Marcus McElhenney

Marcus McElhenney Discusses Setting the Right Tone

Coxswain Marcus McElhenney shares how to set the right tone to gain a competitive advantage

What do you do to warm up/pump up your rowers before a race? I know that the tone the coxswain sets is important, so how do I set the right tone?
– Jenny

This is a great question and something many coxswains overlook. Most do not realize what a competitive edge they can achieve by establishing the right tone before the race even begins.
I assume that you mean during the warm up or right before the race?! But to give this question the proper credit and attention, we need to take one step back. First we need to make sure we are establishing the proper tone during practice and all year long. This is important because if you are not establishing the proper tone all year long then it does not matter what you do on race day.
“We need to make sure we are establishing the proper tone during practice and all year long. This is important because if you are not establishing the proper tone all year long, then it does not matter what you do on race day.” – Marcus McElhenney Click to Tweet

So I have a few ideas for you. First, know what the workout is and know what kind of tone you want to set for that workout. If it is a side-by-side race day practice then you obviously want to be a little more serious and aggressive. If it is a skill and drill row, you can be a little less aggressive, but still make sure you are carrying an air diligence to your boat work so that you make the changes the coach wants.

This tone should start as soon as you lay hands on the boat. It can be disconcerting to rowers if you are goofing off on a dock right before you are about to shove and race the varsity eight. On the flip side, if you are too serious on a steady state row then your athletes will tune you out and just be annoyed. What it boils down to is that if you can effectively set the tone, and varying types of tone, during practice then you will be able to do it on race day.

So let us get to the fun part of your question. Pumping my rowers up is one of my absolute favorite things to do as a coxswain. I believe that all rowers have some unlocked potential that is just waiting to be unleashed, and you only have to let them. 

 There are a few things I almost always establish before a race. The first is that we have nothing to lose. If we are the favorites, then we should win. We have already earned the reputation and we need only to show it to ourselves. We are not there to prove anything to anyone else but ourselves. If we are the underdogs, then we are not expected to win and again we are only there to prove to ourselves that we can be the best. No matter what the situation you can turn it into a pursuit of self determination and reliance on each other. This allows you to take away any feeling of nervousness, or if there is nervousness…to channel that energy into a positive medium. 

 Then comes the most fun part. Once the athletes are properly disarmed about worrying about the other guys, and the proper attention is on themselves you can start pumping them up. “Remember all those 5:45am practices this year? No one else here has done that? Remember doing stadiums every Saturday for eight months? No one else works that hard? You are tougher then everyone else out here. You may not row the best, but you will row the hardest! Let them row pretty and look real good as the bobble around in our wake!” I think you get the idea. 

 You make it about them showing themselves just how hard they have worked and how far they have come. You highlight the effort, energy and toil they suffered. And for what? So that they can prove to themselves just how hard they worked…that they can be better than anyone else.

I will leave you with a recent example. This past summer at the World Championship in Poznan, Poland, we were out manned and out gunned. The Czech boat had guys that were stronger, had more experience and were better rowers. One guy had more experience that our entire boat put together. But I did not care, and neither did my athletes. It was not about the Czechs, it was about us. 

Marcus McElhenney at Poznan

So the night before our race I told my guys, “I do not want it pretty and no, I do not want it perfect. I have never won a race that was either pretty or perfect. I just want a hard race. When the gun goes off we come out of the blocks hard. When we stride, we stride hard. At the half way point, we hit it harder. And when we have 500 meters to go, we are going to go harder still. I do not want it pretty, I do not want it perfect, I want it hard. Remember all the hard work you did all year. Put that entire year into this one two thousand meter race. If we do that, we will win. ”

You know what happened? Well we went hard, and I am sure you can imagine where we finished! (Thanks again Henrick and Troy.) 

So, Jenny, establish the tone you want to set early. Then turn it inward and get creative.

-Marcus McElhenney

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.

Marcus McElhenney

Marcus McElhenney
Marcus McElhenney began coxing in 1997 at Monsignor Bonner High School and started his international coxing career with a silver medal in the M8+ at the 2001 Nation’s Cup. His career highlights include a gold medal in the M8+ from the 2005 World Rowing Championships and a bronze medal in the M8+ from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Longest Odds Inside the Olympic Journey

The Longest Odds

Go behind the scenes of the Olympic Journey with The Longest Odds, a photo-documentary that goes inside the Beijing and London Olympic journey of the US Olympic rowing team. 

This book illustrates what you do not see on television – it’s a raw look at what athletes go through during their years-long journeys much before anything appears on television.

The Longest Odds allows us to see those highs and lows, the conflicts, joy, exhaustion, elation, fear – and most of all, the bonds of friendship being indelibly forged.

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