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, 10/7/99)

Here are a smattering of missives dealing with issues affecting first-timers. Buried within, however, are a few nuggets of wisdom for the experienced cox.

Submitted Question - Katherine King: I coach high school novices and the most difficult thing I have to do is coach coxwains who have never seen a boat before the first practice. Do you have any suggestions about effectively coaching novice coxwains?

Good question. I'd say the best bet is to either (a) pair them up with older (more experienced) coxswains, or (b) play them a videotape describing the basics of the role. Any way you can filter down information from those who've done time in the hot seat will be a boon to your budding coxswains, not only in terms of technical knowhow but also in psychology and poise. Giving them audio tapes of coxswains to listen is a good idea too.

Another tactic that might work is to pair up the new coxswain with an experienced (and patient!) stroke. On my first day with the Harvard Freshman Lightweight squad, I spent the first 45 minutes of practice working with freshman rowers, going one stroke at a time and hiding from bridges. Then, by some sort of scheduling snafu, I ended up going out with the Heavyweight Varsity eight for 90 minutes. The stroke that day would say, "Now say, 'take it up in two'" and I would do so. Then he'd say, "now say, 'watch your finishes'" and I would do that, too. Moreover, we ended up going through basically every bridge on the Charles River that practice. Hanging with the big guys the first day gave me enough confidence to withstand the next month or so. Any similar shot in the arm you can give your coxes in the early going will definitely help them to land on their feet.

By the same token, if your prospective coxswains have never seen a boat before, talk up the job. The position attracts by its nature men and women with Napoleon complexes and something to prove. If you play up the piloting and command aspects of coxing, individuals of the coxswain temperament will want to rise to the occasion.

All this emphasis on confidence-building may seem silly. But, in the end, coxing is a mind game. A coxswain who believes she has the wherewithal to keep tabs on her boat while threading the needle between a launch and a bridge abutment will have better luck than one paralyzed by doubt and indecision. Of course, pride goeth before a fall, so don't juice them up too much or you may run out of shells.

Finally, a good idea to pass along rudiments of technique and forge some intracoxswain bonding is to take the coxswains for a row, to be coxed by an experienced coxswain. This allows novitiates not only to get a basic understanding of crew from a rower's perspective (Quit yelling over the $#&% box already!), but also to hear an experienced coxswain make calls and guide the boat.

Submitted Question: Situation: A rower who started rowing (about 6 months) before you started coxing thinks s/he knows it all and is sometimes contentious/undermining in the boat. Even though you have by this time put in a whole lot more hours coxing/doing research/etc. than s/he has rowing, s/he still has an "I know more than you because you are newer than I am" attitude. Whaddaya do?

Good question. From the few times a similar experience happened to me, I'd say the best thing to do is, pull rank. Particularly, if the attitude of the rower in question is causing problems through the boat, it is the coxswain's duty to deflate him or her to a manageable size. You first might try taking him or her aside before practice and stating that, while their unwanted advice is sometimes helpful, s/he is undermining the coxswain's authority during practice and creating dissension through the seats. Attuned to your complaint, the rower in question will apologize for his/her past behavior and come to practice with a wonderful new attitude.

Yeah, right. Once you've given the rower every chance to respond to good cop, however, your only available recourse is to bad cop on him or her at a well-timed moment in practice. When the problem rower is being particularly annoying, don't be afraid to go nova on him or her over the microphone. Try something along the lines of "I don't care what you think you know when we're on the dock, but once we're on the water it's my house and my rules, so shut yer yap and get your blade in the water." Liberal use of profanity helps too.

If the problem is with your stroke, you could also cover up your microphone and say as much to his face. Regardless of how you go about it, your rowers will respect your decision to take charge on the water, particularly if the problem rower is a boat-wide annoyance. That being said, if you throw a screaming fit every practice, you'll lose your credibility. Choose your fights well.

In my four years of coxing, I can think of only two times where I had to release the Kraken on a single rower. In both cases, the outburst led to less impertinent behavior from the perpetrator and, eventually, a more respectful relationship between us. Indeed, those two rowers and I look back on those events now and laugh.

In sum, you're the leader of this outfit. Don't be afraid to kick a little ass sometimes for the sake of the crew.

Submitted Question - Sabrina Cruz-Munoz, Miami RC: Every now and then I find myself in a situation that I can't make better. like when the boat gets really heavy and I have tried everything that I know, and it doesn't get any better. Then what do I do? How can I make them respond?

Boy, there's nothing more infuriating than a mysteriously slow boat. Whether you're on your first day out or on the Olympic squad, some days the shell just moves like molasses. Obviously, the specific reason for moving at a crawl will vary from boat to boat, but, if the shell feels heavy, nine times out of ten it means somebody is off the rhythm. If so, here's some tips to get the crew back on line.

Silence. If you're like me, and you rarely shut up when in the hot-seat, use an extended period of silence to refocus the crew. Particularly if you're a non-stop talker, the absence of your rhetoric may reawaken the rowers from their daydreaming.

Rhythm. Spend a few strokes calling the rhythm of the boat, as in "catch-finish" or "kick-gliiiiiide." Make it monotonous enough so that everyone instinctively falls to your rhythm. If this doesn't solve the problem, have your stroke take it down a notch, with a beat added to the recovery. Try to reestablish a rhythm at this lower cadence. Repeat until you feel you're getting back on track.

Focus. Alternatively, you can reset the rhythm by drawing the rowers' attention to a certain part of the stroke. For example, try emphasizing the circling of the hands at the finish. If everyone's on the same page, a new rhythm should emerge from the shared focus.

Pause. Call a pause at the finish or in the middle of half-slide. Due to its repetitive nature, rowers will get in a rut, and bad strokes will beget bad strokes. A well-timed pause ought to shake out the old bad habits, and may save you time over a long piece.

Hope that helps.

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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