Indoor races often allow you to have a coxswain (or coach) to cheer you on and encourage you during your row. But the job of “cox-sin” is harder than you might think. Here is some practical advice for both indoor racers and their coxswains.
- Strategize. Not all athletes have a stroke-by-stroke race plan, but some do! If the coxswain knows the plan, he or she can help keep the athlete on track. As an athlete, write down your goal, whether it is to hit a PR with a specific pace or to just finish and have fun. An articulate goal helps the coxswain hit the right tone (such as competitive talk versus praise). Just as importantly, if the race isn’t hitting the goal during the row, the athlete should let the coxswain know how to adjust. If you start having trouble during the row, what encouragement do you need? Examples: The athlete goes out too hard, faster than race plan: Nice work on a 36 spm, now let’s keep the stroke long at 30-32 (the athlete’s goal spm). Or, the athlete isn’t hitting race pace and needs to adjust his or her goal: Let’s focus on staying at this pace.
- Practice. Ideally, you have an opportunity to test out your coxswain-competitor relationship before race day and you have an idea of “what works”. Have a conversation about what types of things help keep the athlete focused and what phrases he or she finds motivating. Example: Let’s practice the sprint together, so we both know how you like me to count your last strokes.
However, I’ve had the last-minute honor to cox for athletes I’ve just met. In these instances, the following also help!
- Be positive. Despite the image of a coxswain “cracking the whip”, the coxswain is your personal cheerleader. As a coxswain, you want to find things going well during the row and acknowledge them. This could be an excellent start, good breathing, or a consistent stroke rating. The coxswain should keep a positive tone; nonverbal communication and voice pitch can influence the athlete. Example: Great job; jump off the footstretchers!
- Stay calm. The most influential coxswains don’t need to scream and yell. A confident articulate coxswain will be better heard than screaming. Make sure the coxswain is seated close enough so that the athlete can hear but not so close as to interfere with the rowing or invade personal space. Many athletes find constant chatter annoying; be sure to allow the athlete some stretches of time to focus silently on his or her own—and be sure to know what the athlete prefers. Example: Count out the next ten strokes in your head for staying strong.
- Don’t lie. Despite the oxygen deprivation, athletes can tell when coxswains lie. Even white lies such as “you look great” can be grating during a rough few strokes. The athlete relies on the coxswain to be an extra set of eyes and ears for competitive racing. Don’t misrepresent where he or she is relative to others (“you’re in the lead”); definitely, don’t start counting the last ten strokes if there are really 15 left. Be confident that what you say is as accurate as possible. Example: You’re coming up on the third 500 meters, keep focused and breathe.
Athlete preferences for coxswains are personal, but hopefully these basics can help you build a relationship. Coxing a race is a rewarding and honorable job, so enjoy the experience of contributing to the athlete’s performance.