A Guide to Coxing
Roles of the cox
- Safety - if in doubt always stop, beware of conditions and obstacles
- Steering - steer subtly and in advance, use rowers to steer if needed
- Speech - be clear, concise and use your voice, time the calls, give feedback
Safety must be your first priority. No coach should ever ask you to do anything which is unsafe. However, sometimes they will think an action is safe but you, from within the boat, will disagree. Sometimes they will get carried away or not want you to get stuck in a queue and so will ask you to do something you consider dangerous. It is important to understand that safety decisions are yours and yours alone. If you believe a certain course of action is unsafe then, even if your coach has asked you to take it, you must not. You should not feel pressured by either your crew or your coach into doing something you believe compromises safety. Therefore be confident to say that you are not comfortable doing the requested manoeuvre.
If you find yourself approaching boats moving slower than you then you must take action. If the river ahead is clear then you may overtake. However, if you are in any doubt at all as to whether this is safe then you must slow down and stop. Often, when the Cam is busy, there will be crews close behind you. If you do decide to stop you must make sure that you do not stop in the middle of the river where you might be in the path of an oncoming boat or a boat trying to overtake you. Be particularly careful of the Georgina - a large pleasure boat which cruises up and down the Cam. It is large, slow and unmaneouverable so you will have to get out of its way. It is useful to know that a long loud single blast from its horn indicates that it is about to leave its moorings and move off immediately. One short blast means the boat intends to pass you to its left, two blasts means it will be passing you to its right.
The most obvious safety concern is the weather. Strong winds, a very fast stream or low visibility all make life much harder. If, in light of the conditions, you do not feel that you can maintain complete control then you must not go out. Your coach (and Captain) may be able to provide guidance but if you do not feel happy then you must not boat. More experienced coxes may also be able to advise you. Under certain conditions you will not be permitted to boat. However if you are permitted to boat it does not mean that it is necessarily safe to do so and you must still assess the conditions yourself. If you do go out then you must make sure that you regulate your speed so that you can always stop in the distance you can see. Beware of strong winds and stronger stream as these will affect your steering and will be a problem when stationary. It is of paramount importance that you stick to the correct side of the river. If visibility is very poor, you should use lights. White lights, which can be visible from 180 degrees in front or behind, should be fixed to the stern and to the bow.
Be aware that behind where stroke sits you have a "blind spot". You must make sure you know what is there. If you have just turned a corner then you know what is in your blind spot. If necessary you can look out of the boat occasionally to get a better view but this upsets the balance so should be avoided if possible. If you cannot tell what is ahead of you and nobody on the bank can reassure you that it's safe then you must stop and find out.
Try to spot floating branches before you reach them and take evasive action - they can cause a lot of damage. Also try to avoid overhanging branches. Even twigs can be very painful at firm pressure. If you must pass through overhanging branches then warn the crew. Similarly, try to avoid the blades crashing into the bank or another boat. Blade clashes are a fact of life and the crew will not be too annoyed but it is not a pleasant experience to have your blade meet something solid with no warning. Simply call "bowside (or strokeside) blades in" if necessary. Make sure you do not get both sides to draw in their blades simultaneously or you will capsize!
Locks are very dangerous. Try not to get too close to them. If you are spinning upstream of a lock then make sure you have plenty of room to spin because the stream will pull you towards the weir. Be aware that traffic may emerge from the lock at any time.
If you think there is a safety hazard of any nature then you must act. Simply "hoping it will be OK" is inadequate. A successful relationship between cox and rowers must be built on trust and this has to be earned. Warning the crew of overhanging branches or imminent blade clashes is very important in cultivating this relationship.
The position of the rudder varies slightly from boat to boat. The fin (which stabilises the boat) is positioned on the underside of the boat between stroke's seat and the stern, underneath where the cox sits in a stern-loader. The rudder is normally either next to this, or at the end of the stern. The latter is very common in IVs.
In an VIII or stern-loading IV, the rudder is connected to a yoke, via a vertical bar. A wire (known as the rudder strings) is fastened to one side of the yoke, passed in front of the cox's seat where it is held in place by small wheels, and attached back to the other side of the yoke. This creates a continuous loop so that moving the left string forwards moves the right string backwards. As the strings are moved, the yoke operates the rudder. Wooden handles are fixed to the strings on each side of the cox for the cox to hold. Moving the right hand forwards (i.e. pushing the right string towards the bows) will make the boat turn right. Pushing the left hand forwards will make the boat turn left. The further the rudder is moved from the symmetric position, the more severe the turning action will be.
In a bow-loader IV, the setup is slightly different. The cox lies down on his back in a hollowed out space within the bows. A small headrest allows the cox to keep his head up without it becoming uncomfortable to do so. It is much harder to coach a bow-loader as a cox because you cannot see the crew, however the absence of a blind spot makes steering easier. In front of the cox is a metal rod which juts out horizontally. When it points straight forwards no rudder is being applied. Moving this rod to the left turns to boat to the left. Moving this rod to the right turns the boat to the right.
It is important to note that the rudder will not start to act the instant you move the wires - it takes a couple of strokes to work. This delay time is dependent on the speed at which you are moving as well as the size and make of the boat. If the boat is moving slowly you will find that steering with the rudder has very little effect. Therefore if you are moving very slowly (or are stationary) you will have to steer using the crew. It is also important to remember that the rudder will take a corresponding length of time to stop acting so there will be a delay between the rudder being set to the off position and it ceasing to act. In light of this, until you are very familiar with the responsiveness of a boat, you should use the rudder before it seems necessary. This anticipation can be difficult at first but will quickly become second nature. A common error is only to take the rudder off when you are pointing where you want to go. This can cause you to oversteer because of the delay in the reaction of the boat, resulting in a zigzag course.
There are two schools of thought on how to take corners most efficiently. One option is to use the rudder. The other option is to get one side of the boat to pull harder. Most of the time the former will be the more appropriate. When going round sharp corners particularly during a race you might want to get one side to pull harder as well as using the rudder.
Some people will tell you that you should only apply the rudder during the drive phase. This has its merits on a straight course but is insufficient on the Cam and quite difficult to do well. The best approach is to apply the rudder gently, to leave the rudder on for as long as necessary and then gently to take it off again. Try not to ‘pulse steer’, where you steer a little bit on every stroke. This usually results in a snaking pattern, where you steer, overcorrect, overcorrect, overcorrect, etc.
It is worth noting that it is the stern which is moved sideways when you apply the rudder, not the bow. Most of the time the difference is unimportant. However, if you are close to a wall and steering away from it, be aware that your stern will move closer to the wall. If this is the case you will have to apply the rudder gently until you have put adequate space between the boat and the wall.
If you want to move forwards slowly in a straight line you should ask bow four (or bow pair) to take a stroke. If you want to move backwards you should ask the crew (or just stern four or stern pair) to back it down (see "Speech" later this section). It is easier to back it down using only the arms than to try to use the slide.
In an emergency it does not matter how you steer. Use both the crew and the rudder to ensure that danger is averted.
To turn a stationary boat to the left (and move it forwards slightly), you should ask someone on bowside (normally bow) to take a stroke. To turn a stationary boat to the left (and move it backwards slightly), you should ask someone on strokeside (normally stroke) to back it down. The obvious opposites of these instructions will turn the boat to the right.
Occasionally you will need to move the boat sideways without either turning the boat or moving it forwards or backwards. To move the boat to the left you should ask 2 to take bow's blade and row. If you wish to move the boat to the right you should ask 3 to row with 2's blade.
If the steering suddenly stops responding then it is possible that you might have hit something. Stop the boat, reach underneath the shell and remove any twigs or weeds jamming the rudder. If the rudder or fin is bent or broken then make your way back to the boathouse directly (but slowly) and use the crew to help you steer.
In an emergency it does not matter how you steer. Use both the crew and the rudder to ensure that danger is averted.
Finally, a not irrelevant point to steering. You can make a lot of effort to steer with the least effect on balance and speed. However, make sure you get the basics done as well – sit in the middle of the boat, do not move around. Also hold the sides of the boat with your hands to get a better feel and grip in the cox’s seat.
As a cox you will use speech for three reasons – to give instructions and commands about what needs to be done, motivate your rowers and finally coach from within the boat. This section has been split into three parts:
These are of different nature – before you start rowing, during rowing and stopping and manoeuvring the boat.
Before the crew begins to row the following sequence is used:
- To whom are you giving the instruction?
- Full crew, Bowside, Strokeside, Bow four, stern pair, 2 etc.
- Where in the stroke do they start?
- Backstops, Frontstops, Arms away etc.
- Any other information required. This can often be omitted.
- Pressure, rating, amount of slide, square blades/feather blades
- When giving commands on pressure you can have the following - Race pressure, Firm pressure, Three-quarters pressure, Half pressure, Quarter pressure, Light pressure.
- You can also specify the length of stroke - Full slide, Three-quarters slide, Half slide, Quarter slide, Bodyswing (Arms and body), Arms only
- "Ready?" You must then pause in case someone is not ready.
During the course of rowing
- Warn the crew that you are about to give a command. You can warn the crew either by saying "Next stroke" at the catch or count down until the change such as “in (3) – 2 – 1 – Go”. The first approach is better for simple changes because it takes less long to execute. The second is preferable for changes which take longer to instigate like increasing the rating to race pace.
- State your command at the next catch. If the command is a long one do not be afraid to say it over the course of two strokes.
- Finally, you must decide whether you expect your crew to make the change during the drive phase or during the recovery. If you expect the change to be made during the drive phase then say "go" at the finish after you have given your instruction. If you expect the change to be made during the recovery then say "go" at the next catch. This gives the rowers the opportunity to react. It is very important to understand the crucial role of right timing of calls early on.
Examples of different types of calls:
Calls used when not all rowers are rowing - "Bow pair in" instructs Bow and 2 to begin rowing. This is used when some of the crew are already rowing so it is inappropriate to use the full set of commands."5 and 6 out" instructs 5 and 6 to stop rowing. This is used when other members of the crew are to continue rowing so ‘easy’ would be inappropriate. You would combine these two if you want to ‘roll’ the pairs/fours/sixes ie. “Bowpair out, 3 and 4 in”.
Commands on rate - "Wind it up to 28" or "wind it up to race rating" is used to increase the rating, usually these are followed with a number of strokes you want the rate shift to happen “wind to 28 over 5”. "Wind it down" is used decrease the rate to a comfortable level (the precise rating is chosen by Stroke)."Up 2" and "Down 2" are used to change the rate precisely. When calling for changes in the rating or the pressure you should explain to the crew how you wish them to make the change (e.g. "up to firm pressure on the legs", or "rating up 2 by speeding up the hands" etc.). There is a call of a combination of both which will change the ratio (referring to the time spent on the drive to time spent on the recovery) – “up one (on the drive) down on (on the slide)”.
This list of commands is by no means comprehensive. These are basic but many technical drills and exercised will warrant you to use many more. For example - Roll-up (“From backstops doing a roll-up – ready -go), Pauses (On the next one -Pausing at arms away/bodies over/quarter slide on every stroke/every second stroke – ready – Go!), tapping (backstops/fronstops tapping – ready – go).
Stopping and manoeuvring
"Next stroke" at the catch then begin the word "Easy" at the next catch. Hold the word on for the duration of the stroke and at the finish say "Oar/There". The rowers will stop rowing and sit with their blades off the water. "Drop" tells the rowers that they can rest their blades on the water. The boat takes some time to come to rest. If you want to brake the movement of the boat, say "take the run off". The crew will angle their blades at 45 degrees to the water with the lower edge of the spoon in the water and raise the blade handle.
Alternatively you can use "Hold her up" to stop the boat immediately. This command should be used when you need to stop suddenly. You do not need to warn the crew before using this command. If you have any warning of the need to stop you should use "easy oar". On the command "hold her up", the whole crew will stop rowing and place their blades in the water feathered. They will then square their blades in the water causing a rapid deceleration of the boat. "Hold her hard" conveys an even greater sense of urgency. Remember that these are emergency commands and should not be used unless absolutely necessary.
If your crew is working hard they will leap on anything you say which appears as though you are asking them to stop. Be aware that "squeeze" can sound like "easy" and "overlap" can sound like "hold it up".
To manoeuvre the boat (read the section on steering along with this) - "Take a stroke" asks for a stroke at full slide. "Tap it" asks for a stroke at half-slide. "Touch it" asks for a stroke at arms-only. "Back it down" instructs a rower to sit at backstops, turn their blade so that spoon faces the bows, bury the spoon and move up the slide, moving the boat backwards.
There is very little to be said about motivation. You will learn how to get the best out of your crew over the course of your outings. What works for one crew will not necessarily work for another.
You must be encouraging but also critical. If you feel someone is not putting in as much power as you have instructed then you must tell them. Sometimes the crew will be trying as hard as they can but are being ineffective because they are too tense. If this is the case then being aggressive makes matters worse. Sometimes it is more important to calm a crew down and relax them rather than try to get them to work harder.
It is important that you are motivated yourself. The crew will not respond to your demands unless you are also dedicated.
Initially you will find coaching pretty hard. Don't worry - it does get easier with practice. The only way to learn is to listen to what the coach says and to try and identify the symptoms of the error being coached. Then, when you think you understand the coaching point, you should coach it yourself when you next observe the error. Try to find different ways of conveying the same message. The rower might respond better to a new way of thinking about the same thing.
The three areas of mistakes you will be able to identify early on- timing, blade depth during drive and handle height during recovery. Timing refers to the ability of the crew to get their blades in and out together. If somebody’s blade is not in the water when others’ are tell them specifically – “3 you are late at the catch”. With more experience you will be able to identify why exactly this is the case and you could also call “3 slow it down on the slide” as well. After all the blades are in at the same time you can observe the depth. Only the spoon (the painted part) and very little of the loom should be buried. If somebody has even part of the loom (the grey bit) in the water it is wrong and you should tell them “6 you are digging”. Again you will with time know why this is the case to call for example “Keep your body locked in” to remedy the mistake. Finally handle heights on the recovery are very crucial for the balance of the boat on the recovery. The hands should go level and the blades should be close to the water without touching it. If somebody keeps their hands too low the blade will go in up the air ‘skying’ or if the blade is catching the water on the way forward the hand heights are too high. If you see somebody erring in this tell them “bow you are skying, hold your hands higher on the recovery”. Overall these are three categories of flaws you can see from the cox’s seat and you can work towards fixing.
If more than one rower is suffering from a particular fault it is often worth making the point to the whole crew. They will then all focus on the same part of the stroke and will keep them focused when you make points to other rowers individually.
Sometimes you can tell from the way the boat feels that the crew are making an error even if you cannot see it. Try to learn what these feelings mean and how to correct the fault which causes them. In a race there will be no coach so you have to be able to recognise as many errors as possible.
As you get better you will identify many faults at once. However, it will be impossible for a rower to correct them all simultaneously so you should choose one or two to focus on. If the coach is working on one part of the stroke you should not try to correct a completely different error at the same time because it will lead to confusion.
If you have an outing without a coach then you must concentrate more on trying to coach the crew yourself. Clearly you can only work on technical points which you can feel or see clearly. In the absence of a coach it is important that you assert your authority - you must not let the crew act like a committee!
When coaching and fixing problems make sure you always give feedback to your rowers. You should ideally always follow the cycle where you give a technical focus or call for a change, wait for a few strokes, give feedback and either urge for more improvement or encourage the good change. For example “the balance is off at the finish. Let’s fix this by getting the finish timing together for the next 15 strokes. Extract together – in 1 – Go!… This feels much better. Good balance at the finish. Hold the change there. / The balance is still off. Let’s keep working on it.” As this example shows the remedy to the problem may not be the right one – the balance can be off because of bad posture at the finish, wrong power application during the drive etc. so make sure you keep trying to fix the problem and when improvement comes let the crew know!
It is of crucial importance for coaching to be familiar with correct rowing technique. For that read the guidance material on our website in the novices section. There is a lot of literature on it and there is a concise summary of the right technique as an appendix you can view upon logging in.
A few general tips when coxing:
- You should be succinct. Use only as many words as are necessary to be clear.
- Do not bombard the crew with information. Say only what you need to say.
- Make sure your speech is clear and audible.
- You are giving instructions not requests - speak with authority.
- Do not interrupt the coach except where necessary to manoeuvre the boat.
- Vary your tone of voice to keep the rowers concentrating. Monotone is dull.
- Speak in time with the stroke. It reinforces the rhythm.
- Always remain positive and enthusiastic.
- Do not be afraid of silence. Allow the crew time to think about your instructions. Just because you have a microphone it does not mean you have to speak constantly. If you do, the crew will end up regarding you as background noise and their concentration will wander.
Apart from their first couple of outings as a novice, the cox has absolute authority over the crew and is responsible for their safety as well as the boat itself. If the coach or the crew want you to change the way you cox then they can discuss it with you after the outing. During the outing the instructions of the cox are to be followed without discussion or argument. This may seem intimidating but do not let it put you off. You will receive constant guidance and advice from your coaches, and senior coxes will always be willing to help you if you ask. It is important to emphasise that, although a cox is in charge during the outing, he/she must be willing to accept criticism and advice afterwards. At the end of each outing, you should discuss with your coach any queries which have arisen during the outing and you should ask your crew for their feedback. Do not worry if things go wrong and you forget what to say or how to steer. The crew will help you and will understand that there is a lot to learn.