Coxswains: Getting Out of a Rut!

By Marcus McElhenney | October 30, 2013

Last week I received an amazing email from a sophomore in college asking for some help.  I chose to answer this reader submitted question first, because it really pertains to so many coxswains out there making the transition from one level to the next.  The general call of the questions is:

“What is throwing me off, I think, is I can feel the rowers comparing me to the better coxswains they have been able to work with this year.  They question the small decisions I make and I get a lot of comments in the boat.  I know I shouldn't let that happen, but right now I feel like they know more than I do.  I feel lacking in every angle of the job, and now my confidence has essentially taken a huge blow.  I get really flustered when it comes to handling situations I've never been in before on the water, and I know as a cox I'm supposed to fake it 'till I make it, but it's just not meshing right now.  What can I do to help my decision making?  Are there any specific resources I can look at to help me with making technical calls during steady state pieces?” -Andrea

Now the mistake that Andrea is making is not the little things that should be perfect but are not.  It is the fact that she is assuming that she is not able to make mistakes or has to ‘fake it till she makes it.’  Quite the opposite is true.  The thing is that generally, rowers know more about rowing then most coxswains.  Most coxswains do not even know how to row or have never done it.  Most do not erg or will ever be able to pull the fastest score on the squad.  And even those that row, do not do it nearly as much as the rowers in their boat, so they therefore have less experience.  So do not feel like they know more then you do…know that they do and accept it.  This should be done both internally and externally.  By what you think and what you do.

“But Marcus, this means that they will not think I am confident.”  No Andrea, it will show that you are confident and will also allow you to better connect with them as athletes so that they can help make you better instead of just getting frustrated.  Let me give you an example. When I first joined the National Team at the Olympic Training Center, I was only three months out of college and had only been to one World Championships in a JV boat.  I was now in the mix with multiple National Teamers and Olympians who have been crushing it for over a decade.  Did they know more than me?  Heck yeah.  More experience?  Of course.  What I did was openly accept that they were more talented and qualified and I informed them of that.  I even specifically sought out athletes and told them what I thought and that I needed their help.  That I was open to any and all comments and criticisms and that if they think of anything that might help me improve then please let me know.  And you know what, they did.  It was not all easy to swallow but they gave me a lot of feedback and I kept a record of it all.  Then I started to improve…a lot!  The more open I was and the more I improved the more the athletes started to respect me and trust me and they opened up even more and became even still more helpful.  The little mistakes from time to time were not so important as they were becoming less often and the guy recognized this.  And when I made a mistake, I owned it right away.  Not, “my bad.”  But an actual, “I apologize for doing that guys, it will be better next time.”

My ability to be mature and recognize that I was not as talented (or experienced) as these guys showed a great amount of confidence in who I was and my ability as a cox.  I am terrible at playing soccer but it does not disturb my confidence when I am playing with the guys and gals at the California Rowing Club.  Quite the opposite, my recognizing my skill level (or rather lack of it) is in itself a form of confidence.  I am not embarrassed, I know my level and can therefore work to improve knowing exactly what I need to do to get better.  As for connecting with the other athletes, I think my example speaks for itself.  And I was not the top coxswain; I was the bottom ranked guy on the team.  Yet people worked with me and were very helpful in making me improve.  They recognized that even though I might not be as good as them, that I was still in a boat with them.  That it would be in their best interest to help me improve so the whole boat could do as well as it possibly could.

So to answer your specific questions...You want to make better decisions?  Ask your rowers how they would do it or how would they like it done.  Are there any specific resources?  Yes, you rowers and coaches.  Ask them, openly and honestly how they would like you do do just about anything.  And not just, “Am I getting better?”  (Covered in a previous post) But a specific question on the who, what, when, where and how to do something different or better.  We are often to shy or embarrassed to ask these hard questions because we do not want to get criticized.  But if you want to succeed you must ask these questions and make the changes.  So check your ego, recognize your athletes and get faster!  You will thank me for it later.

Thanks for the question, Andrea.  If any of you have any other questions please email us at marcus@sparksconsult.com or twitter @USOlympicCox.  Thanks for reading and go fast.

-Marcus

(The entire email question and circumstances are posted below.  Name was changed and a few details have been omitted to protect the privacy of the poster).

Hello, Marcus!

I just found this blog and I can already say that just reading it has helped me out.  My name is Andrea, I am a sophomore in college, and I am currently at the end of my first year on my varsity rowing team.  I was on novice last year, and I felt pretty confident about how I was doing by the time we turned in for the summer.

Because this was just my first year on varsity, I am at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to coxing abilities.  I started off feeling pretty confident about coxing in the fall.  I raced fours, however, our team took a really long indoor stretch this spring.

My first time back on the water was this past week, and I ended up clashing oars with another boat when we were doing pieces on the water.  Another practice, the wind was blowing our boats across stream so I tried to correct my point as quickly as I could but I couldn't do it fast enough.  Because I don't have as much experience as the other coxswains I do not get boated as often.  So I am not improving and I feel like I'm going through a really bad rough patch

What is throwing me off, I think, is I can feel the rowers comparing me to the better coxswains they have been able to work with this year.  They question the small decisions I make and I get a lot of comments in the boat.  I know I shouldn't let that happen, but right now I feel like they know more than I do.  I feel lacking in every angle of the job, and now my confidence has essentially taken a huge blow.  I get really flustered when it comes to handling situations I've never been in before on the water, and I know as a cox I'm supposed to fake it 'till I make it, but it's just not meshing right now.

We're currently seat racing to determine line ups for Champs, and though I know I probably won't be racing in it this year, I want to get my mojo back at practices so I can feel confident going into next year.  What can I do to help my decision making?  Are there any specific resources I can look at to help me with making technical calls during steady state pieces?  The confidence aspect is going to come with time, but I need to jump start my coxing.

I know this was a long email, and I apologize, but I really need to find a way to fix what I'm going through and I thought that this might help.  Thank you for your time!  -Andrea