Why your coxswain oversteers and how to stop it

This week, let’s talk about oversteering. You ask your coxswain to point further to center and, before you know it, she’s basically crossing the river. You have to throw out the results of competitive pieces because one of your coxswains’ zany courses disadvantaged her boat. Worse, your coxswains somehow slam their boats into each other during pieces, jeopardizing equipment in addition to ruining the piece. All of these situations result from the coxswain meaning to go somewhere and then steering too far, or for too long, in the direction she wanted to go.

When you’re teaching your coxswain to steer, there are three excellent ways to head off oversteering:

  1. Before the coxswain launches for the first time, reach under the shell, move the steering, and show the coxswain that the rudder is moving. As you move the steering in front of the coxswain, move it only one inch. This encourages your coxswain to use small motions, too.
  2. Tell your coxswain that she has to be patient after she applies steering. The shell does not turn right away. It takes about one and a half full strokes for the steering to take full effect. Letting your coxswain know this ahead of time helps to head off the “Too Many Beers Effect”.
  3. Explain to the coxswain that the rudder is never, ever for sharp turns, but rather for gradually guiding the boat. Sharp turns, changing directions, and steering drastically to avoid collisions all require the cox to steer with the rowers. Why? A) Rower steering is faster. B) This outlook prevents a beginner cox from getting in the habit of steering hard on the rudder. If your new coxswain never goes hard on the rudder, then she won’t ever do it accidentally out of habit.

“Okay, that’s all fine and great, but what if I did all those things and my coxswain still oversteers? Or what if I already have coxswains who are not new to coxing, but they still oversteer sometimes?”

There are four things that coaches do – that they don’t even realize – that actually encourage oversteering. In the rest of this post, we will go over those four behaviors and talk about how to change them. To eliminate oversteering, first use the three preventive measures listed above (yeah, you can do them with ‘experienced’ coxswains if those coxswains need them – as you may have guessed, I don’t believe in handling people’s egos with care). Then, check to see if any of these four behaviors pertain to you and make the changes to keep your coxswains steering more reliably throughout practice – and, by extension, in races.

The Four Coaching Behaviors that Encourage Oversteering:

1. Encouraging or instructing the coxswain to use full rudder.

This one probably seems laughably obvious since we just finished talking about how and why not to do this. Nevertheless, doing this is precisely how coaches breed oversteering into their coxswains. If the turn isn’t happening as fast as you would like, it’s easy to yell “steer harder!” Resist that urge. (You may ask the rowers who are rowing on the turn to put some more oomph in it.) New coxswains never use full rudder. In fact, no one ever ought to use it, with the singular exception of particularly nasty head race turns. Don’t worry about that yet.

2. Asking for quick turns as though this is Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift.

I get it. Maybe it looks cool. Maybe it feels great to bellow “180 degrees go go go right now!” at your coxswains. But realistically, if you convince coxswains that this:

should do this:

Well, let’s just stop and use our imaginations. Suppose you are driving a school bus and, for some reason, you have to make it turn like a drifter car. What would you do? You’d begin turning the steering wheel to make the bus turn, right? But when the bus doesn’t turn as fast as you need it to:

This picture shows exactly what the Too Many Beers Effect would look like in a motor vehicle.

Additionally, believing that the boat turns on a dime cheapens the point-and-go-straight tactic in your coxswain’s mind. Your coxswain has to make that technique automatic, which means she has to value it so much that she resorts to it without thinking about it.

3. Telling the coxswain to watch out for things that she isn’t going to hit.

This causes your coxswain to panic and steer wide of every single solid object on the river. When the solid objects include bridge abutments and the shore, your coxswain will be so busy “avoiding” things that she’ll never learn to just make a straight course. Additionally, when people panic their bodies tense up, and tense coxswains can’t make subtle manipulations on the rudder – so they oversteer. Coaches especially produce panic if the coxswain can’t see the item the coach is talking about. Yes, there is a blind spot on stern-coxed boats, and you are doing the right thing by letting your coxswain know if there’s something in front of her. If she’s already clear of it, though, let her know that so she doesn’t haul rudder trying to get away from something she wasn’t about to hit anyway.

4. Telling the coxswain to shift over without saying how much to shift.

In this situation, your coxswain has two choices.

Option A: guess about how much you want her to shift over, and get yelled at if she shifts the wrong amount. Now, assuming she does shift the wrong amount (which she is almost certain to do once at some point), there is a 50% chance that she shifts too much and a 50% chance that she shifts too little. If, by chance, the first time she shifts the wrong amount, she shifts too little and you yell at her, forever she is going to shift more drastically when she doesn’t know how much to shift. She is conditioning herself to start harder on the rudder. We want to avoid that.

Option B: start shifting and just keep shifting until you tell her to stop. This is okay until the day that you forget to tell her to stop. So she’ll shift more, and it will look to you like oversteering. In this case your coxswain didn’t necessarily oversteer, but it looked that way to you because she didn’t understand what you wanted.

The solution: “Maggie, shift to port until you’re about an oar’s length away from Reggie.” (always give position relative to something else because “half a meter over” is completely impossible for a coxswain to gauge on a giant open body of water).

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