Why Coaches Don't Coach Coxswains

By Sparks Editorial Staff | September 17, 2013

It's among our sport's worst-kept secrets: on average, coxswains receive significantly less coaching than rowers do.

As with most systemic problems, this doesn't happen because of individual members of the rowing community maliciously depriving coxswains of coaching. It happens because of the way we structure our programs and the expectations we place upon our coaching staffs.

After all, the majority of a rowing team comprises rowers, so we strategize how to make the rowers faster. We plan largely according to that strategy - training plans, lineups, et cetera. We design a coaching staff that has succeeded, either personally or professionally, in those areas. And then we turn around and expect those coaches to teach coxswains as well.

That is, we ask coaches with zero coxing experience to coach coxswains, and we fault them for not having the answers - when they have never been in a position to get those answers in the first place.

That expectation has consequences for coaches and  for coxswains.

Coaches get placed in an uncomfortable position when a coxswain comes to them to ask a question. The question might be about something the coach doesn't completely understand, having never been in the coxswain's place, but the coxswain, rowers, and other coaches nevertheless expect an answer. The coach has three options: admit that he doesn't know the answer, fudge an answer, or ignore the question. None of these choices is ideal, of course.

Eventually, the coxswain gets used to one of these three responses and stops asking questions of the coach. Then, here's what happens: the coxswain becomes a loner on her own team. Yes, she still socializes with her teammates, but when it comes to her skill development, she has no one to whom she can turn.

She has stopped turning to the coach. The rowers, of course, don't cox, so they cannot understand her perspective. That leaves only the other coxswains on the team. For several reasons, the coxswain group at most programs is not a very close-knit one, and even among coxswains who are friends, coxswains are reluctant to bounce ideas off of one another or share their challenges and weaknesses. At our coxswain-only camps in the summer, the major takeaway for many coxswains is the opportunity to meet "their people." They all share the same role, and they can talk openly about it. It's exciting and relieving for them - which says something about how they feel on a day-to-day basis.

Though we know that our rowing programs have this problem, it's untenable for every single program to go hire a coxswain-specific coach. What's more achievable, in the short term, is to talk about healthy ways to encourage coxswain improvement on the team, even if the coach himself did not cox.

So let's back up for a second.

When a coxswain asks a coach a question to which he doesn't know the answer, the coach has three options: ignore the question, fudge an answer, or admit that he doesn’t know. Which one do we choose - and why? And then - what comes next?

We'll take a look at this question in the next post - there's more to unpack than you might think.

- Chelsea Dommert