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It's About Time You Knew What A Coxswain Does

Jordan Mansfield / Stringer

Let’s be real, most of us have played basketball.  Five players cooperate to bounce and pass a ball, through opposing players, with the goal of one player getting in position to loft the ball up and get two or three points.

Soccer? Also pretty chill, and nearly universally played at one time or another by those you meet.  Eleven players per side, who variously kick, pass, or direct headers into the goal on offence, and variously moving to defend their team turf and goal on defense.

Some of us have also played competitive golf, where an individual’s unique judgment of distance, loft needed, club face speed, and course management can make the difference between that individual’s winning or missing the cut.

Now hear me out, I am not trying by any means to demean your sport, whether it be basketball, soccer or competitive golf.  My goal instead is to try to have you visually picture how those sports differ from my sport, rowing.

Take a moment to imagine eight athletes on a golf driving range. Each is of differing size, weight, arm length, with varying years of experience in golf. Now imagine that in order to become elite in the sport of golf, their goal as a team, is to commence their backswing at the exact same moment, reach the apex of their swing at the same instant, contact the ball at precisely the same time, follow through on their swing to the same finish, launch the ball at the exact same angle, and shape their shot with the same draw to land at the same time, distance and location on the driving range. Now imagine that to succeed as a team the competitive goal is to do this 250 times in uniform succession.

This perfect unison of athletic endeavor is analogous to the goal of elite rowing, except that in rowing the athletes are being coached in the boat during the race by a smaller person who doesn’t row, but who the athletes trust to constantly make adjustments to their individual stroke and to their collective pace, while steering the boat. Rowing is a sport where hundredths of a second can decide the race’s outcome and where the smallest person in the boat is critical to helping the team harness and achieve its potential.

Collegiate rowing is a 50+ person sport that costs, by my estimation, about one million dollars for a university to competitively run.  We have coaches, trainers, medical staff, boatmen, $40,000 carbon fiber boats, $400 oars, and seemingly a million pieces like washers, spacers, nuts, bolts, wrenches, seat pads, foot-stretchers, clams and seats to make the boats function.

Have you ever gone to practice needing wrenches and waterproof paper?  I wouldn’t think so.  Most female rowers are around six feet tall and 175 pounds.  They lift weights, run, swim, climb the stadium steps, spin, row and, of course, “erg” (meaning row on machines furiously).  

Now notice that I am saying “they” and not “we”.  I am what you call a “coxswain” (pronounced:  cox’n).  There are typically 4-5 coxswains per team.  We are a mix of a jockey, quarterback and what Trey Bolton from High School Musical calls a playmaker.  I face forward in the narrow 60 foot boat.  The rowers all face me.  I sit crunched up in the back of the boat, wearing more layers than the Eskimos you watched on TV as a kid.  I run practice, in other words I guide the rowers in what drills to do and how to do them better.  

On race days in the spring, we sit motionless at the start line, with 2000 meters of race course in front of us.  Flanked beside us are other race boats filled with crews whose intent is on paying the physical price necessary to propel their bow over the finish line first.  These races can be won or lost by hundredths or even thousandths of a second, and everything matters in a race.   I am figuratively the equivalent to both the announcer and team manager at the baseball or hockey game, who tells the rowers how far up or down they are in the race, what boat is trying to make a move on us, and what distance we have left to race.  I see their hands moving repeatedly to a synchronous “catch” (placement of oar blades in the water), with each catch meeting the water on my call, and each stroke moving through the water in unison over the race course.  I let them know how much they are winning by or what the plan is to take down the boat that is up on us.  I have to keep the boat going perfectly straight while harnessing the rowers’ power to move down the 2000 meter collegiate race course.  Failing to steer straight can cost the boat the race.

After 1500 meters, with 500 meters still left to race, all the rowers’ muscles have moved from aerobic to anaerobic effort.  I implore the rowers to leave their comfort zone behind, ask them to go harder than their perceived limits, and tell them exactly when to make the final sprint.  I urge them to ignore the lactic acid build up causing their muscles to scream.  At 200 meters left to go, the sounds of hundreds to thousands of people cheering their favored boat drown out nearly all other sound – but I must make my voice somehow still be heard.  We are jockeying for position – in boats – and every meter matters.  At the finish, the feeling of winning a close race is euphoric.  The rowers have given their all for their boat and team, and lay exhausted collapsed upon each other.

How does one become a coxswain?

How does one become a coxswain?  The sport of rowing is a very large community, and its participants are comprised of juniors, collegiate athletes, international level athletes, and “masters” (those who start or continue rowing as adults, some well into their elder years).  Rowers and coaches keep an eye out for persons with coxswain potential.  Sometimes that person naturally possesses the necessary leadership qualities needed, while others discover that quality within through coaching.  A coxswain must be able to take control of tricky situations, and lead other leaders who are twice their size and often older than them. A coxswain must also become an intense ‘student of rowing’ in order to be able to see and correct small imperfections in rowers' strokes that might be affecting boat speed. We use two devices to help us understand our speed: a Speedcoach and CoxBox. Coxswains are almost universally smaller persons, typically in the range of approximately 110 pounds for women and 120 pounds for men.

According to an informal survey I took of my team, I am described as the eyes, ears, brain and heart of the boat, a coach-in-the-boat, and one who steers. The latter is what 72% of the responses said, the remaining 28% wrote something creative.  For example: "If rowing is a symphony of motion, then the coxswain is the maestro; coxswains are the glue of a boat, their presence and input is vital to a cohesive rowing piece; A coxswain literally & figuratively drives the success of a practice or race; she or he is the marriage of a quarterback and a jockey; the person that makes you want to win for the person sitting in front of you, behind you, your team, and your school."  

Coxswains are the glue of a boat... the marriage of a quarterback and a jockey.

It’s not an easy position to describe, and I honestly believe it is what you make of it. My position on the team, not to mention our sport, is frequently overlooked in collegiate athletics.  But today, I wanted to shed light on my position as a coxswain in order to demonstrate how someone of small size and stature can overcome any “short people stereotypes,” participate and grow as a leader, and truly make a difference to their teammates, their team, and to the sport of rowing.   

When I started learning how to “cox”, as it is called, I heard a lot of “Hey, athletes and coxswains come here!”  That fired me up to become fit like a rower, and to hopefully be confused as one at a race. I also heard “Oh my gosh, do you need help carrying that?!"  This guided me to carry myself differently, which led to situations where I would stand up after sitting at a table with some peers and their parents, and the parents would comment, “Oh my! You are tiny! I never would have guessed that by the way you hold yourself!”  I learned from the first few years of my career in coxing that you may appear small, but it doesn’t mean you have a small impact. Coxing is important, the team couldn’t do what they do without us.

That’s all for now, add me on Athlete Network and/or LinkedIn and let me know if you have ever tried rowing or want to know more. I’d be happy to chat.

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