Next up In The Driver's Seat--where we hear from the folks who keep the shells straight--is coxswain Jimmy Catalano.
Currently a graduate student at Wisconsin, Catalano is in his final season coxing the Badgers. He coxed for Greenwich Crew in high school, got his first shot driving the Wisco 1V as a sophomore in the spring of 2019, and won a bronze medal for the USA in the U23 coxed four in 2021.
Let's take a ride with Jimmy, In The Driver's Seat:
row2k - What are the three most important things to being a successful coxswain?
Jimmy Catalano - A successful coxswain is an effective decision maker, receptive to feedback and authentically themselves.
I have found that the best coxswains I have ever worked with or seen are simply the most effective high level decision makers. What you say does not matter nearly as much as actually making the right decision at the right time in the most effective way possible. Words don't win races, decisions do. That's not to say that rhetoric is not important, but I feel that the highest level of coxing is making what you say convey your decisions to the rowers as effectively and simply as possible so that it can be executed.
My number 2 criteria for being a successful coxswain is being receptive to feedback. This may be the grittier part of coxing that can feel more frustrating since no one loves to be corrected or yelled at, but the most growth is in this part of the job. I bring this aspect up because being receptive to criticism displays to the rowers--and the coaches--your professionalism in terms of coxing. My freshman Coach, Beau Hoopman, once told me that making mistakes is fine and you're bound to do it, but you should never make the same mistake twice, because that comes off as lazy and shows a lack of concern about becoming better. Rowers can easily showcase how they are getting better; they win a seat race or PR on an erg test but, in coxing, there are no real quantitative metrics that demonstrate growth and improvement. This is something that does that, not only outwardly to your peers, but to yourself internally as well.
Finally, cox from your own voice and strive to be the most authentic version of yourself possible. There are a lot of external pressures that go into executing high-level coxing. If you are not operating as your true, authentic self, it is exhausting and will also be evident to your teammates and coaches. There have been several times I have listened to my own older coxing recordings or other coxswain recordings and just think to myself. "Who is that?" Cox in your own style and cox from your voice; don't try to copy or imitate someone else because it is just exhausting to try to keep it up. Yes, of course you can be inspired by others and want to incorporate some of their elements into what you do--that is a huge part of learning how to cox--but at the end of the day you should always be able to listen to your recording and say to yourself that it sounds like you.
row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to do the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Jimmy Catalano - I love running feet out drills with crews because it creates a strong sense of patience and causes the rowers to get the core engaged while being mindful of body positioning. At Wisconsin and in the U23 4+ this past summer, we would launch for our races feet out to get everyone on the same page as to the patience, the length, and the impulse required on the front end to maintain stability.
This drill is most effective when you as the coxswain take time to explain the purpose of the drill. So, for instance, you take a certain number of strokes to remind the crew to engage the core all the way through the stroke to create better stability. You can then focus on the toes and how this drill is creating patience coming into the front end rather than pulling up on the foot stretchers. Then you can talk about how the patience on the recovery and coming into the front end needs to be paired with the impulse and the placement of the blade. Finding that separation is important and the feet out drill can give you the ability to showcase it to the crew with not just words but with what they are feeling.
The biggest takeaway here is when explaining the multitude of things going on with this drill, it is important to break it down in parts and keep the language simple. If it starts to become overcomplicated, then rowers are not going to be able to match what they are feeling with the words you are saying. When reflecting on calls I make, I always try to break it down to, "What is the point I am trying to make?", "How am I conveying this to the crew?" and "Did it work?"
row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Jimmy Catalano - My high school coach, Cary Wasserman, challenged me right before I went off to school to sit down and physically write down my goals moving forward in this sport. He explained that writing it down creates accountability and clarity when it comes to goal setting. This allowed me to be able to look at this goal every day moving forward, but also enabled me to maintain clarity since it was thoughtfully written out. He reminded me that you must treat these goals with the level of professionalism that they deserve no matter what. This really stuck with me since then because that day I sat down and created different goals that I wanted to achieve in my rowing career. After not getting an invite to U19s when I was a senior in high school, I made a goal that I would go to U23s and wrote down every step and person that would help me achieve that. This was something that I thought was never possible, but I also knew I was going to try my hardest to prove that wrong.
Mid-way through my sophomore year at Wisconsin, I had found myself fortunate enough to be in the Varsity Eight and I thought that I would go talk to my current coach, Chris Clark, about wanting to be on the U23 National team. I went into that conversation extremely unsure of what I was trying to convey and what it was I wanted to do. When I talked to him about trying out for the team, I asked "Do you think I am wasting my time?" His immediate pushback to that comment was exactly what I needed to hear. He explained to me that I was only wasting my time if I wasn't going to put 100 percent of my effort towards this goal. It did not matter if he believed it or anyone else did, the only thing that mattered is if I knew I was going to show up every day putting my best foot forward and being prepared to deal with all the highs and lows that would be associated with doing something like this. After that conversation, I proceeded to be named to the U23 selection camp three years in a row. Then I was named to the team in 2021 in the U23 4+ and traveled to Racice, CZE, to race at the U23 World Championship. This journey has been one of the most frustrating yet rewarding endeavors that I have had the privilege of getting to forego.
I think the two takeaways here are that goal setting and the amount of effort you put forth into them is something that is always within your control. Even in the world of being a coxswain--where you run into the countless roadblocks, snags, politics, and anything in-between--it is important to remember what you can control and create a space/situation where you increase the likelihood of success by the goals you put forth and how much effort you apply to achieve them.
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?
Jimmy Catalano - This is a tough question because when I reflect on my nine years in this sport, there are many special moments that come to mind, and it is hard to boil it down to just one.
I will say, I remember during our final at the 2019 Canadian Henley Senior Eight--while racing for Mendota Dev Camp--we were leading going into the last 500 and I could tell there was a little bit of a question mark revolving around whether my boat could hold this pace and then push it for the sprint. I knew that my guys were close to spent. Since every guy in that boat had raced in at least 8-10 shots down the course in pairs, straight fours, and other eights races, finding the bottom of the well would be tough, but the confidence I had in this moment was intoxicating. We hit the last 200 meters up a length on the field and I remember looking across the bows, knowing we were going to win the race. I looked forward, took a deep breath to maintain composure, and called something along the lines of, "There's 200 meters to the line we're up bow to stern on the other boats but the field is charging fast. Their moves don't matter because they're going to run out of water. Tier 3 of the sprint in two: take the legs, cut the back, and run them out of water."
The confidence, and reassurance of getting to call a sprint like that is truly a special moment as a coxswain and something I will never forget.
row2k - Can you tell us anything about you learned how to cox a land practice or erg tests?
Jimmy Catalano - Well, of course, I have done a few ropes runs out on the lake in my career at Wisconsin, so that tradition does live on.
In terms of the many hours of land practices that I have done in my life being a coxswain at Wisconsin, I have learned to make sure that even during those times where the team's goals are hard to see because its -10 degrees, snowing, and you think the lake is never going to unfreeze, it is important to reiterate to the guys on the team what it is we are working towards. Continually talking with guys about their plans for erg test and making them verbalize what they plan to do helps to give purpose and accountability to the winter training. I try make sure the guys are keeping their spirits up and keep things simple in terms of achieving goals.
It becomes a fine balance of poking and prodding at a fire, especially in the winter: you want to keep the fire going but you also don't want to overstimulate it so that it causes burnouts amongst the guys on the team. I also try to hit a lot of the body weight circuits with the team to stay in shape and not just keep up this image that coxswains go to practice for land workouts and do nothing. Finally, I try to make myself available to everyone on the team in the tank whenever they want. This helps to maintain strong connection in my mind between on-the-water language and helping guys to be tuned up by the time we are back out on the water.
row2k - Best race/practice you've ever had?
Jimmy Catalano - I think my best race is a tie between the U23 4 + 2021 World Championship race and the BU dual in 2021.
Regarding the U23 4+ race, although we didn't achieve the result we had wanted, I had an amazing experience getting to represent the United States on the world stage with an extremely dynamic and hardworking crew. We led to the first 500 yet placed third and we were out of winning by about 7 seconds. Regardless, it was an unforgettable experience getting to work with those guys and those coaches and I am very grateful for that opportunity. One of the best feelings in that race was when they polled the crews, and I heard the announcer say, "United States of America." In that moment, I had an enormous sense of pride for that boat, and I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. One of the other best races of my career was when we raced BU in the dual season of 2021. We had not had an official dual race in over a year and a half due to COVID and lining up in the Basin against another team in our conference for the first time in what felt like forever was a special moment. We had a blistering race where both crews clawed at the lead for the entire 2000 meters and luckily, we ended up ahead in the end by just barely a bow ball. The feeling of getting to do the best part of this sport, racing, for the first time in an extremely long time was the other moment that I will never forget.
row2k - Worst race/practice you've ever had?
Jimmy Catalano - Some of the worst practices I can remember in my career truthfully and honestly were the moments where it was bitterly cold, and I was absolute miserable. The reason I am choosing these moments as my "worst" practices is because I feel that, even when you have bad practices or races, there is learning to be done there which ultimately makes them beneficial. I try to find the positives in these moments rather than just dwelling on how negative they can be. But . . . 10-degree practices out on Lake Mendota in Madison, the Rock River in Edgerton, WI, or on Lady Bird Lake in Austin on our training trip can truly be miserable.
My takeaway here is to always prepare for the weather and conditions. I religiously check the wind and the weather because going out on the water and not being prepared for rain, snow, wind, cold weather, etc., can cause you as a coxswain to be off your game, which is not beneficial to the crew or the team goals overall. Every practice and every stroke matter, so it is important that you are taking advantage of being out there to the fullest. A cold, wet, and uncomfortable coxswain makes for a less than stellar coxswain. This I can promise you from personal experience. Shoutout to Kari, our equipment manager, for always having the Wisco coxswains ready for all weather scenarios.