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row2k Coxswains Corner
In the Driver's Seat, with Dana Shearer
August 30, 2022
John FX Flynn

Dana's last junior regatta, racing the Summer Youth Nationals with Row America Rye

Next up In The Driver's Seat--where we hear from the folks who keep the shells straight and the crews fast—-is coxswain Dana Shearer.

Dana just started her collegiate career as a freshman on the team at USC, but she took a moment to look back on what she learned as a coxswain at Pelham Community Rowing back home in New York for this week's Driver's Seat column.

With PCRA, Dana finished 4th in the Youth Women's 4 at HOCR'21--and getting on the podium after starting 36th takes some doing, and steering, for sure.

She and her four-mates also made the W4+ Grand Final at Youth Nationals, and she wrapped up her Youth career racing--you guessed it--the Youth Women's Four at Summer Nationals with Row America Rye, another local club that gave her a shot at a bit more racing experience before she headed out to Southern California.

So, for some coast-to-coast coxing insights, let's hop In The Driver's Seat with Dana:

row2k - What would you say are the top three most important things for becoming a successful coxswain?
Dana Shearer - To be successful is to be diligent. Without diligence, it is rare that true success will come. Rowing is the type of sport where one has to be fully devoted to advancing their craft. You must be persistent each day to learn from yourself and your own mistakes, as well as from the people around you. Without doing this, you will not get any better and therefore will remain stagnant, and not add speed to the boats that you are in.

In the Driver's Seat... (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)
In the Driver's Seat... (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)

Success is also reliant on adaptability. You can learn something from any boat, any oars, any lineup, and any workout. So, regardless of whether you are in the boat that you want to be in or not, adapt your skillset to that boat and commit to being the best you that you can possibly be in that lineup. This mindset will teach you how to cox a number of different people, and in a number of different styles.

Adaptability is also key on a racecourse: you never know when something may not go to plan, and you will have to adjust to best fit the circumstances. Learn to remain calm under pressure, so that when things like this do occur, you are prepared and ready to take on the challenge.

Lastly, remain coachable and communicative. One of the responsibilities of the coxswain is to make the coach's job a bit easier, so communication is key. Learn to communicate well with other coxswains both on the water and on land to help run an efficient practice. Communicating with other coxswains in a positive manner helps to add to a positive team environment, and that leads to a faster team. Coachability is important because it shows that you are willing to learn, and do not possess a “know it all” attitude. Coaches notice when an athlete is coachable, and are more likely to give you the attention that will help you to hone your skillset.

row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Dana Shearer - Drilling is one of my absolute favorite things. I love being in the boat and feeling or watching the boat speed pick up as the stroke becomes more and more effective.

PCRA's U19 Eight at Summer Nationals in 2021
PCRA's U19 Eight at Summer Nationals in 2021

I have a lot of favorite drills, but my favorite is pausing. I like to run pause drills because they help to signify what is happening at each part of the stroke. Traditionally, I do them at the release, arms away, body over, or half slide, depending on what the focus is on that day. Usually, I do them as "5 and 10"--five strokes with the pause, and then ten strokes continuous. This allows the rowers to check their positioning on the pauses, and then put it all together on the continuous strokes.

For example, on the half slide pauses, the rowers can focus on getting the blades perfectly squared up together over the sill and being prepared for the catch. The pause gives them time to think about the change, and then the continuous strokes allow them to do it while the boat is moving.

row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Dana Shearer - I’ve got to say, I am pretty lucky to have had a coxswain as one of my coaches in high school. It was extremely helpful to have someone who had actually sat in the seat before as the person to teach me how to be a better athlete on a daily basis. However, for the most part, I think I figured out what to do most of the time by being independent. It was through teaching myself on my own what to do, and then getting feedback thereafter, that I learned to develop as a coxswain.

Dana and her teammates after winning NY States to qualify for Youth Nationals (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)
Dana and her teammates after winning NY States to qualify for Youth Nationals (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)

I think the best coaching advice that I have ever received is simple: to trust and to be confident. Before the Women’s Youth 4+ race at Youth Summer Nationals this year, I asked my coach if he had any words of wisdom that he could give me. He said no. He said you know what to do. Just tell them how to win. I think this is important. It wasn’t advice, per se, but it was essentially him reaffirming my confidence.

As a coxswain, your attitude in the boat is very important. Your crew will notice when you are nervous, and when you are confident, they will notice that as well. They will feel safe and relaxed. They will know that you are going to run their warm up properly, get them in the stakeboat efficiently, and get them down the course without frantic behavior. Therefore, a confident coxswain leads to a confident crew, and a confident crew leads to a powerful boat.

row2k - What is a mid-race call or move that you've made that you'll remember for the rest of your life? If so, what did it involve and how did you call it?
Dana Shearer - This is such a difficult question to answer! I have multiple responses to this question, but the funny thing is, they all come from the same few races.

I will always remember during the Semifinal of Youth Nationals saying, “Someone’s gonna move, Maya, and it’s you! Ready?” I’ve said something along this line in the past before, and my girls always told me that it was one of their favorites, so I knew I had to include it in this race when the moment felt right. We were trading seats back and forth with Row New Jersey while inching up on Cambridge Boat Club and needed to make a move to get into the qualifying position that put us into the Grand Final.

I also remember, at New York States, calling a twenty for one of our awesome coaches. This was such an emotional race for us as a boat, so I remember saying, “We’re taking that 20 for Greg, the way he would want it to be done, alright?” I do not believe that there is any magical call that will out of nowhere pick a boat up, but I do remember seeing an instantaneous drop in split after this one.

Profanity and even the occasional F-bomb can help make your calls aggressive and to the point, but be careful with your language, and don’t get into any trouble with the officials. Sometimes, though, aggression like that just happens. Be smart!

Racing the Four at the Head of Schuylkill in 2021
Racing the Four at the Head of Schuylkill in 2021

row2k - Can you tell us anything about how you learned to steer straight?
Dana Shearer - Steering straight is the coxswain's most basic responsibility. A crew is destined to go faster with a silent coxswain who steers straight, rather than a coxswain who is using the absolute perfect language, but writing their name on the course.

Despite it being an absolute necessity, steering straight can sometimes seem like one of the most daunting and difficult tasks. The way I steer is dependent on where I am. If I am directly next to shore, it helps me to think about staying parallel to the shore. But for the most part, I think the way I learned to steer straight is all dependent on how I hold the strings.

I have primarily coxed Wintech and King fours, and their steering systems are similar to that of an eight: feeling the movement of the string in between my fingertips helps me to decipher how much the boat is moving in a given direction. I like to keep a tight enough grip that I have good control, but loose enough to the point that I can really feel the string moving. Paying attention to how the string moves, helps me to minimize the amount of times I touch the rudder.

Racing the PCRA W4+ at Mercer Sprints
Racing the PCRA W4+ at Mercer Sprints

Moreover, heads up coxing is very important. It is key that a coxswain does not stare down at their speedcoach or cox box, but rather keeps their head forward, and only every now and then takes a peek down. This will help them hold their line.

Also: on a racecourse, if you get thrown off track or off your line, you do not have to come back to the center of your lane. That will only add meters to your race. You can still go straight without being in the middle. Just stay where you are, and hold your line from there.

row2k - Tell us us about the best race/practice you've ever had?
Dana Shearer - The best race I ever had was the Youth Nationals Semifinal in the Women’s Youth 4+ this year. It was the best not necessarily because of the rowing, but because of the significance that the race held. There was so much riding on the race, and to watch it all come together was an absolutely incredible feeling.

PCRA Four in the YNats '22 Semi
PCRA Four in the YNats '22 Semi

Pelham Community Rowing Association is a small club, and has only been in an A Final at Youth Nationals a handful of times. Over the last year, our team went through a lot. We experienced unbelievable triumphs together, and also rock bottom lows. At times, it didn’t necessarily feel like we could make it that far. But, we did.

Launching at YNats '22 (photo credit: Elsa Rolfs)
Launching at YNats '22 (photo credit: Elsa Rolfs)

For the two years leading up to the race, we had been taught that making the Grand Final at Youth Nationals was the bare minimum, the only option, and an absolute necessity. It was crazy to see that the moment had finally arrived. I remember that before the race our coach gathered us up to read us a letter that he wrote us. It began to rain, so we huddled up under some random team’s tent while he read it to us. By the time he was finished, the entire crew had walked away with tears in their eyes.

He had conjured up our emotions and we were officially on a hunt. We were about to go on a mission. I don’t think anyone in the boat said a word from the time we walked to the boat, to the time that we launched. There was maybe one or two I love you statements, but that was probably it. We were down off of the start, and walked our way into third place, a qualifying position for the Grand Final.

I remember flying through the line, tossing my hand in the air, and seeing my coach on the bike path knowing that we did it. It felt unbelievable. Nobody cares who wins the semi final, if you are first, second or third. Step two was completed. It was a great race.

Thanks for riding along with Dana -- and, remember, this column is open to all "drivers" out there, so if you are an experienced coxswain at any level--from juniors to masters--and would be willing to invite row2k to join you in your ride, just contact us here. We’d love to hear from you about what you see from the Driver's Seat.

With those HOCR medals in 2021 (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)
With those HOCR medals in 2021 (photo credit: Bertrand and Andrea Spunberg)

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