say it late, so that the “send” ends up halfway over the finish and partway up the recovery. (This is great fun if you are secretly trying to drive your stroke into the nuthouse, but unless your stroke has been really mean to you in the last five days, it’s just plain cruel.)
For the same reason, if you are counting strokes of a power ten or twenty, be sure that the number -- as short and crisp as you can make it -- comes exactly as your stroke’s blade touches water on the catch.
The spacing of your calls should suit the spacing of the strokes, which is why short, concise commands are important. (It gives you time to make them clearly and confidently, without sounding frantic.) A rising, positive sounding intonation is also good. Never drawl your calls; it takes all the energy out of the boat. Any word which can be made into one syllable (and almost every word can) without completely losing its meaning, should be. “Seven” becomes “Se’n;” “Line it up” is “lnrrp;” while “ln’n” is immediately recognizable as “lengthen.”*
Calls should be given at the opposite ends of the stroke from where they take effect. “Way enough,” “lengthen,” feather/no feather, pause calls, for example, should be given at the catch, because they take effect at the finish or on the recovery. “On this one” usually should be given at the finish because it will take effect on the next catch. E.g. if you have told your crew to go to full pressure for twenty in two, the “one” and the “two” will be on the catches of the respective strokes; the “on this one” will come at the finish of the second stroke, causing the rowers to hit the power cleanly together on the next catch. The important thing is to be consistent, so your rowers are used to whatever timing you use.
Ratio shifts are usually given on the catch, but this depends somewhat on how you call it, and whether the purpose of the shift is to slow the slide, slow the slide and quicker through the water, or just quicker through the water.
This is the secret of how experienced crews and coxswains who are really on their game with their calls can dispense with the “in two” altogether for many drills, saving time and making them more responsive. Coaches really like it when they can call a drill or a pause shift from the launch; the coxswain supplies the “on this one” at the right point, and the drill begins on the very next stroke. It keeps everyone more focused and has a truly professional feel to it. (You still need building strokes before a power piece, though.)
In the same way that your rowers are breathing regularly according to the cadence of their strokes, the coxswain can use the rhythm of his or her breathing to regulate the calls. (I.e., you want to be “breathing with your boat.) Again, the more naturally this happens, the more it helps the boat’s rhythm, allowing natural excitement to increase the intensity of your calls usually at the point in the race where you most want it to anyway. Exercises such as abdominal crunches are excellent for building the strength of your voice so that your calls come out firm and grounded.
Rowers tend to respond to the cadence of your voice in a visceral way, often more than your actual words, which is why it is so important to tune yourself to your boat. A steady, patient set of calls will do more to enhance rhythm and calm slide rush than simply saying “patient on the slide.” By the same token, intense, percussive calls in the final 500 will convey the excitement to get them sprinting.
While cadence and calls is as much art as it is science -- something you feel subconsciously -- a little conscious awareness and practice of it can speed the process. The good news is that it tends to happen fairly quickly on its own once you let yourself become aware of the nuances of it.
* For a humorous look at syllable compression, see the 18 March 2003 column, "That Schuylkill Accent"