020 | Unique Interpersonal Aspects of Coxing
Welcome to CoxPod - a podcast for coxswains. I’m Breana. I’m Sally. I’m Anne and we're three coxswains with over 50 years of experience in the seat. While there are many rowing resources out there, we decided to create a venue that is solely dedicated to coxing topics. We learn from our shared experiences and want to foster a community that encourages innovation and discussion.
BREANA: As coxswains, we know that our role is one of leadership. It's a role that is vested in us by virtue of picking up the cox box. This can be confusing, though, because in other sports there are also leaders … but as coxswains we are in a very unique position. We're teammates but we're also coaches and that's why we've decided to explore this concept in an episode. So today we're going to be talking about these unique interpersonal aspects of coxing.
SALLY: There's going to be the unique personal relationship the coxswain has with the rowers - the coxswain has with the coach - the coxswain has with captains – officials - even coxswains have to other coxswains. I’m gonna drive Anne and Breana nuts this episode and quote a lot of Machiavelli because that's where my head is. But there's this particularly poignant quote from ‘The Prince’ where Machiavelli says, “Everyone sees what you appear to be but very few people know what you really are”. And I really think that defines the nature of this role to me. Coxswains … we’re so much more than that stereotypical, short, little, ego-driven Napoleonic dictator sitting in the stern bellowing out orders. That leadership role is so much more delicate and more nuanced. To the three of us - and granted, we don't have a lot of other athletic experiences - but this role … where we are both part of the team and not … seems to be a rather unique position in athletics. And maybe our listeners can offer up another role where you're both teammate and coach at the same time.
ANNE: I’m glad that you prepared this kind of introduction to the topic and I want to add that as we explore it, we need to keep in mind that our different personality types really mean that we have different strengths and weaknesses. Not just amongst the three of us but each of you who are listening to this episode. And that personality - you (of course) bring it to all of your interpersonal relationships. So part of the idea of this episode is to look for skills to add on to your natural strengths and tendencies as we take an exploration into the handling of different situations … some that might be easier for one of us or might be more challenging for us based (again) on our personality types. I’d like to also call us back to Episode 003 which was ‘The Coxswain's Personality’ which might be something that you would also want to listen to. But let's now explore each one of the relationships Sally mentioned at the outset and dive right in.
SALLY: Coxswain to rowers. Now as a coxswain, we are always occupying many roles at once and particularly we occupy this dual role - and sometimes conflicting role - of teammate and leader or teammate and coach. I don't know about y'all but when there isn't a boat around … when I’m on land … that dichotomy really does become more apparent. There is so much more to coxing when we're not given that cox box and seat and we're not standing into a default leadership position. And when there isn't a boat around, what happens is: to be that leader, to be that coach, we do have to behave just a little bit differently. We are a coxswain on land … when we're in the car … when we're in the van going to practice. We're a coxswain when we're in the boat. It's just who we are but that dynamic is going to change. When you're sitting in the boat, I can bark out an order at eight people who are significantly taller than I am. And that is an acceptable means for me to communicate versus when I’m standing on shore and we're trying to figure out where to set the regatta tent. Barking out and bellowing that order is not always developmentally appropriate. Again Machiavelli -because that's where I am today - I had this great quote where he says, “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command”. And I think that is a particularly important concept that coxswains need to embrace on land. And the things that we do in the water to gain respect … to be heard … to be leaders … aren't necessarily appropriate or polite when we're on land.
ANNE: Sally, I particularly can relate to this. I find myself challenged in this transitional period - that time - from how I behave and how I think of myself on the water and how I am on land. I know that this is an area where I need to grow more because I’ll often catch myself - on a land situation - where I can feel the words coming forth that I might use in the boat. And the tone … particularly tone … I’m sometimes not transitioning as smoothly as I should. And they are distinct - they are distinct areas of performance and behavior that we need to consider.
SALLY: I think that's brilliant Anne because of course in the boat, there isn't really room for discussion. We have to be a leader. We have to be succinct and the sole voice for safety. We appreciate that there are nine heads in an eight and everybody's got an opinion and everybody's got things to bring to the table. There's just not room for it when we're rowing. Being an authority (again) doesn't mean that we are barking out commands … doesn't mean that we speak with that sharp, unquestioning tone. This leadership style really doesn't work on land. Y'all, we're all adults-ish. We all have free will. We're all here by choice so to adopt that militaristic … that dictator … that no nonsense, don't question … there's not a lot of room for it. Again, when you're in the van or in the hotel or hanging out at the boathouse, sometimes you have to invite discussion to still be seen as a leader. Sometimes you generally need input from your rowers and it's okay for them to voice their lifetime of experience where you're gonna put the tent. It's a very delicate balance especially if you're coming to this as a smaller woman … a younger woman … in front of older men, older rowers, where sometimes inviting discussion and asking opinions can be seen as a sign of weakness. But then again, not asking for opinions and being so obstinate and demanding and insisting that your way is the only way and not hearing anybody out can also be seen as a sign of weakness. It's a very, very delicate and very difficult balance beam to navigate.
BREANA: This is a complex dynamic where - as you both have pointed out - you're still in that leadership role oftentimes on land, but the ways to behave to maintain that leadership position differ. And part of understanding your place in that system is establishing relationships with rowers that function on land and on the water. And I’ll acknowledge - to Anne's point earlier connected to the topic we discussed in Episode 003 about our personality types - establishing that relationship comes naturally to some people and can be really difficult for others of us. As we acknowledge in that episode, the three of us are introverts. And so I’ll speak for me personally that it is not a natural process for me to get to know all of my rowers personally. But I recognize that that is a required part of being able to do my job so that you have someone's respect in that time when you do need to make a request on land or run a workout on land or on the water, etc. - all the things that fall under our role. And I’ll say here that you don't necessarily have to seek to be a close personal friend with every single rower but you do want to conduct yourself with a level of professionalism. For me, that's really the key - is that professional level of behavior when you're on land … when you're on the water … when you're at regattas … even in those moments where maybe a rower can let down their guard a little bit … like riding the bus to a regatta or the team vans in the morning as Sally mentioned … or hanging out at the hotel or at a restaurant the night before a race. Those are all places where - in order to maintain the authority that we have in this leadership role - we really need to conduct ourselves professionally and so that entails a different standard of behavior. That’s been part of my experience - of making sure that I establish myself as an authority.
ANNE: I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about the stroke seat relationship - the relationship of the stroke seat and the coxswain.
SALLY: What I think is amazing and so remarkable is when you are sitting with a stroke seat and you get to sit with them for years, you develop a non-verbal form of communication. You can tell by their looks and their grimaces and the way they flutter their eyes. Sometimes you can see the passion or the pain or the fear in ways that they don't have to articulate. And because they are usually so deep in their pain cave, they're not putting on a front. Their emotions are real and visceral and raw and I find it a privilege for someone to be that exposed and that vulnerable and that intimate with me in a non-verbal setting. I find it really, really enhances how I cox them and how I cox the boat.
ANNE: It is the one seat – right, Sally - that you may have conversations with. And sometimes verbally … you know even if it's just one word as you are in the boat … and that in and of itself makes it a rather unique situation, right?
SALLY: Oh very much so. And I love it when (again) when you have the privilege of having a stroke for many years, you develop your own shorthand. You develop your own abbreviated lingo and they can bellow something out and you know, that speaks volumes to me whereas they just said some incongruent, troll-esque grunting to everybody else.
ANNE: Exactly. I have another example of the communication going the other way. So with a particular person that is stroke seat many, many times and many years in my boats is that I actually have a hand signal that I give to her to help correct some of her stroke. So rather than verbally saying something, I will give a hand signal and she'll know exactly what that is and she makes that correction on the fly - which is really kind of fun.
BREANA: And truthfully as you get to know each person in your boat … as you build the relationships with rowers that we're talking about here … you'll ultimately develop a unique relationship with each person in every seat. And we would argue that one of the signs of a really great coxswain is that that person truly does understand each rower and knows how to reach them on and off the water regardless of what seat they might generally occupy in the boat. So we hope that can be the really positive outcome of what we're discussing here - which is our relationships with rowers. I’ll share a particular challenge that I encounter in this domain by way of concluding this part of our conversation. One position that you may find yourself in as a coxswain - and I certainly have - is where rowers sort of use you as a partial way of raising a complaint that they have … often about something that the coach is doing, for example … because they see you as a coxswain as an authority figure. And by bringing that complaint to you - even if maybe they don't have the courage or the desire to lodge that complaint with the coach - they feel that they have made that complaint. And that leaves you in the difficult position of having to decide if that complaint is something to be brought up subsequently to the coach and how to do so. And I have really struggled in these moments. I felt very put on the spot by a rower who maybe approaches me and says, “Do you know why I’m not being considered for stroke seat? I feel like I’ve made a ton of improvements over the past year and why is the coach not noticing me or why was I not included in today's seat race. I really thought my erg score was great”. And lots of things like that get brought up and you have to choose in the moment how to handle that in a judicious way. To support fellow coxswains in this struggle, I’ll offer some insight from the academic world when it comes to being a teaching assistant. One piece of advice that I think is really helpful - you're in the same position where you need to - in this case it's the professor who is the person in authority over you and you need to respect them while also honoring the complaints of students in the class that you are working with as a teaching assistant. And so that sometimes takes the exact same form. A student might bring a complaint to you as a TA feeling that that complaint has now been made and you are an intermediary who might go on to bring that complaint to a professor. And some language I was given early on in my time of academia to help with this circumstance is a phrase like this - so saying, “Thank you for that feedback and I will pass that on to the professor” (or to the coach in this case) and you can even reassure the person that you will pass that on in an anonymous way so that they don't feel like you are (you know) bringing a secondhand complaint that came from someone. So if that kind of language or sentence helps someone to have that on hand if you find yourself in these circumstances, I hope that's useful.
ANNE: I think that's a terrific suggestion for anyone, Breana, when you're put in that position. And it happens to us all. I mean - I can't imagine any coxswain for whom this has not yet happened. But if it hasn't, it's likely to. It's likely to come up in some way, shape, or form. That's kind of a nice tie-in, I think, to the next relationship scenario that we wanted to talk about which was: coxswain to coach. Sally, what are your thoughts on this one?
SALLY: This one is so difficult because one of our roles inherently in coxing is: we are the coach. And we have to bring the coach's philosophy and their advice and their plan and turn it from just this theoretical thing and actualize it. And we have to figure out what is relevant and useful information and we have to bring that to the crew. And when the coach is there, we are not always the one who make definitive and clear and linear decisions. We have to acquiesce to the role of the coach - assuming it's a safe … assuming it's developmentally appropriate. We have to acquiesce a little bit, so that's very difficult. We have to be in charge but we are not the one making sole decisions And it gets hard because every coach has a different rowing philosophy and a different concept of the stroke and they also have a different idea about what our role is as coxswains. So it's just not this clear linear give and take - it's pretty difficult.
ANNE: I hear you so clearly, Sally, on that. And it is a pivotal relationship - which is why we're talking about it. I wanted to pick up on one part of what you talked about which was the different perspectives that coaches can have about the roles of coxswains. And I personally have encountered this … as I’m sure many of you have as well … which is sometimes it will be the: you're just the driver … just be quiet and do exactly what I tell you to do. And what I enjoy about having a season and having a coach over a season is (sort of) assessing at the beginning of the season - what do they actually think about the role of a cox and what are they … what's their perspective on it? And then (sort of) do another assessment at the end of the season. And in most cases, my goal is to see a change over time. And if I don't see a change for the better over time, I know that the next coach that I encounter that has that particular perspective - I need to try something different. So it's just one of my pieces of experience I wanted to mention.
SALLY: We have stated many times on this broadcast how very different three of us are and our personalities and our approach. And I think after having a conversation with y'all, it'll be interesting for our listeners to hear: if you had one word to describe your working relationship with a coach what would it be?
ANNE: My word is ‘confused’. Breana?
BREANA: My word is ‘passive’. Sally?
SALLY: And I’m sure it surprises no one that Breana and I are slightly different because I think my word is: ‘active’. When we're communicating with the coach, I’m very active in my role. I want to learn. I want to listen. I want to understand. And I am consciously taking steps and working to push the practice forward … to make everything better. Anne - how would you describe your state as confusion - or why would you describe your state as confusion?
ANNE: My state is confused because I have not had as many experiences with coaches as either one of you. It's a relatively new phenomenon in my club and so I’m still adjusting to that unique role and the various coaches that show up and communicate in different styles. So I am not only trying to figure out that relationship but exactly how to be the best translator of what they are looking for to the crew is just an area that I am still not feeling strong on. So I’m often confused.
SALLY: Breana why are you passive?
BREANA: Yeah. It was interesting as you started to describe, Sally, because I think we're in 100% agreement on our end goal - which is wanting to learn more … use that to achieve outcomes that we're desiring. But the way that we go about achieving it is different. So I often - as I do in many aspects of life - have taken the approach of (kind of) hanging back and trying to let my accomplishments … as I build those and my skills … speak for themselves. And that approach sometimes takes longer. I mean it definitely takes longer than people who are more out there actively advocating for themselves. But I’ve often been able to achieve the things that I want to in the sport over time by allowing things to build. And I think some of the scenarios that we're about to present will also reveal to listeners the different approaches you can take to complicated scenarios that emerge when interacting with a coach. And there isn't necessarily one right answer to handling this relationship. There are definitely some wrong answers and we'll talk through those, but there are many right approaches to this. So we encourage people - as we said at the beginning - to kind of find what fits your personality … what works for you. And if you aren't happy with the outcome that you're getting from the way that you're approaching things right now, we would encourage you to consider other skills that you could layer on to your natural tendencies that would help you achieve your goals. And we also want to put this out to the listeners: we'd love to hear from you what your one word is. If you could really distill your relationship with your coach down to a single word, what would it be?
ANNE: When the coach is in the process of coaching and they are communicating but you know that your rowers cannot hear them, do you actually then also say, “The coach is saying blank blank blank blank blank” or do you translate and sum it up … whatever the intent of the coach is? And what you don't all see - because you can't see in a podcast - is both Sally and Breana are (like) nodding their heads and thinking. So - go ahead.
SALLY: Breana, I’m gonna ask if you – ‘cause I’m being active – Breana, would you like to state yours first?
BREANA: In being passive, I was waiting for you to state yours. But … It's demanding a lot of thought from me because I’ve certainly been in this situation. Your question didn't go to the place I thought it would go exactly, which is sometimes I’ve just said to the … I’ve … well, I’ve done it in a passive way. Let's put it this way. I’ve said to the rowers, “Can everyone hear the coach?” It's a little windy and they are trying to (you know) shout without a megaphone you know some coaches prefer to do that even when they have a megaphone. “Are you all hearing the coach’s corrections?” I’m asking that suspecting that they can't because I’m also struggling. And so then I might say to the coach, “We're having some trouble hearing you (you know). Do you think you could try using the megaphone or speaking a little louder if you can because I want the rowers to be able to hear your feedback?” And then when it comes to passing it on, it's a great question. I think I probably do a mix. In some cases, I’m offering the direct example of what they said but I’m usually trying to distill it down and get the point across quickly so we don't spend time duplicating the points. So oftentimes, I’ll have a rower who would be like, ‘What? Were they talking to me?’ And then I’ll be like, “Yeah. They said lift your right shoulder a little bit more as you approach the catch” … you know, something like that. So I guess my answer is: depends, but usually some kind of distilling just for efficiency.
SALLY: And the best is when you're in that scenario and your boat is filled with (like) a Mary, a Maria, a Mary Catherine, a Kathy, a Katie and (you know) an Isabel. And when the coach says a name, many people are unsure which name they called because of the similarities. I mean, in those situations when you realize there's a lot of confusion, yeah, I will hope that I have a good enough communication style and rapport with the coach and I will actively start trying to build upon them because I’m going to assume that the rowers aren't hearing them. And if I find out during a break that there's way too much information, then I’ll back down but I definitely am trying to actively process and distribute the information because the coach isn't in the boat - they're not a part of it - they're not feeling it like I am … as personally as I am … so I try to take what the coach is saying and build on it and make it better. I don't … you know if the coach is working on fast hands, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the last three inches of the recovery. I will try to make sure my comments are in line with - and matching - what the goal of the practice is. But … um … I have been accused of talking too much. Shocked everyone, right? Shocked.
ANNE: That was a good little example of how we each approach something that probably is a familiar scenario to all of us, right?
BREANA: Did you answer for yourself, Anne?
ANNE: I did not. I would - in those cases, I will share that I generally try to repeat word for word if possible to that rower or to the group of rowers that the coach was talking to. I repeat because I feel like they chose their words for particular reasons and I will say, “The coach just said - in case you didn't hear it - the coach just said blah blah blah blah blah” and be done with it and not belabor it. Three very different approaches.
SALLY: Again, shocked.
SALLY: This kind of comes to the next question: what happens when (you know) the coach stands there before practice and whiteboards it and says, “All right y'all - we're gonna do seven by five hundred meters” and out on the water, it turns out you're doing (like) nine by five hundred meters? How do you handle it when there's now a variation between the information that was presented and the information that's being actualized?
BREANA: I have been in that exact situation and I find it very difficult to handle. I mean - I always … I wish coaches wouldn't put coxswains in this position or I wish they would at least realize the position we immediately end up in when they do something like this. Because we are (again) a teammate … we are probably equally frustrated as our rowers are that the plan has changed - whether that's for mental fortitude reasons, weather reasons, sheer forgetting on behalf of the coach reasons - but we are all sharing in that frustration. And yet, you are the person who will be calling the next two pieces … the extra two that were added on. So it's really difficult to manage that circumstance. I would say the worst thing that you could do is outwardly bad-mouth the coach. You need to be the coach's partner in implementing the practice … whatever it is … so resist the urge to too deeply commiserate with your rowers or make a comment like, “Oh well, can't they count?” If you think it's a genuine mistake and you have the confidence to bring it up (you know), feel free to do that. But instead, you might say, “All right, guys. Let's show ourselves that we have another thousand meters in us … another two pieces in us”. And (you know) you pull the boat together and you cox those remaining two pieces (you know) with the energy that you have and that they deserve and try to (again) balance that acknowledging for the rowers: yes, this was a change that frustrated us but I’m in it with you guys and we're gonna overcome this as best we can. That's the difficult position that you're put in. And experience and time and discernment will help you handle that circumstance.
SALLY: Now what happens - I mean, I had one rower tell me once, ‘Sally, it's five o'clock in the morning for all of us, too’? So as a coach, you're cranky … you're tired … you're cold … sometimes coaches don't always say the nicest things or don't always say the most coherent things. How do you handle it when you differ ideologically from what the coach is saying or the coach is being aggressive and vindictive? Like how do you guys handle that overt conflict when you're coxing?
ANNE: Sally, those are two really important questions so thanks for lifting them up. I’m going to just address how I handle one of those two situations which is: when my experience and whatever I think ideologically does vary from what the coach says. And what I usually try to do is to respond back to them … when I hear this brand new - and sometimes it might seem to me kind of offbeat request technique-wise - I try to pause for a moment and say, ‘Okay’. I internally say to myself, ‘That's new’. And then I might verbalize to the coach, “Hey, that's a really new thought for me” and say that out loud so also the rowers will hear me verbalize that. And then off the water, I will try to have a conversation with a coach about why is that their preferred style and that particular type of technique. How about either one of you?
SALLY: I am (again) … I’m always learning. I have a style I like. I recognize however, that my style isn't the only technique out there or it's not the only means to an end and I am generally open to trying to understand and learn why someone is saying something that I feel is different. It's not wrong - it's just different. I draw the line when they're asking people to do things that I am very aware will hurt the rowers. But I am very genuinely interested and just want to learn so I usually keep my mouth shut … call it as I hear it … call it as I understand it. And then like you, Anne, I try to have a discussion later going, “You know, not arguing with you … just please help me understand you”.
BREANA: The other point that you brought up was about times when a coach might actually be bordering on abusive. You know, maybe they are really just berating a rower - you know, as we mentioned people are not at their peak at 5am. People have good and bad days. And sometimes coaches are simply abusive and this is a time where I would say (again) we mentioned that there are multiple right ways to handle things and there are definitely some wrong ways. And we establish that one of the wrong ways is to kind of openly bad mouth your coach in front of your rowers. But we also have to recognize times when something has pivoted to the point that you are very justified in commiserating with your rowers about that or even taking further on or off-water action when it comes to your interactions with that coach. So you do not have to tolerate abuse or violence … verbal abuse … physical … abuse of any kind just because it's coming from a coach and because you view your role - as it ordinarily would be in a healthy situation - as implementing the desires of that coach. You do not have to back them up if you observe that things have reached a point that is unsafe. That's the message I would give to everyone and Sally, I think you had a pretty tactful way of handling that on the water. Do you want to share with people so they have some actions for (you know) - in the moment - what can be done?
SALLY: Yeah. I think you, Breana … I mean I am a firm believer - I am the voice of the boat. I am the one that propels it forward and I’m also their advocate. And when I perceive a coach or someone has made their point abundantly clear and has berated my rower or has crossed lines, I just very clearly address them … calmly … you don't want to don't want to say anything inflammatory … “Okay coach. Thank you. You've made your point. Let's move on now.” And one of the most powerful tools I’ve learned is the art of silence. I don't need to say a lot but I just have to use the silence and the pause just so that the coach hears it. I don't need to fire back with many words. “Thank you, coach. You've made your point. Let's move on.” Hard pause. Hard stop. Nothing more needs to be said. And if it continues, then you address it. And you address it with slightly more words and a slightly more aggravated tone.
ANNE: Thanks for the specifics on that, Sally. I think that (again) Breana had said let's give people some actionable stuff. That is a perfect two phrases that people can adopt that can only help in that situation.
SALLY: And again in the role as the voice of the boat, we're getting information from the individual components and the individual rowers. How do we take that information and communicate that to the coach?
BREANA: Again, my approach is usually to bring things up in an anonymous way if I can. So a rower has confided something in me and then I can bring that to the coach - somehow divorced from the conversation with that rower so that it can't necessarily be connected. So the end goal is achieved and the rower maintains their anonymity in a complaint that they have raised. This again takes a lot of discernment. Another place where I have seen this play out … where I’ve had to filter information from the team to the coach … is in an on land circumstance. So imagine (you know) - during winter training for example when we are indoors on the ergs - coaches are signing workouts every day and I have I’ve been in a situation where coxswains were able to observe that there was burnout occurring across the team. Not one person here … there … who needed a day off but just really everybody starting to experience burnout. And so with the coach being in a position of authority, the rowers will do the workouts that are assigned whether they're handling them well or not … or handling the rest of their lives well or not. And so in that circumstance, the coxswains on the team were in a position to raise that to the coaches and say, “You know, we could probably all use a day off or a day to do something fun. There’s a lot of people kind of breaking down behind the scenes”. Again anonymously … what's affecting a bunch of people … and we bring that up and we're able to get the rowers some support. These are not easy circumstances but when we are able to handle them deftly and do our best to navigate that trio of relationships we've discussed so far - between the rowers and the coaches and us - we can really achieve a lot of great things as a team.
ANNE: Those are really important points and I would like to also add, however, that there are times - and there will be many of them - where you should not serve as the intermediary between the rowers and the coach. There are many times when a rower has an issue that is something that they should go directly to their coach with and you should not be afraid of saying, “I think this is something you need to address directly with the coach”. So I did want to verbalize that as one of the many communication options. It is difficult because somebody has turned to you and hoping you're going to be the intermediary but there will be times when that's not the appropriate approach and you're going to have to hold firm on it.
BREANA: That's a spectacular point, Anne. I’m glad that you brought that up. So thus far, we have talked about our interpersonal relationships as coxswains with rowers on the team and with our coaches. And as we conclude here, we'll briefly address some of the other people that we will interact with in the rowing context like: captains … the squeaky wheel (more on that when we get to it) … officials … and other coxswains, of course.
SALLY: The important thing to recognize about captains are - they are elected and selected by your teammates. Sometimes they're coxswains. Sometimes they're not, but they are the chosen go-between on your team. They are elected leaders. As coxswains, we aren't elected. The nature of coxing - the nature of that seat - is we are endemically leaders. So it's a touchy thing. We're leaders of the boat but are we leaders of the program? Captains are a leadership role but they're different than our leadership role.
ANNE: And I don't think we presume to offer suggestions on how to deal with these different relationships. I think our point here - in particular - is to say you should be attentive to the fact that there can be these different roles … one of them being the captain role and that you need to consciously adopt a communication style that works best for you in your particular club or crew situation. How about another type of relationship and that's the coxswain to what we've opted to call ‘the squeaky wheel’.
SALLY: That would be the vocal minority.
ANNE: We hope it's the minority. But yes, this is the person or persons who provide unsolicited information … usually loudly … sometimes excessively and frequently. What is our relationship to that person? How might we handle that situation which by the way (again), is not uncommon.
SALLY: I think it's important to realize that just because information is being presented to you loudly … frequently … did we say loudly? Very loudly? That doesn't necessarily mean that it's representative of the whole. Some people are very good advocates for themselves and are much better about vocalizing what they think should be the next logical steps for the team. And you're going to have to process information and recognize just because they're advocating for themselves and they are expressing a need, it might not be the need for the entire team. And the opinions and the conclusions that they draw might be better for them - it might be better in the short term - but these loud and vocal and frequent suggestions aren't always what's in the best interest for the team in the long run. And when someone comes to you with a complaint or someone comes to you with a suggestion because you are filtering information to the team … to the coach … all this … I think it's really important that you process the information and try to recognize: 1) is it a valid complaint - is it a valid suggestion, and 2) is this criticism - is this suggestion - is this call to action really something that's going to help the whole team or something that's just going to appease an individual. It's a tough role to be in.
ANNE: And it does happen and it is kind of a unique situation that coxswains often face. There often is this person that does require a different type of interpersonal interaction than other rowers. And as I think about this topic, I want to just offer up a potential approach that I take which is that this person - regardless of the content - is feeling the need to be heard and so they are often expressing it at a time that it's not appropriate. One of my action items out of that is to give them as many off-water opportunities to provide input that they can and be successful at it. So I might pick out a couple things they do very well - where they can really make a contribution - and I try to make sure that I engage them in that activity or providing that information so that the whole crew can see that strength. And it helps the crew as a whole and it helps them feel heard and valued even though it doesn't directly relate to what they were talking about.
BREANA: I really appreciate this conversation that you both have brought up thus far. I think many coxswains listening will recognize this person or persons on their team. To give a concrete example of a way this has manifested in my experience, it might be a person approaching you privately or sharing their thoughts right there in the boat - at practice for example - with a suggested modification to a race plan. So maybe they say something like, “Well, I’m really worried that if we go off the start at this rate, we're going to get left behind from the rest of the field so we should just go off like four beats higher than the coach planned”. And they're voicing that input and they're hoping that you will act on that and implement that change and you don't necessarily have. No not every piece of information that comes in is something that you are required to act on. So that's kind of our message here - with this person, it's not someone you completely ignore but (again) we're seeking a tactful way to balance the input that they have provided with subsequent actions that need to be taken … or not taken.
ANNE: Thanks, Breana. That's also a great segue to the next subgroup that we just wanted to talk on when you mentioned the word ‘tact’. I think that is an operative word when we're in a dialogue with officials - meaning race officials. Sally, do you want to say something about this?
SALLY: The important thing to remember is to be respectful. And I can't stress that enough - even if you disagree with what the official’s saying - even if you have not had enough caffeine - even if they're asking you the impossible - I think the most important thing to do is be very respectful and calm. And respectful isn't putting a thumb over your mic and bad-mouthing them. It isn’t saying, ‘Oh my God. What did they want us to do?’ It's just - be respectful, hear them, and hear what they're trying to say. It might not always be the easiest or the best course of action but just be respectful.
ANNE: It is a unique relationship in our sport I believe … where a team member (that we are) - a coach in the boat (that we are) - also has to deal in a competitive situation with one of the officials. I just think that's another layer of importance for our role.
BREANA: The other relationship that we will manage as coxswains is our relationship with other coxswains on the team if we have them. And this can be really complex. Of course, you are striking that balance between being competitors and also being on the same leadership tier on the team where you are implementing team-wide goals basically. So that can be really difficult. I would point folks towards two other episodes where we have discussed this. We talked about this in Episode 005 - our interview with Kayleigh Durm … this idea of how coxswains can and should work together even though they might be in direct competition. They can achieve team goals by working together. And then also in Episode 015 titled ‘Audience Generated Topics’, we answered an audience question about how to foster a collaborative environment among coxswains. So there are a couple of places in our episode history thus far where we have talked about this. My message would be: it's really important to behave professionally. Again as we talked about in relationship to rowers, you guys need to be professional amongst yourselves in your implementation of the coach’s directives, for example. You need to be a unified front in that way as coxswains whether you're personal friends or not. That's the important thing - is to behave professionally … in my opinion.
ANNE: I think it's a great question and I presume that people can figure out that the three of us believe in the value of collaborating and communicating and talking … that we are better coxswains by virtue of our conversations and our interactions despite our many differences. Maybe not ‘despite’ … and because of our many differences. That is how we get stronger and better.
SALLY: Yes, I recommend everyone get into a podcast with two people you respect and have lost to over the years. Spend several hours a week arguing and debating and quantifying and occasionally drifting off into Victorian literature.
BREANA: And we look forward to listening to your subsequent podcast - please share it with us.
ANNE: Yes, we do. And don't forget - every now and then you can agree with each other. It's permitted and allowed. You know, just be sure to bookmark that situation.
BREANA: So in conclusion for today's episode, we have talked about the unique role of the coxswain in the sport of rowing. As coxswains, we interface with a variety of people who hold other roles in the sport and all of us will handle things in a different way, as we have discussed. There are wrong ways to handle these interactions but there are multiple right ways. And we hope that you - as you go through your coxing journey - discover the ones that work for you. And share what you have found with us. We would love to hear from the audience different successes and struggles and more scripts for handling circumstances and situations that arise. We would absolutely love to hear your feedback of any kind. We'll conclude by offering that up ourselves and sharing (kind of) which one of the relationships that we have talked about today is the most challenging for us. Anne, do you want to start us off?
ANNE: I will. My most challenging relationship - of the ones we've talked about so far - is the coxswain/coach relationship. Breana?
BREANA: I would say that when I started out on a team that was larger and had more coxswains, it was the relationships with other coxswains that I struggled with. Now I find the most complicated relationship for me to be with rowers. Sally, how about you?
SALLY: How ironic that once again, the three of us have completely different answers. I struggle with the role of ‘myself’ in these relationships and understanding the role I bring as coxswain … and how it's nuanced and different.
BREANA: All right. So again audience, we look forward to hearing from all of you. Really and truly we welcome that feedback. So our Quick Pick for this episode - we would like to shout out a coxswain gift guide that is available as a blog post on our website now. Whatever gift-giving activities might be coming up in your life at any point of the year, we have rounded up a list of resources that we really enjoy. This is everything from very cheap (you know), small items that can easily be purchased for like a team gift exchange, for example … all the way up to more expensive items or items that are (you know) experiences as opposed to physical items. So whatever your budget - you know (again) whatever the occasion that you may be finding to have some gift-giving in your life - we have a list there. Whether you're the coxswain looking for suggestions or you are someone looking to give a gift to a coxswain, we hope that you find that useful.
SALLY: And today's Shout Out is going to be coach-coxswain relationships and when those relationships are excellent … when it becomes something like a dance. It becomes one less thing to worry about and it makes all of us greater than the sums of our parts. So we want to thank the coaches who have taken so much worry off our plate and those coaches who have communicated effectively and with humor and affection. I mean, we appreciate how difficult and how complex it is to be working with a coxswain and we just want to thank you all for supporting us and helping us be better. So thank you so much - the moments are rare and precious and not to be forgotten.
BREANA: Thank you, great coaches.
ANNE: Before we close, I did want to share again with our listeners the two questions that we raised that I thought were particularly interesting. And if you ask yourself - or you ask your fellow coxswains - these questions, you might have a really interesting conversation on your hands … as we did here. So the first question that we had was: what one word could you use to define your relationship with the coach? And the second one was one we just asked a moment ago. But (again) that is: which one of these relationships is the most challenging?
BREANA: In the meantime, we invite you to engage with us on social media and on Slack where your question might get featured in a future episode. We'd also love for you to consider supporting us on Patreon - if that's of interest to you. We are so excited to bring you more content soon and until next time, I’m Breana. I’m Anne. And I’m Sally - signing off for now.