Coxswain Tips: Admitting Responsibility

By Sparks Editorial Staff | June 4, 2013

Once upon a time, a long time ago (but not long enough ago for it not to be embarrassing), I coxed a boat in a pretty close race with another boat. We lost the race by four seats, and it was entirely my fault.

I don’t just mean it was my responsibility because I was the coxswain; I mean I acted alone to cost us those four seats and several more. I failed to keep my eye on my point, so I ended up on the far outside of my lane (on a curved course, I should mention – so I made my course measurably longer). I also hit a buoy. I don’t mean that my oars swatted a tiny buoy, like those little green and yellow buoys that line the typical lane. I mean I ran a giant, orange buoy, the kind they use to mark each 500m, directly under my starboard riggers.

When the race was over, no one in the boat said anything for about two minutes. I took the boat to the dock, and still no one said anything. Everyone was completely stunned – myself included. How on Earth had I managed to do that?

We put our boat away and met with coach to talk about the race. He didn’t say anything, really. He just looked at us all and he asked “So…what happened?”

Silence. I said…nothing.

As I write this, and as you’re reading, it seems ridiculous that I said nothing. After all, this loss was clearly my problem. Oh, and I should mention – my coach was in the launch following the race. He saw the whole thing happen, like an unbelievable train wreck.

Why did I say nothing?

Well, at the time, I wanted to convince myself – and maybe other people, though objectively that was of course impossible – that this had somehow not happened.

Later that week, I received the results of some anonymous feedback from the boat.

Do you know what they wrote about the most?

It wasn’t my screw-up, actually. It was how I had handled my screw-up – how I had remained silent about it and failed to admit it or apologize.

Admitting mistakes and apologizing are extremely difficult – much more difficult for us than we like to admit.

In the anonymous feedback, I received words to this effect:

“I understand that mistakes happen. However, it would have meant a lot to the boat if our coxswain had apologized to us in person before or during our boat meeting immediately following the race.”

My mistake had cost me my rowers’ trust, but it was my handling of the mistake, and not the mistake itself, that cost me their respect.

We fear that apologizing opens us up to backlash and criticism. We fear that it makes us look incapable.

As it turns out, the opposite is true. Admitting and apologizing for your mistakes reinforces that it is rare for you to make a mistake like that and actually reaffirms your normal level of competence. If you don’t acknowledge that your mistake was unusual, then you signal that such a thing might happen more regularly than it does.

It’s difficult, at first, to admit mistakes to other people. A good starting point is to admit mistakes to yourself.

This sounds deceptively easy. After all, you’re just admitting your fallibility to the one person who won’t judge you – right?

Actually, when we avoid blaming ourselves for things, we often don’t mean to deceive other people. Rather, we’re actually looking for a way to genuinely believe that we are not at fault. Once we admit to ourselves that we are at fault, we subject ourselves to our cruelest and most unforgiving critic. We tell ourselves that we are worthless, that we were wrong to think that we were good coxswains, that we will never be fast, etc. etc. Our limbic brains want to protect us from that critic, so we experience cognitive dissonance and innately bend our memory of events into some shape that does not make us look as blameworthy.

When you start acknowledging when you are to blame for things, though, you’ll discover something amazing. Your inner critic will shut up. In that second, that vermin critic will think about how to help you get better instead of just trying to tell you how you’re a waste of air. It will criticize you, but it will not judge you. This is critical.

Once you can do that, the hard part is over. Next you become comfortable with admitting your mistakes to other people. You can start with small mistakes in the boat, like misunderstanding coach’s instructions or explaining an upcoming drill in a really confusing way. It doesn’t have to be elaborate: “Sorry guys, that was my fault” will do. This is training your mistake-admitting muscles in case you make a bigger mistake down the line. You’ll be able to admit it and apologize because you have practiced on the smaller, more forgettable mistakes that coxswains make more often.

Though admitting a big mistake is hard in the moment that you’re doing it, it gives you a feeling of calm and closure afterward. You messed up, then you apologized. The end. You can improve from your mistake, and we can all move on with our lives.

There’s another advantage to this: your rowers will all respect you for admitting your mistake, because it is so rare for people in leadership roles to admit their mistakes. People have screwed up far more than you and earned positive press for admitting their mistakes. Hillary Clinton publicly admitted her mistakes in under-protecting the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted that Apple Maps was a horrible screw-up. These people apologized, and received the respect of their listeners for doing so. You, as well, will find that your rowers respect and sympathize with you when you apologize for your mistakes. Getting your rowers to respect your leadership is a critical part of dominating the coxswain seat.

Inspirational Quotes for Coxswains:

#3: “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
– inventor, author, and statesman Benjamin Franklin
#4: “To err is human; to admit it, superhuman.”
– news columnist Doug Larson