Coxswain Tips: Giving Criticism

By Sparks Editorial Staff | July 18, 2013

Top coxswains are already really good at admitting their mistakes, asking for help, and accepting criticism.

But the next step, the extra step that will make them indispensable for making crews faster, is the ability to apply what they know about accepting criticism to the way they give criticism.

Have you ever been coxing a boat with one person who just did something particularly bad (for example, didn’t ever get his blade buried all the way in the water), but no matter how much you called her out on it, she couldn’t seem to fix it?

What did you do?

Did you eventually stop calling her out and focus on other people instead?

Did you call her out less often than you really wanted to all practice long?

Why did you do that? Were you afraid to hurt her feelings? Were you afraid to talk to her too much?

Or did you just think that you should give each rower equal attention and move away from that rower after you had “yelled at her enough?”

These are all common concerns, particularly for coxswains of girls.

This is about to get pretend-technical for two seconds, but it’s not very long and not difficult at all.

Every boat has several rowers who are, to some degree, different speeds. On top of that, each rower is using her speed with a certain level of efficiency – and they are, to some degree, different efficiencies.

So every coxswain is looking at a version of this:

Now, the coxswain’s job during any ONE practice or race is to get the boat to perform at its maximum potential – that is, to minimize the distance between the top of each rower’s blue bar and the top of his red bar.

Suppose that the boat speed, then, is the sum of the area of all the bars up to the top of the blue part, and the boat’s potential speed is the sum of the area of all the bars up to the top of the red part. The fastest and most efficient way to increase boat speed is to prioritize the biggest red parts – in this picture, that might be 7 seat, 5 seat, and 2 seat.

Though it might be tempting to spend an equal amount of time on each seat, that’s not always the most efficient way to increase boat speed. For example, if I spend the same amount of time on stroke seat and 7 seat, I could be wasting some time because stroke seat can’t go as much faster than she is already going as 7 seat can right now.

But suppose I have already talked to 7 seat a lot today, and she still has a bigger red zone than the rest of the boat? How do I keep riding her without making her upset?

Remember that criticism used to make you upset – before you understood that actionable criticism is a type of praise. You know now that, ever time someone gives you thoughtful criticism, they’re investing in you. Their critique is a vote of confidence that you can get better, and when you do, you’re going to make the team faster.

Your 7 seat needs to understand that, too. She, and other rowers with large red zones, are your 80-20 solution to making the boat faster. You can ride her when you know how to give criticism without belittling her. There are a few keys to this, these among them:

- keep her appraised every time she improves, before she asks you “Was that better?” (Do not make up positive feedback just to even out the positive-to-negative-ratio. That solution is for mediocre coxswains, and it doesn’t fool anyone).
- Also keep her appraised if her improvement coincides with an increase in boat speed. Example: “Look! Now that your blade is buried at the catch, we get an extra two inches of run. This emphasizes not how her flaws take away from boat speed, but rather how her improvements add to it.
- Remind her between pieces that you’re insisting on improvement because you know you can expect a lot from her.

This last one is the one that draw from your wisdom about the secrets of top coxswains: you know that fault is power, and you know that actionable criticism is a vote of confidence.

Most coxswains don’t frame it like that. They frame fault and criticism as bad things. Because those coxswains misunderstand the whole idea of fault and criticism, they have to compensate by ignoring egregious technical errors when rowers don’t fix them or by piling a bunch of fake praise onto everything they say.

Let them waste their time. You’re better than that – and so are your rowers.

- Chelsea Dommert