Coxswains Questioning Coaches: The No-Win Situation

By Sparks Editorial Staff | January 7, 2014

In a previous article , we talked about the difficult situation coaches face when a coxswain brings them a question to which they don’t know the answer. This happens relatively often, since we expect coaches with zero coxing experience to teach coxswains how to do their jobs.

You may be one of the lucky few coxswains who's had excellent coxswain specific coaching.  But it's rare precisely because most coaches weren't coxswains, and this post addresses the challenges that face that majority of coxswains and coaches in our sport.

So when a coxswain comes with a question to which the coach does not know the answer, the coach can ignore the question, fudge an answer, or admit that he doesn’t know.

Believe it or not, many coaches ignore the question. These tell themselves that, since they succeeded handsomely in rowing without having to know the answer to coxswain questions, those questions must not be very important when it comes to winning races. Underneath that, though, they feel insecure because they don’t know how to answer the question. They fear that, by admitting a gap in their rowing knowledge, they invite the team to question their authority. So they brush off their coxswains, walk into their offices, close the doors behind them, and expect the issue to go away.

Coaches who do this: your coxswains loathe you. They also question your authority, so you didn’t avoid that one. This is a terrible way to handle coxswain questions.

Luckily for us, the type of coach who reads this blog is usually not the type of coach who does that.

More of us are choosing between the remaining two options: fudging an answer or admitting that we don’t know the answer.

Why might we fudge the answer? Well, we appreciate that our coxswain has asked a question, and we want to provide the coxswain with something rather than leave them hanging. This is understandable, and it’s coming from the right place. The problem, though, is that telling the coxswain the wrong thing can be just as bad as not telling the coxswain anything at all.

Example: it’s astonishing how many coxswains think motivation is their primary responsibility. What’s even more astonishing is how many of them learned this from a coach!

Why does that happen? Well, it goes like this. Most coaches go into coaching after careers as excellent athletes. Because of this, they spent many years, especially their final years of competition (which they remember the best), in boats with good coxswains. The coxswains were already so good at ensuring safety, steering the boat, and executing the workout that those fundamentals were non-issues for the boat. The rowers didn't notice them because they never had problems with them. So when those rowers go on to become coaches, they teach coxswains the things that did differ between coxswains, that they did notice, and that they did use to choose coxswains at that high level – among those, motivation.

Another one that’s disturbingly common: coxswains who were told that steering an eight is “just like steering a car.” What? No it isn’t. First of all, the circumference of the steering wheel and the circumference of the toggle steering system go in opposite directions to turn the same way. Second of all, a boat is five times as long as a car and is moving with significantly less braking power on a surface with a much lower constant of friction than asphalt.

Why does this analogy persist? Coxswains ask coaches how to steer, and coaches don’t know, so they share what they assume it’s probably like. The assumption just happens to be wrong.

Fine, so if we don’t answer, then that makes us bad coaches, but if we do answer and we get it wrong, then the outcome is just as bad. What gives?

Well, the only answer left is to admit that we don’t know the answer, but that doesn’t seem like it would be so helpful to the coxswains either! There is no good choice!!

Well, no, there is no perfect choice. But actually, the best approach is to admit when you don’t know the answer – combined with specific follow-up activities. They’re things that you can learn to do in just a few minutes, and you can implement them on your team in under a week. We’ll go over why and how to do that in the next article.

- Chelsea Dommert