row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Coxswain Development Part 1 - Traits and Program Education
September 15, 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 Coxswain Development with the following questions:


We are looking for coxswains that have the respect of their crews, can demonstrate the ability to impact the atmosphere in their boats and therefore the success of their team, and someone who is highly competitive. Our coxes love to win; they’re athletes, not socialites.

I’m always looking for coxswains that are smart, organized, and strong leaders. Many of the actual skills needed to be a top-level coxswain can be learned through experience over the course of their careers. But what sets the best coxswains apart is their natural ability to be sharp witted, decisive in taking action, and able to build rapport with their teammates. These things can be hard to discern in the recruiting process but go a long way in setting apart someone with the potential to be a great coxswain.

A coxswain needs to be able to do four things in the boat: steersperson, technician, tactician, and motivator. Those are all key. Additionally, though, we look for leaders. As a Division III program we have an extended period of the winter season in which the rowers are training on their own. During this time our coxswains need to take on a huge leadership role for the workouts to be successful.

Leadership, but more importantly someone who wants to take on a leadership role. We joke with our novice coxswains that they will be the only freshmen on campus who can tell people what to do because, as Plebes here at Navy, they are otherwise very much at the bottom of the ladder. So, for both recruited coxswains and walk-ons, we are specifically looking for someone confident enough to step into a leadership role right away.

The ability to think ahead, to stay calm and engaged with the rowers, and to be able to advocate for their boat is completely separate from rowing knowledge or even coxing experience, and it is something we look for whether it is coxswain hoping to come into the program from high school or a candidate who joins the team once he or she is already on campus.

Organization and athleticism, the desire to compete.

The abilities to learn, communicate and adapt are the three primary skills that I look for in coxswains (since these areas also translate to safe and effective practices). Regarding learning, coxswains have to take in a lot of information all at once: steering, running practices, and learning about the athletic and technical aspects of sport that they may not actually take a stroke in. Especially if a coxswain is moving to a new coach or a coxswain is joining a team as a novice, that learning curve is steep and they then have to translate what they learned to rowers, who may or may not also know what they’re doing, while steering.

That’s why being able to communicate clearly and succinctly is also key – poor communications can affect the rhythm of the boat, the performance of a crew during a race, or even impact the safety of a crew on the water (safety of their crews should be the number one priority for coxswains and coaches). But, good communication skills, like steering, can also be learned.

As for adaptability, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry" and the ability for coxswains to be flexible, especially in a race, is critical.


As a previous collegiate coxswain myself who received great coxswain coaching, once entering the coaching side, this is an area that I've always stressed to be important as well. Our coxswain education ranges from formal to informal, everything from one-on-one meetings to group meetings away from practice with simulations and discussion, to how I approach erg practices and the need for that time to be how a coxswain earns the trust of their teammates prior to entering championship season.

Our Assistant Coach Alyssa O'Donnell has done a great job working with our coxswains. We use audio, video, assessments and individual meetings to help facilitate growth with our coxswain corps. Over zoom, she had each coxswain watch a race from Henley and then cox it! It was a fun, thoughtful way for coxswains to work on their craft.

Providing coxswains with opportunities to develop, learn, and perform at a higher level, just like rowers, is fundamental. As much as possible, our program will provide coxswains with chances to progress at practice, though it’s not always the easiest to do on the water. So, our structure for coxswain development begins with discussing with them what it is a coach is looking for in a practice, the workout, the technical changes of a crew, a race plan, or even for the program as a whole over the course of a season. This is why at the start of each season, and then weekly throughout, we sit down as a group and one-on-one to discuss a variety of topics: goals, areas of growth, challenges they may face in their boats or on the team, and more.

As the weeks move forward through the season, we’ll review video of the rowers, but also audio recordings of coxswains (our coxswains or even others we find online). We’ll discuss calls we liked, calls we didn’t, and ways to improve the calls that didn’t go right for us. This weekly meeting gives them an opportunity to talk openly and ask questions that we may not have time for on a daily basis.

Ahead of each new week, we also provide coxswains with write ups of detailed practice plans that share what the coaches are looking to accomplish – this gives the coxswains time to review and ask any questions they may have about a certain day, a drill, or a workout. In addition, since F&M is DIII, I try to provide coxswains with leadership and coaching opportunities through our winter training. There are no coaches there, so the coxswains are allowed to run and coach the rowers during practices. For those who run with it, it's a tremendous learning experience that really shapes their position as leaders on the team.

It is pretty extensive, because the majority of the coxswains in our boathouse, across three programs, are new to the sport--plus, as any of the teams that visit us here on the Severn will tell you, this is not an easy river to steer. At any given time, 75% or more of the coxswains are walk-ons, because we have big rosters and lots of "steering seats" that need to get filled to get everyone out on the river. After all, on a typical day at Navy, we might have 18 or 20 eights on the water.

We very much focus on learning by doing, of course, and new coxswains are put in boats almost immediately. To support that, we have sheets of commands for them to study and refer to, and I run a pre-row briefing specifically with Plebe coxswains while the rowers are stretching. That brief will focus on how to call and execute the drills and pieces planned for that day and give them a chance to ask questions. When time allows, we do have a tight schedule here on the Yard, we will also do a post-row de-brief with the coxswains, where we can talk about what they did well and what they can improve: sort of an oral "after action" report. All of that is nothing radical, of course, but our coxswains liken it to the kinds of pre-flight and post-flight briefs they might see in the Naval Aviation community.

We also have a great system of mentorship that our coxswains have built from the ground up: our upper-class coxswains take the lead on checking in with the Plebe coxswains right away in the fall, answering their questions and sharing resources like race videos and articles they've found useful as we go through the year. This is baked into the overall culture of the school, of course, since the upper-class Mids are responsible for helping to teach and to form the classes behind them, and it works really well at the boathouse; especially when we get to the spring and all these coxswains are working together to run pieces 6 or 7 boats across.

We have an online coxswain manual for them to study. Winter training is a great time for coxswains to collaborate. We also have a rowing tank with NK wiring installed so it gives our more inexperienced coxswains the opportunity to call a workout, run drills, study technique, etc.

Before the coxswains even arrive, we send them a document that goes over the ways we make calls, the location of equipment in the boathouse, etc. Once they arrive, we make a point to have a weekly meeting with our coxswains. During this meeting we meet in our boathouse conference room (which has a smart TV) and go over video, both theirs as well as that of other coxswains, and use that for growth. Additionally, when the rowers are in small boats we take the coxswains in the launch and point out various coaching points to them, so that they can see what we are seeing.

We've developed a robust coxswain education program which is appropriate for the novice coxswain through to the highly experienced in our program. Our curriculum includes written materials, opportunities to ride in the launch, video review, shadowing of other coaches and coxes, quizzes, tape review, data management, the application of the DISC Behavioral Analysis, and on-the-water coaching for crew, boat and fleet management. Our coxes are held to very high standards and because of that, our rowers not only respect them, but also have high standards for performance which helps our coxes continue to improve.

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