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, 11/2/99)

As Thanksgiving draws near, all the portents of upcoming winter are once again in evidence. Leaves fall, the wind blows more defiantly, shadows elongate, and boathouses around the country prepare to pack up the shells and settle in for several months of indoor training. It is during the long weeks of winter that the coxswain's strange relationship to rowing is at its most troubled. Without water time, with no chance to improve one's steering or in-boat leadership, how can a coxswain improve?

I'm not going to lie to you. Winter training is important for many reasons, but coxswain improvement is not at the top of the list. You may often feel irrelevant to the team during the long indoor practices. Nevertheless, if you keep your spirits up and your eyes and ears open you can still enhance your game. Despite the lack of boat experience, a coxswain can greatly improve his knowledge of technique, develop his rowers' respect, and forge strong interboat bonds that will pay off dividends come the spring racing season.

Obviously, each coach has their own winter agenda. In my experience, however, much of the winter is spent engaging in the following activities:

Tank Pieces: My first year, I found tank pieces to be mind-numbingly dull. What could be more boring than watching your oarsmen simulate "actual" rowing, when you know good-and-well that there is no wind, water, or set issues for them to respond to? Eventually, however, I grew to appreciate the mind-out-of-body perspective a coxswain can develop from watching tank exercises. How many times during a race have you watched your 4-woman's blade sky during the recovery, and have no clue why she won't stop it, despite your constant pleading? In a tank piece, however, you are not restricted to the coxswain's chair. You can walk around the boat and get a great side view of what exactly your 4-woman is doing wrong with her hands. This type of information will prove invaluable in the spring.

In sum, tank exercises are your chance to drastically improve your understanding of solid technique. Listen carefully to your coach and take notes on each of your rowers' strengths and weaknesses. Sit in front of the tank, as if you were actually in the boat, and, when something is off, get up and walk around the oarsmen. In a tank piece, you're a ghost out of the machine. Use this change in perspective to further your knowledge.

Erg Pieces: For rowers, long erg sessions are as boring as they look. Thus, you can improve their performances and garner their respect and trust by walking from erg to erg and calling individual pieces. Some oarswomen prefer lots of brow-beating during a piece; others wish you'd just shut up. By finding out the coxing likes and dislikes of each individual rower, you can better judge your on-water calls later in the year. Moreover, taking time to cox each rower on a one-to-one basis helps to forge a better coxswain-oarsman relationship: By helping each one of them on a particularly hard piece, they will more feel that you care about their personal improvement.

One cautionary note, however. Do NOT individually cox anyone in any piece that has been deemed a test by the coach. Doing so will come off as favoritism, and will only serve to exacerbate the normal competitive tensions within your team.

Fitness Training: Fitness training refers to weightlifting, running, cycling, or any other mandatory strength/endurance training assigned by your coach. A question I often hear from coxswains is whether or not you should work out with the team. My feeling is this: If you are in significantly less shape than your rowers, you probably shouldn't engage in the same exercise activities at the same time - It will only create doubt in your rowers' mind as to your ability to empathize with the rigors of racing. However, I believe you should engage in some kind of athletic activity with or in front of your boat. If they see you going for a run after practice or working out on the erg before a tank piece, they will respect you that much more. In essence, I think the best way of broaching the subject of your fitness is to let the team know you're staying in shape, even if you can't perform to their level.

Mental Discipline: Finally, the long months off the water give you a chance to refine your mind. Read, write, converse, and keep your most important coxing muscle in tip-top shape. Think up some new calls and visualize the triumphs of your upcoming racing campaign. When the rowers return to test their improvements on the river or lake come March, show them that you've been busy developing a sounder mind to better coordinate and command their sounder bodies.


Procedural Note:
Given that today is Election Day 1999, one year to the day before we choose our next President,
Given that only one Presidential candidate has utilized his considerable intellectual and physical talents to bring his teammates to a championship level,
Given that the other Democratic candidate has been paying Naomi Wolf $180,000 a year to tell him what we already know -- that he's a hopelessly uncomfortable beta male (and long-time readers know that beta males and beta females have no place in the coxing world), and
Given that the leading Republican candidate, George W. Bush, has chosen to dodge and evade his fellow candidates, tough questions from the press, and anything else that might suggest he is qualified for any position of leadership, be it coxswain or President,

Ghost in the Machine is proud to endorse Bill Bradley for President in 2000.

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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