Coaching the Fall Novice Coxswain
The novice coxswain is a terrifying yet necessary individual. Some coxswains will come to the boathouse ready to call power tens and others will not be sure why their tall friend dragged them there. I have yet to meet a coxswain who showed up to steer well and help keep everyone safe. The most important things you must do for a novice coxswain are set job expectations and constantly communicate with them. Just as it takes rowers some time to learn the basic stroke, it will also take them time to get the basics of coxing.
A great coxswain makes a huge difference to a team so it is important to build their skills like any other athlete. Safety of the crew and equipment, both on land and on the water, needs to be the focus as coxswains begin the sport. Before they go anywhere with a boat, show them a map of your body of water and explain the traffic pattern. Ensure they know the calls before you leave them to launching on their own, and make sure they understand that they need to watch the entire shell on its way too and from the dock.
The secondary focus for a novice coxswain must be steering. They need to talk less and learn how the boat reacts before being expected to run a practice. Show them how to steer the boat they are typically coxing. If they constantly practice in 8s, don’t forget to go over this step again the first time they get in a bow loader. Just teach them the basics – if you want to go to port do this, etc. An important maxim for a novice coxswain is that the slower the boat is moving, the slower the rudder responds, and vice versa. They must understand they cannot rely on a rudder at all times and learn how to use their bow or stern pair to make adjustments during launching, docking and drills. Do a basic demonstration the first time they are on the water on how to make these quick adjustments: bow seat row (look you went to port), 2 seat row & 7 back (look how your point adjusted without moving forward or backward), etc. Spend the first week or two giving them a point and their goal is to maintain it and learn to steer with another shell alongside them.
Once your coxswains can steer adequately, start giving them more responsibilities on the water. Calling basic drills and timing pieces is a good place to start. Once they have demonstrated that they can do those things while keeping safety and steering top of mind, start talking to them about how they can help their crew during practice. Set, rush, and maintaining correct rate are typical novice crew issues. Speak with your coxswains about how they can identify problems and calls to fix them. Email them practice recordings to listen to and go over what that coxswain did well that you would like them to replicate. Listen to their own recordings and give feedback as well. With these basics covered, your coxswain is ready to help you run a more effective and efficient practice.
I have found it saves time down the road to give my coxswains the workout ahead of time. I’ll either email it to them the night before, or hand it to them to copy before practice begins. Then I go through it with them to make sure they understand what we are doing and answer any questions they have. Tell the coxswains what they should look for and hold them to it. For example, if you are doing a catch drill and 2 seat is always late, the coxswain should be telling them that and helping to get the timing together. While this becomes natural to varsity coxswains, it can take some practice to feel comfortable speaking up to correct their crews. Ensure they are doing this in a constructive tone of course. If you change the practice on the water, tell the coxswains what the new plan is and ensure they write it down and have a minute to ask any questions before you get started.
Now that your coxswains are steering well and keeping boats together, timing pieces and calling drills and basic changes, this leaves you more time to coach the rowers. Throughout the fall continue communicating with your coxswains as they sharpen their skills and raise the bar – are they starting even? Are they steering the line you want them to? Do they recognize when to call ratio shifts and power strokes? Are they making technical calls based off drills you have done at practice? Coxswains must become confident and rowers must become confident in them, so ensure you are allowing coxswains to grow their command of the boat long before race day.
Docking can be very stressful for novice coxswains, but it doesn’t have to be! Have them listen as you call the docking for them a couple times, and gradually let them take over while you watch and can correct as needed. I let my coxswains make mistakes like having the wrong side row or back so that they can learn from them, except in a docking situation for obvious reasons. Make sure to go over how wind and current affects their steering and docking as well.
Your crew is now ready to race! All novice coxswains will be stressed out, but a prepared one will come off the water telling you about the crazy coxswains out there and how prepared they realized they were. Leading up to the regatta, email your coxswains some race recordings you feel are good examples and go over the main points from those races. There are some great Go Pro recordings out there which help teach coxswains why and when that coxswain made a call and what the result was. If the course map is online, go over it with your coxswains before you head to the regatta. Attend the coaches & coxswains meeting with them and make sure either yourself or the referees have answered any questions they have. There is usually a large course map, go over it again with them and once again answer questions. If you get pulled away ask a varsity coxswain to do this step with them. I have a rule that it is ok for coxswains to say that they are nervous, but only to each other and coaches. They are not allowed to tell the rowers that, and instead they should be calming their own nervous crews. Once the crew launches your well prepared coxswain will slip into the practiced routine and nerves often fade away.
There is obviously much more you can teach a novice coxswain during the fall, but just remember to build their skills like you are doing with your rowers. Talk with them, listen to their recordings, answer questions and most of all be patient. You wouldn’t expect a rower to have the perfect stroke right away so understand that novice coxswain mistakes are inevitable, but how you react to them can be the difference between creating a confident coxswain or a perpetually nervous one. You have the entire winter and early spring to dial in their skills, so getting them to a place where they can safely and confidently lead your crew down the race course is all you need to do this fall season.