Care for the Novice Cox

At most rowing clubs, coxes are in short supply.  This being the case, whenever someone new joins the coxing rota or even when a rower agrees to take on coxing duties, club members would do well to bear in mind that they are dealing with a valuable resource and reward them accordingly.  If most clubs held on to more of the people who have ‘tried out’ the coxing seats they would have more coxes available then they do.  So why do so many new coxes not last long?

Sadly, part of the reason may be that novice coxes don’t always get the attention from coaches that they deserve.  One aspect of this is the tendency to put novice coxes with novice rowers. While I can see why this would happen, it really is like putting a novice rider on an unbroken pony – albeit a rather slow one.  The more inexperienced a crew is, the less likely they are to row consistently and a crew which rows inconsistently will be harder to steer.  Add to this the problems which beginners have manoeuvring a boat safely when spinning or landing and you can appreciate what a challenge we present new coxes with and why so many of them get discouraged and leave as a result.

I would suggest that it would be a good idea to provide newly recruited coxes with a mix of boats to cox, some beginner/novice boats certainly, but also some more capable intermediate boats which will provide a more rewarding experience from the cox’s seat.  I’m NOT suggesting that new coxes should be asked to cox high-speed pieces, but if a more experienced crew is rowing a ‘technical’ outing, a new cox can learn what their exercises and drills look like when they are executed correctly.  They are then in a much better position to help the novices and in the end the whole club benefits.

Another idea worth trying is the ‘cox squad’.  How many clubs, before travelling to row in a regatta on someone else’s river, get their coxes together as a squad for a briefing on the rules of navigation and safety applicable to the venue?  A simple way of passing valuable information from experienced coxes who have rowed that particular river before to those who will be seeing it for the first time – and again the whole club benefits.

Rowers also have a role in making a new cox feel welcome and valued.  It really isn’t hard to understand that without the cox the outing doesn’t happen.  Help make their experience a positive one, one they will want to come back to.  Welcome them as part of your crew and help make every new cox into a good cox and an asset to your boat and your club.

Lastly, considering the safety of the crew and the care of the boat, it is the skills of the cox, not of the crew, which determines the river / weather conditions in which you can run a safe outing. No matter how good the crew is, don’t put a novice cox on the water when the conditions (stream, visibility, traffic) make the risks unacceptable.

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Are you a crew before you get out on the water?

I get to watch many squads of competitive rowers at regattas and other competitions and have concluded that you can tell a great deal about the competitive capabilities of crews long before they reach the start line.  Just watching how a crew carry their boat and put it on the water gives a good (not infallible) guide to their performance in the race.  Watching them manoeuvre their boat on the water gives more clues.  If one crew can spin their boat  while keeping it balanced and the other crew can’t spin their boat without putting at least one set of riggers underwater I know which crew I’d back to win.

Every rower should know that an outing starts when the cox calls “Hands on!” to get the crew to lift the boat off the rack or trestles. From that moment until the boat is back on the rack, they are a crew.  There are crews who will approach the apparently simple task of lifting the boat with their full attention.  They will work together, moving together, and when they lower the boat onto the water bows and stern will touch the water together.  Other crews will lift their boat as if it was luggage and are quite capable of having one end of the boat in the water while the other end is still being held at ‘waists’.  Even if such a crew begins to concentrate on working together once they are in the boat, the crew that began working together at the words ‘”Hands on!” is several minutes ahead of them in the process of establishing the level of shared concentration required to row well and win races.

From the coaching point of view, the challenge is to get your rowers to treat every part of the outing as part of their rowing, deserving the same concentration and attention to detail as a racing start or a balance drill.  This can be a hard message to get across, particularly if the crew has got into bad habits, so to be honest, I simply tell crews that this is how I want it done and I put them right if they do otherwise.  The cox has a key role in helping the crew raise this aspect of their game.  He or she is an important ally in creating and reinforcing awareness that there is a ‘right way’ to lift a boat, to put a boat on the water, to spin a boat at the end of a reach etc.  Good boat handling is more than just getting the boat to the water without breaking it or injuring bystanders (which I think everyone would agree is ‘bad’).

We know good performance when we see it.  It is the crew who lift and move their boat with a minimum of fuss or comment and keep it level through ‘Waists’, ‘Shoulders’ and ‘Heads’. They put it on the water in controlled way, keeping it level because they are moving together.  They will impress the competition (if the competition is watching) before they take a stroke.  They will be ‘in the zone’ and thinking about the race while their less well-drilled opponents are shouting advice to each other and waving to their girlfriends/boyfriends on their way to the water’s edge. Coaching to impress is not the objective – after all, if your competitors know what they are doing, their concentration is in their own boat and they aren’t watching you. The objective – as always – is to row well and win races, and good crew skills in the boathouse and on the landing stage are part of that training.

Some hints and tips:

  • Lifting a boat from rack or trestles:  at ‘hands on’, get the crew to turn their heads to look along the boat rather than across it.
  • Putting a boat on the water:  Get bow and stroke to watch the OTHER end of the boat and lower their end at the same time.
  • Spinning an eight or four: Get the crew to visualise a rail down the centre of the boat at the same hand height at which the boat is balanced and level.  Start from backstops or frontstops as appropriate and have both sides of the boat moving together throughout.  Move the hands backwards and forwards along the imaginary ‘rail’ with NO up and down movement.

Taking the brakes off – five ways to speed up your boat

I’ve written previously about the innovative work done by the GB Cyling team on the importance of marginal gains and how this might begin to translate to rowing  (http://bit.ly/1ihUbYO) .  It is as true in rowing as in any other sport that important races are often won or lost by inches, so any legal change which offers even small improvements in performance is worth considering.

In this blog, I’m going to touch on four aspects of rowing technique or crew selection which any crew or coach can check on to make sure that they are getting the best boat speed they can for the effort they are putting in. Perhaps because it is easier to see these issues from outside the boat than inside it, or because crews can sometimes settle into a particular way of rowing to correct some other problem, these training points are by no means confined to beginners or novice boats.

  1. Blade depth.  Some crews aquire the habit of rowing ‘deep’, with both the spoon and a significant part of the loom below the surface of the water.  Each submerged loom creates a ‘bow-wave’ as it moves through the water and the drag caused by the bow wave acts as a brake on the boat. (See http://bit.ly/1huDCF5 for more detail).  The crew are therefore wasting precious energy on  making these waves rather than moving the boat.  Get the crew to understand that a) the blade naturally floats with its upper edge above the water b) they can reduce the depth of the blade during the drive phase if they focus on dropping the blade gently onto the water before they start the stroke c) if they pull through the drive phase with the blade floating at its natural depth the stroke feels much lighter, because the blade is being used more efficiently.
  2. Dragging blades.  Novice crews often aquire the habit of dragging their blades across the surface of the water from the finish back to the catch.  This helps stabilize the boat, reducing the amount of roll, which is reassuring for inexperienced rowers. However, the drag created by eight blades sliding across the water surface, while not as great as the bow-waves referred to above, is still hundreds of times greater than the drag created if they were in the air. [Hint to coaches: My experience is that asking the rower to lower his or her hands on the recovery doesn’t usually work when seeking to correct this error.  Telling them to lift the spoon off the water is far more effective.   As the Americans would say – “Go figure”].
  3. Speed into frontstops.  The dynamics of boat acceleration are complex and it is a fact that as the crew leaves backstops on the recovery, the boat actually accelerates as kinetic energy is transferred from rowers to boat.  However if the rowers hit frontstops hard – rather than decelerating into frontstops – boatspeed is checked, because the rowers (who weigh much more than the boat) are moving in the opposite direction to the boat.  A good cue for rowers is the sound made by the wheels of their seat.  If the sound is a rising note as they move through the recovery then they are accelerating into frontstops.  If the sound is a falling note then they are decelerating into frontstops.  A smooth deceleration into frontstops followed by the smallest instant of stillness as the catch is taken and the drive begins, is the most effective way to conserve boat speed.  This of course is much easier said than done when working at race pace.
  4.  Cox’s weight. I would advise all crews training for competition to train with as much weight in the boat as possible.  If this includes a coxwain who weighs 90 kilos or more then so be it.  For the races themselves, however, minimum weight in the boat has to be the rule.  Racing with a cox who weighs 20 kilos more than the coxes in the other boats cannot in my view be a competitive advantage, no matter how good a cox he or she may be.  Having a choice of competent coxes is of course a luxury unavailable to many crews, but if you do have a choice, use the lightweight cox for competitions.

There is a fifth issue affecting many club boats but which is not an aspect of rowing technique or crew selection – and this is hull blemishes.  I remember when I was being coached in sculling, my coach put a single bungee cord around the hull of my single scull.  I was shocked by force of the braking effect it produced, simply by disrupting the smooth flow of water over the hull.  If there are blemishes which you can feel on a hull when you run your hands along it, get them repaired and smoothed out before the regatta season gets under way.  They are costing you far more boat speed than you imagine.

Taken together, the marginal improvements in performance offered by each of these changes can add up to the difference between winning and losing.  If you want an introduction to the role of marginal gains here is a short video here: http://bit.ly/SrWeQy

 

Attention….Go! The Racing Start

The  racing start is one of those aspects of rowing on which there are almost as many opinions as there are rowers. The question of how to cover the first 200 metres of a race can produce answers which are not just different,  but contradictory.  One of my first coaches (a Nat Champs gold medallist – so I think she knew what she was talking about) insisted that the fastest starts she ever rowed were “full power, full length” from the go.  Some college crews I have coached in the past, have devised ‘start sequences’ of knitting pattern complexity.  My current coach has an exactly opposite view and teaches a very simple,  shortened stroke sequence, and this is in fact what I teach the crews I now coach.

So what is the best advice for rowers and coaches looking for the most effective start?

First and foremost, the fact that there are so many conflicting opinions on the best start is quite possibly an indication that there isn’t one, because if one particular sequence was clearly better than the others, we’d all be using it. Secondly, don’t get the search for the right start out of proportion.  Even the best start won’t win the race for you, although a bad start can certainly lose one.

My personal view is that an effective start sequence has three distinct functions:

  1. To provide a reliable and predictable series of strokes with which to accelerate the boat rapidly
  2. To minimise the risk of crew errors
  3. To set the boat up for race pace at the planned stroke rate

In terms of reliability and predictability, the start sequence is the only part of the race which is entirely under the crew’s control.  If the crew has been well trained, they know exactly what to do and what to expect during their start. Because they know exactly what is going to happen, the crew don’t have to follow stroke, they can row ‘with’ stroke.  This can be a difficult distinction to convey, but what I mean is that (for example) if the crew know how fast the rate is going to build and have rowed it repeatedly together, then the rower in the stroke seat doesn’t actually have to lead and the rest of the crew doesn’t have to follow. They all execute the same sequence together.  This gets the boat moving as a tightly co-ordinated unit, which is the ideal we are always striving for in crew boat racing.

Crew errors are of course the major hazard during a race.  If crews could always race without making errors, then the strongest, fittest crews would always win.  The fact that they don’t is due to the errors all crews make in turning the energy they apply during a race into sustained boat speed.  Here again, a well-rehearsed start sequence is an excellent way to reduce the risk of errors early in the race.  I coach my crews to treat the start sequence as a technical exercise rather than a brute force powerfest.  In coxed boats, this has the interesting consequence of reducing the noise level so often associated with starts, because the cox’s role is now to keep the crew calm while prompting them through the precise execution of the sequence.  They have to prevent the crew from ‘boiling over’ in the excitement of the moment.  This of course only applies for a few strokes while the crew accelerates the boat efficiently to race pace.  At that point coxes revert to their usual role of ‘motivating’ the crew loudly.

It almost goes without saying that the start sequence should be consistent with the race plan.  The start sequence for a sprint race should build from a standing start to a stroke rate and boat speed appropriate to a sprint.  The start sequence for a head race should build from (usually) a rolling start to a speed appropriate to the longer distance.

In simple terms, the real difference between a good start and a bad start, is that during a good start the whole crew is able to take every stroke together, whereas during a bad start, one or more members of the crew misses or mis-times a stroke.  I personally feel that this is a strong argument in favour of simple start sequences.  Others would of course argue otherwise.

To summarise then, best practice in racing starts is to:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Practice it as a crew until you can deliver it reliably without errors
  3. Make sure it fits seamlessly into the race plan

A good start is above all a morale-booster for the crew.  If they can take half a length out of the opposition while they do it, so much the better – but the minimum it should achieve is a smoothly synchronised, error-free acceleration to race pace.

Safety Notes for Coxes

Every stretch of water we row on is different and every stretch of water will vary with the seasons. Some stretches can vary enormously in level and speed from day to day or even hour to hour and a competent rower, coach or cox will be able to evaluate the risks presented by a stretch of water they row on regularly without too much difficulty.  The cox is the ‘brains’ of the boat and is in charge of the boat and its crew for the duration of the outing.

The particular skills we expect of coxes start with the basic appreciation of the risks presented by water and weather conditions which would be expected of any competent rowing club member. However, the coxwain has a unique role in a crew boat and being only as competent as the rowers in the boat is really not setting the bar high enough in terms of what coaches, rowers and clubs should expect. The bottom line is that during any outing in a coxed boat, it is the cox’s boat and the cox has the final decision on where it goes and what it does.  The cox outranks both coach and crew and needs the skill and judgement to justify that authority.  It is therefore a good idea for clubs to arrange suitable training for coxes at least annually to ensure that they are equipped to take on their responsibilities.

To begin with, the cox has to be the one who avoids problems by planning ahead.  The outing begins when he or she calls ‘hands on’ before having the boat lifted from its rack and it is the cox’s responsibility to ensure that crew, boat, blades, cox-box, life-jacket and any other equipment is got safely from land to water and back again. While the rest of the crew may legitimately be pre-occupied with the technicalities of rowing and co-ordination, a good cox must always be thinking at least one step ahead.  A good cox will check there is space on the landing stage before getting the crew to lift the boat.  They will check that the boat is in working order before putting it onto the water and that the crew is ready to row before pushing off.

During the outing, the cox is responsible for the safety of the crew and the care of the boat. They have to think ahead of their current position on the water both to navigate and avoid hazards.  They must know the rules of navigation for the stretch of water they are on – and these may change with water levels, time of day or local events organised by other river users. The cox has to ensure that there is enough clear water  to overtake as required during drills or pieces on crowded stretches. Where a river or lake is shared with other users, these may present a variety of fixed and/or moving hazards which also have to be avoided. This may sound complicated, but most coxes manage to keep their crews safe on their local river or lake.  Familiar hazards are easier to deal with – although there can be a downside in that even large red ‘Danger’ signs seem to become just part of the scenery if they are always there.

The greatest challenges coxes face are away from their home stretch when competing at regattas or head races hosted by other clubs. At these events there really is no safe alternative to doing the homework. Coxes must learn the local navigation rules and read the instructions to competitors which should be supplied by the organizers.   On tidal stretches, rules can be particularly complicated with circulation patterns varying according to the time of day.  With start times  always subject to change, to navigate these stretches safely a cox will need a watch and possibly a set of notes.

Experienced coxes are a valuable resource at any rowing club.  It would surely be a good idea for more clubs to organise their coxes together to allow for the regular formal or informal transfer  of accumulated knowledge from older to younger coxes. Instead most coxes need be motivated to do their own research and learning. Google Maps is really useful for researching an unfamiliar river and in the UK the Environment Agency provides online reports on river levels here ( http://bit.ly/1fVouB9 ).  If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the local rowing club or the event organizers for clarification of any questions regarding unfamiliar venues.

Boat Types – The Double Scull

The double scull (or just ‘double’) is the most popular crew boat at most rowing clubs. While it offers an easily accessible and reasonably forgiving platform for novice scullers, it is also a class of boat represented in competitions at every level from local regattas and ‘small boats’ head races to elite FISA and Olympic competitions.

double

The double is an ideal platform for one-on-one coaching, with the coach steering in the bow seat and the novice rower in the stroke seat. All club scullers from novice juniors to recreational members can make good use of doubles.

Technically the double is uncomplicated, responding predictably to the actions of the crew whether good or bad. It is slower off the catch than the quad and easy to steer with rudder or blades.

Coxed doubles are still made, but usually as ‘touring’ boats – broad beamed, stable, rowing boats rather than as racing shells or ‘fine’ boats. They are finding a new role in adaptive rowing, allowing disabled athletes to enjoy sculling a double under the guidance of a cox.