US Women's 8+ cox-toss at 2013 World Championships. (row2k image)
US Women's 8+ cox-toss at 2013 World Championships. (row2k image)

“Change the culture of what it means to be a coxswain.”

So proclaimed US National team coxswain Katelin Snyder at RowingTalks, held on the campus of Washington University nestled in quaint Chestertown, MD. Snyder has been coxing since she was a junior at Winter Park High School in Florida, and her list of rowing accomplishments is lengthy, including medals at the IRA Championships (the oldest collegiate rowing championship in the United States) each year from 2006 to 2009. She also steered championship boats on the Head of the Charles in 2008 and 2009.

Internationally, Katelin took home medals 2006 through 2008 at the World Rowing Under 23 (U23) Championships; the World Rowing Cup 2009, 2010 and 2013 (where she and her crew set a world record of 5:54.16); and at the World Rowing Championships in 2009 and 2013-16. In 2016, she was at the helm of the U.S. Olympic W8 which dominated the competition.

But let’s back up to 2002 when Katelin was a high school coxswain trying to find her way. High school rowing in Florida meant practices on the water year-round, but she readily admits that winter training was “pretty boring stuff” and she had “to work hard to stay engaged when [practices were] just long and low,” she said recently in an interview with row2k. When she and her teammates were on land for training, she kept herself busy taking notes of erg scores and data for the team, and sometimes participated in the workouts.

Why do coxswains struggle?

Time and again I’ve heard coxswains – including Katelin, when I sat down with her one-on-one after her RowingTalk – question “Why don’t coaches coach coxswains?” It’s a massive oversight, and a strange assumption that the mere act of sitting in the cockpit somehow magically bestows coxing capabilities. Katelin recalls a four-week period in high school when none of the coxswains were allowed to talk while on the water during practice. Although her coach didn’t clearly convey the purpose of those four weeks (missing an opportunity to help them understand their role, reassure their “teammate” status, and create buy-in to the system), it later became apparent that those weeks were hugely beneficial in teaching coxswains the basics: execution and logistics. Less was more.

Her first season at the University of Washington, Katelin discovered cold weather rowing and lots of time on land on the ergs. I was surprised to hear her say that she often felt unsure of what was expected of her during those erg practices, that she often felt intimidated, and that she spent most of her freshman year being very quiet. Why weren’t her coaches keeping the coxswains involved? Why weren’t the coxswains being treated as teammates?

In time she came to understand that to be a teammate, coxswains have to act like teammates. Learn as much as you can about rowing. Learn how to row. Participate in team land workouts. Watch your teammates on the ergs and get to know where they struggle physically, physiologically, and mentally. Those element can be just as fundamental to success on the water as boat feel and executing a perfect race plan.

And never be afraid to ask your coaches questions. Just wait until they’re done talking.

Katelin Snyder spent a year coaching at Loyola Marymount University and was re-energized to get back onto the National Team in 2013. For more on Katelin, watch this short documentary about her by row2k.