How to Make the National Team as a Coxswain

By Marcus McElhenney | June 1, 2014

I am often asked, “what is the best way to make the national team?” I love this great question because it tells me a coxswain has a goal and willing to work for it. This question is even more important this year as we will have three Sparks coxswains vying for different US Junior National Teams spots!

While there is no one way to make the team, there are some things that you can do to increase your chances of making the National Team. Below are three tips that can make a difference.

Tip #1: Make the top boat at your local program.

Politics, seniority, and favoritism often play a role in selecting coxswains. While this is an unfortunate part of our sport, I have found many coxswains who resolved not to change the situation. They feel it is out of their hands and stay content in their current positions.

In my first year of college I was rotating through boats on the freshmen and varsity teams with two other coxswains. One was a fellow freshmen. The other was a varsity coxswain who was a former junior national team coxswain, U23 camp coxswain, and returning varsity coxswain that had a great relationship with the rowers and coach. The top boat was all but his and there was no way a freshmen coxswain was going to upset him. While the other frosh cox contented himself to go after the frosh boat, I had my eyes on a bigger prize. I wanted the Varsity 8.

All the rowers and even the assistant coach said it was pretty likely that I would not get that boat that year, because there was too much to overcome in too little time. undeterred, I meticulously planned and plugged away at getting better and better each day. I planned to make myself so much better that even the politics, favoritism and seniority could not stand in my way.

It was a difficult road and I did not even get to race the entire first season. But I kept at it through the winter and by the first race in the Spring, I was the Varsity Eight coxswain. That year, Temple made the Varsity Eight grand final at the IRA national championships and I was invited as an 18 year old to try out for my first Senior National Team. Interestingly enough, I was able to spend the next four years training alongside the other freshman coxswain, Brian Schuch.

In hindsight, I think he is was one of the top five coxswains I ever meet and he taught me a lot. If we switched goals way back then, he might be the one writing this article.

What it boils down to is the fact that we started the year down against a senior coxswain with all the chips in his favor. I decided to go after him and be the top coxswain at my program. National Team coaches do not care about all the politics and favoritism that come into play when selecting coxswains at your local club or team. They only want the best.

Tip #2: Shut Up and Listen.

While I love to hear myself speak and will talk anyone’s ear off, that’s not a good practice for a coxswain. When in a boat or at practice, I’m generally quiet and do not really speak unless necessary. This has countless benefits. First, it allows you to clearly hear and understand what your coaches and rowers are saying. I’ve found that most coxswains don’t follow directions, but think that they are. If you can’t follow instructions, you won’t be trusted by your rowers and coaches.

Additionally, rowers are often requesting calls, drills, or making suggestions on how to improve or implement a certain call. Most coxswains are oblivious because they are too busy running their mouths and trying to be “in charge.”

Instead, if a coxswain is quiet, they will pick up on these things. A coxswain can learn a lot about her rowers when stretching and warming up. I like to listen to what they are saying to one another and figure out what makes them tick.

In 2006, the movie Talladega Nights came out and my crew thought it was hilarious. They kept repeating the phrase, “Shake and bake!!!”

On a whim I decided to incorporate this call into one of our power moves at practice. It was effective and the guys loved it. I ended up using it at the Head of the Charles (which we won). Now, I think that is the dumbest phrase and would never have used it on my own, but by listening, I found something new that we could use in races. This is a silly example, but the practical implications are extremely useful.

If you want to be a National Team coxswain, quiet down and listen to what is going on around you. It will make you a better coxswain and more effective leader.

Tip #3: Become s student of the sport.

This is by far the most challenging thing to accomplish, but one that can be the most helpful. Most coxswains just show up to practice and expect to get better. They go up and down the course executing calls and and steering the boat. The reality is they never really get better.

The problem is they don’t know WHY they’re doing what they’re doing. This is a major hurdle in getting better and making the National Team. Instead, a coxswain needs to become a student of the sport.

First, tackle coxing. Every coxswain should have a notebook and take notes about practice. He should be noting what the boats feel like, what the coaches and rowers are doing, what drills are being performed, and everything else. The coxswain should also note what changes are happening and whenever a call is made or different drill is used by the coaches. The coxswain should then try to figure out why these things are happening.

This is where a true student of the sport can be distinguished. A true student will seek out the answers from more experienced coxswains, coaches, and possibly even a mentor who can guide the coxswain. Once a coxswain tackles the topic of coxing, she can turn her focus to rigging, coaching styles, rowing styles, new equipment, and emerging technology.

There is a rowing related subject that World Champion coxswain, Ned DelGuercio, can discuss at length. He is a true student of the sport and has made himself aware of any topic and educated himself thoroughly. And in the rare case he is unfamiliar with a new idea, philosophy, or technology, he will study it so he can understand how it works.

I remember discussing with Ned the different types of GPS technologies we would use in the boats for measuring time, speed and distance. While this might seem unrelated to coxing, for him it was important because accuracy in measurement was everything. If a technology was unreliable then we wouldn’t use it. He was a student of the sport and his multiple World Championship titles are proof that his studios nature pays off.

So go out there are try to reach your goals. Hopefully these tips can give you an idea of which direction to head in the future. Good luck and go fast!