The water has thawed out, the practices have gotten more serious, and racing season has officially begun! As a coxswain, one of the most important parts of your job is communicating with your crew during a race. As the person steering the boat and keeping everyone together and aligned, you need to provide your boatmates with crucial information about the race, the competition, and your own crew's performance. But how can you do this effectively without overwhelming them with too much information or distracting them from their rowing? In this blog post, I will run through the way I like to think about information during a race, and some tips and strategies for coxing informatively so you can help your boat perform at its best and achieve its goals.
Knowledge is power, and when it comes to coxing, information is power. Having a good read on a situation at hand is essential from the coxswain seat, and allows for real-time critical decision-making that is often necessary for success. When it comes to information, I like to think about 6 key pillars. This concept of "The 6 Key Pillars of Information" is something I developed in the later years of my coxing career, and I use it as a sort of mental checklist to make sure I am giving my boat all the context needed to allow us to perform.
Below, I will run through each pillar, and why it is important to communicate it to your crew. I am hopeful that by sharing this, any coxswain that reads this article will have a new perspective on what is key information, how to share it, and why.
The 6 Key Pillars:
Pillar 1: Distance
In the spring, races are all 2,000 meters (or 1,500 meters if you are on a scholastic high school team). It is important to tell your boat where you are on the race course so rowers can use their limited energy accordingly. It is critical for them to know if they are 500 meters into a race, or 500 meters to go, as the distance determines on what timeline they should be emptying their tanks.
During practice, use your GPS or landmarks on your waterway to keep your boat updated on distance throughout each piece. If you are at a race, make sure during the warmup you take in your surroundings so you can update your boat accurately on your way down the course. During the warmup, I like to stop or pause at each 500 to allow my rowers to take their heads out of the boat, look around, and get some spatial awareness of the racecourse. I find it to be helpful for everyone to say "here is the 1k, we will plan to move right before we cross this line during the race" so they feel familiar and ready to go.
When giving distance, accuracy is super important. Giving correct meters during a race builds trust with your rowers, and helps make the race more digestible. I try and frame distance as positively as possible, giving updates like "500 down" rather than "1500 to go" because it sounds more manageable.
Pillar 2: Time
Similar to meters, time is a crucial data point to call off of. Keep your boat just informed enough that they know what is going on, without talking about time too much that it makes the race feel longer, or the amount left sounds overwhelming. I think about making time calls in the same way that I make meter calls, portraying the amount left in the least daunting way. For example, I will say "2 minutes down" instead of "5 minutes to go" even though they both are technically accurate.
I also like to use time at important races to indicate if we are on the pace that we were hoping for. If we are on pace for where we want to be, I will let my boat know, explaining "we are on pace to sub 7:15, let's keep pushing here." If the time is not what we had been hoping for by the middle of our race, it is still a useful data point for me to know from my seat, and I then will use technical and motivational calls to try and get a bit more out of the boat.
When it comes to both meters and time, navigate with empathy. Picture yourself in your rowers' shoes when it comes to halfway through a race. Imagine how you feel when you go for a 30-minute run... If you are anything like me, you will want to know how close you are to the finish many, many times during the workout. Keep this in mind when calling time and distance during the race, framing things as positively as you can. Our job is to inform and motivate, not make something seem even harder.
Pillar 3: Rate
When it comes to spring racing, it is important to be thoughtful about rate. Finding a number that is low enough to be sustainable, but high enough to keep your boat competitive is the key. Communicating rate clearly and often is the best approach, since you can see every time you bump up or down a beat on your Coxbox, but the rowers don't know the small changes unless you tell them.
When it comes to rate, I recommend being very explicit about where you are, where you need to be, and how you want to get there. If the boat is on rate, perfect - tell them. A simple "36 - we're on" is great. If the rate is too high, rather than just saying "bring it down" it is helpful to tell them exactly how and where to bring the rate down for it to be the most effective. If you can be clear from the coxswain seat about how you want a change made, there is a way better chance that the boat can implement it on the first try. I like to give a technical area to focus on for a shift, and give my boat 2+ strokes to prepare so they can do it effectively and together.
Examples of rate feedback:
If the rate is good: "we are sitting at a 35.. it feels good here” or even "35. good" works!
If the rate is too high: “we're at a 37. on my call let’s lengthen out on the front, let the boat breathe and run. in 2, that's 1, and 2. on this one!"
If the rate is too low: “we're at a 32, and I think we can get a little more out of it. On my call, let’s get a little more pop and kick off the front end, and build a beat on the drive. In 2, that's 1, and 2. on this one!"
Pillar 4: Split
Split is an interesting piece of information because sometimes it is super helpfuland telling about the boat's speed, and sometimes it is not. It is important from the coxswain seat to be able to read a situation to determine if the split is an important talk about a lot or not. Just like rate, from our seat, you can see the split changing every stroke on the Speedcoach, but the rowers can not. If you are in conditions that are changing often, what the split is might not be so useful. That being said, whether your split is fast or slow, you can still see it changing, which is always useful for gauging if you are getting faster, staying the same, or getting slower. Even if you are :10+ higher than where you want to be, you can still ask your boat "to drop you a split".
When racing, if the situation and conditions make sense, split is good for indicating if your boat is rowing to its potential, gaining or losing speed, and or rowing at a sustainable pace. Know your boat well enough before a race that you can make calls for more power or for a little conservation depending on the numbers you see. You also can use split to tell your boat if their shifts, technical changes, or power moves are effective.
If the situation makes sense, talk about your split during the race. Give the number and then layer feedback on top of it. I like to use both technical focuses and motivational calls to drop splits when needed. When the split is good, or even great, make sure to tell your boat that to build excitement and confidence!
My thought process when calling split:
What split are we going at?
Where do we want to be split-wise?
How are we going to get the split we want?
Examples of split feedback:
"We are currently at a 1:38 - let’s push off the front end to go for a 1:36 for 10, on this one...”
Thought process after the call:
Did we make the change?
If not, what needs to happen next?
If yes, how do we maintain it?
Pillar 5: Margins
The spring is all about competitive racing! From the coxswain seat, our main focus is to get our boat from the start to the finish as quickly as possible. To best call margin during a race, memorize what teams are in the other lanes, and then update your crew throughout the 2,000 meters on where everyone stands.
Be concise and clear with your calls, letting them know what number position your bow is in, and where the other boats are relative to where you are sitting. Along with margin, I recommend giving your boat actionable calls to help you move away from another boat if you are up, or close the gap if the other teams are ahead. If you move, be ready to tell your boat right away, building momentum and excitement when you are walking! Margin is the most exciting thing to call in a race, and should be a solid portion of your dialogue.
Pillar 6: Conditions
In terms of conditions, it's important to remember that although you can see everything from the coxswain's seat, the rowers are sitting backward and only can see things when they are behind you and in front of them. I like to give my rowers warning about conditions so they can prepare both mentally and technically for whatever is coming. Whether it is a wake, a gust of wind, a log, or even a calm spot, it is helpful for the rowers to know how the conditions or space is going to change to give your boat the best opportunity to not just handle it, but to capitalize on it.
Examples of calling conditions:
A gust of wind is approaching, help your boat prepare: “I see a big gust coming in 2 strokes. Let's keep the shoulders loose and the blades direct on this one..”
If you see a wake coming, warn your boat: “a wake is coming on port side first in about 5 strokes.. let's stay horizontal and stabilize as we row through it”
If the water is getting choppier, tell them how to handle it well: “we are about to hit a choppy patch.. let's keep the blade work clean and tap down a little extra to keep the set”
If you find a flat spot, make the most of it: “ok boat… we are coming into a protected part of the course.. let's take a 10 to take advantage here”
When thinking about a race plan, I recommend making a note to check in with these 6 pillars every ~250 meters to make sure you are communicating the necessary information often enough during the race. You don't need to say each item on the list every 250m, but instead just mentally running through the list will help you make sure you are giving enough context to your rowers so that your boat as a whole can perform its best.
Giving just enough information is huge, and tying in technical and motivational calls will give your boat its best opportunity to have a great race. Keep your crew informed, be aware of the moving parts around you, and give it your best... Information is power, and an informed boat is a fast one! Good luck this spring, and happy and fast racing!