row2k Features
Coxing with a Light Touch: Avoiding being too critical
May 21, 2009
Rob Colburn

One of the givens of coxing is that we want to be always on our game, showing that we know what we are doing by not missing any technical calls. We put a lot of effort into being the all-seeing eye, never missing a thing, ruthlessly calling out every mistake, every late catch, every skied blade. This is only natural; all of us we want perfection for our boats. This comes with a caveat, however. It is all too easy to become the supercritical coxswain with the perfect eye, but whose boats -- somehow -- still don't pick up the speed we think they should.

The hunt for perfection can be a double-edged sword. Being too critical risks dissolving our rowers' self-confidence -- often at the very time they are working most hard to improve an aspect of their stroke. Coxswains may be surprised how seriously rowers can take even our lightest, most off-hand comment. We can be surprising crushing without even intending or realizing it. What is more, it is our most conscientious, hard-working rowers who are likely to take us the most seriously. In other words, the ones we least want to crush.

Not that coxswains should abdicate responsibility to correct problems, or to ignore them. It's a matter of approach, finding a way to give good technical feedback when needed, and instilling confidence. This is less audible/visible coxing. Like so much of coxing, the best work we do is sometimes unseen.

One way to do this is simply to say less, and let the rowers work it out for themselves. The geometry of the oars and the riggers, and the feel of the boat, are great teachers. Self-taught is best-taught. Rowers will learn much from what their own bodies tell them. Their muscles know more intrinsically than even the most technically proficient coxswains possibly can. As a coxswain, observe, but do not always speak. Or, as one rower once put it to me, "I wish [coxswains] would cox the way Harry Parker coaches."

Rather than calling out a technique flaw the first or even second or third time you, as coxswain, see it, give it some time to work itself out, or for the coach to address it. (This also gives the coxswain more of a chance to fully analyze the causes so that -- if you do say something about it later -- you will have something constructive to say about how to fix it.)

Example: A rower -- a very good rower -- began a spring camp with a number of nagging, but far from catastrophic, technique problems. As a coxswain, it would have been all too easy to unload a daunting laundry list on him, but that would have missed the point, which was that he had a lot of potential and was going to be in a position to add a lot of value to the crew. By the fourth or fifth practice, he had corrected two thirds of the problems on his own, just by being out on the water. This meant that we could then concentrate on improving one particular part of his stroke. When he came to talk to me after practice "about the things I'm doing wrong," I countered with, "First, let's talk about all the things you are doing right," and from there we led into the bit about the shoulders.

Another helpful criterion is to sort out the things that need to be said on the water from those conversations that can be had later one-on-one on shore. On shore, it becomes a balanced discussion between two people, with room for compromise, and even allows room for different opinions and learning on both sides. Out on the water over the mic, it becomes public and carries the weight of the coxswain speaking ex cathedra.

This can erode a rower's confidence in ways we do not intend. In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to have rowers who are both technically perfect and full of confidence. (And monster strong, of course.) As coxswains, this is the goal we are all are aiming for. But, given realities, I will readily trade an ounce of technique in a rower for a pound of confidence. Better to have a rower be a little shaky technically but be confident, than have him or her technically perfect, but doubting. Confident crews are almost always more than the sum of the parts. They can accomplish unexpected miracles, and they are far more fulfilling to be part of.

Often it is best not to call a rower out by name or seat number, at least not the first time. Move from general to specifics as needed. "Starboard side, sharpen up the timing [please]," may be sufficient to remind the one person on that side who may be late at the catch while still preserving anonymity.

Find positive, and even light or humorous ways to phrase your corrections. Better to focus on the cause rather than the fault. Such as "that little extra head-bob you have just before the catch is causing you to drop your hands," rather than "Two, don't drop your hands at the catch!"

Emphasize the improvement rather than the problem, e.g. "That catch is getting better, keep it coming..." or perhaps more specifically "Your catches are so much better now that you're keeping your eyes up." This is a subtle way of slipping in the remedy, even if it is not yet entirely present, or not yet present every stroke. Most of all, be sure to tell them when they have made the change, and reinforce the improvement by letting them know. Make a deal with yourself that, for every flaw you call out, you will balance it by calling out at least that many good things. You will be gratified to find out how many of those there are, and how the good things will increase the more you call them.

It is fatally easy to convince your rowers that they row badly -- a misplaced word or two can do that. As a coxswain, you want to convince your rowers that they row well.

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Log in to comment
08/07/2009  10:24:07 PM
Great Article Rob, I only have one question. Sometimes out on the water I try to use the method of reminding one seat to clean up their blade work by calling on that side, however the rowers in my boat began to question this and demanded that I be blunt with the issue. Is this just boat mentality or is there another way I could help ease this tension with out stepping on too many toes

04/01/2010  6:46:50 PM
I always found it was really easy to call out a guy once in the first third or so of practice if it was something that really wasn't fixing itself, and then make calls more general after that. He already knows he's say having a problem keeping his hands up, so that when I tell the boat as a whole to do it, it clicks in his head that I probably do mean him, without it seeming like I'm ragging on him nonstop in front of the crew.

Robert Colburn
01/29/2010  7:16:38 AM
I agree with Socrates; it depends on the rowers and the boat. I've found that the more experienced rowers don't mind being called out by name. In general, I'll escalate gradually. If the more general call by side doesn't work, I'll repeat it with the person's name. Or sometimes later on shore I'll say something like, "that call to the starboard side was really to you." The main thing is to do in a helpful positive (or humorous) way. I think that as long as the rowers know you're genuinely trying to help, it will work.

10/13/2009  3:07:36 PM
Just to jump in - as a rower, I think that it really depends on the crew. Some crews, especially guys crews I think, just want plain directions, and won't get ruffled feathers from being directly called out. Like you said, I think its just a boat mentality issue. Although, I really do like it when the cox says "x side" but you know they're talking to *you*.

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