I STARTED ROWING BECAUSE…
I’ve always loved being around the river. Some of my earliest memories are of being pushed along in my pushchair over Hammersmith Bridge and seeing the rowers go by below. It was really cool and somewhere in my mind it stuck. Then, at school we had to play sports but during winter that was limited to rowing or rugby. I’m quite small (5ft 4) so rowing was the only one that made sense. I did try rugby but I was rubbish haha. I love rowing though so no loss.
TO THE WATER, SPACE, INFINITY & BEYOND… LET’S DO THIS!
My biggest inspiration is being on the sharp edge of anything and achieving. I love the excitement of experiencing new things and pushing the boundaries of what is (or what people perceive to be) achievable. In rowing, to win the Olympics is the ultimate goal, so to be involved in that and surrounded by people who are aiming for that achievement is a real privilege. My coach at university, Steve Trapmore, was at stroke in the GB8 M8+ that won in the 2000 Olympics. He was a real inspiration early in my career and helped me to get on the road towards the National Team and beyond.
But I think inspiration is everywhere. All around the world people are achieving great things. I love stories about space exploration and things like that... Apollo 13 is incredible. Those guys were stuck in space and were probably going to die out there. It would have been easy to give up, but they said ‘No. We are going to get them back. We’ll find a way’ and, ultimately, there always is a way, even if it’s not the one you might have thought of, or hoped for. It’s very inspiring.
‘We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard… and that’s why it’s worth doing.’ JFK.
ROWING: SERIOUSLY HARD WORK BUT SERIOUSLY FUNNY TOO
The thing that’s surprised me the most is definitely how much joking around happens behind the scenes. Growing up, you watch superstars like [Andrew] Triggs-Hodge or [Pete] Reed - big names in our sport - but when you meet them, they’re really relaxed and joking around. It’s nice to see. When I first met Pete, he was joking about covering me in Nutella and it was like ‘Woooaahh… This guy's my hero and he’s telling me all this stuff’ haha. It was so random. The same with Coach Jürgen Grobler. He’s seen in the media as this really hard taskmaster and he is to some extent but he’s also got this cheeky side to him and he’s always got a glint in his eye. Rowing is quite a serious sport so it’s nice to have that release.
FUNNY STORIES: 'I SAID WHAT?!'
I’m quite a chilled person so I don’t know why this happens to me but I’ve had a lot of fan-boy moments. When, one minute you’re fine and the next you can’t speak. You’re trying to think of something cool to say but you just can’t do it. One time that really sticks in my mind was the first time I met Pete Cipollone – he’s an American cox and an absolute legend of the sport. We were at Henley – it was in 2004, just after he’d won Olympic gold at Athens – and a friend of mine knew he was near by and that I was a massive fan so she said ‘Look, come on, you’ve got to come and meet him.’ I said ‘No, I’m way too nervous’ but she just ignored me and found a way to bring us together. Acting as though this was the most normal thing in the world, she introduced us saying ‘Oh, hi, this is Pete…’ and I just stood there, in an absolute daze, gawping. I managed to say ‘Hiya..’ *thinking ‘I don’t know’* ‘This is Henry’ and Pete replied ‘Really good to meet you. Are you a cox?’ but I just blanked and for some reason said ‘Yes… *thinking ‘mind blank, must fill space’* … I’ve watched, read and listened to everything there is about you.’ As I was saying it, I was thinking ‘What? This is the worst thing to say, like ever’ – ‘Read’ was bad enough but ‘watched, read and listened to!!!’ haha but I couldn’t stop myself. He just looked stunned and said ‘Ooohhh… ummm…’ He didn’t know how to respond and just said ‘It’s so great to inspire people.’ By then I was thinking ‘God, what’s wrong with me?!’ I just had to get out of there as quickly as possible.
‘It’s your ‘I carried a watermelon’ moment from Dirty Dancing’ *smiles* Don’t worry, I think it’s a trend with Team GB… Check out when John Collins met Bradley Wiggins.’
WHAT IS A COX?
A cox’s ultimate goal is to make the boat fast. Not every boat needs one. It’s often the larger boats such as the eight but you can also have coxed fours, pairs, and quads in the younger divisions. With so many teammates, it helps to have someone who monitors the stroke patterns and boat’s movement, and who ensures that everybody is communicating well and rowing efficiently as one. A coxless four or pair can be faster and more agile without one, but they can be slower too!
A cox’s actions can be delivered in several ways, mainly:
1. Steering. You have to ensure that you’re steering the boat straight or in the most competitive space. This is done with handles which I hold. The handles pull on the rudder wires, which are linked to a tiny rudder (half the size of a credit card) that sits under the back of the boat.
2. Verbal directions. What you say and how you say it can have a massive impact on the boat’s speed and motivation. When coxing, the boat has speakers down its sides so you communicate with the team via microphone, telling them tactics, rowing formations and other key information. But it’s not just about the physical aspects of rowing; you need to manage the team’s psychology too, keeping them in a productive and motivated state of mind so that they can work hard, efficiently, and are in the zone to effectively make changes when needed.
TIPS TO BECOME A BETTER COX
Coxing is quite personal – how I coach myself is quite different to how I would coach others because although the basic principles are the same, how different people put them into practice is hugely influenced by individual personalities and learning skills – both their own and of their crew. Here are some tips to help:
1. STAY TRUE TO YOURSELF. Look at what other people do and try to learn from them (i.e. what to do and what not to do) but, ultimately, keep doing what you think is right and what works for your team. When coxing, you need to connect with the boat; your personality comes across and if you’re trying to be someone else, it won’t be right.
2. BE CLEAR THINKING, CONFIDENT AND RESPONSIVE. You never know what the other team will do or how the weather and water will be so it’s important to be able to remain calm and adapt under pressure.
3. WORK ON YOUR LANGUAGE SKILLS. When discussing the front end of the rowing stroke, people often talk about being sharp etc. (even coaches and coxes) but that can be the wrong way to word it and can result in a slower boat. The team does need to be quick but to achieve that they need to be really loose and moving as one. That’s where language plays a huge role in influencing speed and technique. When directed in this way, the team’s technique can become quite heavy but, actually, they need to be as relaxed and loose as possible, whilst strong. If you tell them to be fast, they could become out of sync and that could result in you losing the race.
4. TAKE INSPIRATION FROM EVERWHERE. Coxing has so many facets so you constantly need to be looking and thinking. Sometimes I’ll be sitting watching the news and someone will grab my attention, perhaps a newsreader discussing a parliamentary speech. The way he/she delivers the information will be really clear and, despite just tuning in, I can understand everything that’s happening so I’ll think to myself ‘Maybe I can integrate their speech patterns or delivery style in my coxing.’ Or watching a Formula 1 race, a driver might have performed an interesting maneuver and I’ll think ‘Oh, is that applicable to us?’ so the key is to stick with who you are but see everything in the world as a chance to learn and improve.
5. VIDEO YOURSELF. I carry a little camera with me when coxing; then, afterwards, I’ll listen to what I said and analyze if it’s relevant to what was happening in the boat visually, and how I can improve.
I do a lot of self critiquing behind the scenes, which is slightly weird when you think about it because in the boat you’ve got to be very confident in saying ‘Right, you’re doing this. You’re doing that’ and setting an aura to the team that your decisions are 100% right. But, later on, I want to check: did I deliver that call in the best way I could? Could I have called for something more relevant? etc. You need to be confident and push your decisions forward in the moment to ensure the training / race stays strong but also be open-minded and driven enough to look back and check how you did later on. That’s very important.
… AND, IN THE BOAT, THE BEST TACTICS TO IMPROVE SPEED & EFFICIENCY ARE…
FOR SPEED. Do the physiological and psychological work in training to ensure that the technique is right and transferable to high cadence.
As a cox, I have a lot of influence over the pattern of movement (i.e. the actual technique of the rowing stroke). I need to correct it (i.e. try different ways and find what works best for the team) and then bed it in (i.e. make sure the team is moving routinely and in harmony). Then, during the race, I have to monitor it and ensure it’s still happening in the right way, as well as controlling the pace. For any race, there is only so much energy you have at your crew's disposal. In one race, you might want to distribute your energy evenly down the track; whereas some races are all about holding contact with another boat. If anybody gets away from you, then the race is over so you want to pace yourself but at the same time there are thresholds that you need to be inside of. Learning these before the race means that they’ll become second nature so that, on the day, you can concentrate on the race itself.
FOR EFFICIENCY. Performing drills will help. My favourite one is Legs Only. You build off the front, only using the legs to drive the movement. Your arms and upper-body should remain in the same position. It ticks all the boxes.
BEST ADVICE: MAKE MISTAKES
Learning by trial and error is a pain but it works. There’s no book on how to be a cox so it’s the only way. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s part of the process and, as long as you learn from them, it’s fine; possibly even a good thing. The more mistakes you make and move on from quickly, the faster you’ll improve and get to the stage that it would take someone else 5 years to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, some mistakes sting more than others but by building up that resilience and experience, you’ll learn more and become a stronger and wiser cox (and person!) so it’s worth it.
FAVOURITE INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE
‘We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard… and that’s why it’s worth doing.’ JFK. I really like that outlook. He’s essentially saying that we’re going to do the thing that’s difficult because we think it’s the right thing to do. I love thinking of the President of the United States saying something like that; it’s so optimistic and inspiring.
Henry Fieldman is a British Elite rowing cox and founder of Coxing Consultancy. For more information, visit www.coxingconsultancy.co.uk