This is part 3 of the Racing Tips for Aspiring Coxswains written by Olympic Coxswain Michael Toon. In Part 1, Michael outlined his approach to race day, racing and provided insight as to what it takes to cox at Olympic level. Read Racing Tips for Aspiring Coxswains Part 1. In part 2, Micahel talked us through the warm up on race day, including physically and mentally preparing your crew. Read Racing Tips for Coxswain Part 2.
The few minutes spent in the starter’s hands can be crucial in any contest and demand a great deal of concentration from the cox whilst ensuring the crew remains relaxed. This is a challenging balance to strike. The biggest impact a cox can have on a crew during the start procedure is, unfortunately, a negative one if the crew is poorly prepared to begin the race shooting straight, focused and together. The start is a high-risk period with lots of variables to be negotiated and managing a successful start is never an easy task, while it is often taken for granted. The crew here is relying on you to be in control. Maintaining control is a lot easier than trying to recover it in an adverse situation. So with this in mind,regular reinforcement, even when there is little action to be taken is important so the rowers know you are alert and looking out for them.
Recall that many rowers are used to racing in coxless boats so they like to check things out for themselves. Communication is paramount to avoid members of the crew being unnecessarily distracted by checking your alignment, taking touches to correct course on their own initiative and just thinking to themselves about how things are progressing. I like to prevent this with lots of quiet, confident communication, letting the crew know they are pointing straight, or adequately into the wind in a cross-breeze, to breathe and stay relaxed and that things are in control. If they are not of course, you need to get their attention and address the problem. This will happen more effectively if you acknowledge the problem first so the crew knows they have to act. Ensure that when you call on the crew to act to correct your course or touch up to level the boat in a non-held start you precede your command by naming the crew members you intend to undertake this action, and be specific about the magnitude of correction needed. ‘We are slightly off course to port (stroke-side), Two-Seat, take ONE light touch, Now..’ or, ‘We need to straighten 30degrees, Two-seat, take firm touches until I say stop, Go’… I always add a ‘now’ or a ‘go’ when making commands in such circumstances. It delivers an urgency required under pressure. Of course,judgment is required at the start and techniques such as passing oars forward to make significant corrections to your alignment without pulling the boat out of the stakeholder’s hands and keeping your boat pointing into the wind with small touches from the opposite side are very handy in managing this.
During the anticipation of the roll-call, I communicate using hushed tones except for commands given to correct the alignment of the boat, which need to be clear.Using whispered, simple words of reinforcement helps to internalize everyone’s thoughts and keep the focus within the crew. ‘Relaxed and ready to go’ or, ‘calm and confident’ are good mantras to say to break the otherwise uncomfortable silence leading into the role-call. Sometimes, simple cues regarding the race plan are also useful here, without advertising your intentions to the other crews. Once the roll-call commences, strict silence is necessary except in the most dire of circumstances. Rather than do nothing here, I check that my Coxmate is ‘zeroed’ and ready to start and than everything in my seat such as tools and water bottlesare secure. I often dip my hand in the water and wet my lips and tongue also,depending on the water quality!
After the command of ‘Go’ there is not much to offer by way of calls that will change a well-drilled crew. I find it is best usually to keep mostly quiet and concentrate on steering as the crew’s concentration is at a peak. There is an explosion of sound and movement at the start and your voice usually just adds noise rather then value here. Many coxes use rehearsed cue words here just to keep the rowers in rhythm or to reinforce key concepts for the first few strokes,they are also useful just to ease your own use of voice into the race so you don’t explode over the microphone and startle the rowers later in.
I myself like to use long drawn-out words in the first few strokes to ensure the guys focus on moving the boat and not the water. Fundamental laws of motion tell us that the force required to move the boat to race speed is greatest during this start sequence as the boat’s inertia needs to be overcome (Force = Mass xAcceleration, with a constant mass and acceleration being the change in velocity over time. When acceleration is greatest, in getting the boat from zero to race speed, the force must proportionally be greatest). With this force comes the propensity for the blade to wash out or bury deep in the water if the pitch on the blade or the rower’s handle control is not ideal. Calls such as ‘Hold’ and ‘Flat’or ‘Sit-Back’ encourage the rowers to concentrate on this concept.
As mentioned, I concentrate on steering for the first ten strokes, when the pressures exerted are maximal and there is a high risk of losing your course.Using any rudder here to correct your course not only cuts drag on the boat but prevents it from reaching full speed, the objective of a the start routine, so veering off course is doubly punished. Concentrate, look forward and hold the boat straight during this time so you don’t dig any steering holes.
I have a look out after about ten strokes and let the crew know briefly what is transpiring. Simple feedback such as ‘Good Start’ is all that is needed for the crew to remain focused on the task and to continue to perform. If things could be improved at this point, you should not watch a bad situation become worse,so decisive instruction is needed to correct anything that is inhibiting your maximum speed. More power, faster hands/catches and cleaner blade workare the main things I find myself identifying as areas for correction on the fly in the melee of the start, and these can be corrected with simple, clear repeated commands spoken in rhythm.
Once the boat is up to speed efforts to maintain it while the energy levels are high and the rowers have not needed to transition to mid-race pace should bemade. This period of 30 or so strokes before the crew settles at about 400m is usually about breathing, concentration and repetition. I always tell the crew to breath and keep moving with the speed of the boat in this section.
Strategies to settle the crew into their midrace rhythm vary from crew to crew and, like everything there is no simple recipe. Many crew naturally just find their mid-race rhythm, while some need a definite call with some sort of focus of sitting back, or increasing the length and power. Whatever your crew does,it is necessary for you assess the situation and ensure during the crucial period between 400-500m that the crew has indeed found a suitable, sustainable pace.
Feedback, as always, is paramount, telling the crew whether the rhythm and speed they have found is adequate or needs further adjustment. Assessing your speed against the other crews and giving the rowers a ‘status report’ at this stage before they embark on the middle stage of the race is useful.
To summarise, your responsibilities in the first 500m follow the sequence of –steering and rehearsed execution in the first 10 strokes; re-enforcement and maintenance of top speed, breathing and focus in the following 30 strokes;establishing mid-race pattern and rhythm over 5 strokes; status update to the crew of position, rhythm and speed.
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