Sunday, 10 August 2014

10 top tips for coxing an expedition row

The successful completion of an expedition row boils down to the rowers taking a lot of strokes. A LOT of strokes. But good coxing can play a really valuable part in helping them with that. Follow these tips to keep your crew fast, informed, and happy.

They're in order of importance. The first three are purely technical. After that coxing creativity comes into play, but don't be alarmed if you're not an experienced cox: there are several helpful tools you can use to squeeze the most out of your crew. Not literally, obviously.

NB These tips apply whether the role of coxing is rotated through the members of the crew, or whether you're the dedicated (and I mean that in all senses of the word) cox for the whole trip.

Tip 1. Take the shortest line
It's one of the great contradictions of expedition rowing: we've chosen to do a long-distance row, but we'd like it to be as short as possible.

So, although it may not make sense, it's true. A cox who steers well but says nothing is almost always preferable to an entertaining and motivational one who takes the scenic route.

And just in case anyone is reading this who either hasn't yet done much geometry at school or wasn't listening in that class, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. (Although it IS a bit more complicated than that if you're rowing across a tidal seaway in events like the Celtic Challenge.)

Tip 2. Sit the boat
Nothing makes your or their backs hurt faster than an unnecessarily unbalanced boat. Be sensitive to it. Don't wait for them to ask you to do something about it. 

Of course, in a crew numbering x rowers, there are x+1 people who might not be sitting straight but this still means the chances are that you (the +1) are not the bad-balance bear. However, whilst a list to strokeside, say, may not be your fault, it IS your responsibility to ensure it's eradicated. Don't blame individuals (unless there is a really obvious culprit, in which case someone else is at fault for having them in the crew) but rather delegate the solving of the problem to the rowers: "We're consistently a bit down on strokeside. Can anyone make any adjustments?"

My final point here is simple: scull. The only reasons I can think of to do a long-distance event sweep-oar are a) the event involves a special boat-type that can only be done sweep, such as the Sulkava churchboats race, or b) you're really, really bad at sculling.

Tip 3. Give data
Tell them times, distances gone or to the next waypoint, if you're using them, or lock, if your journey has them. 

This cox is keeping her crew informed.
And entertained.
When you give distances, do so in "round numbers", for example, every 5km. If you do that, they will trust you to keep telling them at each of those points. If they ask you how far/how long till, you've failed. Or they're ill-disciplined.

Information = control. When they don't know where they are in the race, the whole enormity of it faces them and can understandably be overwhelming. But when they know where they are, they feel in control, and that means they feel  less stressed, can pace themselves effectively, and can mentally tick off the miles in their heads, which is a great psychological boost.

In many situations, you will have planned to break up the row into timed sections punctuated by drinks pauses or cox-swaps. 30 minute stints are common. Generally, most people don't want to know how long into that 30 minute section they are till after half way through, as it's a tad depressing. I would recommend telling them at 20 minutes gone, and then give them a 2 minute warning too, so that everyone can sort out in their own minds exactly what actions they're going to take at that point. 

NB If you only give the 2 minute warning, you're wasting an opportunity for a motivational piece of information (10 minutes to go). "2 minutes to go" isn't motivational, it's just logistical.

Tip 4. Tell them what's coming up
By definition, expedition rows take place on water which is not the crew's home water, so the rowers don't know what's up ahead of them. If you tell them, it gives them micro-goals to look forward to and to attain, even if it's just "There's a bridge/corner in about 200m", "There's a huge oak tree on the left just up ahead", or "There's a motorboat coming towards us". 

Definitely keep telling them if they're gaining on the crew in front, and give the distance to that crew, if you're close enough to judge.

"We're catching a large cruiser.
I'm going to call for 10 firm and then to pull your blades
 across to get us past it..."
If you're catching up with a motor boat that's going in the same direction, the rowers will probably start to notice the disturbed water, noise and engine fumes before they even get to the point of having to row through its wash. So warn them in advance. Then they know what's going on.

If you see a rower look round, you're not doing your job properly (or, once again, they're ridiculously ill-disciplined).

As with omitting to tell them that there are 10 minutes to a break, it's a massive waste of a motivational opportunity suddenly to easy the crew at a lock or scheduled stop point without warning them in advance. It would be like suddenly telling a child that it's Christmas without them having known it was coming (OK, I know that would be impossible, but I hope you see my point). Half the fun is the anticipation.

Tip 5. Praise the crew!
A cheerful cox. Despite the rain.
Marathon runners generally print their names on their numbers on the fronts of their shirts. This is because spectators will then use their name, shouting things like "Well done, Matt!" and "Go on, Amy!". Spectators who are total strangers, of course, whom Matt and Amy will never see again, and quite possibly wouldn't much like even if they did. Yet when you're in pain, the value of praise and encouragement is multiplied at least 5-fold.

So, without over-doing it, pay compliments, both to the crew as a whole and to individuals: "Great work, guys, going really strong!", "Lovely rhythm, Hannah", "Awesome finishes, Cath". That kind of thing. But it's got to sound – and be – convincing.

Tip 6. Be entertaining, but only if you can pull it off
You will know if you can or not. I used to travel to work on a train where the guard regularly told the first half of a joke after we left the station where I got on, and then told us the punchline just before we reached the terminus. He probably got sacked for it, but us commuters loved it. 

A little planning can help here: I'm going to try and learn a handful of funny-definitions-of-words from The Uxbridge English Dictionary  as used in the British Radio 4 comedy show "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue" before this year's 160km row round Lake Geneva. I'll be inserting items such as "Celery: A bit like a cellar" and "Busking: A man who owns lots of buses" here and there. 

The cox of a schoolgirl crew I knew spent much of the 50km Boston Marathon reading a Harry Potter book to them. They liked it: it wouldn't suit all crews. In a similar vein, I read excerpts from  a very amusing blog about rowing across the Atlantic to my crew one year in the  Tour du LĂ©man. It put our "mere" 160km row into perspective too.

Humour is not only good because everyone likes a laugh, but also because it's a strong and positive emotion. And strong emotions help inspire them to greater effort.

Tip 7. It's about them not you
They don't want to hear about your sore bum, or how hard it is looking into the sun to see where you're steering, for instance. Sure, these things are true, but neither is as hard as rowing. The German word for "cox" is the same as the word for "tax", so make sure that you're definitely a value-added tax.

Tip 8. Don't overdo it
Whilst coxing styles vary, in general, when coxing a normal training outing for a racing crew, involving both pieces and paddling, it is entirely appropriate for the cox to talk quite a lot – co-ordinating the crew's focus, and tidying up individual technical details. 

Cox differently on an expedition.
When coxing long-distance rows, say a lot less. Having said that, don't be silent. The data described in Tip 3 is the bare minimum.

And be very careful about coaching. If you do, be very specific (e.g. "2, you're consistently a bit early" rather than "Watch your timing in the bows" which leads both bow and 2 to wonder who is wrong and whether they're early or late), and don't labour the point. Now is not the time.

Tip 9: Don't play music over a cox-box
This will flatten your cox box battery in no time. I think this is because the frequencies in music are much more complex than those used in speaking, so amplifying it uses more power.

Tip 10: Find out whether the others mind if you talk to stroke

Is it OK to talk to her? Or not?
Talking to stroke is contentious. As a small person, I generally sit in the bows of expedition rowing crews. And I'm not bothered at all if stroke and the cox are having a quiet chat that I can't hear. But I know some crew members find this intolerable.

Balanced with that, though, is the fact that there is that little bit more weight on the shoulders of stroke (both literally, if the rest of our catches aren't super sharp, and metaphorically), so getting a little distraction from the pain by exchanging a few words with stroke is well-deserved.

So you just need to find out where the others stand on this before you start, and decide whether, on balance, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.


  1. Any comments on Cox's counting the strokes, not all of them of course?!?

  2. Yes. Don't. Ever.

    This applies to coxing all forms of rowing.
    Folk who like to know the numbers will do it in their own heads anyway.
    Be more creative in what you way. If you can't, best you say nothing.