5 Advanced Tips for Coxing a Great Race

Masters Mixed 4 Out in Front
Credit: Patrick Ashley

To become a confident, competent, successful coxswain, there’s more to it than knowing how to steer a boat and call a race plan. It can take years to perfect your individual coxing style, but if you have a solid understanding of the stroke, stroke rate efficiency, and race strategy then you’re on your way. Here are five advanced tips for motivated (and motivational) coxswains:

Get to know your crew.

Find time to ask your teammates what it is they love about rowing. Their answers might surprise you, and give you material to work with while in the boat. Some rowers feed on the adrenaline rush that comes with moving fast across the water. For others it’s the sound of the rhythm of the boat – the plunk of the blade at the catch, the rolling seat wheels on the drive, the clank/thud of the oarlocks at the finish. Whatever it is, something makes every rower tick. Tapping into that personal motivation for each individual during a race let’s them know you care, and athletes work harder when working together.

Be a teammate.

At the most basic level, in the boat you have to think of yourself as one of the team. Without an oar in hand it can be easy to mentally separate yourself from the rowers. Try to avoid “I” calls and instead replace them with “we” statements. Change “I want the rating to be 34,” to “in two, let’s take the rating up two beats to a 34.” Let the rowers know you’re in it with them.The bigger picture: Your relationship with your crew can’t start when you get in the boat, and end when you get out. This directly relates to point number one above (Get to Know Your Crew) and includes spending time with your teammates off the water. Workout with them on the ergs. Grab breakfast with them after morning practices; drinks with them after regattas. Ask about their jobs, their partners, their cats. Friendships build trust, and trust builds confidence in the boat.

Develop a coxing personality. 

Once you get in the boat, plug in your cox box, and turn on the microphone, you’re playing to a live audience. You have to figure out how to work the crowd. Young coxswains often have one level when they are on: aggressive, loud, and mean. Vary your tone of voice depending on any given situation.

You might approach it differently, but I think of my coxswain personality as the Believer in Chief. Everything I say has to keep the rowers in a positive state of mind. Anger or dissent can cause angst, annoyance, lack of motivation – an overall negative impact on an athlete’s psyche.

It begins the moment you launch off the dock. Use helpful feedback if something doesn’t look right. “3 seat, focus on getting your blade four inches off the water.” Instead of “Uhhh, three seat, stop dragging your blade.”

Get to the start line with time to spare to minimize the chances of a hectic alignment situation. Sitting at the start line with blades squared and buried have the crew take a couple of deep breaths together. Tell them the race is going to be awesome. Remind them to have fun.

During the race I start with the race script (start sequence, order of boats moving into the first 250m), then move into a couple of calls that reflect technique I know the crew has been working on: quick legs, fast hands, etc. Motivation really comes into play around the 500m (of a 1,000m masters sprint race) when lactic acid starts to ache in their legs. Quickly after I find time to make a couple of calls for individuals in the boat that I thought about in advance, based on conversations about what excites them about rowing and racing.

When things are going well it’s easy to find nice things to say. If the boat is set and the rating is spot on, tell your crew “Niiiice. Just like that.” When the row is rough and your crew is falling behind, it can be harder to stay positive. Pick out something that is going well (ie. good ratio) and work from there.

What you say is as important as how you say it.

Separate your rhythm calls from your informational calls. Rhythm calls fall in time with the catch and release. But when providing information to your crew (ie. “we’re in second, two seats off lane 1), take your time and make it more conversational.

Finesse a race plan on the fly.

Repeating a canned script is the bare minimum a coxswain should be able to do. Respond to action on the water, as it’s happening. Your coach might tell you to call a power 10 at the 500m mark, but you might find your crew bowball to bowball with a boat at the 600m mark. Don’t just park it there. Call a 5 or 10 for quick knees to the deck, strong finishes, etc., to make a move. If the race plan calls for a rating build at the 250m sprint, but your crew is a mess, trying to bring the rating up probably won’t help.

LISTEN: My audio recording – as coxswain – in a Mixed Masters 4 at the 2014 Capital Sprints Regatta on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC. That’s us in the photo above!