Coxswain Tips: Accepting Criticism

By Sparks Editorial Staff | July 1, 2013

Everything you feel about criticism is wrong.

It’s not that everything you know is wrong – you’ve probably heard some correct things before, just poorly worded and unconvincing. Precisely because that wording did not convince you, you still feel bad about yourself, or in competent, or even defensive when you hear criticism.

Maybe you know how to ask for help and feedback, and you even try to implement that feedback, but it still hurts your self-esteem just a little to hear that you’re doing something wrong.

Let me share a secret with you that separates the top coxswains from the pack:

Top Coxswains Know That Useful Criticism is a Compliment

That’s right. Plenty of coxswains complain about two opposite scenarios. They complain when they ask rowers for feedback and they get something like “Oh, you’re doing a good job!” After all, they can’t use that – the rower clearly did not put thought into that answer. Those same coxswains will also complain when rowers point out a long list of things that they should improve. They call those rowers “picky.” The criticism makes that coxswain feel bad. It hurts.

Though rowers don’t always critique very tactfully, I’m not training rowers to have tact. I’m training you to be a top coxswain. This isn’t about what they say; it’s about how you handle it. No matter how nitpicky your rowers get, their criticism is a compliment. How? Take a look at that long list of things your rower wrote that he would like you to improve. How long did it take him to write that? It probably took him longer to write his feedback than it took you to ask for it. That means that your rower is investing his time in you.

Think about the last time you were in a novice boat with a majority of people who were technically pretty solid and then one or two rowers who just…did not…get it…at all. They didn’t really make changes when you asked them to, they always missed a ton of water, and they were generally regarded as an anchor who was slowing down the boat.

How much time did you spend trying to fix this rower?

You tried for a while. Eventually, you either gave up, or you decided not to make any technical comments to this rower except for “Edmond, take two breaths on every recovery” because you figured that his astonishing slide rush was about as much as he could focus on that day.

Or, worded more sympathetically, you stopped investing your time in that rower because you weren’t getting a return on your investment.

Okay, when your rower gives you a long list of actionable feedback, he is doing the opposite of what you did to Edmond the Terrible Rower.

He is investing his time in you and expressing his faith in you to act on the feedback that he took all this time to write.

He believes you can make these changes and he believes that it will be worth it for the team if you do make these changes.

His detailed criticism is a vote of confidence. If you were hopeless, he wouldn’t bother writing all that.

When you understand that about criticism, suddenly criticism becomes a lot easier to read and a lot more motivating to use. You want to show your rowers that they were right to invest their time in you, to put their faith in you.

Inspirational Quotes for Coxswains:

#9: “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” - minister and author Norman Vincent Peale

#10: “He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” ― American president Abraham Lincoln

- Chelsea Dommert