Coxswains: The Independent Team Player

By Sparks Editorial Staff | April 14, 2014

A coxswain has an incredible amount of control. We are responsible for the crew rowing together technically and strategically, yet we are in a completely unique role. We can make or break a race simply through attention to what our crew needs in practice and in the heat of a race. I learned early on that my crews would have a better chance at winning if we pushed as a team than if I worked independently. This is a big part of a coxswain’s mystique, however I didn't always understand this. Let me explain with a personal example.

I’ve always been a competitive person by nature. I love winning. I grew up competing from a young age, and I know the feeling of accomplishing a much sought after goal. Until I entered high school, most of my awards lay within individual sports and activities. It wasn’t until I was encouraged to try coxing that I learned how to work within a team to achieve a common result.

It came to me during a particularly cold morning on the Martindale Pond. I was coxing my high school women’s lightweight four. There were three experienced rowers and two novices, including myself as a novice coxswain. We had the opportunity to do a side by side piece with the grade twelve heavyweight women’s four- not only were they hardened rowers, but they were the cool seniors! It was time to impress.

We started off well over a boat length down. My enthusiastic cheering would have put many hockey parents to shame, and it was exactly what I did wrong. I raced this piece like I was on the sideline of a cross country course, responsible only for one person. In doing so, I had neglected my responsibility to my team as a coxswain and acted as an individual. I didn’t make technical calls that were previously prepared, nor did I trust the strategy laid out carefully by the coach; I reacted in the moment versus thinking, then reacting with a plan.

I remember my coach shouting something about “one finish.” That sounded like an excellent plan- whatever it meant. I recognized that we needed a different approach, one that was executed together. In the heat of battle, I made a call: “try harder, don’t we want to beat them? ONE FINISH!!”

Suddenly we were back in the race. Details blur after this, but somehow we reached the finish line first.

It is important to remember that as coxswains we often have strong, independent personalities. These character traits find us in the seat commanding a boat full of fantastic athletes, which is a great thing.

The mark of a good coxswain lies within the ability to ignore the self-fulfilling individual approach when you have the steering cables beneath your fingers. There is more value in having everyone in your crew enrolled in one technical or strategy change at a time, and avoid just using motivating tactic.

Assess what the crew needs to work on and then attack it together as a unit of five or nine. It’s also more fun to win as a team.

- Kristen Kit