Ghost in the Machine:
Essays on the Art of Coxing

Kevin C. Murphy, Ex-Coxswain,
Harvard Varsity Lightweights '93-97

(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved.
(Originally appeared at, 1997-1999)

(originally appeared at Rowersworld, 9/15/98)

Well, it's that time of year again. The sweltering summer of Ronaldo, McGwire/Sosa, and, of course, that woman has finally come to a close, and once again the boathouse is abuzz with preparations for a new season. Grizzled veterans of last year's campaign mingle warily with a new crop of fresh-faced young rowers, and all of them look to you for leadership and guidance. The only problem is, you wrapped a Pocock around a bridge abutment in the last 500 of the championships last year, or you blanked out and panicked as your foremost rivals rowed through you at the 1000. The returning rowers' utter lack of confidence in your coxing ability is already starting to trickle down to the more observant novices, and that other coxswain's name is getting bandied about as a welcome alternative to another year of you. What's a reformed cox to do?

Easy. You just have to convince the rowers that you've radically improved over the summer. Ok, maybe that's not so easy. Nevertheless, just a few subtle changes in your in-boat demeanor will go a long way towards changing oarsmen's attitudes about your coxing. Your rowers want to believe that you've raised your game, so all you need to do is encourage them in that belief. We discussed in one of last season's columns how to fine-tune your racing calls. Now, let's turn our attention to general practice disposition:

Assume Command.
Whatever the boat dynamic was last year, let your rowers know from Day 1 that, from the moment you push off the dock until you return, you are in command. Make no bones about it--there's a reason why you're the only one who can see where the boat is headed. Appeal to the spirit of Bonaparte, the Patron Saint of Diminutive Tyrants, and inculcate in your rowers the necessary respect for your office. If your five-seat has issues with the way you're conducting practice, she can inform you on the dock. On the water, however, her job is to row and to listen.

That being said, with great power comes great responsibility. If you spend your days being unnecessarily oppressive, the oarsmen will chafe under the yoke of your tyranny and the boat will suffer.

Express Commitment.
Early in the season, tell your rowers what you expect of yourself and them this season. Let them know how committed you are to making every other crew in your league eat your wake. If the team feels that you're burning with the desire for victory, they'll have that much more hunger for improvement and confidence in your command.

Integrate the Novices.
It goes without saying that some kind of gap will surface between the old-school guys and the most recent team acquisitions. The veterans will sneer derisively (or whistle nervously) at the new guys' erg scores while the novices will band together and blame last year's failures on such-and-such a rower. It is a coxswain's responsibility to rise above the generational fray. However much you want to side with your teammates of yesteryear, never, never single out the novices for undeserved tirades during practice. In the boat, with the possible exception of the stroke, all rowers are created equal. Treat them as such, regardless of their experience or expertise. (Off the water, however, let your colleagues know that the veterans occupy important leadership positions in their own right, and encourage them to help you mold the novices into an effective fighting force.)

And, most importantly,

Keep it Interesting.
If a crew does four ten minute steady-state pieces every day for a week, I can guarantee that the boat's concentration--and performance--will steadily wane as time goes by. Thus, it is up to you to make each practice memorable in its own right. Think of coxing as a radio position, in which you're equal parts DJ, MC, and PR. When not conducting a piece, regale your crew with bad jokes, weather reports, wry observations, stories of your day, or insignificant factoids. Comment on some graffiti underneath the bridge, or last night's episode of The X-Files, or the significance of Columbus Day, or the prospects of rain during tomorrow's practice. Keeping practice interesting will keep the rowers fresh and the rowing swift.

Moreover, if your team enjoys practices with you, they'll begin to trust you more -- That additional trust could mean the crucial difference in a tight race later this Spring.

I. The Coxswain
II. The Eyes Have It
III. Karaoke Time
IV. Zen and the Art of Coxing
V. Back in the Saddle
VI. Bring Me the Head of the Charles
VII. 8 Minute Bones: Dieting Tips for Coxswains
VIII. From the Vaults: Racing Skillz
IX. From the Vaults: Steering
X. From the Vaults: Coxing 101 for Novices and Journeymen
XI. From the Vaults: Dancing Around the Monolith
XII. From the Vaults: Potpourri
XIII. The Winter of Your Discontent
XIV. Staying In the Mix

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