Next up In The Driver's Seat—where we hear from the folks who keep the shells straight—is coxswain Jacob Filby.
Jacob drove the Varsity 8 for four years as an undergrad at the University of Delaware and coxed in Vesper's U23 program. He leads from launch these days as the Assistant Coach at Trinity College.
Let's take a ride with Jacob:
row2k - What are your Top 3 most important things to being a successful coxswain?
Jacob Filby - Coxes who are quick witted and decisive have the most success. Absolutely nothing ever goes perfectly to plan, so people who are unfazed by changing circumstances and can communicate in those frenetic moments will always go far. I had a coach in high school who told me, “The best thing to do is make the right decision, the second best thing is make the wrong decision, but the worst thing is to make no decision.” Coxes who have no trouble picking something, sticking to it, and communicating it to the athletes are the easiest to row with and coach.
And, when I coached novices at a Canisius High School for a year after college, I found that any student who took Latin was a great coxswain. The same could not be said for students who took French.
row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to do the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Jacob Filby - Reverse Pick by fours (top quarter strokes, legs only, legs and body, full) by fours and Triple Pause by sixes (release, body over with the handle on the gunwale, and half slide) are my favorites by far. The former allows the oarsmen to feel the connection on the drive in their feet and core as they sync up with their partners, which unifies speed through the water. The latter builds off of that, allowing the athletes to take their time and actively think during the recovery, ensuring that they are matched at each successive pause point.
I also really enjoy silence. Too much chatter is distracting, especially for a high level varsity crew or a group of novices that are trying to pay attention to a thousand things at once. Letting the athletes have the space to hear the water, the roll of the wheels, and feel their bodyweight engage with the shell and each other is a better learning tool than me saying something to fill space. Athletes will figure things out with a calm reminder every few strokes. Just let them row.
row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Jacob Filby - The best advice came from a so-so experience at U23 Selection Camp. Northeastern rower (and current coach!) Trevor Appier tore me to shreds one day after a row that I thought went pretty well. At the time, I was quite verbose and felt the need to say every little thing that came into my head. Trevor was the only person at the camp who really critiqued me, telling me I needed to “trim the fat.” It was extremely helpful to hear, and the process of narrowing down my focus and speech really helped catapult me to a higher level during my last two years of college. I had a pretty strong row a few days later with Trevor in the seven seat, and I felt elated when he told me that I had improved. The respect I have for him cannot be put into words.
row2k - What is a mid-race call or move that you've made that you'll remember for the rest of your life? What did it involve and how did you call it?
Jacob Filby - April of my senior year, we were racing in the finals of the SIRA Championship in Tennessee. My freshmen year, we made the finals of the 1V event for the first time as a program and finished sixth. Sophomore year, also sixth. Junior year, sixth again. After our starting sequence senior year, we were in last. I said, “We cannot get sixth again.” We bumped the rate to 38 and made a decent push down the course for the program’s best finish, though it was bittersweet not to win.
The best calls come when the athletes know what is at stake, when there is no alternative but to put themselves in front. A good coxswain brings the right level of urgency at every point: off the docks, during a piece, when the crew is cooling down, etc. The oarsmen have to know that you are doing everything possible to give them an advantage and help them in their pursuit of speed.
A simple call I break out all the time, that has never failed, is the simplest and easiest: “Are you gonna win this piece or what?” The bravado and machismo of college guys usually respond to that one.
row2k - Can you tell us a bit about how you learned how to make motivating calls?
Jacob Filby - I love to screw around with calls over the winter. There’s no downside to saying something stupid on land (which I do often). During that part of the year, or any time athletes are training indoors, it’s easiest to figure out what motivates people. Some athletes like to have loud people in their face, others like to be left alone, and some go back and forth depending on the type of workout.
Crews are formed of two or four or eight different types of athletes, so tailoring your voice to each of them at various stages of practices or races makes your job easier. I kept a notebook (and still do) of things I’ve noticed about athletes so any time they would perk up or respond, I remembered it. Plus, you need to figure out what motivates yourself. When I would get amped up, it would be infectious.
row2k - Best race/practice you've ever had?
Jacob Filby - The best practice I ever had was our first row back in the Eight after Summer Nationals with Vesper in 2015, as we began our lead up to Canadian Henley. Our six-seat left for a job, and we were lucky enough that the bronze medal six-seat of the Princeton 1V (and future Olympian) Nick Mead joined us for those three weeks of training.
The workout that day was 3x15 minutes, structured as: 3min @ 24spm, 2min @ 26spm, 1 @ 28spm, 2 @ 26, 2 @ 28, 1 @ 30, 2 @ 28, 1 @ 30, 1 @ 32. We went sub 1:30 pace in both directions (granted, it was on the Schuylkill). The group of us were pretty tight that summer, and it felt effortless to be part of a crew that was so mission-aligned.
Another practice was the evening before Dad Vails when I was coxing the Lightweight Eight. With about 600m left to the docks, we were at a 1:39 split, so the call was, naturally, for our stroke (eight) seat to get the split to 1:38. We did. Seven could knock it down to 1:37. Five and six, gotta hit 1:35 now. I didn’t even have to ask four seat, since we had already notched a 1:33. So on and so forth. Came clipping into last 200m at 1:30 pace at 26spm once we made it down the whole lineup. I like when the athletes feel responsible for their own boat speed. Ownership over your own speed is important.
row2k - Worst race/practice you've ever had?
Jacob Filby - My worst practice was a scrimmage senior year of college. Our team had been ravaged by illness, injury, and out of shape oarsmen and we were getting demolished on the water. We were understroking the opposing crew, making zero technical changes, and fighting with each other.
I take particular care in avoiding any negative words (eliminating words such as don’t, stop, and no in favor of positive spins to frame changes productively) but I came pretty unhinged in the Port of Wilmington that morning, lambasting unfit underclassmen and calling guys out by name. I brought the coach over and demanded we make switches between the Varsity and JV. I had to be a pretty active and vocal leader the last two years of college but I don’t think I was particularly helpful that day. I am personally motivated by being told that I suck, but I don’t want to ever coach or cox that way.