Let’s assume you’ve been off of the water through the cold winter months. And let’s assume that you row for a program that doesn’t have enough dedicated coxswains to go around. You know that your coach will, inevitably, ask you to cox a practice. It might not be the first week of the season, or even the second week. But sooner or later you’re going to have to squeeze yourself into the cockpit of a boat and manage to get you and your crew safely up and down the river (lake, channel…) without running into anything, or pissing anyone off. If you’ve done this before and know the basics of steering and commanding crews, here are a few basic suggestions:

Refresh your knowledge.

Apparently, if you’re reading this, you’re already ahead of the game. Read up on coxing terminology; ask your coaches about steering; reacquaint yourself with the traffic pattern where you practice. If you’re ever unsure about your skills and abilities as a coxswain, ask your coach for help. A practice spent as a coxswain should be equally as productive for you as a practice with an oar in your hand.

Make sure you know the workout before you shove off the dock.

Most coaches will spend time with a crew to discuss the plans and goals for practice. Listen closely and remember as much as you can (or jot it down on a small piece of paper you can put in a plastic ziplock bag). If your short term memory isn’t so hot (like me), at least find out from the coach what the warm up is and where he/she wants boats to gather afterwards.

Focus on steering, not talking.

Rower/coxswains often get caught up in the notion of having to play the roll of a coach in the boat. The first several weeks of the season, work on your basic coxing skills: steering, awareness, calling commands and drills. Don’t get bogged down in trying to fix every rowers’ technical issues right then and there. Let the coach worry about fine-tuning a rower’s technique.

Listen to the coach’s instructions and be humble.

Coxswains – and even rower/coxswains – often make assumptions. They assume that because last year the coach always had the crew do drills A, B, and C, that they’ll do it the same way this year. So the cox will shove off, take control, and stop paying attention to the other boats, and sometimes even the coach. Take a breath. Slow down. Be in charge of your boat, but listen to the coach’s instructions. This leads directly into …

Keep the boats together.

When a coach makes this request, we’re looking for coxswains to keep their boats within a about a length of the others. And when all boats are asked to weigh enough, pull up along side another boat with about five feet to spare between the tips of the blades. Coaches often have to work with more than one boat at a time, so staying together allows coaches to see more rowers at once, helps coaches communicate with the team, allows for productive use of time, and helps build team cohesion. If you pull ahead or drop off of other boats, use your judgement to add/ease pressure or add/drop rowers in order to remain in contact.

Talk to the other coxswains.

No, I don’t mean have a gab fest about the blueberry muffin and grande latte you’re going to have after practice. When you’re on the water, communicate with the other coxswains about which lane you’re going to take and what your point is down the river. Talk about starting drills and pieces at the same time in order to keep boats together.

If you don’t have a lot of coxing experience, or aren’t the most confident public speaker, taking the helm for a practice session can be daunting. Stick to these basic tasks and you’ll be a more self-assured and capable coxswain in no time.

Want more coxing tips? Read these posts on taking better command of your boats on the water, and on land.