Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Its good to talk: even in the boat!

by Sarah Gosling

Last summer I was asked to cox a crew I didn't know very well.

After a truly epic first 3/4 of the race (including an amazing turn thanks to a good call from the number 5 rower), the final leg saw 3 boats battling it out for 3rd place.

As they raced neck and neck, all ‘guns’ blazing, it became apparent that the men in the other gigs were getting tired. I thought my guys must be too, but then as I say, I didn’t know them very well. Maybe 60 strokes before the end, I heard a grunt from the bow which was swiftly echoed by the stroke pair. To my surprise the call was to take the rate up!  

These guys were FIT (in an aerobic sort of way, obviously). Up went the rate, and the boat just flew. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a gig accelerate quite like that- it was hugely exciting.
Now I know you want me to report that we went ahead and won the race. We didn’t. We lost to the others by just a fisherman’s whisker, but that’s not the point. The point is that there is a lesson to be learnt from my tale. The stroke pair, and indeed the bow rower, knew their crew better than I did. They could sense the flow of the boat and the power of the rowers behind them far more easily than I was able to from the cox’s seat. And had I not listened to the crew in that race (had I kept the rate the same) we would not have had such an incredible finish (or 3rd mark- best turn ever!).  

As a new rower I was often told by coxes that there should be no talking in the boat… “If you can talk then you are not rowing hard enough”; “the cox is in charge- they make the decisions” etc. etc.  To be honest, those of you who know how chatty I am will probably agree that the coxes were right to shut me up! 

But now I am a cox. And it has struck me since that wonderful race last summer that a well-timed call from the boat, or a little bit of chat between the stroke rower and their cox can change a race completely- and for the better! 

And so I have come up with some examples of moments when- in training as well as racing- a bit of communication might go a long way. These are only based on my personal experiences in the boat, but it’s always good to try new things, and who knows- you might find that communication with the crew works for you too!

Hitting the ‘Sweet spot’

It can sometimes look to the cox as if the crew is rowing well. Everyone is doing the same thing, and the timing is great. But is it comfortable? If the stroke rower is not comfortable, then it is likely the crew isn’t either, but the cox can’t always tell this. Only the crew can feel if the stroke is working for them.

This is the perfect opportunity for some practice at communication with your stroke pair. Ask them to let you know each time the boat feels smooth- when they hit that lovely ‘sweet spot’ where everything feels suddenly easy. Just a quick muttered ‘yes’ will suffice. Play with the power, length and rate (especially on the returns) until they can tell you honestly that it feels right.

This makes for quite a nice ‘sandwich filling’ for a training session. Start on a low power, and only take the power up once the sweet spot has been hit for over 20 strokes. It keeps the crew switched on, allows the stroke rower to relax and feel the boat, and gives everyone a chance to practice their controlled returns.

Communication of this type with your stroke rower during a race can also be hugely helpful- especially longer races like Holland and the GRR where an uncomfortable, laboured stroke can really take its toll.

‘Going up’

I have often found that upping the rate at the end of a row does not necessarily translate to moving the boat faster through the water. If it is at the expense of power and length, there is just no point.

In races, and in racing finishes in the harbour, let your crew tell you when they want to increase the stroke rate, if at all. This is a bit controversial as some crews might not want reach another level of pain by choice. Others might feel like they want to up the rate, but may not have the power to do so. You will have to judge this. But if, like me in the amazing summer race, your crew is up for it and you trust they know themselves well enough, they will be able to tell you if they have the energy, power and grit to go faster. Explain you are nearing the finish- tell them they have 80 strokes to go- and let them tell you when they want to go up.

Race calls from the crew

During the race there are a number of other calls which might help the smooth running of the gig. The number 4 rower may need to make the odd call for length. The bow rower will often ask for a more relaxed return. And the stroke will be able to feel if the boat becomes heavy (i.e the power has dropped), or they are being rushed.

With the correct amount of communication with the crew, the cox can make the right calls at the right time- if more length is needed, call for more reach, or shoulders back; relaxed returns can come from a call for ratio rowing; and a heavy boat can be lifted with some ‘gentle’ encouragement of 1-4.

Rowers should not be afraid to let their cox know if they are having a particularly bad time of it- especially if they are fully aware of what would make it better for them. Encourage them to speak up!

A (tiny) bit of enthusiasm goes a long way

This is another point of contention because some people hate it. However, many rowers love a bit of grunting, cussing and shouts of “let’s go” or “come on then” when they’re really giving it some.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a fine line between the odd shout of enthusiasm which takes the whole crew up to another level, and annoying noises which take everyone out of the zone. This is something the cox must judge (and in this case it is often helpful if you know the crew you’re coxing). In my experience, the sudden shout of power and excitement from a number 3 when I’m in stroke gives me renewed energy and faith that the crew behind me are pushing themselves as hard as I am. A silent boat can sometimes feel tired, painful and monotonous.

As a cox, that emission of enthusiasm allows me to know that the crew is up for it. I can push them to row harder because I know they want to push themselves.

Of course at all other times, rowers should be switched on, silent and doing EXACTLY what their cox asks of them. I am in no way advocating the addition of constant shouts from the bow of ‘take the rate up’, or a running commentary on how the boat feels from the stroke rower. There is a time and a place for communication from the crew. But if you get it right, I think it can be magic. 

By Sarah G

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree: and the relationship between stroke and cox is perhaps the most important as the stroke can really feel what's going on in the boat. As long as the feedback is constructive (e.g. 'let's go for 20 off the feet' rather than 'the crew are flagging') then this could really add to squeezing the most out of a boat, Sara B.