Coaching your coxswain – yes, you CAN


Bad coxing starts with poor coaching.  Improved coxing comes from an understanding of the best way to instruct.  Few coaches have been coxswains and so take a quick educational guide from a Coxswain, Chelsea Dommert, who found that she was frustrated by the un-clear instructions she got from her coach.  So she wrote

the book on Coaching the Coxswain. coaching the coxswain A guide for rowing coaches

As a rowing coach, you’re supposed to focus most of your time on your rowers. That’s normal and acceptable. But there’s a big difference between focusing on rowers, rather than coxswains, and completely ignoring your coxswains altogether. 

When you actually spend time coaching coxswains, you can reduce the number of frustrating races you lose by at least half.

That’s half…at a minimum. Possibly more than half. Why? 

1. Coxswains make half of all the race-losing mistakes on your team.

Let’s do a little visualization exercise: think back to the last time your boat did worse in a race than it should have done because someone messed up.

Stop. Actually close your eyes and do the exercise. Come on, 10 seconds. 

How did that experience make you feel?

Remember how your heart stopped when you saw it happen?

Remember that heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach?

Remember how you wanted to ram your head against a wall?

When you give your time and energy to training a crew, it sucks to see one wrong movehurt its performance.

What if I told you that coaching just 15% of your crew could reduce the number of times that happens by half? 50% improvement for 15% work – a big win. Well guess what? That’s what I’m telling you. Look, I have numbers to support my claim:

Data on the college crew^ where I cox (from my cox journal entries)

Number of times a coxswain left the lane, hit a buoy, or miscalled* the execution of a race Number of times a rower caught a crab, was not ready at start, or stopped rowing in a race
2008 Fall 4 (6 coxswains) 3 (36 rowers)
2009 Spring 3 (6 coxswains) 4 (36 rowers)
2009 Fall 8 (6 coxswains – 4 by one cox in one race) 1 (28 rowers)
2010 Spring 4 (6 coxswains) 4 (32 rowers)
2010 Fall 3 (6 coxswains) 2 (32 rowers)
2011 Spring 4 (5 coxswains) 4 (32 rowers)

It’s a D1 Ivy League crew. It’s a respectable crew. Therefore, I expect that the numbers are not abnormally high or anything.

*miscalled – I don’t mean she missed an opportunity to say the perfect motivational phrase. I mean she failed to call a lengthen after the high strokes and took the boat down the whole course at a 45. I mean she completely forgot to call the sprint or told her boat it was winning when actually it was not. I mean bad miscalls.

Look. Even though coxswains make up only 15% of my team, coxswains are responsible for 50% of those mistake-related losses.

By taking control of your coxswain’s basic training – by involving yourself in coaching her – you can eliminate these. Yeah. Eliminate them. Gone. Poof! Magic.

But you can do even more than that.

You can coach your coxswains to win you races that you otherwise might not win.

That’s because crews cannot make collective changes mid-race by themselves. There is only one person who can act independently to improve the performance of your whole crew in the thick of battle.

It’s…your coxswain.

2.  8 out of 10 of your competitors don’t coach their coxswains – and they’re slower than the crews that do coach their coxswains.

Exactly how many coaches spend time on their coxswains?

I don’t know the answer, but here’s a clue:

Of the coaches who I e-mailed about this article, 22% visited the blog more than once in 14 days. That 22% represents the portion of my sample population that expressed a continued interest in coaching coxswains.

This means that learning to coach your coxswains gives you a jump on 78% of competitors who don’t bother to learn that stuff.

Here’s another interesting statistic. Among the coaches who e-mailed me back about the blog, 67% of them coach for crews in the top 20% of their regional league. Their crews are the crews competing at the national championships.

Coaches at the top crews want more information about how to coach their coxswains.

You guys aren’t waiting for your coxswains to read books or take courses – you’re taking initiative to make your coxswains better. You know it’s important.

So the question is, what’s up with the 78%? Why don’t coaches spend time on coaching their coxswains?

Here are some reasons that I have heard from other coaches.

Let’s go over why these reasons suck.

  1.  “Coxswains cannot impact a race enough to justify coaching.”  See the table above. Coxswains certainly impact the race. Just ask your rowers. Rowers know the value of a good cox, even if they never coxed themselves.  People who use this answer are oblivious about why crews lose races.
  2. It’s the coxswain’s responsibility to get better on her own.”  This is the “not my job” excuse, as in “Teaching coxswains is not my job – my job is to improve the rowers!”  If this is how your crew operates, good luck. You’re going to need it.  Of course, coaches at the top 20% of crews aren’t doing it this way, probably because this method blatantly rejects an opportunity to improve the crew.  Maybe the coach just doesn’t know how to coach coxswains and doesn’t want to admit it.
  3. I…don’t know how to coach coxswains.”  Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. I don’t expect you to know how. If you weren’t a coxswain, you never had the opportunity to learn this stuff.  That’s why I have spent tons of time analyzing and researching this topic both as a coxswain and as a coach. I’ve talked to other coxswains, other coaches, and even rowers.  I’ll do the work, and you’ll learn to be super-effective at making yourself some awesome coxswains.

Of course, if you want an easy-as-pie, step-by-step guide to coaching your coxswains up from their novice year, the book has you covered.


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