“I plunge my hands into the current flowing past me, sending a fountain of water into the air. As the cool droplets come crashing down on my teammates and me, euphoria courses through my body. For the months leading up to that instant, I spent each morning in darkness, awaiting the eight members of my team — the stillness of the water mirroring the tranquility of my mind.

At 5:00am, I am in peak mental state. As we commence training, I am conscious of the trust my crew has invested in me as well as the authority they have accorded me. I do not speak loudly. Many times, I almost whisper. My voice speaks only what is in their minds and is demonstrated by their bodies. My immediate goal fuels me to push the athletes past their self-imposed limits. Every day, every practice, I expect more from them, and they expect more from me. As I take my place on the podium, I know that my team has allowed me to lead them to this perfect moment of success.”

My first introduction to rowing was as a scrawny eighth grader. I wasn’t strong enough to make the team as a rower, so the coaches told me I should be a coxswain. My impression of a coxswain was a little person who sat at the front of the boat and yelled at the athletes. I wasn’t entirely sure what else it entailed, but I wanted to be with my friends on the team so I decided to try it out. I figured I could transition to being a rower later.

Fast forward to the end of my six years as a coxswain and it turns out that being a part of the rowing team was one of the best things that happened to me. I won four national championships with an incredible group of teammates who are now like brothers to me and had the opportunity to compete on the varsity team at Princeton.

I’d recommend it.

6137083001_c22975ccc8_b

Rowing is an incredible, but often misunderstood sport, and coxing is an amazing (and even more often misunderstood) art form. I miss the sport tremendously, and the camaraderie that comes from being a part of a team that has to work so hard to accomplish a singular goal together — it unites you.

____

In this post I want to share some reflections on coxing from my thousands of hours on the water, as well as some advice for those just starting out.

But first…

What is a coxswain and what does one do?

When people found out that I was a coxswain they usually responded with something along the lines of:

  • “You’re the guy that sits in the boat?”
  • “You’re the one that yells at the guys? You must have a loud voice!”
  • “Oh, so you don’t actually row?”

Most people have no idea what a coxswain does, so before I explain what I learned or share any advice, it makes sense to clear a few things up.

Coxswains sit at the stern (back) of the boat in an eight, and usually at the bow (front) in a four.

Most people imagine a coxswain yelling into a cone at the athletes, but in reality good coxswains don’t yell except in special circumstances. You wear a headband with a mouthpiece that amplifies your voice to speakers located down the boat. Changing the volume of your voice can be a useful tool, but changing the tonality is most often how you get an athlete’s attention.

Also, coxswains do not yell “stroke” or “row” or “go guys”. It’s a common misconception that the coxswain’s role is to motivate. That is certainly one of the roles, but there are so many more.

A coxswain’s primary responsibility is to steer straight, but a good coxswain is also a student of the sport. They are able to run a practice without a coach being there. They know what drills the athletes need, and what changes need to be made in the boat based on:

  • How the boat feels to them
  • What they see visually

In other words, a good coxswain should have the technical understanding of a coach. When you get to a certain level, for example an elite college, the coxswain’s role in the boat becomes less about coaching and more about calling drills precisely and efficiently so that your coach can focus on technical aspects of the sport and not worry about managing the boats.

That said, your technical understanding is still important because it changes the way you make calls, and it allows you to evaluate whether your boat has made the changes your coach is looking for.

In a race, a coxswain’s job (on top of steering straight) is to first and foremost execute the race plan, and then to motivate the athletes.

But there are so many intricacies to being a good coxswain. For instance, the way you call something as basic as a shift of pace over two strokes can make or break the rhythm of a crew and be the difference between success and failure in a race.

Also, when you have lost some ground to another boat, your athletes need to know. But when they are pushing their physical limits, if you tell them in the wrong way it can completely deflate their morale.

So you learn to frame your statements a certain way: “they took two seats on us, now we’re going to make them pay”.

Another example of managing the psychology of the rowers is right before the race begins. You want your athletes to be focused and relaxed, yet poised, so you make your voice reflect those qualities. Then the horn goes and you cox the start sequence.

Some advice for new coxswains

If you’re just starting out as a coxswain, here are the steps I’d suggest to develop your skills as quickly as possible:

  1. Listen to recordings of national team/high level coxswains to get an idea of how they sound
  2. If there are things you don’t understand in those recordings (and there will be), find a coach or older coxswain to mentor you.
  3. Each practice/race focus on a specific skill to improve.
  4. Buy a voice recorder and record yourself so you can review the audio with coaches. Every coxswain listen to the audio of their races. In addition, it’s helpful to ask teammates after practice if there are calls they liked or didn’t like. I’d also recommend sending out a survey to your teammates.
  5. Constantly learn more about the technical aspects of the sport by reading books, for example. Rowing Faster is a great book to get started with.
  6. Do workouts with your team to gain respect and understand what it’s like to push yourself as a rower.

Most coxswains don’t take things this seriously, so if you do you’ll stand out very quickly.

 

Some lessons I learned along the way

1 – Put aside your ego and ask for brutally honest feedback

When I was a coxswain, I never liked to share my recordings because I could spot so many mistakes in them. I had an image of how the perfect race should sound and my performance always fell short. Logically, I knew it would help me get better, but I always felt embarrassed to share. When I finally got over my own insecurities and started to ask for feedback, my progress accelerated dramatically.

2 – Embrace situations that are above your abilities

When I was in ninth grade, I was thrown into our school’s Senior Varsity Eight. This forced me to learn extremely quickly. In fact, I learned in two weeks what it took some of my peers around a year to learn.

It was overwhelming at first, but instead of shying away from the challenge, I studied coxswains who were much better than me. I remember printing a 10 page transcript from Pete Cipollone, a US National Team coxswain and memorizing it. I annotated it with questions about specific calls and asked older coxswains to explain what they meant. At first, I just emulated the calls, but over time I developed my own style.

Of course, to succeed in a situation where you either sink or swim you have to work really hard,  but if you are committed, these are the kinds of opportunities that you should actively seek out.

3 – Always over communicate and make sure your team is on the same page

One of the most important keys to success for any crew is having complete trust in each other and being on the same page.

One time at a training camp our coach Ben Rutledge, an Olympic Gold medalist for Canada, asked us to create a race plan and present it to him. As a group we came up with a well thought out strategy. I was satisfied that everyone in the crew knew it by heart.

When we met with Ben he asked one of the crew members to explain what we did at the 500m meter mark. Then he asked every person in the crew to explain what exactly that meant. There could be no ambiguity.

I realized that just because everyone could repeat what we would be doing did not mean they understood exactly how to implement it. For example,  we were going to take 10 strokes to focus on quick catches (direct blade entry). But what does that really mean? If everyone has a slightly different idea of how to achieve a “quick catch”, it won’t work.

One thing I noticed in my six years as a coxswain is that the best crews are willing to put in the extra time off the water to work these details out.

Others don’t see the importance of being on the same page about the technical aspects, and just want to put the hours in on the water.

These crews don’t win at the elite level.

4 – Work extremely hard on and off the water to gain respect

From the outside it might seem like you don’t get a lot of respect as a coxswain. After all you are watching your rowers go through pain, not experiencing it with them. By this very fact, you are different and removed.

But what I found, was that you can earn a tremendous amount of respect if you are someone who makes the boat go faster.

If your athletes see that you increase boat speed they will place a lot of value on you. Your attitude should always be to contribute as much as possible. You should be indispensable in whatever way you can, on and off the water.

Coxswains who just go along for the ride don’t deserve respect.

Some suggestions:

  • NEVER complain about being tired or sore. Your rowers are way more tired and sore than you are.
  • Do workouts with the team as often as possible. Your teammates will appreciate that you are one of them,. Also, you should understand the psychology of a rower and know what pushing yourself feels like. It also helps you understand why your crew likes or dislike certain calls.
  • Most importantly, you should always be learning more about the sport so you can offer suggestions to make the rowers better. If you have a strong technical understanding of the sport, you’ll be able to help guys with their strokes 1-on-1 and they will really appreciate that. If you make them better, they will listen to you.

5 – Pay attention to the seemingly small unimportant details

I learned this lesson from my coaches in high school and it really paid off.

One example is spinning the boat the same way, like a national team. Another is pausing with the blades off of the water every time you weigh enough/let it run (stop rowing). Sure, spinning the boat doesn’t directly affect boat speed, and neither does being disciplined about pausing with the blades off instead of just dropping them after a piece or steady state rowing.

If you don’t do those things though, it changes the psychology and culture. It shows that you don’t pay attention to the little details — the ones that add up and will make you go faster. It’s just like missing a session because of the weather — it won’t be the difference between winning a national championship or not, but it changes the psychology — something stops you.

When you pause blades off the water together, it demonstrates a commitment to unifying as a crew, and that greatly helps boat speed in an eight.

This is a list of reminders to myself:

  1. Always say “yes” to the present moment. You cause yourself an unnecessary amount of suffering by resisting what is. If you just accepted it or took action, you would save yourself a lot of mental energy.

  2. Therefore, cultivating mindfulness through meditation is one of the best uses of your time.

  3. At the same time, set giant goals but make sure your happiness in the present is not compromised. If you don’t take action towards your goals daily evaluate your effort, but don’t judge yourself.

  4. You can control your effort. Focus on that. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. This is easy to understand rationally, but emotionally it’s much more difficult. This is why you should meditate and read the stoics.

  5. Realize you are going to die. Meditate on this daily. Then wake up. You could find out that one of your organs is failing and you have 6 months left. How would that change things? What would you avoid/not waste time on? Then realize that your organs are failing. You are going to die.

  6. Get over your “self” and the mindless chatter. Let the little things that don’t matter go. Get over “injustices” committed to you.

  7. Daily practice is the key to success regardless of whether it’s in the area of health, wealth, or spirituality.

  8. Solitude teaches you about yourself. Embrace it. How does it feel to be alone? How do you deal with self-doubt?

  9. On the other hand, don’t try to do everything alone. Spend time with people who are much smarter/more competent than you. You should never be the smartest in the room.

  10. It’s great that you are growing, but don’t seek approval for your realizations. Just try and help people if they are ready to receive it.

  11. College is not where you really grow. The real world is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should drop out.

  12. True confidence is about peeling back layers and being more vulnerable, not trying to project something you’re not. And to get there it takes a lot of experiences that make you feel completely naked.

  13. Whatever you are afraid of you should do first in the morning. Devote your routine to enabling you to do this. Nothing is more important.

  14. Everything you tell yourself is a story — a part of a culturally and socially conditioned narrative. Learn to see the stories you tell yourself. Then you gain access to real insight. Sometimes stories can be empowering, sometimes they are harmful delusions.

  15. You are the most content when spend you spend your day doing activities that will bring you closer to your long term goals.

When I was 15, I found out that my family could no longer afford to pay for my tuition, so I started a direct-response online marketing company which delivered leads and paying customers to clients. The company went on to generate 6 figures for companies including Netflix and Groupon. As revenue grew, I hired, trained, and managed full-time staff, including technical and design teams.

Clearly, opportunities can come in the least expected forms.

Here are five life lessons I learned from the experience:

1. Burning your boats instead of “dabbling” leads to massive growth and results

Before tenth grade, I experimented with a few different business ideas. Some showed promise and had moderate success, but because there was no sense of urgency, I “dabbled” instead of following through.

This time, I convinced myself that I had no choice but to make the money to pay for school. When I took this psychological “gun to the head” approach I became much more focused — all my energy converged on the task at hand.

If you don’t give yourself an escape route, you have to succeed.

When I reflect on the achievements that I’m most proud of, the common thread between them is an intense focus on one thing at at time, sometimes to the neglect of other areas of my life.

  • All four national championships in rowing came from making it the singular focus of my life at the time. I even moved out of my parent’s house and lived with a friend in order to be closer to my high school and our boathouse
  • My marketing business gained significant traction due to the fact that I had to make it succeed. I woke up between 5:30am and 6:30am each day of the summer and worked all day
  • The Model United Nations conference I ran massively exceeded previous years in number of delegates and debate quality when I treated it like my full time job

That said, there are some caveats:

  • Focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else can be unhealthy if you derive 100% of your identity or sense of self-worth from the outcome. This is why some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs become suicidal. Therefore, you should fully commit to a course of action (don’t leave psychological escape routes), but if you don’t succeed, you realize that ultimately you can only control your effort and actions. You better make those count.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the option to focus on only one thing. Often in college you have to juggle many different pursuits in parallel. In this kind of a scenario it’s important to reflect on your goals and see if your are spreading yourself thin. If so, you can put yourself in a deep immersion environment during your summers (language, technical skill, internship, etc.)

2. Practice trumps theory

Once I committed and burned all my (psychological) boats, I was forced to take massive action. As a result, I learned that there is an enormous difference between theory and practice.

Since age 12 I read hundreds of articles about blogging and generating revenue online. The problem was that those articles were written by people who hadn’t actually made any money themselves. Instead, their job was to synthesize theoretical ideas about how to start a profitable business.

In practice I found that the articles were completely wrong. I realized that it doesn’t matter if you can regurgitate theory. The real test is producing results.

Once you have experience, then you can theorize.

Another benefit of practical action is that theory becomes more useful. Books you read are relevant to your daily life. Even seemingly abstract topics like philosophy and religion become useful and applicable.

This is one of the reasons I find the rigidity of college courses frustrating. When you are taking deliberate action in your daily life, constant reading and learning is complementary and becomes a positive addiction.

3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable

Taking massive action is certainly not easy. You have to get used to getting out of your comfort zone.

I heard once that people usually change either out of inspiration or desperation. In my case it was desperation. That summer I had to interact with adults double or triple my age, which pushed me out of my comfort zone. I went to bars and networking events and really had no idea what I was doing.

I was scared, but because I had a larger goal I was forced to take action.

And guess what? After a little while those calls were not so scary anymore. They actually became enjoyable.

In The Way of the Superior Man, David Deida writes about living just beyond your edge. Your edge refers to situations where you start to feel uncomfortable. On the one hand, if you live within your edge you will stagnate. On the other hand, if you push too far outside your edge you won’t be able to metabolize the experience.

I try to apply this principle to my life. If I’m scared to ask a mentor for advice on the phone, I’ll do it anyways. If I’m afraid of what people will think of my blog post (and I almost always am), I’ll publish it.  If I see a cute girl in a coffee shop and I start to feel nervous, I’ll go and talk to her.

You start to enjoy the nervous feeling you get. Learn to embrace it. Surrender to it, instead of resisting it.

Once you do this enough, the feeling of nervousness doesn’t go away. However, because you are always expanding your comfort zone it you get used to it. It’s just like sports.When you get to the start line you still feel nervous, but you’ve experienced the feeling so many times before and you know how to handle it.

That said, the best way to minimize the feeling of nervousness is to over prepare, and the best way to be comfortable is to have done the thing before.

“A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. Traditional career paths are antiquated

When I got my first check for $1,000 I couldn’t believe it. I stared at it for a long time. Then I showed it to my parents.

That was the first experience of many, when I realized that you don’t need to follow a traditional career path.

On the surface entrepreneurship seems more volatile, confusing, and uncertain. You don’t learn how to follow this path in college.

But it’s not an all or nothing game.

You can validate your ideas before jumping in and see if people will pay for them. While at first it’s not a guaranteed salary, once you diversify your income you become far more robust.

When you work for a corporation your employer has most of the leverage. If there are layoffs or they fire you, your income disappears. You are intimately connected to the winds of macroeconomic trends and labor markets.

It seems hard to figure out how to combine your passion with getting paid but it’s very doable. A lot simpler than you might think. Your income stream does NOT have to be a scalable venture backed startup that you are trying to sell for enough money to buy an island. You don’t have to choose between ending up like Bill Gates or a ‘starving’ unemployed graduate.

For instance, if you like weightlifting you could start a community and charge people $x per month for access to a private community forum where you post more in-depth information and interviews. You can make a LOT more money than a traditional job out of college and spend your time working on something closely related to your passion. The key is to figure out how to combine your passion with value that people will pay for.

No, there isn’t a step-by-step blueprint that tells you exactly what to do like solving an equation. Real life (outside of school) doesn’t seem to work that way.

Ultimately you have to take action, fail several times, and then use your mentors (people you’ve reached out to who have already done it) for course corrections.

I’m not necessarily against working for a company, I just think that too many people work jobs that:

  1. They don’t enjoy
  2. Where they aren’t learning or intellectually engaged
  3. Don’t make a tangible impact on the world

That said, there are amazing companies – for example in Silicon Valley – where you can get all three.

Overall, the experience of starting my own business showed me that it was actually possible to create something from nothing. It gave me the confidence to know that if I had to start all over again (which did happen), I could and would build it all back.

It also made me question the out-dated information society and the education system impart about careers, instead of taking things at surface value.

5. Adversity is a tremendous opportunity for growth

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius

It’s a funny thing, adversity. Typically, it has a negative connotation, but the right dose of it can be a blessing. This was the theme of my essay I wrote for Princeton. I view all events in life as opportunities for growth. If you view experiences this way, you can handle whatever life throws at you.

Because it will throw things at you that you don’t expect.

For example, a tough breakup is an important opportunity to examine your self conceptualized ‘identity’, rebuild an ecosystem of positive emotions, and pursue your life goals.

In my case, having to start a business that summer was in fact an incredible gift. Sure, you can try to constantly push yourself outside of your comfort zone…

But it’s hard.

We humans like to take the path of least resistance. If you can find a goal that is bigger than yourself, it gets you out of your own head and pulls you towards it.

When you have a singular goal or purpose, you go beyond your means. Mine was to raise enough money to go back to school. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept thinking about that goal.

What will you make your purpose?

If you can find one, and work towards it you will surprise a lot of people with what you can do.

Especially yourself (and that’s what really matters).

Below is the essay I wrote for my application to Princeton.

I have always revered my father. As an infant, he would bounce me on his lap, exuding a feeling of serenity and warmth. When he first taught me to ride a bike, he was the most patient teacher imaginable. He urged me on when I was the most frightened and told me not to worry, I would not fall. And if I did, he would be there to catch me before I hit the ground. His words were comforting and reassuring, and I always believed them.

And then the day arrived when I knew he would not be there to catch me.

On June 29, 2010, I had to withdraw from the school I had dreamt of attending since I was six years old, the place where I felt like I belonged. After two short years of benefitting from this amazing institution, my journey would have to take a radically different path. I had never felt so disappointed in all fourteen years of my life.

My dad sat across from me in the living room, a shadow of gloom cast over his face.

“I’m so sorry,” he muttered, unable to look me in the eyes. His pain was palpable. I tried to maintain a strong exterior but inside, I quaked.

That night, as I lay in my bed, the whole house was still. But the thickness of walls could not hide my anguish. In my mind, my family’s inability to pay for my tuition signified the end of the world.

Faced with this inevitable conclusion, sleep eluded me for several days. I could not let go of the fact that I would have to leave a school that challenged my ideas and perspectives, and fuelled my passion for learning in both tangible and intangible ways. St. George’s School offered opportunities academically and athletically that were unmatched in my world, that I had just begun to explore in my first two years. The intellectual challenge, coupled with the genuine camaraderie and brotherhood that I felt, convinced me that I had to find a way – any way – to stay at Saints.

Fast-forward two weeks. I found myself on the phone with a representative from one of the largest online marketing agencies in Canada, making my case for how I could help deliver quality leads to their advertisers. I stammered nervously, trying desperately not to sound like a fourteen year-old. My eyes darted between my notepad of strategic answers, and the large flow chart in front of me that included the response I had crafted for every “yes” or “no”. The conversation that felt endless finally culminated in his gratifying last words, “How quickly can you get started?” Every day that summer, I attempted innumerable things that failed, but I trusted my abilities and had faith that eventually my work would pay off. And it did.

When I returned to school in September, I felt truly fortunate. It was very fulfilling to realize that the training wheels had come off and I had been able to positively impact a situation that I initially thought was beyond my control. As I walked through the hallways of my school, I had a new appreciation for my peers and faculty, as well as the opportunities that were once again presented to me. From that point onwards, many aspects of my life came together. As it turns out, my newfound appreciation shone through to my peers and they gave me their support in Student Leadership elections. I was fortunate enough to win four national championships with an incredible group of teammates. And to top it all off, I had a business that was growing every day.

What began as a journey to try and pay for my education evolved into something much more significant. At the time, I felt as though my dream was coming to an end, yet today I am grateful that those were the circumstances. Had I not been faced with the possibility of leaving St. George’s, I would not have worked as tenaciously to succeed. I experienced firsthand that meaningful adversity can be an impetus to meaningful change.

Today, as I ride my bike alongside my father on the seawall at Stanley Park, I realize that even though he was not there to catch me this time, I learned a lesson that I will never forget. That summer, I did not know whether I would be able to ride alone, or fall, but I pushed myself to teeter on two wheels — perhaps a lesson he was trying to teach me all along.