007 | Giving Feedback
Welcome to CoxPod – a podcast for Coxswains. I'm Anne, I'm Breana, and I'm Sally and we're three coxswains with a combined 50 years of experience in the seat. We have decided to share our knowledge with coxswains everywhere via this podcast and ultimately, we hope to create a community among our audience where coxswains can learn from each other. Today's episode is about giving feedback.
ANNE: Exactly. And of course, it's common sense when we think about it. From the moment we're born, there's all sorts of feedback and we each develop styles of giving feedback and incorporating it - but we also bring this to our favorite sport. And we're likely to be more comfortable with some aspects of feedback than others but in order to grow and improve, it really pays to hone our ability to give and receive feedback - and hence - this episode. So Sally, I'm going to turn to you first because you've been coaching and coxing for a long time ... even back to the years when Richard Nixon was still alive ... and you've had to express rowing terms in various locations, settings, and sometimes different languages. What do you have to say about the real life importance of explaining things - like things that translate to better coxing skills or the importance of being precise with your language.
SALLY: So what you've delicately stated is that I am old and that I have been coxing since MS-DOS was a new and hip fascinating technology (um ... you can google that later). But one of the things I've learned, and one of the very painful lessons I have learned, is that when I'm coxing ... when I'm talking ... the burden of understanding the statement is placed on me being able to explain it to the listener. So as a coach - as a coxswain - I can say, "Hey look out! The bridge is coming." And if the bow person doesn't understand it, it gets expensive. To try to improve my communication style I have recorded myself and played it back. And I think I am saying Shakespearean prose and (I think) sonnets worthy of Homer are slipping out of my mouth ... and realize much later that I say very confusing things like, "Hey, that thing - do that" or "Put that other thing with the next thing that's blue". And I'm not always as articulate or as understandable as I think I am. So I think it's really important to step back and hear how you are expressing yourself.
BREANA: I think that's a great point and you're very diligent about that in a way that a lot of coxswains should look up to, you know. Not everyone goes as far as recording themselves and thinking about the clarity of their terminology.
ANNE: Exactly, and we're going to be exploring the importance of your own personal style as you both give and receive feedback. It pays to really understand this process - to practice it and to become more efficient and effective - both in coxing and it'll transfer over to your personal life as well. Let's talk about some typical areas of feedback that coxswains might give.
SALLY: One of the more difficult lessons I learned is understanding that not everybody thinks or speaks like I do. What's really interesting in communication is I will say something that I believe is concise, factual, and descriptive - and the person listening to it doesn't hear it the same way. So if I am talking to a bunch of engineers or a bunch of scientists (or Breana), I can't talk about flowery poetic descriptions and imageries and feelings. I think Breana read about a feeling once. But if I talk to Breana about angles and minutes and calculations, that's something that her mind can grab onto and my message is better conveyed to her. So I can say, "Breana, we're gonna hit the bridge in 30 seconds". Breana knows what's going to happen whereas if I'm talking to Anne, talking about angles and hard and fast numbers might be slightly distracting because Anne is the only one who has emotions in this group. So if I talk to Anne, I might try to be a little bit more lyrical ... a little bit more poetic ... trying to talk about things that she's better able to grab onto. So I might say, "Anne, we're going to have a cataclysmic event in 30 seconds". You know, maybe not that lyrically, but it's just a different way of conveying the same message in a manner that the audience is going to be more apt to process and accept quickly. And I think there's a real nuance to that.
ANNE: I think you do a great job Sally - in considering your audience, and I think that you know yourself pretty well - so you take those two factors into account as you are considering what feedback you're going to dole out, right? So how do you find out whether your approach is working or not and then, what do you do if it isn't?
SALLY: Well ... hard line ... is my approach is working ... did we hit the bridge? Yes or no. I mean, that is the worst case scenario. Was I able to instill enough panic in both of you that we have adjusted our course and respected mass and didn't hit the large, solid and possibly damaging object? Honestly for me, if I'm able to convey something to you - if I'm able to convey arms and body away, or change the power application, or draw something out of you to make the boat faster (to make the boat flow better), to change and shape your focus. I get feedback on how the boat is moving and then later I get feedback (or not) on land. I won't lie to you - I have made really bad calls. I have had people grab me by my shirt collar and ask me never to say those words to them again. I have been duct taped to light posts, y'all. (There's a reason why I always carry a pocket knife.) But seriously - for me - the feedback is: am I able to (in a pithy way) make a statement that I feel you understand. And I gauge understanding by: is the boat performing the way I think it should. And I do make snap judgments based on like - I know I am rowing with a bunch of MIT engineers, or I'm rowing with a bunch of (like) painters, or I am rowing with this woman who designs car engines (that one was incredibly intimidating). I try to get to know the person. I try to listen to how they talk. I pay attention to the words out of their mouth because that often tells me how they see and how they communicate ... and then I try to mirror and try to focus my communication on a style that is very similar to their communication style.
ANNE: Right. I'm glad you're really emphasizing the importance of - when possible - understanding your audience and utilizing language and references that will make the most sense to them and touch them quickly so that they can respond quickly because that's what you're all about, and that's what we should be all about. And so the first part of thinking about giving feedback is assessing not only your own skills but who is your audience (again as you say) and utilizing terminology that will make sense. So I assume this applies to all the typical areas of feedback that coxswains might give. Breana do you want to weigh in on some of that?
BREANA: Yeah, I thought this might be an important thing for us to address just to make sure everything's on the table - especially if there are any newer coxswains listening to us who haven't had the whole breadth of these experiences yet - or maybe even if you're very experienced, you haven't sat down to think about it this way in a while. So the most obvious thing we do as coxswains, of course, is give technical (you know) corrective feedback. And we intend to have many - I imagine - future episodes that are all about specifically how to give that kind of feedback and how to identify problems. And that's, you know, one obvious thing that coxswains are told is their job. But there's another category of feedback as well that we've kind of been alluding to which is: how is our boat doing during this practice or during this race situation? So we may be providing factual information like ... how we are doing objectively in terms of the race positioning ... maybe one side just started to out-pull another and you need to get straight in your lane in a sprint race. That's, you know, purely objective information ... reminding rowers that they need to budget their energy at the start of a head race and remembering (of course) always that rowers, you know, may be accustomed to seeing information on an erg screen that they don't have any more in the boat. And so you are responsible for providing that information for them. So we kind of have that factual side and then we have our emotional, motivational side of race information - especially where this again comes down to what Sally was talking about - where some rowers are the type that need things phrased in a negative way. They need to be told they're running out of time in a race, you know, they need to hear something like that that motivates them. And others need to be, you know, brought out of their own heads and put in the mindset of like - we're a team and we can do this together. So there's a whole suite of, you know, just those couple of options of things that are our categories where we give feedback.
SALLY: And I think there's a very, very wide spectrum on positive feedback. I don't want to give anybody the impression that (like) engineers don't appreciate flowery language, but in the moment - in the heat of it - how to be sharp and pithy and have the biggest bang for your buck is really, really critical. And just knowing that audience, I think, is really what makes and breaks coxswains - especially in that head race. And when you do have an engineer and an artist in the same boat, how does one balance that? You can't do this ... yes you can ... there's a whole dichotomy.
ANNE: It is. It is a part of the challenge of the sport and if people who are listening have particular challenges or suggestions, we certainly would love to hear them and share them as well. It's something that a lot of us think about at various times. Going back to the specifics of types of feedback that we are responsible for, one of the other ones is situational awareness. So it's really important that we are able to provide timely - but not too much - timely information about things such as landmarks or wakes of boats or big gusts of wind that might be coming ... the location of other teams or other boats ... and at the same time, helping them to be comfortable enough so that they are not tempted to look out of the boat or be distracted by all that. So that again takes some experience, but it's important for the coxswain who is really attempting to be informative not to be over-informative. You have to finesse and assess what exactly is important that needs to be shared with the rowers. So not everything that we see (and I sure hope not) not everything that we see and hear should be shared. So taking good judgment and toll of what it is that you're trying to convey and just reporting the important stuff, right?
SALLY: One of the things is mitigating distraction and I'm going to pick on Anne and Breana because they're staring at me ... and I'm also far enough away they can't physically hurt me. So some people 'not knowing' is the distraction and if they don't know where they are in the race ... they don't know the stroke rating ... that sets a spiral in their mind. Perhaps (maybe) Breana is kind of one of those people (just ‘cause I need a dichotomy here), but to better serve Breana, I have to be very informative. Maybe (perhaps) Anne maybe doesn't need that information and knowing if I say, "Okay. We hit the 450. We've got whatever to go". That might not serve the same purpose for Anne that it would Breana, and knowing and appreciating that there's going to be different levels of anxiety - different levels of 'need to know'. Like, maybe Anne is only clinging one stroke to the next stroke to the next stroke and if I tell her that we've only done 400 meters, that seems like an impossible wall has just descended upon her. I think knowing that, and knowing your sole goal is to mitigate distraction and keep them on their sole task - which is pulling and how do I get them pulling. You guys are okay with me making fun of you, right?
ANNE: We love it when you make fun of us, Sally. It's quite all right.
BREANA: I'm inspired by this imaginary rower version of myself.
SALLY: So - I am 6'2", 220. I am the tallest. You can be - 6' 1 and 3/4", but I am the tallest! Okay, so another thing to think about in our feedback loop when we're racing is: reactionary comments versus planned comments. And planned comments are: I've worked with the crew ... I know the crew ... we're going to do a start, 10 high, lengthen out, sprint it to 250, get gold, then have hot cider afterwards. That is the planned event. But sometimes (shockingly) things don't go according to our plan and stuff happens in the boat. So at the 350, I can't sprint. Or at the 350, I have to sprint because if I don't make a move now, we are not going to medal. And it's okay to change it up, but when you're doing it, you have to change it up in a way that the rowers appreciate and understand. Sometimes they don't need to know all the information, but they do need to know that we're making a move ... and then sometimes because people have emotions (and Anne has been working very diligently on explaining emotions to me) not everybody's going to react the same way when they go anaerobic. People start crying. I don't call it crying ... I prefer 'leaking'. So they start leaking from their eyes and stuff happens and how to change my calls to support and keep them in the fight for what's left of the thousand meters ... for me, it's a very fluid dynamic when trying to offer feedback. And if 3 seat's sobbing, I might not make as many strict technical corrections on 3 seat as I would 5 seat - because it's always 5 seat's fault - always.
ANNE: Well, I'm glad you're sorting out the differences between (sort of) the reactionary versus the planned feedback because we do both, right? Coxswains that are open and creative enough - and in the moment enough - to understand what their boat is doing have to make some changes. And I think that - at least for the types of crews that I often end up coxing for races - it pays for me to have a conversation before the race. And sometimes even, you know, going down to the start (or whatever) it is - just to sort of state the obvious - because people are generally anxious or they're amped up or they're having their own internal conversation. I like to be as straightforward as possible and I say, "We have our race plan ... however, I want to let you know that if I make a call for something else, it's because that's what we need at the time" ... so that they don't (you know) when they hear something that is unexpected, they don't freak out and think that I'm panicking. It's because I'm deliberately making that call.
BREANA: I want to say, too, that I think it's important for us to say that you may - at the beginning of your coxing career - just be in the fully planned race plan stage. You may start out just saying: my coach gave me the race plan ... it's all I can do to just manage that and get into the stake boat. I mean, we're mostly talking about sprint racing at the moment, and get successfully straight down that course and not interfere with anyone else. And as you start to gain confidence in that realm, you can add on tidbits here or there. So maybe you're like - I'm gonna follow this race plan to the letter until the sprint and then I'm gonna (if I feel confident), I'm gonna gauge. I'm gonna look around and see if there's maybe a change that I could make that would help our boat do the best. And then next race, you say to yourself - okay we have this planned - like, you know, lengthen 20 in the middle of the race. I'm gonna allow myself the freedom to say like - after we've passed the 250, I'm to deploy that when I feel us get short. And I'm going to work on feeling this thing and deploying this move as needed instead of in an exactly planned place. So there's ways to build up. Eventually a coxswain will reach the point where you can get in a boat and not know anything about those rowers (you know) beforehand, and pull off a successful race based solely on what you see going on around you. But it's totally fine - as you start - to ask your coach to give you a prescribed race plan and work with them on that ... and then build up gradually, you know ... allow yourself a little freedom here and there. You know, a great other option is to say: I have two planned moves that I can insert whenever I want. I had a coach really early in my career help me with that. So they said, 'Okay you've got a couple of focus tens that you can deploy when you feel that the time is right. So you only get two, but it's your choice when to insert them into the race'. So I wanted to offer that up for coxswains of all levels listening today.
SALLY: I think that's brilliant Breana - especially if you think about the race plan like a recipe ... a recipe with slightly more ingredients than ramen or microwave popcorn. It's a good idea that you make it 'to the letter' a few times so that you understand the nuances before you start randomly adding ingredients ... like olive oil to a pie crust might not be the best choice, but you don't know what the pie crust will taste like without the olive oil. You don't know what's good or bad or different until you've done it a few times. I mean, we have the fortune of thousands of races behind us so that we're able to very easily pivot. Especially for a novice coxswain, get the race plan. Talk to your rowers. Be prescribed for the first few times. Understand the feedback that they need and ask for - the first few times. And then start, you know, going all Julia Child. (Breana, you can google who that is, too ... saying.)
ANNE: And Sally - you just provided a perfect example of trying to tailor the content of the message that you just delivered to an audience that might be into cooking. So thanks for giving that real time example. And I also appreciate what you both talk about in terms of skill development, right? That's an important thing and we want coxswains at all different levels to enjoy this podcast. So we're talking to people from the beginning of their careers to those people who are more advanced and have more experience. And if you listeners have suggestions, let's hear them as well because we're going to learn from each other. I'd like to pivot just a little bit about another type of feedback that we might need to provide, and it's something that I struggle with from time to time. And it's 'discipline'. It's a regathering of the team - either an individual or the team as a group - and an example is: if there's talking in the boat. What do you both think about things related to (sort of) structure or discipline?
BREANA: Like you Anne, I've also let this area slip sometimes, I might say. Like, I was very attracted by the discipline side of rowing - as other people who've come from a sport or activity such as marching band as we have - that requires that ... where that's (you know) lauded and valuable. People, you know, who come from that environment may feel the same. But I've slacked sometimes with little things, you know. It's hard to know the balance between something like: okay, on our team we let it run and then we put all the blades down together. And if you just had a really hard piece and three seat just goes ahead and just sits easy before (you know) the whole rest of the boat is at arms away ... waiting for your command to drop the blades ... sometimes I let that slide. You know, I try to read the situation and decide - is this the right time to get really harsh and be a disciplinarian or is it better for us to focus on (you know) celebrating how that really hard piece went - or something like that. Similarly, you know, the occasional talking in the boat. Is this the right time to get pedantic and disciplinary about it and assert your authority just because you can, or are there times (you know) where you can let something slide in the name of the spirit of what's going on in the practice? And I think there is a way to find a balance here between maintaining discipline and maintaining your authority ... but also not becoming someone that the rowers hate. There's a way to be someone that they respect. But I'll own that I don't always hold myself to the standards that I'd like to sometimes.
SALLY: Well, I'm kind of like huh - standards? There are rules? Should we be following them? I don't see it as lax, Breana, in you. I just see it as that you're prioritizing what needs to be done. Lax to me connotates lazy, and these are words I don't actually associate with you.
BREANA: Well thanks.
SALLY: I think the primary thing is safety and if anything's going on that - in any way - puts the boat in danger or potential danger, that's when I really come down hard. But I think words are weapons and I can yell and scream and drop the f-bomb and do all these things, but I think it was Machiavelli who said once, 'You use something, it's gone forever'. So once I use my temper ... once I use that shock value to snap all the rowers in ... it's not going to carry the same weight. If, like, they didn't slap their oars down together, like phooey, we look bad in a sports graphics picture - versus they didn't bury their blades and we're going to hit the bridge abutment. In giving feedback, I weigh how serious the situation is . The other thing I really pay attention to is (because I do cox a wide spectrum of people ... from people who don't know how to, or choose not to feather in the middle of a race ... to former national champions and Olympians) and their expectations and their behaviors and their rote knowledge is so drastically different. I might get on the ex-national teamers case mostly because it's fun and their feet are tied in and they can't hurt me in the moment about you know not following protocol, but the novice who's just terrified and a puddle of emotions and doesn't know not to talk - if I use a harsh word there, I will destroy them. I will destroy this moment. I will destroy what could be a beautiful and self-achieving event. So I try not to (unless we're gonna die, which there have been times I was full-on convinced we're gonna do 'Thelma and Louise' with an eight over a dam or something), but unless something like that is going to happen, I try to mitigate my feedback and my voice situationally like that. And recognize and appreciate some rowers just ... they don't know to be disciplined and it's not their fault. They just haven't lived through it yet.
ANNE: Yes, what I'm hearing you both say is something actually I also try to ascribe to - which is that you reserve that really, really firm commanding voice (or verbal feedback) for really truly unsafe things ... things that are either about to happen, or you're preventing them from happening. You know, like people who are looking back at the dock as you're landing, for example. I tend to be pretty firm and directive about not looking back at the dock because it shifts the trajectory of the boat. So if it happens repeatedly or there's something else that's unsafe, I'm going to be incredibly direct.
SALLY: One of the things to think about, too, is people don't often have coxswains ... people don't often have skilled coxswains, so they have been on their own and thinking independently how to dock - how to do these things - so when somebody gives you feedback on docking, they're not always insulting you, they're letting known their fears. I have been in this situation and even though I think I am 6'2", 220 (very svelte, very buff), I'm not. And I am a little tiny girl on a dock with a bunch of 6'4" old men who have been coxing even before I was born, and sometimes it's hard to get your authority in that situation. And I will tell you right now, you are not going to get authority by screaming at them. If you're trying to talk and this 64-year-old guy is looking back behind you and he rowed for Harvard and then the Olympic team and then he was the first one to row on Mars (because he's awesome), you are still the coxswain. Assert your role, but if you come out and you come out shrieking, you are reinforcing his impression that you are a little nervous girl. But if I say, "Oh come on now, Bob, all of us have jobs. Yours is to pull hard. You did that - way to go. Let me try to dock". Or he's giving you feedback ... you need to do this and this with the wind and you did, "Oh that's awesome. I didn't appreciate the current, Bob. Thank you so much for telling me, now let me focus so I can do this right". You know, there's a way of talking to them that they feel heard and you still get to do what you need to do. If I go, "Bob, I'm a coxswain for 48 years" and I start yelling, they're never going to hear it. But if we're approaching the dock and he's helped - or worse yet, he starts tapping with his oar and I've lined up the bow - there are better ways of handling that situation than just like being a little girl and stomping. And I would like to just state: I have had the princess ballerina stomp and twirl fit ... where yelling and shrieking. It doesn't help. It really doesn't help.
ANNE: Well, I like the specific sort of words that you're offering us - you're giving us some options and ways to approach things. And isn't that really what we're trying to convey here is that there are numbers of ways and sometimes better ways ... but emphasizing that it's about knowing your audience, right? It takes you back to the opening remarks that you had, Sally, about the importance of that. And when you're not familiar with a crew these skills are even more critical, right? And speaking of different crews, I know each one of us has coxed a boat (or boats) that the rowers are from a totally different region or country. So what do we need to keep in mind when we jump into those boats?
SALLY: If you have the time and you have the luxury, trying to talk with your crews beforehand. Because just saying, "Hey, this is the command I give to stop ... when you hear 'way enough' or 'easy all' or 'let it run' ... what do you do?" Because I will tell you - just like there are accents in this country - there are regional accents and dialects to rowing. And you can say 'way enough' in one crew and that means they arms and gunnel the blades away. You can say 'way enough' to another crew and they hold water and break the boat. So knowing the difference is super, super, super critical ... because I have said the wrong thing at the wrong time and it has ended up very wrong.
BREANA: This has been so important, especially the more diverse coxing experiences I've been able to have, but I don't think there's any harm in acquiring this (you know) flexibility as early as possible in your career. Because yeah, regional differences on a global scale - we have completely different rowing terminology in some countries. So anytime I'm coxing an international boat that I want to stop, every possible phrase comes out. We got: let it run.... we got 'way enough' ... we got 'easy all'. But even just, you know, to unpack one of those: 'easy' (typically an American rowing) means to go lighter but continue rowing. But if you say that to a British athlete, they're gonna stop. So it's important to understand all these different things. Again, for safety purposes, we're in a crowded international race ... we're in the warm-up lane ... someone has abruptly stopped in front of us and we got to curtail our start that we're practicing immediately ... and so I just am busting out every phrase that I have. But even within the United States, if you especially have just had your coxing career concentrated in one region thus far, you may not be aware that there are completely different terms in other parts of the country - subtle little things that, you know. You maybe went through your high school or college career thinking were the words that the rowing world used. You may be surprised to discover that they're different. So one that comes to mind for me is the idea of the boat being 'set' - which I have said my whole life - a term that some California athletes that I know use is 'on keel' instead. So we're talking about the same thing ... the idea that the boat is going straight through the water, not tilting to port or starboard, but it's a completely different term. So if you have, you know, moved to a new area or you're hopping into a boat for a team that's from a different place, it can be worthwhile to learn these things or at least realize them on the fly. You know, you say, "Hey, the boat's not set, like, can we fix that" and then stroke seat gives you a weird look, you may (you know) want to describe a little bit. And if you have the luxury of time (again) and ask them, "Like, what's your word for this phenomenon because we all feel it and let's learn this so that we can improve and be speaking the same language you know - literally - together". And I would say these skills are really critical especially (again) the more diverse experiences you have. Oftentimes, people give well-meaning advice to coxswains which is - just get to know your crew and then have a shorthand with them so that by the time you're on race day, you can just say 'sit up' or I've even heard coxswains as far as saying a word like 'hey' and the athletes know what that means. But if you have not had the luxury of spending months, you know, working with the same team (which you may not have had), no matter what scenario you're coxing in, that approach is not necessarily going to work. So it also behooves you to have this backup skill set of immediate flexibility where you may literally ... all you have is the row up to the start line to establish your shared language. So it takes a special ability, I would argue, to be able to assess what's going on and come to the best common (you know) shared understanding that you can in the time that you're given.
SALLY: I think keeping it fluid and remembering it's not about you. If you gave this command and it always has worked in the past, that's awesome. But remember, just because they aren't following the words doesn't mean they're disrespecting you. It just might mean they don't understand. And I think that's an important thing to remember about giving feedback is: if they don't do it, is it because they physically can't do it - they are too exhausted? Is it because they don't understand what you're telling them? Or is it just that they can't do it ... it's not in their physiological makeup? And in giving this feedback, if I am riding three seat because she is not doing this or he is not doing that and I keep picking on them and I keep trying to get this (aside from the safety issues like, you know, bridge abutment ... dock ... other boat) and they don't do it, I shouldn't get mad and upset. This isn't happening out of disrespect, because I think that falls into a whole other feedback loop, just being aware and understanding sometimes they don't understand you ... which is really hard when your adrenaline is pumping.
ANNE: Yes, I totally hear you, Sally, and it's sometimes important when you give feedback of whatever nature and there is not any response - or a response that you expected that feedback to generate - then the first step is to: A) don't react ... don't let that get to you. Your job is to be creative and to come up with something that works, something different that works, because repeating the same thing over and over is going to be very counterproductive for all parties concerned. And I think also, sometimes, in terms of giving feedback, let's talk about the fact that sometimes you - as the coxswain - may understand that the row is being affected (or some particular move is being affected) by just one or a couple of individuals in a larger boat, but sometimes I've found that it pays to (kind of) give feedback to the entire boat that is addressing the problems originating a few. But if you give general feedback, often things will correct - rather than sort of picking on those one or two individuals, and particularly when there's a race scenario.
BREANA: I've definitely taken that approach before, especially, yeah - race stereos absolutely and scenarios of mixed skill levels we could say ... or maybe about of all novices ... or a boat that's kind of a mix. I think very experienced rowers are sometimes yearning for individualized feedback and if you give a correction to a very experienced boat that's really only for one or two people, I think sometimes well-meaning rowers who are doing the right thing interpret that as, 'Oh I should make a change'. And I've had them, you know, give that kind of feedback before - like, 'Well who is it who's not tapping down?' But in a mixed skill level boat, it's important to
strike that balance, I think, between helping the novice person (you know) come along in their skills, but also not picking on them the entire practice. So I've definitely taken that approach. Or if a rower is touchy about stuff and you know that, starting with a whole boat correction and seeing if that improves, is a great approach. And then if I see that not working, I may hone down to say, "Okay ports, could we work on this?" and then maybe it doesn't get fixed ... okay next time, it's two different seats who are kind of doing it even though one person is egregiously doing it, so there's a way I think to kind of carefully, you know, build down to the individual correction if needed. But yeah, I've definitely tried that approach before.
SALLY: When looking to give feedback in races, I kind of ride on two maxims. One is: the rower isn't going to be the best self. The blood that normally goes to the brain is hitting major muscles ... they are thinking at a limited capacity ... so that that's the one thing - is just recognize they are not thinking clearly and they are not thinking like a rational self. That's my job. And the other thing is: 'to each according to their ability, from each according to their needs'. So I am not going to give a novice a very, very specific, very technical call in the middle of a race because they can't process it. They don't understand the words. They're not rote. It is of absolutely no use so I think that large, broad, 'whatever' is perfect. But you know, a more experienced rower who's taken a hundred thousand strokes this month alone - I'm going to approach very differently because their need is different and their knowledge base is different. So I absolutely agree with you, Breana.
ANNE: Well, as we've talked about this a little bit in the past, Breana, I know you've had a way of framing giving feedback ... and would you mind sharing that with us now?
BREANA: Yeah, one way that ... I was kind of thinking about going this direction because we have the skill level of the rower that we need to understand, and the boat as a whole, and all the circumstantial things. Are we in the middle of a race? Are we in a practice where I can safely call someone out? Can I pull them aside on the dock afterwards and say, "Hey, on this team we let it run, you know", but there's also your own personal skill level which will vary from coxswain to coxswain, so you may be in a boat that's chock full of of skilled former Olympians, but you may personally not be at the point that you're ready to give those extremely explicit corrections. So the way I think of a trajectory of coxing skills for giving feedback is: start at the level of just identifying the problem. So if you can tell that the set is off, that's great. Like a lot of us can start to get that feeling within a couple (you know) weeks of coxing as we start our novice year. And so that's a wonderful thing to be able to sense. That's step one, you know. How will we make a correction if we can't identify the problem? So start noticing what you're able to detect. Can I get the feeling of like ... oh there's check because I'm slapping against the back of the seat in an eight, and that feels terrible, or it feels like churning in my stomach ... I sometimes feel it that way. And so once you can detect something, you know, even at that level you could say to the crew, "Hey, our set's not great. Let's work on that" or "Our check is bad" and then maybe you come up with one (you know) stock call that is a possible correction to that. So "Okay, our check is bad. Let's control the last six inches". And maybe you're just, you barely even know what that means when you start off and you're just repeating something a coach said, but if the rowers understand it, it could have an impact. And then you build your understanding from there and you increase your vocabulary over time to be able to understand. You know, another option, as I said, is to have a whole side make a correction. So maybe if you can't quite tell which blade is doing what, but the set's bad, you have a sense of: okay maybe it's ports that need to pull in higher and at least I can tell them that ... or maybe I need starboards to tap down. And then from there, we can build to a more advanced understanding of like: okay when it's happening is right at the catch, so it's somebody (you know) pushing their hands down at the catch and throwing off our set. So now I can add that level of correction. And for me, the highest level is really being able to identify the origin of the problem ... you know which individual person is it and correcting the right source of the problem. So sometimes people are correcting the symptom and not the actual cause. So an example that comes to mind is: maybe you have a rower who is always late to the catch but it's because their hands away is so slow. So if you tell them, "Hey, you're late to the catch. I need you to get there with everyone else" - something kind of general like that - their response might be to keep their hands the exact same speed which is, as we've said in this premise here, slower than everyone else in the boat. And they'll just start rushing the legs faster and faster and faster and that adds another problem. Now you've got check and all kinds of other messes. So, you know, recognizing ... watching the blades as they move on the recovery ... could show you: oh, okay, it's the fact that this person has slower hands than the whole rest of the boat and that's what's making them late. So if I tackle that issue, then I've correctly resolved this problem. So that, again, is just the trajectory that you can go from. So if you're just at the stage of saying like, 'I feel yucky when there's check' then that's awesome ... like that's a great step. And you can (if you don't feel like you have a call to fix that yet), you can talk to your coach ... or if your stroke seat's more experience than you, you can talk to them and say, "When I feel this, you know, what can I say?" And then from there, you know, as the years (and it's a years' long trajectory) - these skills, as the years go by, you will be able to build up to starting to identify which individual person is doing what.
ANNE: Exactly. I like the way you described that. You've framed it as, you know - it's really important to identify the problem and then figure out where to go, and directing the rowers to make whatever correction it is, and being as clear as possible about what your request is. I think then the next piece is to actually let that correction - or that direction - work itself out. Give it time. Be quiet at that point. What do you all think about that?
SALLY: Silence is a really important skill. Our words are our tools. We have to know when to use them and when we have to save them back. I mean that we have a limited amount of words we can say - we shouldn't be doing data dumps. Again, the rowers can't absorb it. They need time to process.
BREANA: Yeah, that's something I learned from one of my very few experiences in a boat. It was so overwhelming, you know, every correction that was - like, I know what my body is supposed to do, but it ... I don't get to put it into practice very often. So I'm in this camp scenario, trying to fill out a seat and any correction that came in - I was like, okay I need the next five (you know) strokes to be thinking about this. And my, you know, I'm physically a novice (we could say in this scenario), and it made me realize like: oh, my initial way of coxing when I first started to get a handle on technique was to fix everything. Fix this. Okay, they got the correction. Next call, fix this. And it was just like a barrage of constant corrections that I'm sure was very hard for the rowers to process because I wasn't focused on allowing them to work on one thing. So that is definitely a very critical component. You may feel like you're ready to show off your skills and correct everything. And I fell into that trap and I think it made me not as good as I could be because I wasn't allowing that processing time for the boat to improve. And it feels like an eternity of silence, but five strokes here or there really is not that long for the rowers.
SALLY: And in that vein, if you find yourself thrown in a boat with people who predominantly scull, remember they are unaccustomed to people talking to them whilst rowing. They have the voices in their own head doing everything that you're doing ... and being a little quieter with scullers ... a little bit more judicious with your words ... goes a long way because they do hours and hours and hours alone - and suddenly now they're racing and you're yelling at them and you're telling them to 'do this' when they are under the delusion that they can do all this on their own. It's like, you know, your audience - know your feedback thing. Scullers especially are very sensitive to coxswains because they don't practice with somebody talking to them.
ANNE: That's terrific, Sally. I had totally forgotten about that and as a sculler, I can really relate to that. It would be very disconcerting to me to have my inner voice on full volume and then also hear someone else's voice - maybe in agreement with what I had - but possibly not in agreement with what's going on in my mind. So I think that's a really, really key point for our listeners to consider. too. That's awesome. Speaking of, you know, asking changes to be implemented, the important thing is to provide feedback after you've requested something ... about what happened as a result of that.
BREANA: Yeah, that's an important feature - absolutely. Like the check scenario that I was describing ... you know, you tried that call that your coach gave you and you're still slapping around and feeling terrible, so now we need a second call. Maybe it wasn't that six inches wasn't the key. Maybe we're all flying out of the bow, or maybe our timing is just bad, and maybe there's (you know) a plan 'B' that I need to go to correct. So that speaks to everything we've talked about - gathering that input that the boat is giving you and then, you know, reading your audience and saying like: okay that wasn't effective ... maybe I need to say it, but I need to say it with a word that is said in a way that achieves what I want. Like maybe I need to say 'control' or something as the rowers are approaching the catch. I'll try that and if it's fixed, then that's a place to celebrate that so that you (again) aren't just this constant barrage of, like, onto the next thing ... on to the next thing. Let the boat know they're gonna feel it, too, but it's a moment that you can all share in by saying like, "Yeah guys - that control in the last six inches eliminated the check. We're moving so well right now and in fact we gained a couple of inches on our puddles". You know, something like that is a critical way of wrapping up that whole piece ... of giving the correction and then letting them know that the effort that they put in response, you know, and trusting you and implementing what you asked was worthwhile.
ANNE: I love that example and to share something that I try to do when I am with a crew over time, is sometimes providing some feedback or direction about a change or a focus area and then also intermittently tying it to a longer term objective that the crew has. So if it is something about (you know) really prying through the finish, then we may be talking about the fact that long term we hope to drop 'x' number of seconds in our fastest 500 for example ... and remind them of that as I'm making that a request of them. And it might be something about speed, stability, fitness levels ... you know, we may finish hard on something and say ... or we're approaching the dock at the end of a long practice and saying, "Let's just remember that the work we did today is a building process, and it is helping you to meet your objectives of xyz fitness level by month three of our season", for example.
SALLY: Yeah, you don't want to be a Pollyanna and (like) everything's always awesome ... and this was the best ever ... and way to go ... give me the stroke yeah. But being a pragmatic realist and acknowledging: this was a hard practice ... we didn't have all the best moments ... but it was a really hard practice - then we finished it. That's one more stroke or one more day we're better prepared for whatever the goal is. I think that's brilliant, Anne.
ANNE: To acknowledge that that's an important type of feedback to provide, I'm glad we're lifting that up.
ANNE: And I know that you've both spent times as coaches and also with coaches as coxswains. What are your thoughts about the importance of providing feedback from the coxswain that may - or may not relate - to what the coach is requesting?
BREANA: I think that's super critical. It's probably one of the most important ways that you can support your coach, which is important for the performance of the team and perhaps for your own, you know, evaluation. We know one of our roles as coxswains is to be the coach in the boat, so what you say needs to complement what the coach is saying - in language and in goal, you know. If you're a team that pauses at the finish, as part of your style then you need to mirror that. And it doesn't matter that you went to a really cool camp over the summer where they did fast hands - and that was super effective - that's not what your coach is coaching. So a coach needs to trust that if they drive away in the launch, you are implementing exactly what they want in their absence. And so that's really important, I think, to understand what the coach's vision for the stroke is - and then also to mirror their language (but to supplement with your own, of course). But it can be really helpful as an initial scaffold - especially for newer rowers or in a situation where the coach is new - to model their language and bring it in whenever you can so that the rowers understand, you know, the congruency between what the coach is saying and what you're saying. And then add that flexibility that we've been talking about. So the coach put it this way, you know - they gave the analogy for handle heights on the recovery as, you know, going under a table versus over a table on the drive. And I tried that call ... it didn't really fix it, so now I'm going to try something else that I read about. And that's totally fine (you know) to start - for the success of your rowers - adding on to what your coach has said. But I've personally had many experiences with completely different terminologies and approaches to the strokes. So one ... I had a coach in college who was always talking about having a mountain of water on the face of the blade and that was what the drive was supposed to look like so I would use that call a lot. And then I went to a camp one summer where the focus was on having a valley of water on the blade instead, so like that's the exact opposite thing you know ... so that took some adjustment, and it would have been incorrect to (you know) just like blatantly port that back to my own team without, you know ... you can totally have a discussion with your coach and (and I did at that camp scenario). I was like - what you're saying is the exact opposite of what my coach has said all this time - like why aren't you guys in agreement about that? And we had a great technical conversation. But another one is - I spent a camp week over a summer completely focused on catching with the outside hand and how that was superior and we should be coaching for that. And I got good at identifying that in rowers and then came back home and that very week our coach started to focus on catching with the inside hand, so I had to just, you know, in that scenario, ditch what I had been focusing on at camp and adapt to what this coach was requesting. It's not your job to interpret the rowing style as you'd like to. It's your job to apply the interpretation of your coaches rowing style. It doesn't mean you can't have a conversation with them - I'm sure they would welcome that. Many coaches are technical nerds that would love to have that conversation about why the pausing at the finish is not right for your crew and they've decided not to do it ... or they might you know allow you to say, 'Hey, that worked for you at a camp. Awesome. Why don't we try that for a week with our boat and see if it helps'. And I think that's one of the most important ways that you can support your rowers and be an advocate for your coach when they're not around - is to model their language.
SALLY: In keeping with that, Breana, I think nothing screams insecurity and immaturity than when you start going, "Oh my God ... I don't know what that coach is doing. We did it like ..." - especially when you're trying to understand something. I've had many, many coxing experiences where my philosophy of the rowing stroke differed from the coach. And I could take it on me and take it on my ego that I know better ... and this is the way it should be done ... or I can acquiesce and I can shut up and I can learn from the coach about their rowing style, and try to understand their philosophy, and try to understand what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes rowing strokes are a bit like painting styles - no one is wrong, they're just different. If you look at a Monet and you look at (like) a Dali, they're both very different ... but they're both beautiful in their own way. Neither one is wrong. So I think, like you're saying, trying to understand the coach even if it's not what you know ... trying to mimic their words ... because my role and the best way I can serve my crew is understanding. And if it becomes about me and like, "Oh my God, I know better because I'm me and I've done this ", my ego is weighing down that boat and that becomes: I want power. I want respect. It's all about me, it's not about the boat. Definitely when the coach is asking my rowers to do something I deem unsafe, that's different. But if it's just (like) arms and body away or pausing, or having a mountain of water versus a valley of water versus ... either way, I'm getting soaked (there's just no way of getting around it), but I think it's really important in those situations just to be able to step back and go: it's not about me. My mission is to get this boat faster and better and right now I need to listen to the coach. And then have a conversation on land (like) not while they're trying to put the gas can away.
BREANA: And this makes you stronger, you know, as a coxswain. The more experiences you have with different coaches ... and different styles ... then in that situation where you're stepping into a boat that you all met each other (you know) at a trailer - that none of you rows for five minutes before - and you're about to go out on the water. On that row up to the start line in a race, you can start to make some executive decisions because you will have to choose a speed of hands away because there are many in the rowing world. And you can apply what you think is best and you can confidently say, "What we're doing today is matching speed in to the speed out, so I want everyone to think about that as we do this cut-the-cake drill on our way up". And you'll (again) have the confidence to choose among those styles in that scenario and you'll be able to say. "I know you may do something different at home but we need to perform as a boat right now, and so this is what we're doing as a boat together". And then you can coach for that because you've experienced all these different styles. So it's not a loss even if you feel like ... oh man, I went to this prestigious camp and I came back with a totally different style and now I don't know what to do on my home team. All is not lost.
SALLY: I'm gonna seriously, seriously recommend: talk to your coach if the styles are different. And they might be working to achieve something that you don't understand. I mean, when I was coaching a team in the mid-Atlantic, I changed their stroke on purpose and for the first year I took away a certain part of the stroke because I was building on something else later. I gave it back to them when they proved they could handle it, but I was coaching a style for the long term. And maybe your coach has that long-term plan. But I'm also going to strenuously recommend: when it becomes about you ... when it's 'I know this, this is me', take a break - take a breather - go for a walk - and then address things because it is about you. But sometimes they're not insulting your ego - they're not insulting your skills - we're all trying to get the boat forward. But when it becomes about you, you're not helping the boat forward.
ANNE: I think that's a great way to summarize what we've been talking about. And we had intended for having one podcast that was about giving feedback and receiving feedback ... and we have now spent a lot of time in just that first aspect of feedback, which is giving feedback. We talked about the importance of knowing yourself and also knowing your audience. And then also - what are the objectives of the boat? Who's in the boat? What's the coach's objective? What are the long-term strategies that we're going to use when we're giving feedback to accomplish the end result? Where do we want to be - either for that race ... for that practice ... for that season ... for the long haul? Do either of you have any sort of closing comments, because clearly we're going to have to divide this subject matter into two podcasts.
BREANA: So as is tradition, we've outdone ourselves.
SALLY: Give me caffeine and then expect me to limit my words? Come on y'all - you knew me better than this.
BREANA: These are great thoughts and I would emphasize of course, you know, giving feedback is so critical. And we intend to have many more conversations about technique, you know. We've just given a smattering here of how that can be done ... and racing as well. There's lots of content for future episodes where we can flesh out anything that we've discussed here. And of course, the next important aspect of this that we'll talk about next time is receiving feedback, which can be very uncomfortable and challenging because that's not pitched as one of the main parts of our role where it is (you know) in terms of giving feedback. So that'll be something that I hope our audience looks forward to.
SALLY: I just want to bring this back to: words are our tools. You are not actually doing anything to contribute to the forward propulsion of the boat. You are talking to people ... and knowing and understanding who you are, knowing and understanding your personality, knowing and understanding how you come across ... is really critical in being able to reach out to your rowers and extract from them the need and the desire and the want to keep going. For those of you who haven't rowed, it hurts! I have not participated in a single race where I haven't prayed to whatever superior deity is listening to please break the oarlock of the person behind me so we can stop (and it's not my fault). It hurts ... and they're willingly throwing themselves into the fire. And it's your voice that's keeping them focused. And it's your voice that's guiding them. They need to be able to trust you - they need to be able to understand you - so the first step in all of this is: know who you are and then once you figure out who you are, the rest of the stuff is going to start falling into place. But words are our tools and they're almost as important as being able to dock. And sometimes they do far more damage than running into the dock full speed (not that I've done either).
ANNE: It's one of the important things about this podcast ... and the intent of this podcast and all the resources that we have ... is that we want to take people at all different levels where they are and we recognize the importance of our contributions to the sport and where our limitations are, what our tools are, and how best to employ what we have. Just as we've been saying about the whole time about how important feedback is, we are open to feedback from you - our audience. And so - do you disagree with something we've said? Do you agree with anything that we said? And we really do welcome your feedback, particularly on Slack, but any other channel that you want to reach out to us - we are willing to listen for sure. And do we have a shout out for this episode?
SALLY: Yes. I really, really, really want to thank my very good friend - John David Franklin - for his advice and his knowledge and how we tried to set this entire CoxPod thing up. He's a fantastic guy and a rower out of Vesper in Philadelphia. And we couldn't have done this without, you so thank you, John David! It is always a pleasure and I think I owe you about 70 hours coxing at this point. And I do also want to make sure that we thank Hope Wilkinson. Hope, Anne is making me say nice things here about you. Hope and I have been friends for about 25 years and she is an extraordinary photographer. She's often featured on Row2k and in Rowing News. She captures the most amazing photograph - she can even make me look good. And Hope has been very kind and generous and donated some of her pictures for us to use on our website. So Hope, I'm only saying this because of Anne, but you know - thanks!
ANNE: I did. I had I had to hold her feet to the fire, but we actually sincerely appreciate everything John David Franklin and Hope Wilkinson have done for us early in our careers here on this podcast.
BREANA: Yes - thank you to both of you and everyone else we shouted out along the way. So we'll conclude with our Quick Pick. I know this episode was focused on feedback that we provide but as a preview (maybe) to some of the feedback we've received in the past, we thought it would be amusing to talk about some of the kind of funny or weird things that we've been asked to do over the years. I personally have been requested to cox an entire race in a British accent because in the marshalling area of a head race, my rowers caught wind of another coxswain who actually did have a British accent and were like - wouldn't it be cool if you did that? And I know Sally - you have a whole host - more than either of us - of fun things that you've been asked to do over the years. Tell us about some of this.
SALLY: I just want to start this by stating: why is my personality so approachable that people think and do ask all these things for me? Not you Anne. And Breana, you get to cox in an accent. I have been asked to dress up like a Christmas tree. There was time I was dressed up like a lobster. There was time they had a full-on (like) geisha outfit for me. I have been asked to ... somebody wrote a poem that lasted four minutes and 23 seconds which was the perceived length of the sprint race. I was supposed to read that. I was supposed to sing which, by the way, I have a voice that curdles milk. Like, why are they asking me this and not you? Like why? Y'all - coxswains are not Christmas trees. You don't need to (like) put ornaments and ... I wore lights Christmas lights the one time. .
ANNE: Sally, Sally, Sally.
SALLY: I should not be this approachable.
ANNE: Alright. Well, I hope that you can find you - or someone can perhaps find - the picture of you in a Christmas tree outfit or the lights someday, and share that with us. I look forward to that.
SALLY: Oh, that that's in the vault y'all. That is so vaulted right now.
BEANA: Well, we appreciate everyone listening to this episode. And look out for us to discuss Part Two - about receiving feedback - in the future. And in the meantime, we warmly invite you to engage with us on our social media channels ... on our Slack channels where your question could get featured in a future episode. We welcome all questions and comments that people have. If there's anything you think we forgot here that you'd love to see addressed, or a tough scenario you've had to deal with in terms of feedback, we would love to hash that out. That's what those spaces are for. And we'd also love for you to consider supporting us on Patreon if that is of interest to you. Maybe one day there'll be a picture of Sally dressed up as a Christmas tree?
SALLY: No, no, no, no, no, no, I'm doing blooper reel. It's in the vault. It's in the vault! Hope, don't get any ideas Hope - don't get any ideas.
BREANA: So things that we can promise will be on there are things like blooper reels from this and other episodes, and occasional early access to episodes, the opportunity to give input into what we talk about in future episodes, and other fun perks waiting for you there. So please consider supporting us there if you're able and interested. And we are just so excited to bring you more content soon, as always. So until next time, I'm Breana, I'm Sally, and I'm Anne - we're signing off for now.