5 Questions for Coxing an Ergo 2k

In February, the love/hate relationship with the ergo takes center stage. In Boston, rowers will be getting hot and bothered on February 28th in Agganis Arena for the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints. 

For a rower, the training is methodical towards a clear objective. Rowing blogs are rife with preparation regimes for the final weeks of preparation before a 2k test (see U.S. Rowing's latest blog).

A quick skim reveals the cox is rarely, if ever, mentioned. From this (sin of) omission, one could assume that the cox sits on the sidelines. In many ways this is true, the cox plays a supporting role at best. This nebulous job can take the shape of awkward waterboy or strategic supporter depending on how the individual takes ownership of the role.

Before we go any further, perspective is key; the cox is there to lend support within the framework given by the rower and/or coach, and the ultimate goal is to see how a rower mentally and physically handles a race piece. While a cox will not make miracles happen, a 2k is still a valuable opportunity to learn about and bond with his/her rowers during a race. If coxing is expected during these pieces by coaches, it is an opportunity to assess the mindfulness and maturity in racing of the cox during a race. 

Instead of providing a laundry list of to-dos that will make you an epic cox, we created a list of questions whose answers will help you take on this role with confidence. 

1.     What is it like to pull a 2k?

If you don’t know, find out. Even if it is only a two-week training cycle, tackle the traditional test prep workouts, pick a date, and complete the test. After the piece, reflect on how you felt and what you thought about. What information, support would you have wanted? This is the closest way to eliminate the inane, filler yelling that coxes resort to in the heat of the moment. If you want rowers to respect you, respect the challenge they are taking on trying to pull a personal best on an erg by trying it yourself.

2.     Does the coach allow coxing in the pieces?

At Oxford, we were very hands off. A testing day measured the physical capacity of the rowers and put a spotlight on the decisions they make on their own in the midst of a race.

No. Bring your notebook and observe your teammates. How did they approach the piece? In what part of the piece did they falter? Were they able to execute their race plan? This information will be invaluable when you are racing with them on the water.

Yes. Keep reading! 

a.     If you are coxing your clubmates, talk to the coach about asking the rowers to write out a race plan on an index 3x5 card before the test. Keep it simple, splits and focus by 250 or 500. Have the rowers include what they want from you- free reign, only calls from the card, encouragement whenever they need it, or total silence. Make sure you establish this before the announcer calls for rowers to pick up their handles.

b.     If it is a mass erg competition, you have to walk a fine line between getting useful information from the rower (hopefully they prepared a race plan) and letting the rower warm-up properly. Again, you not knowing what they want will not make them slower. You interrupting their warm-up will negatively impact the piece.

3.     What level of involvement do they want from you?

a.     More experienced rowers will be self-sufficient. They will usually require less involvement, and your job is more to help them focus on executing their race plan with bits of encouragement if needed. If you do make any comments, be precise and concise. A good rule of thumb is no more than 1 comment ever 250 meters, until the end of the piece where the rower may want a little more encouragement.

b.     Intermediate rowers may want you a little more involved. Keep them focused on their plan. 

c.     This could be a novice’s first 2k, which can be a scary thing for a young athlete. Keep them calm. As excited as you are the get in on the action while you are not training on the water, step back and remember a novice rower is close to throwing up before the piece has even started. You are there to keep them calm, focused, and confident. 

4.     What is the race plan?

a.     Remember this is all about the rowers, not what you think they must do to hit a certain score. If the rower is a novice, avoid giving or encouraging unsustainable paces. Those glorious ten strokes can cause a miserable last 500.

b.     Follow their plan. Help them focus on setting a sustainable rhythm that will lead them to success. Remind the rower of the goals coming up.

c.     Do not be tempted to impose your own ideas on someone else. If you don’t know what the rower wants then offer general encouragement, not specific targets. They might have a great plan that you don’t know about, and calling out your own ideas will only mess with their minds.

5.     What if there is no race plan?!

0 m : Don’t panic!

0 to 250m : The first high strokes create easy speed. Call a smooth, clean transition to base pace, drawing the athlete away from the seduction of those low early numbers.  This segment contains one of the most important calls for a cox to make in a 2k. First, nailing the transition from high strokes to base pace (whether that happens over 2, over 5, in two steps). It may seem like an obvious call, but remind the rower to breathe about 10 strokes in. It helps.

250- 500m: This segment contains the second must-do call in a 2k. Between 60 and 90 seconds in, the systems will change from anaerobic to aerobic. Remind rowers before the piece starts to look for this transition. You can say something along the lines of, “breathe through these next 5, be brave as the legs/lungs come back." If your rower has done the proper training, they will get right into stride by 2 minutes in. For novice rowers, this can be a really overwhelming moment where they doubt if they have it in them to do the full 2k. Encourage them to have confidence in their training. 

500 m- 1250 m. This is the heart of the piece, keep rower on pace and positive. Again, only contribute what they have asked for. This is a long stretch that requires considerable mental toughness for a rower to choose to do the right work. Remember, your main role is to provide information, and if a call is made, tell them what is going to happen and when they need to do it. 

1500 - 2000m: Get into the sprint with 15-20 strokes focusing on a punishing race rhythm, then add power and acceleration in the subsequent wind. Rowers approach the sprint in many ways- cutting down to 3/4 or 1/2 slide, cutting the layback, moving the hands faster. Unless you know what their plan is, don't impose your view of the best way to sprint. 

Finally, remember in the hoopla that you are a teammate, not a nanny. They are in charge of filling and fetching water bottles, towels, etc.