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, 8/23/97)

Hello, and welcome to the first installment of Ghost in the Machine. This page is intended to be an oasis amid the erg scores, training regimens, bizarre diets, and snazzy unisuits normally populating crew pages. We aim to concern ourselves solely with coxswain's issues here, such as oratory, steering, team psychology, spin control, and leadership. Of course, we'll also find time to share lousy experiences, grimace at terrible calls, and shed a spotlight on the bizarre and ridiculous elements of this age-old sport . But, just to get started, we should probably make sure everyone's on the same page (in case any rower types have dropped in). So, without further ado, let's give a big shout-out to that most misunderstood and maligned of athletes, the coxswain.

As you probably know by now, the coxswain is unlike any other creature in the kingdom of sports. One part coach, one part pilot, and one part firebrand, he holds the key to succeeding in a physically grinding race, yet he barely exerts a muscle. While every other athlete is judged by the quality of her actions, she is regarded only for the force of her words. Although his crew compadres are exhorted daily to work out and bulk up, he is only expected to waste away. Indeed, while most people's conception of the ideal athlete would run the lines of Michael Jordan or Michael Johnson, a perfect coxswain must incorporate the intellectual rigor of Gary Kasparov, the fiery temperament of Bill Parcells, the rhythmic sense of Ahmed Best, the verbal acuity of Demosthenes, the piloting instincts of Luke Skywalker, and the eating habits of Kate Moss.

As a result of the inherent uniqueness of the position and the myriad talents required to pull it off with any degree of success, it's hard to find anyone, other than current or former coxswains, who can speak knowledgably (or even sensibly) about the position. Even many of the world's best coaches can't help but view the coxswain from a rower's perspective. Hence, coxing is often a sink-or-swim proposition, whereby the best coxswain on a squad ends up being the last man or woman standing. My question for today is, what is it that separates these success stories from the rest of their ilk? What is the difference between run-of-the-mill, "thanks-for-steering" coxswains and the truly great scourges of the Sea?

Persistence? Of course. Bloodlust? Most definitely. But if I could choose one single characteristic that defines successful coxswains - it is this. They make the boat their own. Coxswains' styles run the gamut, from kid sister to General Patton, comrade-in-arms to hip-hop junkie. Nevertheless, the style matters little compared to its source. I can guarantee that on any given day, all else being equal, a coxswain wailing stroke counts ("Onnnnne....Twooooo...") or generic platitudes ("Row through them! Let's Go!") is going to get schooled by any competitor that's driving his or her boat with sheer personality. This is the great magic and mystery of crew. In the heat of battle, good oarsmen will clear their minds, fall back on their training, and merge into a holistic unity -- Five or Nine into One. It then falls upon the coxswain to become the mind of an organic engine, the ghost in the machine. At this moment, you are the boat, and it moves with the speed and force of your will. Your calls have to emanate from deep within -- if you harbor any doubts, they will manifest themselves in your performance.

Thus, the best advice I can give any coxswain, fledgling or veteran, is to work on making the crew an extension of yourself. Think of coxing as a form of self-exploration, in which you hone your ideas and impressions to the task of getting faster. In ancient days, you would be the storyweaver at the campfire -- nowadays you're on the mic. In my case, I regaled my crew with tales of Star Wars and the Irish people, my first playground fight and my weird-ass dream the night before. Find out what makes you tick, and use it to make the boat tick. When push comes to shove, a boat brought up on your idiosyncracies will fare better than a crew trying to muster enthusiasm from a count of ten.

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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