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034 | Coxing learn to Row Day

034 (from Quinsigamond).jpg
(photo courtesy of  Judy Freedman at Quinsigamond Rowing Club)

If your club is preparing for a Learn to Row Day that includes coxed boats, there are several unique coxing approaches that can elevate the participants’ experience. 


Recommendations for Learn to Row Day Organizers

A successful Learn to Row Day is about providing a safe and welcoming environment for members of the general public who have never been in a boat before. One of our key recommendations to organizers is to invite experienced coxswains to work with you on a Learn to Row Day. They have demonstrated a commitment to safety, skills in boat handling, and adaptability—all things that you need for a successful Learn to Row event. Having experienced coxswains also allows the coach to focus on guiding the Learn to Row participants, rather than spending their time coaching a novice coxswain.


We also recommend that the organizers ensure that coxswains have a functioning cox box, use eights if possible, and include four experienced rowers in the boat.

The Coxswain's Role at Learn to Row Day

Learn to Row Day is unlike any other day in our coxing experience, because the participants don't know anything yet—they're just excited to get out on the water! And our job on this day is not to teach them. It's for them to experience the sport and decide if they want to pursue it further. In short, we are ambassadors for the sport.


Rowing has an extensive specialized vocabulary, but part of creating a fun and welcoming environment for learning something new involves careful consideration of the language that we use to talk about that activity. We need to speak to Learn to Row Day participants in plain, everyday language. As coxswains, we may catch ourselves falling back into specialized rowing terminology—it's hard to fight those instincts! We need to use plain language not just to be effective ambassadors and help the participants have fun, but we need to use it for safety. It's their first experience, so participants will not know what we mean if we use technical terms. We need to slow down, use plain language, and convey our love of the sport to these new rowers in order to help them have a positive and fun experience.

CoxPod hosts Anne and Breana have participated in a lot of these events. Anne's club tends to have stations that participants go through prior to getting on the water; these can include sessions on the ergs, as well as an opportunity to look at a boat that's up on slings. But no matter how your event is structured, eventually the participants are ready to get into boats. Here's where our role as coxswains starts. 


As participants arrive to your station where you're preparing to go out on the water, this is your first chance at the ambassadorship goal of a Learn to Row Day. Breana likes to start by briefly introducing herself and her role, with a statement like: "Hi everyone, I'm Breana. I started this sport in college and I've been doing it ever since. It's been a really positive force in my life—that's why I keep coming back. I'm really glad to be here with you today! And what I'm here to do is enable you to focus on having fun, learning a little bit about rowing, and trying this out. All I ask is that you listen to what I am instructing you to do and are responsive to that."


Remember: these participants have no idea what a coxswain is or how we fit into the experience they're about to have. It's our job to orient them to this new world that they're stepping into; we are an ambassador who shepherds them through the entire process. We need to make it clear what we expect of them and what they can expect of us.

Getting Participants into the Boat

After introducing yourself and your role, the next step is to have the new rowers line up by an empty seat in the boat. Anne will then give them their seat number and emphasize her expectation that they remember it, because she's going to call on them by their seat number. As she does this, she says to each rower: "This is your oar. Do not let go of this handle. While you're in this boat, you are responsible for having your hand on this handle at all times."


As you're having these conversations, this is a great time to do a final check of the rowers’ preparedness. Take a look for things like whether they have a cell phone or keys dangling out of their pocket that you know will fall in the water the moment they sit down in their seat. Remember that Learn to Row Day participants may not know what to expect: you can help to ensure that they have a positive experience by intervening before any of their personal items get lost or damaged in the rowing environment.


The next step is to have the entire crew push their oars out for stability. At that point, have the experienced rowers from your club hold the riggers and then one by one, the Learn to Row Day participants can get into their seats with your assistance. You need to show them key things like where (not) to put their feet and how to push the seat back before they step in and sit down—all the while reminding them not to let go of their handle. You can also briefly demonstrate how to sit in an appropriate position to set the boat, using common language such as: "This is the position you need to sit in to stabilize the boat for the people who are rowing."


Once the Learn to Row Day participants are situated, you can direct your experienced rowers to get into their seats. Last, you're going to get into the coxswain seat. Breana likes to take a moment to talk to the boat through the speakers, to get rowers accustomed to the unusual experience of hearing a disembodied voice talking to them. Here you can reintroduce your name and inform the rowers that this is how you'll be giving them instructions from here on out.

Launching the Boat and Beginning the On-Water Session

It is essential that we use common language with Learn to Row Day participants who have no knowledge of the rowing vernacular. Instead of saying something like: "lean away" or "walk the boat down," strive to be specific with your commands. For example, you might give an instruction like: "Now we're going to be leaving the dock. On my call, everybody's going to lean their upper body to the right. Ready? Go." 


Once you are successfully out on the water, your coach will come up alongside you and is probably going to instruct the new participants to start taking some strokes. At this point, our job as coxswains becomes anticipating potential issues that might arise—like if it's a windy day and you're floating towards the shore or towards a bridge. We have to anticipate these way farther in advance than we would in an ordinary boat, because participants cannot respond quickly given that they don't know any rowing terminology yet or how to move their bodies.


Again, here we're using common language in the way that we speak to participants, and we might also be translating for the coach if they're using a lot of jargon. We might say "left" and "right" instead of terms that people aren't expected to know yet like "port" and "starboard." Instead of saying: "everyone ready...row" and "now, way enough," we might just say "go" and "stop." We might describe when the oar is going "in" and coming "out" instead of using terminology like "catch" and "finish/release."


Using ordinary language will also help you address common issues you may see new rowers having in the boat. For instance, you will experience times when rowers will be pressing hard down on their handle, with their blade nowhere near the water. What you might say in that instance is something like: "3 seat, take that handle and lift it closer to your chest." Another thing you might see happening a lot are people pulling the oars in. To remedy that issue, you can say: "That handle that you're holding onto, I want you to grip that and then push the oar to your right."


In addition to managing everything that's going on in the boat, we also need to keep track of the time. As you've probably recognized by now, everything is going to take a lot longer than it normally does. If you have several sessions of rowers going out, you need to get back in time to let that next happy bunch of people get in the boat. Otherwise, those people who are waiting will be disappointed. So keep track of the time and get back to the dock when you're supposed to. If you need to convey the time to the coach, do that. And as you head back, reflect on whether or not the participants have each had the opportunity to get some strokes in. This is their exciting day to try out time in the boat and actually experience rowing. It's easy to miss out on providing that opportunity to everyone if you're not careful. 


Landing the Boat and Ending the On-Water Session

After everyone has had their chance to row, it's time to land the boat. Here is another critical place where we need to think ahead and rely on our common language explanations of what we want rowers to do. We can't expect participants to understand jargon like "lean away," "watch the riggers," "everyone reach out," or "everyone tap down." Things like that are not going to generate any action in someone who doesn't yet know what those phrases mean.


Before the boat has entirely stopped, explain to the rowers they need to stay in their seats—some people are so excited that they try to hop out even if you're not fully landed! Anne gets out first and then looks down the boat with a smile, making eye contact with all the new participants and thanking them. Don't forget to take a moment to verbally celebrate everything that they've accomplished, from the time that they stepped foot in the boat to when you just landed: they've taken real strokes, doing something they've never done before. This is a great time to make a personal connection with people and act as an ambassador for the sport. We want participants to reflect positively on their experience and come back to the boathouse!


Now you can have your experienced rowers get out and hold onto the boat to stabilize it for the others as you direct them to get out a pair at a time, or even one at a time. Make sure that they know not to bring the oars in with them as they get out. If people are apprehensive about standing up or they're concerned they don't have the fitness or the flexibility to do that today, you can direct them that it's okay to just scoot their hips from the seat to the dock and get out that way safely. And do a final check of each seat to make sure that everyone's belongings are following them out of the boat: water bottles, phones, keys, clothing—anything people might have left in the footwells and forgotten about in the excitement of the row.


Before you release the rowers, close with a strong positive message. Anne likes to say something like: "Thank you for coming today. I hope you had fun! I love this sport, and I hope you will enjoy it in the future if you're so interested."


Once you've participated in one of these Learn to Row Days, you will see right away how it is different from our usual coxing experiences. Ordinarily, it's integral to our identities as successful coxswains to be efficient. While those characteristics and behaviors are valued under typical circumstances in the sport of rowing, Learn to Row Day is unique and it has different objectives.


It's our belief that by using common language, we can achieve the dual aims of Learn to Row Day: safety and ambassadorship. It's harder than you think it's going to be, but when you look down the boat and see the smiles and the excitement of the participants, the payoff is really rewarding. And remember: those participants might even become your teammates one day.


We hope that this day is successful for both you and the participants!

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Episode timestamps:

  • 00:00  Introduction

  • 00:20  Recommendations for LTR Day organizers

  • 01:05  Coxswains need to use common language to achieve the LTR Day goals of safety and ambassadorship

  • 02:43  Introducing the coxswain’s role at an LTR Day event

  • 04:43  Getting LTR Day participants into the boat and other pre-launch preparations

  • 07:35  Launching the boat

  • 08:09  Safety and advanced planning during the on-water session

  • 08:55  Suggested common language swaps for rowing jargon

  • 09:36  Correcting common issues LTR Day participants may have

  • 10:35  Managing time during the on-water session

  • 12:18  Landing the boat

  • 13:51  Getting LTR Day participants out of the boat

  • 15:13  End the session with a positive message

  • 15:42  LTR Day is different from our usual coxing experiences

  • 16:53  Closing

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