How does one become a coxswain?

This seems like the sort of Olympics background info that NBC would’ve provided; but if they did, I missed it.

I know pretty much zip about rowing; but it seems like the requirements to be a coxswain are to (a) be of small stature and (b) know a lot about racing tactics. These seem like mutually exclusive job requirements. So…how does one get on the “career path” that leads to coxswain-ing?

I was a coxswain for one year in college (until asthma meds made me gain too much weight). In my experience, it was also helpful to have a big mouth and a positive attitude, because the coxswain is kind of the “cheerleader” of the boat, in addition to being the pacesetter and navigator. For me, “tactics” per se weren’t required as much as being aware of what was going on around us so I could tell when to pick up the pace.

Out of curiosity … why do “being of small stature” and “knowing a lot about racing tactics” seem mutually exclusive to you?

I rowed throughout college and coached a bit afterwards, so I can help with this.

Coxswains are primarily picked, at first, for their size. For instance, you might have some 4’8" 110 pound kid show up and want to be on the team and he gets steered into coxing. Being able to control the tone of your voice also helps. If the rowers need to be calmed, make your voice a bit calmer, if they need to pick it up, make it a bit intense, if they aren’t punching the catch properly, make your voice a bit choppier, etc.

I assume your comments mean that you believe that since there aren’t a lot of short rowers, the coxswain probably hasn’t rowed too much so they can’t know enough to lead the rowers. A lot of times, they will learn to row with the other beginners so they know what’s going on. Or sometimes, they’ll have rowed earlier in a youth program or something and then have stopped growing when everyone else is just hitting their spurts.

As time goes on, they are taught racing tactics in college. Sometimes, they may accompany the coach on his launch and learn how to correct things that are going on in the boat as well.

I am a coxswain.

Have been for thirteen years, picked up four national championships and was US Team pre-elite, among other things.

It has nothing to do with being short and loud. Many short, loud people ARE coxswains, but thy are not prerequisites.

You have to know how to row. More importantly, you have to know ABOUT rowing.

Let’s get the basics out of the way:

In order to be adequate:

  1. You have to be able to steer. No matter how small you are, this is a must. If you can’t do this, you can’t cox. And any rower who tells you it’s easy has no concept of drag, position of the coxswain relative to the rudder/stroke delay, disparity between sides, wind/current/tidal conditions, etc.

  2. You have to be able to execute a basic race plan. Know what to do over the course of the race (be it a head race or a sprint race) and how to implement the coach’s basic plan and contingency plans in case of unforseen circumstances.

  3. You have to know enough about rowing to make sure, at the very least, that the blades are going into and out of the water at the same time, and that the rowers are moving at the same rate ont he recovery (the point of the stroke at which the oars are out of the water and they are moving toward the stern in preparation for the next stroke).

In order to be good:

  1. You have to take the quickest line possible from A to B. This means knowing the river on which you’re racing and how to maximize the condtions to benefit your crew.

  2. You have to understand the race plan well enough to anticipate and make a change to it while the race is underway. You have to know your opponents well enough to know what their traditional strengths and weaknesses are, so that you can be ready for their habitual or trademark moves and factor this into your race plan.

  3. You have to know enough about rowing to ensure that the entire crew is applying power at the same time, and accellerating the oars in the same manner, and emphasizing power at the same parts of the drive, depending on which part of the stroke your crew emphasizes. You have to establish and maintain this over the course of the race in order to get the best out of your crew.

In order to be great:

  1. You have to understand that straight-line steering is all well and good, but there is a time to wash your opponents and there is a time to bump and there is nothing that should come between you and your objective. And you have to make that shell do what you want it to do.

  2. You have to realize that the best race plan goes out the window the minute the race begins and you have to be able to accommodate that fact on the fly.

  3. You have to be able to “say how it feels” in small phrases so that you can spit out a three-minute technical explanation of what’s wrong and how to fix it in three syllables.
    Being a coxswain is not easy. It looks easy because all you see on race day is the little guy yelling. It seems easy because nine coaches out of ten are ex-rowers who have little to no idea how to teach the position, because they never paid any attention to their coxswains in school or on their club team and so just expect the little people to pick it up through osmosis. It looks easy because a great many colleges don’t have good coxswains because they boat by size and not intelligence, leaving you with the little girl/boy who has no sense of what it’s like to be an athlete or compete at anything.

Being a coxswain is not being a cheerleader. No coxswain worth the name says “come on, guys!” or “who wants it more?” or “pull!” or any of that crap. You’re not the little guy that yells, “stroke, stroke, stroke” either.

It’s hard damn work being a coxswain, at least if you want to be a good one. You do your homework. You learn who’s in your boat and who the opponents are, and you learn how to exploit that knowledge.

If you’re looking for an easy way to the Olympics, coxing ain’t it.

To answer rockle’s question – that’s exactly what I meant.

And thanks, all, for the insight.

I got to be a coxswain at college when a guy came up to me at a party and asked me how much I weighed. After I told him, he asked if I wanted to be a coxswain. After I said sure, he asked it I wanted to go back to his room. I said no. So, for him, it wasn’t much of a pick-up line, but for me, well, it got me in a boat with eight very good looking guys!

However, it was a lot of work, and until I mastered the steering, it was quite an adventure. I only practiced with the team, though. Their regular coxswain, who weighed 15 pounds less than me, couldn’t make it to practice several days a week, so I filled in for him. If I could have dropped 5 pounds, the coach said he’d let me race, but that never happened. Now I wish I taken the opportunity to learn to row better (I went out a few times with the women’s team so I would better understand all the terms and whatnot). Who knows, maybe rowing will be my mid-life sport.