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034 | Coxing Learn to Row Day



ANNE: 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. 


BREANA: 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. So 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 commitment to safety, skills in boat handling, and adaptability which are all things that you need for a successful Learn to Row event. 


ANNE: Having experienced coxswains also allows the coach to focus on guiding the Learn to Row participants and not spending their time coaching a novice coxswain. We also recommend that the organizers ensure that coxswains have a functioning cox box, that they use eights if possible, and that they include four experienced rowers in the boat. And as coxswains who have participated in a lot of these events, Breana and I know that they are 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. 


BREANA: 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 - in particular - has an extensive, specialized vocabulary but part of creating a fun, welcoming environment for learning something new is the language that we are using to talk about that activity. So we need to speak to participants in plain, everyday language. We as coxswains may catch ourselves falling back into that specialized rowing terminology. Anne and I know from experience that it's hard to fight those instincts. 


ANNE: 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. So we need to slow down, use plain language, and convey our love of the sport to those new rowers to help them have an exciting and fun experience. As someone who's participated in a whole lot of these events, I have found that there are a couple of elements that are particularly helpful. Our club tends to have stations that participants go through prior to getting on the water and those 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 and here's where our role as coxswains starts. 


BREANA: As participants arrive to your station where you're preparing to go out on the water, this is your first chance at that ambassadorship goal of a Learn to Row Day. I like to start by just briefly introducing myself and my role. So I might say, “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. And 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.” 


ANNE: I agree that it's really important to introduce ourselves and explain what our role is. Remember - these participants have no idea what a coxswain is … what our role is … where we fit into this whole short experience that they're about to have. So it's our job to orient them to this new world that they're about to step into. We are that ambassador that shepherds them through this entire process. And we need to make clear for them what we expect of them and what they can expect of us. My next step - after my introduction about myself and my role - is to have the rowers line up by an empty seat in the boat. I will then give them their seat number and emphasize my expectation that they remember their seat number because I'm going to call on them by their seat number. The second thing that I do as I'm orienting them to their seat number is I also say, “This is your oar. Do not let go of this handle. You are responsible while you're in this boat to have your hand on this handle at all times.” 


BREANA: As you're having these conversations, this is a great time to do a final check of the rowers’ preparedness before you're out on the water officially. Take a look for things like whether they have a phone loose on their person … whether they have keys that are dangling halfway out of their pocket and you know are gonna fall out the second they sit down in that seat. 


ANNE: I've had rowers try to bring purses or backpacks with them in the boat. You never know what people are going to think the accommodations are like. My next step would be to have the entire crew push their oars out for stability and at that point, then I have my experienced rowers from my club hold the riggers and then one by one, the Learn to Row participants get in with my assistance. I need to show them where to put their feet … where not to put their feet … how to push the seat back before they get in - all the while reminding them not to let go of that handle. And this process takes some time. I then briefly demonstrate how to sit in an appropriate position - we might say in order to ‘set the boat’. But I usually use words that are common language such as, “This is the position you need to sit in to stabilize the boat for the rowers that are rowing”. 


BREANA: So you've gotten the Learn to Row participants situated. Now you can direct your experienced rowers to get into their seats and then last, you're going to get into the coxswain seat. I like to take a moment here to talk to the boat through the speakers to get rowers accustomed to this very unusual experience of hearing a voice - a disembodied voice - talking to them. And I'll just reintroduce my name in case they need to shout at me for any potential issues that they're experiencing. And I'll tell them that this is how I'll be giving them instructions from here on out. And we are ready to go. 


ANNE: it is essential that we use common language for these participants that have no knowledge of the vernacular and that starts as they're getting into the boat but we continue it as we're now going to launch. Instead of saying something like, “Lean away” or “Walk the boat down”, I'm going to be very, very specific. And I'm going to say, “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.” 


BREANA: Once you are successfully out there, at this point your coach has probably come up alongside you and is going to instruct a couple of 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. And we have to anticipate these way farther in advance than we would in an ordinary boat because these 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 be translating for the coach if that's needed if they are using a lot of jargon. So like Anne already set up for us, you might be saying ‘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 now we're at the ‘catch’ and now we're at the ‘finish’ or the ‘release’. 


ANNE: I think that you'll find you'll have a lot more success using common language because you're going to see all sorts of things happen while you're out in the boat. For instance, you will experience times when rowers will be pressing hard down on their handle and skying their blade … not anywhere close to the water at all. So what I might recommend you say is something like, “3 seat - take that handle and lift it closer to your chest’. 


BREANA: Another thing you might see happening a lot are people pulling the oars in and you can't use terminology like, “Exert lateral pressure on the oarlock”.  Instead you can say, “That handle that you're holding on to - I want you to grip that and then push the oar to your right or to your left. Keep pushing. Okay, good. That's where you want to be.” 


ANNE: We see that phenomenon all the time. So in addition to managing everything that's going on in the boat, we also really need to keep track of the time because you've probably recognized by now that everything is going to take a lot longer than it normally does. And if you've got 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. So keep track of the time. If you need to convey the time to the coach, do that but get back to the dock when you're supposed to. Otherwise, the people who are waiting will be disappointed. 


BREANA: After you've reached the halfway point of your outing and it's time to turn, our recommendation is that you rely on your experienced rowers in the boat to turn it. If you need to tighten up or modify that turn in some way that's going to involve the Learn to Row participants, remember that they do not have that specialized rowing vernacular on hand so you're going to need to use (again) your common language. If you are going to ask them to do something like hold water, you're going to need to describe that in more detail … in ordinary language for them. 


ANNE: And as we head back, I take it upon myself to reflect on whether or not the participants have each had the opportunity to get some strokes in because - let's remember - this is their exciting day to try out time in the boat … rowing. It's easy to miss out on one or two if you're not careful. 


BREANA: 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. So we can't rely on participants understanding jargon like ‘lean away’, ‘watch the riggers’, ‘everyone reach out’, ‘everyone tap down’. Things like that are not going to generate any action in someone who doesn't yet know what those phrases mean. 


ANNE: And before we actually get the boat entirely stopped, I always explain to the rowers they need to stay in their seats because some people are so excited that they want to hop right out even if we're not fully landed. So remind them to stay seated. I then get out I look - with a happy face down the boat - and I make eye contact with all the new participants and I thank them then. And I take a moment to verbally celebrate everything that we have just accomplished from the time that they stepped foot in the boat to when we just landed … how they've taken strokes. They've never done this before. This is a great time to make that personal connection with people and as such, you're promoting that experience and you're acting as a real strong ambassador for the sport. We want them to come back. 


BREANA: There are a couple of logistical things left for us to do while the Learn to Row Day participants are still seated. You can have your experienced rowers get out and hold on to the boat to stabilize it for the others as you direct them to get out- a pair or even one at a time. And just make sure that they know not to bring the oars in with them as they get out. And this is a place where you can let them know that - as I call it beaching themselves - by just scooting their hips from the seat to the dock carefully is perfectly acceptable for today. So 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 slide themselves over onto the dock and get out that way safely. And do a final check to make sure that everyone's belongings are following them out of the boat. We're looking for water bottles, phones, keys, clothing - anything people might have left in the foot wells … forgotten about in their excitement of the row. Do a final check through of each seat to make sure that they bring everything with them. 


ANNE: And before I release the rowers, I like to close with a really strong, positive message 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.” 


BREANA: Congratulations! You successfully completed your outing. And if you have a lot of Learn to Row Day participants, now you might be headed right back out for another session. 


ANNE: Once you've participated in one of these Learn to Row Days, you will see right away how it is really different than our usual experience. 


BREANA: In those usual experiences, it's integral to our identities as successful coxswains to be efficient .But while those characteristics and behaviors are valued under ordinary circumstances in the sport of rowing, Learn to Row Day is unique and it has different objectives. 


ANNE: And it's our belief that by using common language, we can achieve those dual aims which are safety and ambassadorship. It is a lot harder than you think it's going to be but the payoff can be really big. When you look down the boat and see the smiles and the excitement of these participants, it's very, very rewarding. And remember - those Learn to Row participants might even become your teammates one day. Breana and I hope that this day is successful for both you and the participants! 


BREANA: And we want to thank you for your time. We share lots of additional coxing tips via our podcast which you can find at If you found this helpful, please visit us there.

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