Pete Cipollone coxing

Pete Cipollone Shares How to Avoid Being “Noise”

Olympic gold medal coxswain Pete Cipollone shares coxswain tips on how to avoid rowers tuning you out.

How do you make sure that you are on everyday at practices and races without being repetitive? What do you to make sure that the rowers are really responding to your calls and are engaged in what you are saying? –Lisa

All that concerns me is keeping a straight line and not crashing. However, in masters clubs some crews want a life coach on the boat so how do you keep them motivated without becoming “white noise”? –g

In keeping with our statures, here are some “short” answers:

1. Use humor to create mental breaks and increase focus
2. If you do not have something useful to say, silence is perfectly acceptable
3. Spend more time listening, observing and diagnosing

Humor

I think humor is underestimated by almost everyone in our sport and underused by coxswains. We are so determined to prove our value and show we are all business that we forget having fun is why people do sports. Rowers are a pretty self-motivated bunch. I mean, really, who else gets up at 4:30AM for one last row before the lake freezes?

Silence

When all this focus and intensity bleeds over into physical and psychological tension, people stop improving. That is another reason people row: to challenge themselves and advance their skills. A cox who can recognize when the crew has crossed this line has a golden opportunity to prove his or her worth. When someone’s head is about to explode, ride it out to the next break in the action, and then tell a quick joke or a funny story. Even a few seconds’ mental break can have a great effect for getting your athletes fresh and back into the game, ready to start getting faster again. On certain occasions, I have even told extended stories while we were doing long steady state pieces. It is the on-water equivalent of watching a movie while erging. Just make sure you have some good jokes, stories and anecdotes at the ready. And try to keep it rated-G just in case there are family members in the launch.

I know it is obvious, but a great alternative to talking is silence. Much to our chagrin, coxless boats from the single to the four have been going fast without us for over a century. Painful, but true.
'If you do not have something useful to say, silence is perfectly acceptable.' - Olympic gold medal coxswain Pete Cipollone Click to Tweet

Listen

Spend time listening to what the coach is saying and observing what the crew is doing. See the blades. Feel the boat run—or check—and then think about how to get more speed with less effort. Here is an example thought process to work through: What is the symptom? (Check at the catch). What is the cause? (Hmm, blades are skying…are the bodies diving into stern? Yes). Then make the call: “Full body pivot over flat knees. Chin up at the catch…ready…on this one.” Doing this properly takes 5-10 strokes to get from symptom to root cause to the call. Diagnosing the problem and matching it to the right call will make you better than 90% of coxswains out there. Anyone can zero in on the cosmetics such as blades skying and make calls get prettier bladework, but the times are still ugly.

If you practice this, you will find yourself making fewer calls but with greater and more immediate impact. Otherwise, you are just filling empty space with noise and training your rowers to tune you out. And of course, remember that steering straight is hard and requires practice. Tell the crew “I am going silent for two minutes to practice going straight.” A lot can happen in two minutes. I am sure you will feel or see something that inspires your next call when it is time to get back on the microphone.

– Pete Cipollone

Enjoy reading this? Read the full collection of coxswain tips.

Interested in taking an even deeper look at how national team athletes train and race? Check out The Longest Odds.

Pete Cipollone
Pete Cipollone was a coxswain for the US National Team from 1997-2004. He joined the team after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, and his career highlights include gold medal wins in the M8+ at the 1997, 1998, and 1999 World Rowing Championships, as well as a gold medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics.

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