Next up In The Driver's Seat--where we hear from the folks who add that extra something to the teamwork of a crew--is coxswain Camille Arnold-Mages.
Camille won a bronze medal at the U23 World Championships this past summer with the women's four, and when she is not racing for the USA, she coxes the Northeastern Women. At the 2023 NCAAs, she and the Husky 1V led Northeastern to its best finish since 2017, and she was at the helm of the 1V as the team won its ninth consecutive CAA Championship to earn that NCAA bid.
She got her start in coxing at Three Rivers Rowing in Pittsburgh, and then joined the junior team at CRI, so she knows her home waters there on Charles River pretty well. She returned from Plovdiv this summer to cox the Northeastern 1V again in the Champ Eights at HOCR.
Let's hop In The Driver's Seat with Camille:
row2k - What do you see as the three most important things for being a successful coxswain?
Camille Arnold-Mages - A successful coxswain must be hard working, good at listening, and passionate.
The most successful coxswains put a lot of hours into their craft outside the boat. If you want to be at your best, the in-session practices are only about 20% of time spent on coxing. Even though rowing is a team sport, coxing ends up being more of an individual sport. You are the only person in the boat who is doing what you are doing, and it is drastically different from what everyone else is doing. While the rowers must be able to sustain their power throughout a set distance and maintain impeccable technique, it is up to the coxswain to steer, keep rhythm, and inform the rowers of anything and everything around them. Most importantly you have to convince the rowers that they are capable of something they might think is impossible.
One of the things I work on, and a lot of coxswains (and coaches!) tend to underestimate it, is the power of voice cadence. The relationship between your voice rhythm and rowers' emotions is very understated. Recently I have discovered that if my boat is experiencing some rush or is over rate I can slow my voice down and almost like magic the rush/stroke rate decreases. I have also found that this works for technical focuses. For example if we are working on quicker/sharper catches, I use concise words or quicken my cadence near the front end of the stroke and, in turn, the blades enter the water quicker and cleaner.
While you might think that your verbal skills are the most important, the most essential coxswain skill is listening. First you have to listen to the coaching staff for directions, drills, technical focuses and so on. Then you have to listen to the rowers, how're they feeling, and more importantly how are your words impacting them. One of the hardest parts of being a good listener is to take feedback. It goes without saying that getting critique isn't one of the most fun things in the world but that critique is truly one of your biggest resources. It's important to keep in mind that coxing feedback is not a judgment on you. One thing that can help is to practice getting feedback regularly. Ask the athletes and coaches for feedback after practices. I like to ask the rowers for 3 things that they'd like me to change or improve on. For coaches I usually ask questions about different scenarios I am unsure of, that way I learn exactly what they're looking for.
Lastly, I think the one thing that separates a good coxswain from a successful coxswain is passion. Everyone can become a good coxswain: as long as you listen and adapt, you're on the path to being a good cox. To take it to the next level, however, you have to figure out why you cox. I've found that my reasons change and evolve depending on my goals. At the beginning of high school, I coxed to get recruited to college. In my junior year, I realized that coxing to be recruited was not a good enough reason so I began to search for more. I've come to realize that I cox because there is nothing else I'd rather spend my time doing.
row2k - What is your favorite drill to run with your crews? Any tips on how to the drill well, for maximum effectiveness?
Camille Arnold-Mages - My favorite drill to run is the rock over drill, where you have the rowers pause in the body over position without the arm extension. It teaches how to get your body out of bow together as well as how to maximize the speed around the back end of the stroke.
To run this drill effectively, it is extremely important that the rowers know we're looking for quick bodies out of bow. At first when calling the pause you want to hold the body over position for a few seconds so the rowers know exactly what to expect, then as they get more comfortable, shorten the pause until there is practically no pause at all!
row2k - What's some of the best coaching advice you've received about your coxing?
Camille Arnold-Mages - The most impactful piece of advice I've received was from my mental game coach, Jonathan Roche. He taught me that if you want to set a goal you need to own your goal. You cannot achieve something if you don't 100% believe you can do it.
I learned this in my senior year of high school and it brought a major shift to my perception of both rowing and life. Jonathan showed me that it is important to vocalize your goals as it gives the goals momentum and keeps them close to the front of your mind. Vocalizing your goals also creates a sense of accountability that will help you hold yourself to the highest standard. I try to share this message as often as possible. Vocalize your goal and then commit 100% without fear.
row2k - What is a mid-race call or move that you've made that you'll remember for the rest of your life?
Camille Arnold-Mages - Any time my boat has a sense of achieving a goal for the team, we always exceed expectations. In the summer of 2022, when I raced with the USRowing U23 High Performance Team at Summer Nationals, this sense of community was powerful. It was our final race of the day, the Women's 8. Every athlete in the boat had raced already less than an hour before, yet the boat was buzzing with energy.
Off the start of the race we sat in 4th, but slowly through the first 500 we inched into 3rd. We held 3rd and were putting up a strong fight between Vesper and Greenwich, but it wasn't till the 1250 mark that we made our move. I remember how, inching closer to the spectator area at 1500, we were pushing full steam sitting in 3rd with Greenwich on one side and Vesper on the other. As we started to get closer to our teammates and coaches on land, we realized that we were doing this race for them. With that realization, our boat surged forward with a new sense of commitment. Right in front of the spectator section, our coaches watched us walk right into 1st place and hold it all the way to the line.
row2k - Can you tell us anything about how you learned how to call the sprint?
Camille Arnold-Mages - I learned a lot about how to call sprints this past summer with the U23 team and one of the biggest pieces of advice I got was to keep it concise.
At the end of a race the rowers have gone so hard for so long that they start to "black out." Their brain is probably only processing every third word as it is taking every bit of energy they have to keep accelerating the boat down the course. Due to that lack of mental space, it is best to keep anything you say in the sprint simple. Pick your biggest technical focus and shorten it to 1 or 2 words.
row2k - Tell us a bit about your best race/practice?
Camille Arnold-Mages - This is a really hard question to answer. If I could, I would answer with at least 10 different races.
The U23 Women's 4+ was one of the grittiest races I've ever been a part of. We knew going into the final that it was going to be a dog fight to the finish line. The night before our race we had our final boat meeting where our coach told us to focus on going out and having our best race possible and to let the results take care of themselves. To have our best race, we knew we had to get faster in our second 500 and increase our speed in the sprint.
When we got to the start line, we had a sense of confidence that showed we knew exactly what we needed to do to have our best race. Off the starting blocks, the boat surged into action. For the first 500 meters it felt like we were the only boat on the course. Our rhythm came in no time and the power was there. The confidence continued to push us down the field. As we came into the second 500, they continued to surge as the other crews came into our world. Australia was 3/4 of a length up and we were about a seat from even with New Zealand. Germany was sitting on our stroke pair and Italy had fallen out of my view. Now it was time for us to nail the second 500. We took a move to refocus our push and to focus on consistency. Instead of staying consistent we began to negative split the second 500; we had gained speed and we still had strength to go.
As we came to the halfway point we held on to Australia's 3/4 length lead and were actively battling it out with New Zealand. We had managed to push Germany back to open water, so we were sitting in a podium position and we'd nailed our first goal for the race. In no time, the third 500 was over and it was time to zone in for the sprint. We knew that the biggest thing that helped with our sprint was focusing on shoving our hips down the tracks first. We took a few strokes to breathe and then we hit the sprint hard. The boat had suddenly had a refreshed sense of energy as the rate came up and the split dropped down. Within the blink of an eye we crossed the finish line and earned a bronze medal, the first medal of the regatta for the United States.
At Northeastern, my most memorable race was our heat at the 2023 Eastern Sprints. There is a lot to be said for the rivalries of the different schools on the Charles, especially Northeastern and BU's rivalry. For our heat it was pretty clear that to get into the A final we had to beat BU. Just 2 weeks prior we had our annual dual with BU where we had a heartbreaking loss and had to hand over the cup. You could say we were hungry, but that's an understatement. When we lined up you could feel everyone in the boat thinking just how much they wanted to take the A final spot. The minute the buzzer went off the sound of all the coxswains, oars, boats, and footstretchers created a sound almost identical to a gunshot. At the 500 meter mark we were sitting about half a length down. There was a slight sense of unease that fell over the boat for maybe a second before we decided to attack. We took a 10 and pulled back even. Then we attacked. We took about a seat per stroke and ended up on bowball by the 1k mark. We finished the race on bowball of BU and secured our spot in the A Final. This race proved just how much grit our boat had.
Thanks for riding along with Camille, 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.