Coxswains: How to ask the right questions

By Marcus McElhenney | March 28, 2013

As we may know, coxswains never get coached.  Even those coaches who think they are ‘coaching’ us are really just yelling at us and telling us what not to do.  Rowers on the other hand are fortunate enough to get told what to do.  So how are we supposed to get better?  The trick is to ask the right questions in order to figure out what to do as opposed to what not to do.

Now this is a little easier said than done.  Most of us simply ask our rowers and coaches… "what do you want me to do?"  Then the rowers and or coaches spew something out that is neither intelligible nor helpful.  What we as coxswains have to realize, is that it is not their fault.  Almost all rowers and coaches have never been in a coxswain seat.  They have never done what you are trying to do and simply cannot explain it.  Though I have only met a handful of folks honest enough to admit to that.  Instead they think they are being helpful and describe things in terms of a rower and hope that we can figure it out.  What ends up happening is that we get frustrated.  The rowers think we did not listen to them, and we get frustrated because we know that we have not actually improved.

So now, how do we fix this problem?  Ask questions.  But we need to be careful as to ask questions in a way that we can get the useful information out of our rowers and coaches.  In order to do this…we need to be illustrative.  Let us take a specific example of working on a tight turn on a particular course.  Do we ask…was my course better, how do you want me to take the turn?  No.  Why not?  Because it really is not helpful in terms of telling us what is the best way to actually take the turn.  Instead I like to give my guys a heads up.  “Okay guys, we will be working on this turn today and I will ask you your feedback after we have run through it a few times.”  Now they are prepped for it and aware of what I am trying to do.  The first time I take the turn I stay real close to the arch and then jam on the rudder after coming clear of the abutment.  The second time I take the turn I stay a little bit out on my approach and still use the rudder aggressively after coming out the back side, but less so.  The final time, I stay a bit wide and make a gradual turn…easy on the rudder and come on the back end without going wide at all.  Now, one would assume that I just ask…”which did you like best?”  Right?  No.  Instead I actually ask them how each one felt.  What did the drag on the boat feel like during each turn?  Did the rudder disrupt the set too much on the first, second or third?  Did it feel like we bellied out too much before or after on each turn?

The questions we can ask are limitless.  But they are specific and they are giving us a lot of data so we can then work on and improve our courses.  The thing is, each turn, on every course, every day, is going to be slightly different.  We have to factor in wind conditions, currents, other boats, differences in power applications, etc.  So we need to know the data on how our athletes respond and feel what is going on in the boat to make sure we are addressing the needs of the boat and improving.

So now I challenge you with two things.  First, next time you are working on anything at all…see if you can ask your coaches and athletes specific questions in order to get the information that you need to help you get better.  Not just the general ones, but actual helpful ones.  Secondly, please email us with your coxswain questions and we would be glad to answer them.  We all have different issues we need to address and we love to help out the coxswain community.  So please email us at and keep your eye on this blog for the answer.


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