Coxswain Tips: Asking for Help

By Sparks Editorial Staff | June 10, 2013

It’s a shame when coxswains collectively take a cue from bad leadership, and there’s one bad leadership habit that appears to show up in at least one coxswain on every rowing team. It goes something like this:

“Because I am in charge, I have to seem like I know everything.”

Rowers are not stupid, so this does not work. It just makes a coxswain look like she is unwilling to listen to anyone or change anything.

Rowers aren’t just automatons that you direct around the river each time you go out. They have insights about the boat, too, and they can be extremely helpful when you’re at a loss for what you can change to make the boat go faster.

Think of them as your personal brain trust for when you run out of ideas.

Even among coxswains who try this approach, about half of them eventually give up. It happens for two reasons: either they don’t change when they ask for help or they don’t change how they ask for help. They try one way, something goes wrong, they fail to self-evaluate, and they quit trying.

Something that works:

Asking for specific feedback in between pieces: by specific, I mean something like “Did you guys think that X call worked well, or would you prefer if I tried Y?”

Something that doesn’t work:

Asking for general feedback in between pieces: rowers do not have time in their 2 minute water break to come up with good answers to “What should I change?” 6 times out of 10, you’ll get no actionable feedback from asking this between pieces. On the remaining 4 times, 2 of them will involve some rower getting so wrapped up in a complicated explanation that he is still explaining as you start rowing into the next piece. That’s not acceptable, and it sets a bad precedent.

Something that works:

Asking for general feedback from an individual rower in an e-mail after practice: this gives the rower time to think about what problems he would like you to solve, and how he would like you to solve them, without having to face you directly with criticism.

Something that doesn’t work:

Asking the same question of the same person at the same time, but doing it in person: contrary to logic, this works poorly. The rower doesn’t have time to think before he responds, plus he has to give the criticism to your face. Though you might be comfortable with that, he might not be. So he will give you something vague or non-actionable just to get the pressure off of himself.

These are just examples. As with any coxswain call, you have to evaluate and test your approach.

You can also ask coaches and the internet for help. Those are both valuable resources, too. However, neither one can give you targeted, specific feedback the way your rowers can. Coaches also inexplicably often blow off coxswain requests for feedback and treat them as a nuisance. So, fine. You can take care of this yourself, and your rowers will be more than happy to help you.

Asking for help gains you respect in the eyes of your rowers. You care about their opinions and you want to hear their thoughts: this is something they don’t always get from the people who play leader positions in their lives. Additionally, if you give your rowers an outlet to express their concerns openly at certain times, they are less likely to express those concerns at inappropriate times, like during pieces, or in inappropriate ways, like shouting at you on the dock.

Finally, asking for help allows you to practice the humility that so many coxswains lack. You’re in charge of this boat, and it is your responsibility. However, you do not experience the benefits and consequences of your performance by yourself. You have four or eight others who share in that performance. When you do it correctly, you can share ownership of the boat with them in a way that benefits all of you.

Inspirational Coxswain Quotes:

#7: “Asking for help does not mean that we are weak or incompetent. It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence.” - author Anne Wilson Schaef

#8: “The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it.” - columnist and businesswoman Rona Barrett

- Chelsea Dommert