How Good Coxswains Figure Out What to Fix

By Sparks Editorial Staff | September 30, 2013

In the last article, we took a closer look at the core skills that top coxswains use, but don't talk about. Specifically, we discussed how top coxswains operationalize rower feedback to hew their calls into tight, effective pills of boatspeed.

This time, we'll talk about how requesting feedback makes coxswains more capable of prioritizing what to fix in the boat.

In both cases, coxswains are learning to consider two separate points of view on how the boat is moving. Coxswains see, hear, and feel something very different from what rowers see, hear, and feel in a boat. So by learning about how rowers operate, coxswains can better bridge the gap between their viewpoint and their rowers' viewpoint - and make the calls that help the rowers perform at the top of their game.

A lot of the differences in perception between coxswains and rowers don't ever get pointed out to the coxswain. Those are the little things coxswains do that confuse and distract rowers, which we started talking about in the last article.

Learning to prioritize can be another case of those little differences that turn into major speed leaks.

Take this example: a beginner coxswain, who doesn't have much of a feel for the boat yet, makes most of her technical corrections by what she can see - which is basically the blades. To her, who is feathering when is an easy thing to spot - so she will focus on something like getting everyone's feathering timing to match up. However, synchronized feathering is by far not the most influential technical element for making a boat faster. The rowers would much rather have a strong, synchronized leg drive. Thus, it's very annoying for rowers when the boat clearly needs to focus on their leg drive and the coxswain is going on about the feathering.

That, and subtler versions of that, exemplify the gap between coxswains and rowers. The coxswain is responsible for minimizing the gap. That's where rower criticism comes in. Rowers notice those gaps.

As multiple rowers point out multiple gaps, top coxswains can find the common thread. They notice, say, if rowers are wondering why the boat can't get their catch timing together. While the whole boat is trying to perfect this fundamental component of fast rowing, it makes sense for the coxswain to focus on this in practice, even if the set isn't perfect yet and even if  some other, less influential element of the rowing stroke is somehow lacking.

And the answer is not, ever, to call out all three of those things at once. Rowers can focus on one thing at a time. No one has the bandwidth to execute on that many things, at once. Also, unlike the coxswain, rowers are trying to perform physically while they are executing the commands. This is the essential point that intermediate coxswains miss. So it goes something like this:

beginner coxswain: calling the wrong technical change

intermediate coxswain: calling all the technical changes indiscriminately

advanced coxswain: calling the correct technical change and ignoring the others until the most important one is fixed

By turning the rowers' perspective into ammo, coxswains can figure out where the most important changes might be, then test those changes to see which ones impact boatspeed the most. The easiest technical changes to see  are not always the most important ones to correct. 

- Chelsea Dommert