014 | Interview with Abby Peck
Welcome to CoxPod, a podcast for coxswains. I'm Sally. I'm Anne.
I'm Breana, and we're three coxswains with over 50 years of experience in the seat. We 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 we are overjoyed to be joined by a guest. You may be wondering at the outset here: Who is this guest? Is she someone who is a coxswain herself? And Sally will give you an ambiguous (perhaps) answer to that with a story about a time that she and our guest faced off.
SALLY: Yes, I am very pleased that my friend and mentor Abby Peck has chosen to join us. Abby isn't known for being a coxswain, but I will tell you when she does choose to sit in that seat, she is incredibly effective, and I myself lost a seat race to Abby. Whether or not she was a truly skilled coxswain or the rowers were terrified of her and disappointing her, either way it was an exceptionally effective coxswain tool. For those of you who don't know Abby, trying to sum up her biography is a bit like trying to roll bowlderize Shakespeare. My words don't do justice to the person that they're trying to represent. Abby was a formal national team member. In fact, Abby was the very first novice to ever make the national team. She has gone on to share her talents and her experiences and has gone on to coach at collegiate programs and masters. And now currently, Abby is giving back with her knowledge of physiology and encouragement, and she is working at a community exercise program for individuals who are recovering from cancer.
ANNE: Breana and I also know Abby. We've worked together with her and we are thrilled that she's here. Sally, of course, has had the longest experience with her and she was Sally. But Abby, why don't you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
ABBY: Well, I think that you guys pretty much covered it. I rowed on the national team. Seven years, I was rowing internationally and two Olympic teams. And I was very honored to be chosen as a captain for the 88 Olympic team. I consider that a huge, huge honor. And have gone on since retiring from coxing to create an exercise program for cancer patients and survivors, which is one of those wonderful, rare jobs where you feel like you're fulfilling your purpose.
SALLY: We're very thrilled to have you here Abby. And one of the reasons that the three of us really wanted to have you join us is because you bring with you a rather unique position because not only did you work with coxswains and benefited from some very high level coxing, but you also coached and nurtured coxswains. You have found a way to communicate and work with us and educate us. Not many coaches take the time to do that. So we kind of wanted to talk with you about how you started to appreciate coxing how you were able to teach coxswains to really become our best selves.
ABBY: Coxswains are integral - I think - to a crew. As a rower, I have a deep appreciation for the ability of a coxswain to (sort of) perform like a jockey on a horse in terms of monitoring the practice - if it's a practice ... being able to be an in-boat coach and give rowers feedback ... as well as when we're in a race situation, being able to convey information about the position of the crew and call strategic moves. I know myself that all of my best performances were pulled out of me by excellent coxing.
SALLY: You really, Abby, are one of the very few people who would sit down with me and we'd watch rowing videos and you would ask me what I saw - what I saw them doing wrong. And for those of you who don't know, Abby is fabulous. She can go, "Well, you can see that their left pinky is out of alignment with their right nostril and if we manipulate this subtle, something or other (I don't speak physiology), they will maximize their efficiency by 300%". You're very, very kind and very patient about trying to explain very complicated terms to me so that I could turn around and use them later in a boat. What were some of your thoughts about how you did that? Or why you did that?
ABBY: I think one of the things that really helped me is being dyslexic and having a different way of learning that was never acknowledged or addressed in school. And so later in life, recognizing that I learned in different ways, I try to convey the different ways that rowers and coxswains can learn and to translate, okay, what you're feeling in the boat. If you're feeling this check and your head is gonna keep snapping back, you can translate that into helping give the crew information about slowing their slide or insert a pause drill. When I coach, I try to translate into as many different ways of learning as possible. So - what do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear? And if I have a coxswain in the boat with me, I can say, "Now watch three's blade and see how it is water flipping up off of the blade every time she moves it from the water. That's pulling the boat down to starboard. And so as a result, portside is getting frustrated. And they're trying to hold their hands up higher". Whatever it is. Just trying to translate into as many different ways as I can, so that there can be information given in different modes. So whether you're coxing or rowing, you can use those to either help convey a message if you're coxing - or a rower, you can use different modes to self coach.
ANNE: I think that makes a lot of sense. And I appreciate that when you have been the coach when I'm coxing, you do take the time to actually also include me in your coaching. That's one of the reasons that we've invited you today - is because that is not generally the experience that I know that I've had. Usually all the coaching is centered on the rowers. So I want to say thank you for those times that you've included some aspects of your coaching directly to me. I've learned a lot. Am I correct that with your other teams, that's also something that you have done? And if so, how did you come upon that idea to actually include coxswains in your coaching?
ABBY: Well, I certainly hope that I have done it. I feel like by not having coxswains included in the coaching loop, coaches miss out on a gigantic opportunity to help their crews improve. Coxes are in-boat coaches ... they're in-boat motivators ... they're in-boat ... well, ideally, I like to have a little in-boat dictator myself because (I, you know) the best crews are the ones that row with the most precision and who are the most disciplined. And so if I can get a coxswain to convey that sense of precision and discipline to the crew, they're going to be better - whether it's the pick drill as they shove off from the dock, whether it's turning around, whether it's racing starts, whatever it is. Without maximizing the capabilities of the coxswains as in-boat coaches and motivators, I think as a coach, I would really miss out on a huge opportunity for my crew to improve and perform. And when I say crew, obviously I include the coxswains in that.
BREANA: One of the other things that impresses me so much about you, Abby, is that you have just a consummate understanding of human anatomy and physiology and an ability, as Sally already said, to convey that to coxswains, including (you know) this is what this will look like from your perspective. Could you share a little bit with our listeners (kind of) how you came to have an understanding of the information that you subsequently were able to convey to your coxswains - without yourself being someone who spent a lot of time in that seat?
ABBY: Well, I don't know if it's lucky - or unlucky - that I could actually fit in the coxswain seat. And knowing that it's, you know, it's a relatively painful experience to sit in that little seat and be still. And recognize that when you're in that seat and you're responsible for steering and maneuvering on the river - whether it's around other crews or through bridge abutments - it's a very serious responsibility and much more difficult than one would think when you're steering (like) an eight that's, you know, 60 plus feet long with a little rudder that's the size of a credit card in a boat that's designed to go straight. It's a challenge. And recognition that there's some bizarre law in physics that - as you're rolling down the river towards a bridge - the abutments actually close in closer together. So I was lucky to be able to actually sit in the seat. But I also feel like having come to the recognition of how important the coxswain is in terms of in-boat coaching and safety and steering a good course, I felt like it was really important for me to take the time to circulate coxswains through the boat ... tell them what it was that I was seeing ... try to get them to look and then give me feedback about what they were seeing so that I would feel confident and they would get their own increased confidence in their capacity - in their eye as a coach - and in their being able to feel what's going on in the boat.
ANNE: So when we talk about a practice situation, which is where (honestly) we spend most of our time, are there characteristics of coxswains that you find - either you like to develop or that coxswains might have that are not as helpful as they should be and that you want to redirect?
ABBY: Well, I think one of the things that's really important is that I communicate the expectations that I have - for both the coxswain and the rowers off of the water - that as a rower, if you're stopped to get a drink or stretch, then you can kind of look around and maybe chat a little bit but basically the coxswain is the only person in the boat that talks ... that the rowers don't look out of the boat and that you're listening as a rower and you're paying attention ... because if you're not, and the coxswain is asking you to do something, it might be an order to get out of a potentially dangerous situation. And again - going back to what I said earlier about discipline and precision - if a crew wants to be good, they have to be disciplined and they have to be precise. And looking out of the boat and chatting in the boat are not ways that you're going to gain those two things. So I make it very clear to the rowers and the coxswains that those are my expectations. So I try to encourage the coxswain. You know - this isn't a time when you're trying to be buddies. The coxswain's job is to help the crew be its best. So you have to be precise yourself as a coxswain. You've got to understand what your calls are. You've got to understand what your tone of voice is. And the fact that - because you're the only voice in the boat - the importance of your voice is magnified not only over the cox box, but because it is the lone acceptable voice in the boat. So there has to be some kind of willingness to pay attention and to learn to be precise with your calls - 'weigh enough in two ... one ... two... weigh enough' and it can run out. Be clear with your crew about where everybody is going to have their hands when they weigh enough and glide so that there's as much precision as possible. And the only way that precision is going to be achieved is if the communication is clear and concise. So I try to convey that to the coxswains and to the crew as well.
SALLY: Abby, you learned to row in an era where the coaching techniques for getting that precision was usually intimidation, fear, verbal abuse, humiliation (to put it mildly). And you have chosen instead to coach and instruct and encourage coxswains to get that authority by other ways. So how did you choose to stop the cycle of abuse which unfortunately still occurs in many clubs? How do you encourage people to gain that precision through kinder, gentler, perhaps more developmentally appropriate means?
ABBY: Well, I used my own experience as a rower and the ways that I felt like I would have benefited from coaching that I sometimes got. I had some wonderful coaches and I also had some coaches who determined some negative space about what you know what I didn't want to do as a coach. When I retired as a rower, I decided I needed a lot more information. So I went and got a master's in exercise and sports science so that I could gain some information - physiological ... psychological ... you know, some basic physics and dynamics of the body and of sport. And that was hugely helpful. It was difficult for me as a rower to know what to do when the coach was just yelling at me to slow my slide because I had no idea how to do that. So I try to give people specific information about ways that they can do that, including internal cues that people pay attention to in themselves. Let's use slowing the slide. So you know, you want to get your body prepared before you start up the slide so that you're not slamming into your footboards with your body angle at the end. So what's one of the things you can do? Well, you can feel the tension in your hamstrings as you come out of that release, and bring your hands and body away out over your legs ... you can begin to feel that tension in your hamstrings. And that's an indication that you've got your body angle forward so that now you can focus on pulling yourself up the slide with control, rather than just slamming up with sparks flying off the wheels. I found that I didn't necessarily get a lot of instruction on how to do things. I got a lot of high volume (I guess) intimidation - (maybe that you know), 'Just … just do this because I say so' rather than 'This is how you can work to achieve this'.
SALLY: That's awesome. Thank you. Now Abby, the three of us have had the great privilege of working with you in a camp ... in a practice setting where you have the luxury of breaking down the stroke and doing some very finite drills. And I can tell you, the three of us find your drills exceptionally challenging and very rewarding. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you come up with these drills? To actually call them a drill is - it's just … it's very pale description. Y'all, she has us do eight count 'somethings' ... and on the third count, we do 'this'. And then it's very precise and very difficult. They're very fulfilling, but they're very difficult to actualize. We appreciate you hold us to those standards. But wow-ies.
ABBY: Well, I try to either utilize drills that I already know or create drills that are going to be informative in terms of tools to make the stroke better. And so I like to be able to break a stroke down so that you can feel different aspects of it. So for instance, I talked earlier about that sensation of feeling your hamstrings before you start up the slide. But one of the things that is important, I'm asking the rowers to be precise, and I'm breaking down the stroke for them. But in terms of complexity, while it's difficult for the rowers to deal with the aspect of the drill, one of the things that's really important is for the coxswain to be able to get it - get what's going on and get why it's going on and increase her level of precision. So I expect the coxswains to rise to the occasion - to be able to call a complex drill - so that while I'm being demanding of the rowers to do a drill and to go inside and begin to accrue the kinds of tools that they need to self coach, I'm also working to try to challenge the coxswain to be precise ... to have a deeper understanding of what the drill is going to do to contribute to the improvement of the stroke. So I don't do it just to flummox.
SALLY: It's very demanding. And as one of your coxswains, it has been rewarding, but there is no coasting ... there is no, "I'll wing this one". So I appreciate that a lot.
ABBY: Well, I feel like it's important to come off the water and for the rowers to be physically tired, but if it's been more of a technique row, they come off with their heads tired from thinking and paying attention. And I expect that kind of fatigue to happen to coxswains, too.
ANNE: Mission accomplished. My experience is - mission accomplished. If you don't mind, I'd like to shift from the coaching perspective to now you being a rower in the boat. I would love to hear a little bit more about (sort of) what you might envision would be like your ideal coxswain - for you as a rower in the boat.
ABBY: As a rower, I really liked a coxswain who was (as I said earlier) like a little dictator. I want somebody who is going to demand the best of me and that means paying attention. That means when she says 'Ready all, row', we are all right on top of it and we are sitting there with our blades buried - ready to go. And that sloppiness is not tolerated, and that extra curricular conversation is not tolerated. My expectations are that that coxswain is going to have the crew in hand and demand respect and response and that the crew is also giving respect back to that coxswain as a sort of a nice circular, upward spiral of respect and capability because the better the coxswain is, my belief is the crew has the best shot of improving and being better. And the better the crew gets, the better the coxswain has to be to keep that upward spiral of improvement going. So when I had coxswains who were demanding and wouldn't let me off the hook, and were able to give me feedback if they saw (you know) ... if they saw me washing out or if they saw a technical glitch ... that they would give me feedback about that and then be able to say, 'Okay, oh, that ... that one looked better - keep working to do that'. So precision ... specificity. And as the rowers get better technically, the coxswain ideally is getting better technically as well in what it is that she's seeing and feeling and hearing so that the whole level of the crew rises together.
ANNE: I love that answer. I believe that we would agree with you. Do you feel that there're any particular ways that the coxswains can develop those skills? Any specific tips that you might have for them?
ABBY: One of the things I would do as a coach would be meet with different individual rowers and the coxswain, too. And make them think about - how do you respond best to coaching? Do you want me to get on you and say (you know), 'Back your blade in. Look at your blade. Listen. No, no, no ... oh, that - that was it there. There you go, there you go. That's it, maybe feel it in your thumbs as you're lifting that blade back into the catch’. Whatever. Some people want me to hound them until they do it, right, because they're sort of searching around for how to do it. And they want feedback about that. Other people fall apart under that kind of scrutiny. So it's better if I say, you know, 'I want you to work on backing it in. These are some tools you can use. You can listen for that nice clunk. You can look for the little bit of backsplash. You can feel it in your hands'. Whatever. These are some tools. And then I go away and I let that person work on it themselves. I think the coxswains also need to know about those individual ways of responding that each of the rowers has. Because if you're trying to screw a screw in by hammering it in and not using a screwdriver, you're not going to be very, very effective. But if I can communicate to the rowers and the coxswains in a way that is most conducive to their absorbing the information and working on the skill, then I'm going to maximize my capacity as a coach. And I'm also going to be able to give them specific tools for self coaching. My belief as a coach is that the most important coach is the one that is contained within your own skin. You know, you're the one who's sitting in that seat. You're the one who is ultimately responsible for the skill acquisition. So you've got to be able to be equipped with information that gives you feedback yourself about whether you're doing something properly or not. And if you don't have any of those tools, it's very difficult to make an improvement because the coach isn't going to be coaching you every single stroke. But it's the ability of an athlete - whether it's the rower or the coxswain - to be able to have tools within their own sensory capabilities to give themselves feedback about what they're doing. That is going to maximize the ability of a crew to row well.
SALLY: To encourage that kinesthetic feeling Abby, do encourage the coxswains to erg or row?
ABBY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think I think off-water training, erging, having coxswains do pieces is really important because when you're sitting in that coxswain seat and you're asking people for a power 10, or 20, or whatever, you've got to know what it is that you're asking. Because you're asking people who are already in pain to rise up and push even harder. And so I think it's really important for coxswains to be able to understand that experientially and do a piece ... and know what it feels like to have your lungs and muscles on fire and feel like you just can't take one more stroke. And it also gives rowers a chance to cox the coxswain. And even on the water, I like to get some of the rowers to sub into the coxswain seat if they can. But off water training can be a great opportunity for coxswains and rowers to switch positions - and then they get increased understanding and empathy about what it is that it's like to sit in the other seat.
SALLY: So Abby, in your vast lexicon of rowing experiences, do you have a story about how a coxswain was able to salvage a piece or a practice or a race?
ABBY: Oh, I've had some really fabulous coxswains - really just amazing, wonderful women. Specifically one pops into mind. At the '87 World Championships when - Oh my God, we sat on the line for ever because there was a crosswind and the boats couldn't get lined up - so when we finally got off, and we're rowing, and we're moving up, then we're moving up and we're moving up and we get to about, I don't know, maybe 300 meters and the coxswain says, "Here's where a slightly overweight Soviet packs it in". And we did a power 10. And it was the first time at the World Championships that the Soviets (which they were at the time) had ever not won a gold medal. And they ended up coming in third, and we got the silver. And 10 more strokes - if the race had been 2010 meters - we probably would have won because we were ... we were moving. But anyway, it was a great surprise when she said that and it really ... we all just dug in, because it was a lovely mix of humor and encouragement.
SALLY: What did the coxswain have to understand about you to make such an effective call?
ABBY: Well, I think that, you know, a number of us had been rowing against the Soviets for a long time. And so the idea that we could be actually beating them was very exciting. We had had a meeting with the person who was our coach after a relatively disappointing first race. And he said, you know, basically, the Soviets are going to have to tip over in order for you guys to beat them. And there were two of us who had been on the team for a long time. And we felt like we kind of had to take things in hand. And so we had a little team meeting and got together and that call just really helped us put into action the determination to beat the Soviets - even if they didn't tip over.
SALLY: Abby, do you have any - because again, your stories are fantastic - do you have any stories about teaching coxswains or watching someone finally understand the kinesthetic mysteries that you allude to? Or do you have anything about watching someone finally putting pieces together and how that shaped them?
ABBY: As a coach, when I see a rower get it - like let's say a good catch ... a nice solid ker-thunk of a catch - even just talking about I get little goose bumps and the hairs on my arm stand up. Or when I see a coxswain who finally gets that she can hold herself still and not rock around in the coxswain seat and I see her take that position and begin to really get how to navigate. And I got to see this a lot actually when coaching on the Charles River. You know, you get to see somebody begin to master the Andersen bridge turn or whatever. It's huge. And I got so much out of rowing. I mean - rowing changed my life. It's one of those things where, where I look at having started rowing and seeing how (you know) two paths diverged, and I took the rowing one and it totally changed my life. It took me around the world. It took me to meet all kinds of spectacular human beings. It taught me more about myself that (you know) things I'm still learning. One of the reasons I wanted to coach is that I felt like ... God if I could, if I could even just pass on a sliver of that transformative experience, then that's what I want to do. I feel like I want to ... I want to give back to this sport that's given me something. It was very clear to me that I had to do it in a way that was not about me, but it was about trying to be the best coach that I could be so that each athlete - rower or coxswain - could experience that transformation or a transformation. And could get could get whatever gift rowing could possibly give her - for herself. You know, as a coach, yeah, you love to have a crew win a race. But to me, the most important thing is that the rowers that I've coached, or the coxswains that I've coached, come away from the sport ... or maybe even continue in the sport ... with a sense of having expanded themselves through the sport.
ANNE: I feel so very lucky, Abby, to have met you and worked with you. And it's precisely for the reasons that you just verbalized that I have the utmost respect for you and what you've done. And again, I appreciate you coaching me as I have developed my coxing skills. So thank you so very much.
ABBY: Oh, you're more than welcome. It's a two way street, girl. When a when a coach has a good coxswain, I tell you, it doesn't get much better than that. Because you just feel like you can completely trust what's going to happen, whether it's in practice, or as you shove them off for a race. You know ... you know that your crew is in good hands.
ANNE: How about if we close - kind of bringing it full circle and back to the way that Abby coached and mentored Sally? I think we can all agree that this is sort of the exception to the rule. But we hope for the future that it becomes much more the norm and the aspired-to practice. Do you - either one of you - just want to (sort of) bring us around to what that relationship has meant for your careers?
ABBY: Well. can say that I have - and continue to - cherish my relationship with Sal. The dedication, Sal, that you have to the sport which has given me so much ... I admire it tremendously. And I feel like I've benefited from your expertise. When you get into a boat and you shove off the dock, I have absolute faith that that crew is in one of the best hands possible. And that goes for you, Anne and Breana as well. The level of security - I guess I could say - that I feel when I have coxswains who are as capable as you guys and Sal ... I've just known you longer so (you know) we go back a lot deeper ... but I feel like you are as much of a teacher for me as the other way around. And one of the things that I love is the fact that I continue to learn from you. And I feel like we have this really great symbiotic relationship in terms of participating in the sport of rowing and being able to share our knowledge and our participation with other folks.
SALLY: Well, thank you, Abby. I have to tell you I am I'm flattered and honored. And I am so very grateful to have met you and worked with you because when I am your coxswain and you're the coach, I feel that the synergy and the energy is fluid and that it's such a powerful dynamic because not only am I able to channel you and channel your input to the rowers, I feel that my voice is heard and respected and you give me the freedom (as dangerous as it) is, to allow me to be me. And even though I might not give the calls exactly as you want in the 16 part, very complicated drill, you do allow me to add my own flavor to it. And I'm so grateful. I think, you know, when the student is ready, the master appears. And I think you appeared right when I needed you to in my rowing career to help me find my voice. And then to learn how to coach in a way that was developmentally appropriate because like you, I had learned how to row in some less than acceptable settings. So I'm so grateful you were there - both personally and professionally - to help guide me. So thank you, Abby, for everything you've taught and you've given to me ... and the patience you've shown me because, dear God, I know you've needed it. And I'm very grateful.
BREANA: Thank you both for sharing that. And we really hope that this does serve again as a model. This would be our dreams for the future - is that this kind of symbiosis that you both described between coaches and coxswains is happening everywhere. And the third constituent in that - of the rowers - only stand to benefit from that relationship. So we are just so very grateful that you joined us today, Abby. We want to thank you for your time and for sharing your wisdom. We're honored to know you. And we're very grateful that we can share a little bit of your wisdom with our audience. And we hope that they gleaned a lot from listening to you as well. So again, thank you for joining us today.
ABBY: You're welcome. And the honor and the respect and the fondness comes from me right back at you guys. All three of you.
ANNE: With that, let's do our Shout Out. Our Shout Out for this episode - it's not going to be a big surprise but it's super important - is a Shout Out to those coaches who have mentored us and how much we desperately hope that that number grows, and we have confidence that it will. Alright, let's move into our Quick Pick.
SALLY: The Quick Pick today is going to be the most helpful feedback a coach has given you. Breana, do you have a Quick Pick?
BREANA: Yeah, something that I'll share that has stuck with me for many years now is something that you said, Sally, which was that rowers get to practice taking (you know) hundreds, maybe even 1000s of strokes per practice. And so after they take each one, there's another chance for them to try. Whereas for coxswains, and particularly in the domain of docking, we only get one shot per practice ... pretty much. So that really put things in perspective for me, you know. When you have a bad dock, and you're like, 'I've been docking for years, why can't I master this?', it is comforting to know that you're getting many fewer opportunities to implement these things and are expected to be producing a positive outcome every time. So that's something that really (you know) ... it's kind of my guiding ethos when it comes to docking in particular ... and other things. So thank you for leaving me with that.
SALLY: How about you, Anne?
ANNE: Well, I don't think that I have a specific comment, but I really have to say how much I appreciate when coaches actually ask me, 'How am I?' They look me in the eye and they say, 'How are you?' and they mean it. That holds a lot of weight for me. So thank you to all the coaches who have done that. Sally?
SALLY: Well actually, it's something that you told me, Abby. And that's that there are no wasted strokes - you're either reinforcing a bad habit or working on a good one. So every stroke ... every moment ... is an opportunity to improve. And that's carried me on and off the water. So thank you for that one. How about you, Abby? Do you have any pearls of wisdom that a coach gave you?
ABBY: The thing that pops up - and I don't mean this to be at all egotistical - is not something somebody said to me, but something I said to a crew that I was coaching. It was a Master's crew for the Head of the Charles. And we'd had ... one of the rowers couldn't come in until later and so she (I think) only ... we only had one practice. I'd ended up coxing for most of the practices. And before they went out, they were completely just frazzled, because the practices had not gone well. Everybody was frustrated with the situation. And I just said, you know, just go out there and have fun. And they ended up winning. They rowed by and I was like, 'Oh my God. They look great'. And so I think that sometimes, it's really important to remember that fun can actually be an aspect of this.
BREANA: That's fantastic. Thank you. And again, we're so honored and grateful that you joined us for this episode. We hope everyone involved in the sport - coaches, coxswains, rowers listening - take a lot away from this. In the meantime, we invite our audience to engage with us however you would like ... on social media, on our Slack channel - questions that you ask there may get featured on a future episode. And we'd also love for you to consider supporting us on Patreon if that is of interest to you. If you're a patron, you already heard this episode early, and we have all kinds of other fun things there like extra audio from guest interviews and photos of behind the scenes episode planning, etc. We're so excited to bring you more content soon. And until next time, I'm Breana. I'm Sally. And I'm Anne - signing off for now.