syl·la·ble

/ˈsiləb(ə)l/

noun

  1. a unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or a part of a word; e.g., there are two syllables in water and three in inferno.

A unit of pronunciation having one vowel sound, with or without surrounding consonants, forming the whole or part of a word; e.g there are two syllables in water and three in inferno. 

Now that syllable has been defined (Thank you Google!) let’s talk about them.

Rowing and racing, specifically, hurts…a lot! In a sprint race, our athletes are through their glucose reserves in a matter of seconds leaving them to rely on oxygen for power down the course. If they’re well trained it will be a few minutes before the lactic acid starts to pool in their muscles and begins to burn. By then their systems will be producing more lactate than they can efficiently process, so the pain won’t let up until long after the finish line. Someplace in the third 500, many rowers enter oxygen deprivation because their muscles are screaming for more fuel and their bodies have responded by prioritizing their muscles’ demands over their brains. Vision gets a little fuzzy.  Hearing and thoughts are scrambled. In the final strokes of a race our rowers’ brains will be rattling around the darkest depths of the pain cave and in these moments – more than any other – the coxswain’s words must be clear and succinct. Every syllable counts!

Is your heart rate up after reading that paragraph? Mine was when I wrote it. Let us rewind to before that race, even before that regatta weekend. Rewind all the way back to a month earlier on a long and low steady state day. When I was in college long and low Saturdays were two by forty minutes and included a Gatorade station on the dock. I loved those days! Steady state gave me time to really think about what I was saying, really dissect the value of each call, and really really select my syllables. 

Long and low pieces do not require much coxing, so they are the perfect time for coxswains of all skill levels to think about their calls and how to execute them perfectly. Much like a rower putting a blade in the water – if we can’t do it right at an 18, race pace is going to be a hot mess. So, let’s practice. 

The anatomy of a well-executed call has three major elements:

  • Timing – Did you say it at the right time? If you said “Lock; Together” through the drive, you missed, but “Send; Together” would be great. 
  • Relevance – Did your call add or subtract from the crew’s collective energy, effort and focus? If you said “five minutes down” five minutes into a 20 or 30-minute piece you subtracted. Don’t laugh, I’ve heard that call made!
  • Efficiency – Did you make your call in the shortest, pithiest and purest possible way?  

Those three elements should be familiar to you if you’ve read the piece The F-Word which closes with “Take time and think: What is the best way to say this? How clear can I make it, and How will this call impact the rowers?” This lesson is written to expand on those thoughts.  

First, Timing. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but should be easier to hone than your relevance and efficiency. Personally, I spent most of 2008 bumbling my way through rotating pairs during complex drills, much to the chagrin of the US National Team Lightweight Eight….so don’t get down on yourself if this takes a while. Good timing requires not only an understanding of the rowing stroke and its respective parts but what each rower is doing. Good timing also requires a clear understanding of what you are going to say, when that call will begin, when it will end, and what will happen during the call. Think of your timing like the wind-mill putt at a mini golf course – you’ve got to get the timing just right and everything around it is a factor. 

Because examples of poor timing are limitless, below is one simple example of a call well timed:

While rotating through pairs:

  • “On my call switch 3 and 4 in; (and) stern pair out”
    • When: On the recovery before the blade goes in the water
  • “On this finish”
    • When: Through the drive, as stroke approaches finish
  • “Switch. Sternpairout
    • When: At the finish
      • “Stern pair out” is mushed together and italicized as it’s a bit of a throw away that should be said quickly, if at all, and will vary significantly based on context 

Switching pairs is a simple task all coxswains call every row. Giving thought to where (in the rowing stroke) the transition happens, and building your call around not just conveying information BUT also on facilitating the execution of that information will improve the call as well as give you a great building block to hone your timing.     

Second is Relevance, which should be approached as constantly evolving. What is relevant can change meter-by-meter, never mind throughout a week or a season. There are no evergreen examples I can present here. Just because a call’s relevance is an amorphous target, don’t worry – there are things you can do to sharpen this skill and hit the targets when you spot them. Through most of my competitive years I kept a daily coxing journal. A lot of coaches encourage coxswains to keep a journal, and I do too, but for a slightly different reason. Every day I would not only write down notes about my coxing but I would write down everything about every rower (in my boat) that I could remember. I would write pages of notes on my boatmates so when it came time to race I could look at the previous week and arm myself with calls as if our coach had scripted them himself.        

Another great way to improve the relevance of your calls is to simply ask your rowers. It’s not uncommon for rowers to tell coxswains what they want, but have you ever taken time off the water and ask each of your boatmates what they like to hear? Some rowers hate being called by the seat number, and others love it. Some rowers need to hear their name and others want calls related to team spirit. As a master’s coxswain I have a regular boatmate who wants to hear “Do it for your kids” at least once per race. You will be shocked at what you learn by asking rowers what they want to hear and how they want it delivered. 

Just as rowers work to blend their strokes into one matched motion, coxswains should study information about individual rowers and strive to balance the wants of each member of the crew. 

I once had a coach describe coxswains as needing to be a “Lighthouse” or “Beacon.” A powerful light of positivity illuminating the night, guiding the lost, and never wavering. For a coxswain’s calls to be relevant they need to be grounded in the reality of the moment.  But it is equally important to never lose sight of the bigger picture. Imagine your crew has had a rocket of a start in a sprint race, are leading at 500 meters, and swinging along well.  Your gut may tell you to tell your crew, “Good swing, good speed, we’re ahead!” By all measurements that is not a bad call, and it may have been the right one for your boat.  But was it distracting? Is this race a heat where you were instructed to shut it down at 1,000 but 600 meters in your rowers think the job is done so they back off? Oh yeah, that has happened to me! Maybe all week your crew worked on being internal, really keeping it in the gunwales and staying “in the shoot”.  If so, you just blew it. When you lose track of the big picture and don’t take the time to ask yourself, “Will this call add or subtract from the crew’s collective energy, effort and focus?”, you have lost the big picture and are no longer relevant.

Being a beacon for your crew is more than remembering the big picture. It is also always being positive and never quitting on your boat. One of the hardest things a coxswain can do is cox on an off-rowing day and believe me everyone has them. While the cox is the brain, eyes, ears, and voice of the crew, the rowers are the ones who move the shell, and some days are just off. Every season, every team sees slow spells that are frequently related to things like changes in schoolwork (studying for midterms) or fatigue after a big regatta. Not every day is going to be perfect, and many will be downright awful – awful to row and awful to cox. 

The coach may move some rowers around, yell at the coxens, re-rig the boat, trying three kids at stroke, all to get the spark back in the crew.  When this happens, it is important to remember we, coxswains, do not row! Bad rowing is not a cox’s fault – bad coxing is. Bad rowing, just like good rowing and spectacular rowing, is the product of the rowers and when crews go through rough periods, they need a beacon. A relevant coxswain has a memory longer than a rowers and remembers that the present is not the future. Whether your boat is hit by a stiff puff of wind that knocks you off your rhythm, or is slogging through a crap week, be the positive person in the boat and give your crew the information they need to identify a problem, address it and improve together.           

The third and final element of a well-executed call is efficiency. Of the three elements of a well-executed call, I do not think any are particularly easy to master, but due to the lack of tolerance for error I believe this one is the hardest. Efficiency in coxing is becoming tactical. It is swapping a scalpel for a chainsaw, a hand grenade for a three-ton bomb. You are taking the total impact of a thought and condensing it into a very small package. When I coach coxswains, I give them a simple goal that is very hard to achieve: “Say everything in four syllables or less.”  Note, I didn’t say four words or less.  I said syllables. And unless they are telling the crew what piece they are going to do, or way-nuff and spin, I’ll be counting. Because this is literally the “what to say” part of the article, here is a real example:

Coach has been on the six seat, Gavin, all week about slouching especially near the end of a piece as he gets tired. You’ve noted this in your journal, you’ve heard coach call him out, and you’re in the last piece of the day. Coach is ahead of you, trying to keep the JV from getting passed (by you) too soon and you see six seat’s puddle has gotten a little smaller – he’s slouching (again). Gavin is a funny guy, always in a good mood, so all of your relevancy thoughts should be to go positive with this call and not chastise him. Remember, you need to give him information without distracting the crew or taking away from the focus and speed of the last piece. What do you say?

Take your time and think about the answer. This is something you will need to do with every call you make before it becomes second nature. 

To remind Gavin to sit up in our scenario I would go with: “Yea, Gav. Tall!”  Now, I have the advantage of knowing Gavin for nearly twenty years so I know a faux-positive call that sounds like I am cheering him on will have the most impact on him. I have taken a week (or more) of coach’s yelling and boiled it down to three syllables.

  • When? The call was said halfway through the drive (giving the “Yea” double meaning and landing the “tall” on the finish) 
  • How? The call was relevant to the rower’s personality, technical needs, and the overall positive energy of the crew

My three syllables hit all three parts of a well-executed call.

While difficult and sometimes impossible, fitting complex thoughts into concentrated bundles of syllables should be a constant goal. If the information you need to convey is too complex to distill – like a rating shift, a sprint, or some other important update – make sure to keep your focus on limiting additional words and using bundles of syllables spaced with small beats of silence to form a longer train of thought. Here is an example that is very common at the Head of The Charles:

If you’ve coxed the Head of The Charles you know going through Weeks takes a lot of speed off the hull and getting moving again is critical. Because Weeks is very distracting, and typically a point of anxiety for a crew, letting them know it has passed and went well (assuming it did) is good, but you also need to regain their attention and the splits back down. A long call or string of words is going to blend into the noise of the crowd, and adrenaline will have removed any or all of your rowers’ attention span.  By using only five syllables (two two’s and a one) you’ve refocused the crew and brought the speed back up. Mixed calls like this are very common, and are best matched with a change in tone, or inflection to emphasize the different parts and create a contrast that will capture the crew’s attention and highlight important information. 

If you have finished this and feel like it’s the tip of an iceberg or a rabbit hole into rebuilding every call you make, that’s okay because it is meant to be both. As stated in our introduction to the coxen library, Rower Academy’s goal is to guide you to asking new questions and exploring more about this unique position. Unlike the technical nature of the rowing stroke, or the mechanics of the swing needed to hit a baseball out of Yankee stadium, coxing cannot really be taught. No boat, no crew, no race, no day is ever the same as any other across the world, and even though you can’t teach coxing from a book, like math or science, it can definitely be learned by those who choose to study it.  

If you have recordings of your coxing, I encourage you to listen to them and write down more efficient ways to make your calls, where in the stroke you would want to make those calls, and note places where a change in tone could have been used to improve impact. The next piece, The Rower Whisperer, takes the three principles of a well-executed call along with points from The Square and The F Word to create a deep dive into blending sounds and inflection into your syllables that create layers of information the rowers may not even notice they are processing.