Lessons Learned from Six Years as a Rowing Coxswain

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.

After winning the Heavyweight 8+ at Canadian High School Rowing Nationals

After winning the Heavyweight 8+ at Canadian High School Rowing Nationals

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 rowing 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 athletes attention.

Also, coxswains do not yell “stroke” or “row” or “let’s 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 in order to get feedback.

  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 in unison, 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.