How to Cox Your First Head Race
This is not an article about how to win your first head race. This is an article about staying calm and in control so you can actually enjoy your first head race. Right about now you're probably freaking the hell out. THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL. A head race puts a lot of pressure on coxswains – it's not every day that we have to keep our team in race mode for 16 - 20 minutes straight. Last October I tackled my first 4000m with my Masters 8 Rec team. I was beyond nervous, yet it turned out to be our best row ever together. For all those novice coxswains out there, I'll share with you what kept me and my crew focused.
Before Your Head Race
1) Ask your coach questions. Do this BEFORE the regatta. Is it a rolling start? (Where you paddle up to the starting line and have rating when you cross it.) What should you have on your person? (Extra coxbox batteries, wrenches.) Also don't miss the coach and coxswain meeting at the beginning of the day. Any critical information or changes will be communicated at that time.
2) Know your race plan. Your coach may have a plan for you. If so, follow it. If not, talk to your crew. At our team meeting the morning of the race, I described an idea that seemed right for our level of experience (Be conservative until we found a good rhythm. Take one or two power 10's to try out rating bumps and then switch into a higher SPM if we handled those well. 250m sprint to the finish). The crew helped edit that plan, suggesting when we might try our power 10's and what SPM range they were comfortable with.
3) Ask your crew what calls they want to hear. Have some ready (and written down) but also listen to your rowers. If someone wants to hear how many minutes into the piece we are, work that call in. That one call could make the difference between a rower finding that extra strength or conserving their energy. I wrote down the calls my crew wanted to hear, and also told them what they might hear from me.
4) Be as ready as you can be. The night before I googled head races. I listened to coxswain recording after coxswain recording. (Check out Ready All Row's great list here). I wrote down the calls I liked. I thought about my particular line up, what they need to work on, and what calls might help. Because we were having trouble with ratio in practice, I liked how coxswain Pete Cipollone coxes his record breaking 1997 Head of the Charles race. Listen to how he keeps a strong rhythm with his voice. I also love how he communicates with his team, letting them know in advance that a turn is coming and which side needs to be ready. I used both techniques during my race, and our turns were neat and efficient, and our control up the slide better than it'd ever been.
5) Study the race course. You do not want to be surprised by a hairpin turn. You will get a map of the course in your packet, but try to find it online beforehand so you can internalize it before those day-of jitters set in.
6) Talk to the veterans. Find a cox from your club who's done this course before. Or even a nice one from another team. Ask them about the stuff you can't see on any map. Any hidden surprises? My course has a sharp turn into a blind spot where a boat is always docked. Even in practice it sneaks up on me, so I was happy to tell another cox how to avoid it.
7) Communicate everything. A regatta is crazy town compared to regular practice. Make sure you tell your crew what to expect — from exactly when they must be ready to launch to what happens at the starting line. Chances are this is their first time too and they're just as nervous as you. It's your job to project calmness (even if you want to barf). The more in control you seem, the more knowledge you share, the calmer everyone will be on the water.
On The Water And During Your Race
1) Keep the warm up light. It's important to keep the row to the starting line as normal as possible. As the cox, your brain should be absorbing information like crazy that will help you during the race (bridges, sharp corners, how each rower is doing) but to the rowers, this should feel like your average by sixes warm up. At this point their adrenaline is pumping but this is not the place to spend it. The last 1000 meters we went all 8 but stayed long and relaxed, and I tried out a few of the new calls I'd be making.
2) Follow your plan. You communicated the plan with your team for a reason. Now they are trusting and counting on it and any deviations could throw them off. Avoid deviating unless it's for...
3) Safety! No win is worth putting your team in danger for even a second. If you're not sure you'll make a turn while passing another crew, don't go for it. Every 30 seconds try to look over your shoulder to look for approaching boats. You can also work with your stroke seat to have them keep an eye out and alert you if someone is coming up fast behind you.
4) Recognize your crew. Break up your calls by cheering on seats by name. A well placed "Looking strong Kathie! Get 'em Ellen!" is a great way to get focus back in the boat and and motivate people to reach deep for a burst of strength.
5) Commit. By the end of the race your crew will be exhausted. Before we sprinted at the last 250m, I called a "Commitment 10" to get everyone prepped for the big push to the finish. This wasn't for power, it was for tapping into that reserve of mental toughness. I don't remember the exact words, but the gist of my spiel was that this "Rec" team was going to surprise everyone with our strength. "ONE Rec Team TWO Is the best! THREE Let's show them" And so on.
And Most Importantly...
Enjoy yourself! Try not to let nerves get to you, and appreciate this chance to be out there on the water with your team.
Photo Credit: Joakim Backstrom