Coxswains: Being a Good Teammate

By Sparks Editorial Staff | September 11, 2013

We've been looking at the core skills that top coxswains use, but don't talk about. In the last article, we discussed how top coxswains ask questions to sharpen their judgment.

This time, we'll talk about how using rowers’ criticism teaches coxswains to give productive criticism. When coxswains learn how to talk to rowers about improvement without condescending the rowers or making them anxious, they can get away with making the sort of demands that would make the average coxswain’s heart drop into her stomach.


What kind of demands am I talking about?

Well, some of you may remember Edmond the Terrible Rower from one of our previous posts:

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.

How frustrating is this? You know something specific needs to be improved in your boat and you know exactly what it is, but – there’s nothing you can do about it. You feel powerless. And why?

Because you’re afraid of what’s going to happen if you keep calling out this rower.

Best case scenario, it’s a waste of your time and there are no other consequences. Worst case scenario, Edmond gets offended and hates you, or gets stressed out and starts rowing, Heaven forbid, even worse than he was rowing in the first place.

The latter prospects are more terrifying still when the rower you’re correcting isn’t Edmond the Terrible, but rather some other rower who is actually quite fast, or has the potential to be quite fast, or whose opinion is extremely important in team politics.

As you ponder these possibilities in your head, you can feel the boatspeed slipping through your fingers with every passing stroke.

What if I told you…there’s a way past this problem?

That there are ways to ask rowers for improvement, repeatedly until the rower succeeds, without making them want to kill you?

There are, and the best way to fully understand them is to welcome rower criticism yourself.

As you become more accustomed to asking for feedback from rowers, you’re going to hear them say all kinds of things. Some of them are going to hurt you and do absolutely no good. Some of them are going to make you feel sad, but will help you become a better coxswain (don’t worry – the sad goes away when you realize that it’s a compliment for the rower to invest his time in you). Then, some rowers, especially over time, provide you with feedback that helps you to improve, and also encourages you. Maybe it’s because they tell you when you have made an improvement. Or they give you an excellent metric to track your progress. Maybe they spend extra time making sure you understand exactly what they want from you. Whatever it is, you notice, as you collect feedback, what makes you perform better and what makes you perform worse, what you want more of and what you want less of.

You might have already figured out where we’re going with this. Those types of things that you want more of? There’s a good chance that those are the types of technical corrections that the rowers want more of, too. If you’re having to make a technical call over and over, how can you ask for that change the way your best feedback-givers ask you for changes?

A little observation and a little empathy can teach you how to take a rower, in the course of three practices, from chronic, boatstopping lungeing to something decidedly less so – without making that rower hate you.

By persisting in the right way, the way good "feedbackers" persist in the right way, you can encourage a rower and demand more from them at the same time.

- Chelsea Dommert