The Brain of the Boat: Coxswains are the Smallest Rower with the Most Power

Upon first glance, the coxswain on a rowing team seems similar to the kicker on a football team. They’re the smallest athlete of the crew and their job is noticeably different from everyone else’s. However, the coxswain is actually more similar to a quarterback.

“They’re pretty much in charge of the whole race,” says Tom Sanford, the Director of Rowing at Marist. “They are a coach while they’re on the water”. Sanford also likened coxswains to jockeys in a horse race.

The most important position on a rowing team, the coxswains are the ones responsible for steering the boat. They do this mostly by yelling loudly, but they also use a rudder and a GPS system that displays the boat’s performance metrics, such as speed and strokes per minute, on a screen. They have to be small in stature so that they don’t weigh down the boat and also possess great leadership skills.

The job includes workouts that start as early as 5:30 a.m. and consists of a lot of yelling. This may seem like an outrageous activity, but for senior Ari Streeter and junior Isabelle Koch, it’s just their lives. It’s just what they do.

Both Streeter and Koch started their coxswain careers in high school and were recruited by Marist. Although both came from high schools with competitive rowing programs, it took some time to adjust to the college level. “[The learning curve] was more figuring out where you fit on the team at the beginning. And especially as a coxswain, you’re kind of a mix of a coach and a rower, so you’re trying to bridge the gap with communication,” Streeter said. “When you come up on your freshman year, you don’t have respect immediately. You have to earn it the same way an athlete does.”

It takes time to adjust to a collegiate rowing team just as it does with typical college life. “Not only are you getting used to the specific people that you’re now working with on this new team, but you’re also adjusting to college life in general,” said Koch, explaining that the team became like family to her as she adjusted to college life.

According to Sanford, it takes freshman coxswains a year to feel comfortable with the job. Unlike other freshman athletes, coxswains are groomed specifically to be leaders. They’re brought in to eventually become the brains of the operation, different from other sports where captains are chosen based on performance and leadership skills.

Sanford maintains a policy that coxswains are not eligible to be captains because they already possess so much authority and responsibility. Still, he notes “they’re definitely leaders”.

They have no choice but to be leaders. They’re directing other crew members; it’s essential for them to know their rowers. “I really know how they handle different situations and I know different ways to prepare them for different situations,” Koch says. She has had the benefit of working with the same crew members for years.

In addition to the strength and power that goes into rowing, there is strategy. Ordering the rowers to row as fast as they possibly can the whole race won’t work. Coxswains need to know when and when not to go all out. Knowing the right time to start picking up or slowing down the pace is crucial. “You have to be aware of how tired your athletes are,” said Streeter.

Strategies vary from race-to-race. The Head of the Charles Regatta, occuring every autumn, uses a three-mile-long course with five big turns. In the spring, races are in straight lines. The coxswains always have a game plan, but they don’t always get to execute exactly like they planned to.

Koch explained, “they’re reminded ‘Here’s our plan. Here’s what we want to do. Here’s what we’ve been practicing.’ But if I say something different…their job is to trust that. And their job is to understand that the reason I’m saying something different is because I’m seeing something.” The “something” that Koch sees is an aspect of the race that can get her boat in the best position to win.

The team understands “the advantage of rowing from ahead”, which means being in the lead. In the 2019 MAAC championship, Koch planned to get out to a lead right away. She had her crew row as hard and fast as they could for as long as possible, then switched it up by focusing on less frequent but more powerful strokes. The result: a victory and a trip to the NCAA championships.

Marist finished sixth, fifth, and fourth over the three days of competition. Koch notes that “it’s definitely a different game to go to nationals” It can be tough transition since the team goes right from “winning – being in first place – to coming in last place all weekend.

Rallying her crew, Koch had them focus on themselves and not the bigger and better athletes around them that they kept losing to. “I would always meet with my crew at the end of every race and say, ‘Hey, I know you came in last, but that was an awesome middle move’ or ‘That finish felt better than it has in the past’. Talking to them and really emphasizing the things that we had done well, despite coming in last place.”

As prepared with a plan that any coxswain may be, unexpected weather can change the story. During the Dad Vail Regatta in May, Streeter’s crew faced some turbulent conditions. “The water was really rough, and the wind was not directly on us.,” Streeter explained. “So, it kind of pulls us around, a little, on the water, so we have to make changes on our feet for that.” Their fourth-place finish in that race put them in the final, where they placed second.

While proper rowing technique needs to be maintained, sometimes the best way to get the most out of a crew during a tough situation is by simply motivating them, according to Streeter. “You have to be confident no matter what, even if you’re not”. The coxswains are the coaches during the competition, so it’s up to them uplift and inspire their squads.

On top of all the skills and responsibilities a coxswain has, they need to be small; not mentally, but physically. The boat can weigh up to 200 pounds before the weight of eight rowers is added on. It’s crucial that they don’t make the boat too heavy (or too light, as some races have minimum weights that boats and crews must meet).

Being a coxswain can be especially daunting in practices, which take place in the early hours of the morning. Both Koch and Streeter said that although the schedule can be a pain sometimes, they still find ways to motivate themselves. The coxswains, above everyone else, need to be awake – and ready to shout a lot. Koch credits the energy she gets from seeing her teammates and the water. Streeter credits the energy he gets from the expectations he has to direct the boat…and coffee.

At the end of the day, being a coxswain pays off. It’s a position that has helped Ari learn how to be an effective and confident leader, which will be helpful in his pursuit of becoming a veterinarian. It has also taught Isabelle leadership skills, mainly how to “trust her own intuition” when a tough decision is to be made; she can use this as she seeks to become a speech-language pathologist.

Sanford says coxswains are “the brain of the boat” and that “a rower would not be able to hop into a coxswain’s seat and be successful right from scratch”. It’s a position that takes a unique type of person; one that can coach and strategize on the fly while taking up the least amount of space possible. “Without a good coxswain, your team is not as fast as it could be.”

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine and Bridget Reilly

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