row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Crew Selection Part 3 - Coxswain Selection
July 21, 2020
Erik Dresser,

Following the cancellation of the 2020 spring racing season, row2k solicited the collegiate coaching community to engage in a variety of high-level topics within the profession. We submitted over sixty questions across a dozen topics and thank the coaches and staffs that found time to contribute their thoughts during this stressful time.

This week we focus on the topic of Crew Selection with the following question:


Coxswains have to master steering. After that, they need to be alert to their surroundings and be quick to make decisions that keep their crew safe and competitive. Vision, rudder touch, and listening skills are most important. The 1V coxswain is selected by me with some input from the crew if needed. That coxswain is the man or woman who I believe gives the boat the best chance of consistent success, predicated mostly by good steering.

I think the best coxswains have an abundance of moxie. They have to steer well and be able to coach technique and execute a race plan or practice plan, but their force of personality is the most important thing. In doing all those coxswain tasks, I look for athletes who will do it just the way I would like it done, to be a reflection of the coach. While I take input from the crew, I believe that the coach should select the coxswain for every boat, including the first boat. After all, I select all the other seats. But if selection is done right, the crew probably would have voted the same way anyhow.

I want my 1V coxswain to be able to solve technical problems from her seat, to motivate her boat to go beyond their perceived limitations, to steer the best course at the regatta, and to be able to manage the boat dynamic in a neutral way. She also needs to be a mentor to less-skilled coxes, to foster a cooperative environment during practices, be healthfully responsible for her fitness and weight, and to be fiercely competitive. I think an average coxswain makes boats slower and great coxswains make them faster, so we are always working with their skills to help them to improve whether this is in voice tone and content, or any of the areas I touched on above.

Selection largely comes down to day to day performance. I move coxes around all the time. It is always telling when there’s a coxswain who always makes her line-up win regardless of the quality of her crew. Occasionally, I will switch coxes during seat racing, but I try to leave coxes out of the mix of factors by using a silent cox protocol for most seat racing days. We also monitor steering via GPS and mapping (CoxOrb).

This is a key position. A cox who really understands first how to keep the boat straight, and second, how the rowing stroke actually works, is priceless. Even better is if they can help to describe to rowers how to make that stroke happen! I think too many coxswains just sit in the back, do some basic steering, and count 10’s not understanding they are a captain of a vessel. Most coxswains think they have to motivate a crew, but I look for a cox who is not worried about motivating as much as working on what they can to help the crew find more boat speed!

I describe a coxswain’s role in 4 words, typically: steersperson, tactician, technician, motivator. More broadly, a coxswain is the coach in the boat. When that boat leaves the dock before a race your role as a coach is reduced to nothing. So, the intellectual abilities of a coxswain to make real-time decisions in the heat of a race is crucial.

A coxswain also has to be able to improve a crew’s technique. If I’m working with another crew, I need to make sure that the coxswain can analyze performance from within the boat and make the necessary changes.

I am looking for an individual with great boat sense that has the “it factor” of knowing how to get a crew going while taking in all of the activity around her and analyzing what needs to happen or change in the moment. They have gained the respect of their rowers through their on the water prowess, but also their off the water involvement and leadership. Selecting a varsity coxswain is done by moving coxswains around to all boats at different points in the year. The one that consistently makes her boat better during a practice regardless of whether it is a 1st 8 or 3rd 8 is the top coxswain.

We evaluate coxswains in 7 categories: steering, race plan, calls, practice management, how good a teammate they are, equipment/tool preparedness, and empathy. A good coxswain will have all of those things at all times. Blindly carrying around tools and water bottles with the race plan written on a note card mean nothing if you have no idea what it is for and steer in a slalom down the course. It all comes down to trust. If the crew trusts the coxswain to be the best, they will be able to perform to their best.

I tell my coxswains I am looking for the person who can most do what I do as a coach every day when they are in the boat. The ability to fix small technique issues, have a plan for the warm-up, execute the race plan, and most importantly remain calm and strategic on race day.

We use a coxswain assessment that I stole from Steve Sawyer. It is mostly quantitative and covers safety, execution of training, competitiveness, and preparedness.

I look for coxswains who can control their crew and who can essentially be a coach when necessary. You get so many Type A kids in a boat together, it’s very easy for the coxswain to get overwhelmed if she doesn’t take control on day one. We obviously want her to be able to steer and motivate, but we also want her to be able to identify issues in the crew and help them to make corrections.

When it comes to selecting the V8 cox, I ask for feedback from the kids in the boat, and each rower will also give each coxswain feedback via a survey after the fall semester. We look to see who is making progress throughout the year, and who is establishing a bond with each boat.

Athletic instinct combined with intelligence; figure things out and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Communicate with the crew and the coaches in an honest manner. Bring passion and joy to their crews. I prefer coxswains who can run practice the way we want, but if they can’t race, then that becomes more important.

Size and steering bring a coxswain into selection. After that, it’s chemistry. I need to boat someone I can work with and who gets me as a coach. Trust is critical and I’ll lean into their input often as we move through the season. I also think the coxswain needs to be what the boat needs, not who might be “technically” best.

Total confidence of the boat and crew and their belief in the infallibility of their cox. I do not select the cox for our top eight, the boat selects the cox from a pool of about 6-7 on our roster (we have yet to disagree). What I look for, as a coach, is the same willingness to fight, to learn and to sacrifice that I want to see in the athletes.

I want a coxswain who will take their game to the next level, push themselves to be able to identify and fix technical problems during practice and who has a tactical acumen. Someone who understands racing and understands how and how hard to push the rowers. I do NOT like suck up coxswains who want to always be whispering in my ear and acting like a coach. As a cox you belong to the athletes first and your allegiance must be to them if you want their trust. A good V8 coxswain should be able to meet their boat at the boat house and run an entire practice from the start to finish exactly as prescribed by the coach with no input from the coaching staff at all.

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