Whose Stroke Rating Is It Anyway?
January 15, 2007
The interaction between the Stroke and the coxswain in managing ratings is one of the more intriguing mental aspects of rowing. Two minds, functioning as one for the good of the crew. Perhaps the closest comparison in sports is the interaction between the catcher and pitcher in baseball to determine what pitch to throw. The coxswain functions similarly to the catcher, the stroke as pitcher. Continuing the comparison, strokes have been known to "shake off the sign" if he or she feels that the rating called for needs changing. Just as what pitches to throw are chosen primarily based on the scouting report on the batter -- but may vary depending on the situation (how many outs, runners on base, etc.) -- the ratings are dictated primarily by the race plan, but the exact rating may vary depending on situation (position in the race, variation in strength of headwind/tailwind, etc.).
This is not to suggest that your ratings should ever deviate substantially. [If you, dear reader and fellow helmsperson, interpret this column as a mandate to violate your race plan, I will absolutely deny I ever met you -- even if I haven't actually met you.] Race plans are sacred for a reason.
The coxswain, like the catcher, is the information-giver. However, it is a two-way interchange. So, what information should the coxswain be giving? Position of the boat on the course (or within the piece if in practice), position of the other boats in the race, and current stroke rating are the foundation pieces of information, because it is these which determine what stages of the race plan are being executed at a particular time. Beyond these, however, lie a range of subtler cues which are vital for settling on the very most effective rating. This is where the interaction becomes truly valuable and where a tight stroke-cox combination can work magic.
Perhaps the race plan called for a rating of 35 throughout the body, but a headwind has increased since the time you launched. Are the oars clearing the puddles? Is the boat still moving well at the chosen rating? Would it be more effective a beat lower?
Perhaps the adrenaline of the race has pushed the rating up a beat or two higher than the race plan calls for. Is the boat moving well and staying long at this rating? Is this "gift" paying off in true speed? Should you and the stroke ride this bonus, or call the rating down?
Perhaps you are bowball to bowball with another boat with 100 meters to go. Does the boat have the gas to go up an extra beat on the final shift? Or will that cause the boat to shorten up and spin its wheels?
The above are a few examples of the sorts of decisions the stroke-cox team constantly -- and sometimes intuitively -- make during practice and races. There is a sort of feedback loop here -- the experience of making these adjustments during practice pieces supplies information to the coach, stroke, and cox which will in turn go into choosing the ratings for the race plan. This is part of the reason practice pieces are done sometimes with rating caps and sometimes without. Pieces without rating caps are particularly important opportunities for the stroke and the cox to test rating effectiveness. "Practice what you will race; race what you have practiced" is the longstanding proverb, and it's a good one.
Because the stroke cannot see the numbers on the CoxBox, it is vital that the coxswain keep the stroke apprised of the rating and not lingering in doubt. If your stroke keeps hissing "what's the rating?" at you during practice, then you may need to call it out more often.
In addition, it is helpful to the stroke, and to the rest of the boat, for the coxswain to call out the ratings whenever they are building/decreasing. As soon as the target rating has been achieved, call that out clearly so that everyone knows they are at rating.
So that the stroke can have constant information without having to wait for the next rating call -- a helpful technique is for the coxswain to make a fist with the non-steering hand* when the rating is on (in the same way that some coaches will ask the coxswains to "show me a fist when you're on the rating"). This provides the stroke with a constant visual indicator, and is particularly helpful during longer pieces. If the rating slips, one finger pointed up can indicate that the rating needs to go up a beat, two fingers pointed down can show that the rating is two beats too high, etc. Obviously, this visual aid works only for stern-coxed situations. Bowloader coxswains need to report the ratings more frequently.
Even those strokes who seem to have atomic clocks in their heads -- the ones who can be given a number, convert it to a rating, and hold that rating for a three-mile piece as steadily as if the numbers were painted on the CoxBox, like to have confirmation periodically. [Incidentally, I have tremendous admiration for this ability, and it is heaven for coxswains to work with strokes who have it.]
To answer the question in the title of this column, ultimately the rating belongs to the stroke. The coxswain supplies information and may suggest -- may even firmly suggest -- but the stroke owns the rating. Over the years, my strokes and I have developed a non-verbal shorthand (designed as much to avoid having the stroke waste precious breath by speaking as to avoid any appearance of disunity audible via the mic to the rest of the boat) to "discuss" the ratings. It's sort of like bidding a hand of bridge; you want to convey information to your partner without tipping your hand. Many strokes have a special look -- a sort of a glare mixed with raised eyebrows -- which translates (depending on context) into, "the ratio is off/they're rushing/the rating's too high/low; do something about it!" In turn, I use a particular tone when calling out an... unexpected ...rating, which translates to "are you sure that's where you want it?" To which the response can be either a slight nod ("sure, what the hell; it feels good here") or a look of sheer horror ("are you nuts? Get us down from this!").
*Coxswains should steer with the index and middle fingers of the hand which is opposite to where the stroke's oar handle crosses the gunwale so that there is no possibility of being in the way. I.e. in a port-rigged boat, the coxswain should be steering with the fingers of the right hand; and with the left hand in a starboard-rigged shell. This is more important in lightweight boats where the coxswain's compartment is shorter, but is good practice in any case.