Coxswain Calls

By Sparks Editorial Staff | September 23, 2013

In the last article, we discussed what top coxswains do to become, and to stay, the best in their leagues. We learned that those coxswains gain the surface skills that few coxswains manage to develop by first mastering a completely different set of skills - the core skills.

Now we're going to start talking about how those core skills translate into surface skills - the green arrows on the map above.

Let's begin with the first green arrow - how do coxswains learn clarity and succinctness from utilizing criticism?

To discuss this question, we have to step away from the world we would like to live in and talk about the world that we do live in.

We would, of course, like to live in a world where all coxswains learn to row - preferably before coxing. Unfortunately, though, many coxswains do not. Additionally, among those that do, many learn to scull - and in so doing, row primarily in uncoxed boats. For this reason, most coxswains have listened to very few other coxswains and have never tried to actually execute another coxswain's commands.

This is why coxswains have so much trouble delivering clear, succinct commands - they have never themselves experienced the problems that their commands cause, and those commands sound fine until you actually try to obe them.

Take the poster example: "weigh enough in two." This command sounds fine, right?

Here's the problem with it. If the coxswain says that command just a little too slowly, rowers get really confused after "weigh enough." That's because they don't know if the coxswain is going to say "in two." So some of them might decide to weigh enough right away, and others might decide to keep rowing until they hear "in two." This is stressful and annoying for the rowers, who shouldn't have to think about the coxswain's commands.

Coxswains don't notice why that is annoying because they have never done it.

Coxswains also don't inherently understand why they should summarize the workout after the coach says it. The coach just spent two whole minutes explaining the workout. Why should the coxswain repeat it? Coxswains don't realize that that's exactly the point - coach just spent two whole minutes talking about the workout - when they're thinking about the workout in their head, are they going to remember that two minute explanation? No. They want the easy version: "Three minutes on, one minute off. 22, 24,26. We do that three times." Even better, rather than keep repeating the entire workout, a good coxswain can drill down on the piece of the workout relevant to the rowers at that moment. "Next is 3 minutes at a 24. 3 minutes with perfect catch timing. Sit ready."

Because the coxswain is not sweating from the warm-up and adjusting her foot stretchers and drinking water during the coach's explanation, she figures that longer is clearer. To the rowers, longer is not clearer. But how does the coxswain know that?

She doesn't know that because she probably doesn't row. And even if she did row at some point, she might forget about this issue because she has never had a coxswain do it right before.

So if the coxswain has never rowed and therefore has no basis on which to judge how to make the calls in the clearest possible way for rowers, who can she ask?

It's easy! Ask the rowers.

A note of caution: rowers do not know much about coxing, either, so they don't always give the greatest feedback on all areas of the job. On this specific area, though, they do provide pretty accurate feedback. They know why that call was annoying, and they know how to make it work better. Or, at least, if they don't know how to make it work better, they know that something the coxswain said, or didn't say, was annoying.

It can be a tiny thing that the coxswain just doesn't notice. The rowers notice, though. And chances are, if a coxswain continually asks all 40 of the rowers on her team for feedback, 3 or 4 will become goldmines for pointing out places where the calls need tightening up. They may not always know how to tighten them up, but they'll know where.

So, the coxswain's job is twofold:

1. Develop a thick enough skin to ask for and receive rowers' complaints about the calls.

2. Develop the problem-solving skills to strengthen the calls once rowers point out that they are weak.

By perfecting a call or two each day, or even each week, coxswains become much clearer, more succinct, and more capable over time. Rowers follow their orders with ease, and so their command of crew increases. They also say less to get what they want and can spend more time paying attention to other things. It's a virtuous cycle of coxswain awesomeness.

- Chelsea Dommert