May 2, 2014
University Writing W3
CREW, RHYTHM, AND THE ROLE OF A COXSWAIN
In the world of crew, one race can be made or broken based simply on a false stroke or hesitant movement. The most significant element that holds the collective performance of the team together is the rhythm of the strokes. It is critical to the success of the team that everyone is in sync. Amanda Chatupron, the coxswain of boat 8 of the George Washington University Men’s Crew Team, sets this rhythm; it is her sole responsibility to keep it steady and consistent while maximizing the speed of the boat. Obviously the ultimate goal is to win the race, but “as rowers repeatedly emphasize, speed is a function of rhythm.” (De Rond, King) Mark de Rond and Anthony King discuss the implications of the concept of rhythm in crew as a collective performance. Overall, it is clear that achieving solidarity in rhythm is a task that is difficult for the coxswain to achieve, however by incorporating elements of interaction rituals, they are able to do so. This may very well be the most significant factor in determining the success or failure of the boat to win the race.
Many people who are unfamiliar with crew don’t even know what a coxswain is. A coxswain is a member of the team, typically a very small individual, who sits at the back of the boat facing forward. He or she calls out commands which dictate what the rowers do, as well as when and how fast/powerfully they do it. Charles Condro, a student at Yale University, wrote an article for the Yale newspaper explaining the importance of a coxswain. The article reads: “During races, the coxswain must steer the boat, tell the team when to change pace and ensure rowers are in sync.” (Condro) Coxswain Morgan Welch, ‘12, said, “Steering the boat is the most important of a coxswain’s numerous tasks because it is imperative to navigate the shortest possible route to the finish line.” (Condro) Liz Earle, a coxswain for the Yale crew team stated, “[Coxswains] are sort of like the brain of the boat.” (Condro)
So how does Amanda know when she is doing her job? She states, “The sound of the oars in the oarlocks [is the best indicator of the rowers’ strokes being in sync] because when the boat is perfectly set and everyone is moving in sync, you hear the oarlocks click together and its like a locking noise. If you watch a youtube video or recording or a race, you can hear it. It is like music to a coxswain’s ears.”
A youtube clip of one of GW’s top boats beating the Naval Academy does an excellent job at illustrating exactly what Amanda is talking about. The rowers all start out with their oars in the water at exactly the same position. They look to the coxswain to signify that the race is about to begin so they can fall into place. As soon as the boats are given their go signal, the coxswain immediately starts to yell commands. “Drive through, flick, flick,” he says urgently to dictate the movements that the oars need to make. (Sultan Shakir) He calls out the number of each kind of stroke they need to make, for example long strokes, which is a stroke that is “on the outboard of the oar, creat[ing] a large reaction force with the water on the blade and, thus, enabl[ing] the rower to produce his/her best performance on the inboard portion of the oar… [it is] important for high performance and this length is most effective in the early drive phase of the stroke.” (Nolte, Volker) There are four components to a stroke, known as the catch, drive, finish and recovery. These diagrams illustrate “the perfect stroke” and note important things to remember when executing it. (Momentum)
Changes in tone and urgency in the coxswain’s voice can be detected at various parts of the race. If one listens carefully, he or she can hear the clicking of the oarlocks during certain sets of strokes.
It can be observed in this video just how integral a member of the collective performance the coxswain is. Not only does he shout out specific commands, “One, here we go, two, nice and long, three, two more,” “Engage,” “Sharper catches (the part of the stroke where the oar enters the water,” etc., but he also is calling out specific names throughout the process directing team members to keep going strong, slow it down (Sultan Shakir). At the end of the race, the coxswain calls the last 10 strokes “blackout strokes,” which Amanda clarified as meaning that the last few strokes are meant to be the most intense last pushes of the race. Here, the rhythm is everything. This is a term that is commonly but not universally used to refer to these last strokes (Sultan Shakir).
As I sat down with Amanda to interview her, I took note of her George Washington University sweatshirt, athletic headband, and athletic shorts. She certainly looked the part in clothing, as well as stature. At about and 120 lbs., 5’0’’, it is easy to see why she was recommended the role of coxswain when she became interested in crew during her freshman year of high school. When asked to be taken through a typical race day, Amanda responded with a detailed, enthusiastic account. She talked about many pre-race rituals that she and the team engage in during race day. She told me that they usually grab a team breakfast, and then head down to the boathouse about two hours early. They have boat time about one hour and 45 minutes before their race just to get away from parents, friends, etc. “Time to simply focus in on just the boat,” she said.
They stretch out as a boat, trying to keep it casual in the time leading up to the big moment. Amanda described fondly how they usually crack jokes and laugh so that they can get rid of all the stress and nerves that would otherwise be plaguing their bodies and minds. Then they head down to the boat bay, gather in a circle, and she walks them through the race plan, giving some motivation.
“Last week I think I said stuff like, “Treat this race like it is our last one of the season,” “This race is our biggest one so far, this is what we’ve worked towards all season,” “Give it everything, and then more!” Stuff like that. Then we’ll go around, the guys will each say something motivating, and then we do a hands in: ‘GW on 3, 1-2-3 G Dub!’“
At that point, the boys and Amanda launch for their warm-up about 40-45 minutes before the race. Amanda said, “We do some drills, get the rhythm going. I call pauses at the release, which is also called the finish. Its where the oar is hitting them at the body and they’ve just let go of the water so the oar is flat. That helps with getting them moving in and out of the release together. That is key because if their hands move at different speeds, it offsets the boat (which means the boat will tilt to one side or another and the boat slows down). You want the boat to be perfectly set so that keeps them doing the same motion in the same time. Then we do some power 20’s just kind of building up to race rate, so that’s like you can go different stroke rates and the stroke seat usually sets them. That’s all about rhythm.”
Amanda’s testimony here clearly demonstrates the importance of a dynamic workout to get the rowers tapped into each other’s body movements. The most important element of the team dynamic is being in sync.
Amanda continues to tell me about the process before a race:
“We take a few of those building the speed each one and for those I usually say we would build for the 20 over 4 strokes and I use my voice and tone to build it up. So if we were doing a lower rate one my voice would be lighter more casual and I would say: “One, legs, two, build, three, yeah, 4 thats it!” If we were building up to a higher rate, my voice would be deeper and there would be a sense of urgency: “1, build, 2 BUILD, 3 squeeze the legs, 4 that’s it you’re on it.” It’s all about modifying the tone of your voice, so then we do a few practice starts and then we pull up to the line. Mainly during the race, my job is to steer straight, keep the crew informed as to where their competition is, and motivate them and help them find that next level.”
To do that Amanda must make sure their technique is there. Rhythm of the boat is crucial here. According to Amanda, the stroke seat is the member of the team who really helps to set it, claiming, “He knows to not alter the stroke and all the guys follow him no matter what. While a lot of my calls would be oriented towards the team we’re racing, we take a lot of focus moves…” Expanding on this, she explained to me that “‘Focus fives’ are five strokes where [she] pick[s] a certain aspect of technique and [they] ignore the competition and stay internal. That really helps the rhythm of the boat.” Ratio is one of the most significant parts. To do this she must make sure they have a slow recovery and a fast drive. “Overall, I make calls for rhythm, and that’s like saying the timing of the strokes. So its like “catch, send” and the send is when they finish and the boat is running out on their recovery.”
Amanda went to Phillips Academy for high school with me, where I observed her performance on the boys crew team all four years. Upon asking Amanda how she learned to do all of this, she responded humbly. She states: “God, I was awful my first year. You learn over time, there’s a steep learning curve. You learn from other coxswains. The rowers are the ones who help the most. You always have to be willing to ask them and take corrections. They’re going to be harsh because they’re rowers and don’t take into account feelings, but you have to roll with it and make adjustments, not take it personally. You do whatever will make the boat move fastest.” Amanda also stated that a lot of it is not something she can consciously pin point in the moment, but it is something one has to feel.
Obviously the most significant element of a coxswain’s job comes from her commands. I asked Amanda about other factors though, which may influence the success of the collective performance, such as her weight and the emotions flowing through the boat at any given moment.
In regards to weight, Amanda states: “Well 125 lbs is the minimum weight, so if you’re under you have to add extra weight. GW isn’t very strict and to be honest, I don’t think it matters that much. For some teams its very psychological and they take it super seriously, but that can lead to eating disorders so I think that its probably better that all our coxswains are under or right at the 125 mark. Really, the coaches/rowers don’t care that much.”
I asked how she thinks emotions affect how well the guys do in the race. Amanda responded by telling me that there are many aspects of the emotional side that can affect their performance, but it is in their best interest never to let that happen. I asked, “So nerves, bad blood between rowers or between you and a rower, confidence? How much of a difference would you realistically say that makes?”
Amanda responded by saying that they real make a strong effort to try to leave what happens off the water off the water and she believes they do a fairly good job of keeping emotions in check. “Regardless of what’s been happening emotionally, we get it together for race day. I think that if one person is off we just ignore it because its not worth it to stress. We like to have a good atmosphere for race day and try to solve any problems before it. That being said, unconfident movements in the boat definitely throw off the actual rhythm.”
Both the youtube clip and the comments and points of view Amanda has presented in this interview struck me as parallel to many of the points that Mark de Rond and Anthony King make in their journal article, “Boat race: rhythm and the possibility of collective performance” in The British Journal of Sociology. De Rond and King site E. Durkheim when he claims that, “Individual minds cannot come into contact and communicate with each other except by coming out of themselves; but they cannot do this except by movements. So it is the homogeneity of these movements that gives the group consciousness of itself and consequently makes it exist.” (De Rond, King) Amanda’s calling out specific commands, and the coxswain in the video’s calling out specific movements, is the only real thing connecting each rower to one another. Based on the way the boat is set up, no one can actually see all of his teammates except the rower located at the very front of the boat, but even still he is blind to everything in the course the boat is heading towards as well as the other team’s actions. The coxswain is not only the eyes and ears of the whole team, but he or she is also solely responsible for uniting the team in common movements.
De Rond and King also take writings by Randall Collins to assert his observation that “rhythm is essential to the successful execution of ‘interaction rituals.’” (De Rond, King) An interaction ritual is an event where members of a group “develop a mutual focus of attention and become entrained in each others’ present bodily micro-rhythms and emotions.” (De Rond, King) This claim falls in line with Amanda’s claims in her interview in that she confirmed my suspicion that the emotional state of each member of the team could affect performance. And assuming that Collins’ assertion is accurate, it makes sense: when the emotional states of each rower do not line up, their bodies are not connected in this interaction ritual. Amanda says of this claim: “It is true. We try so hard not to let it affect anything, but if there is tension between two rowers, for example, they will not be in tune with each other.” In other words, their anger with each other clouds their ability to be bodily in sync.
The physical alignment of all the rowers is necessary and also supports the idea that their race is a variation of an interaction ritual. Collins says: “While rhythm can stimulate a sense of group solidarity, co-ordinated collective performance is possible only through the shared discovery of precise rhythmic patterns.” (De Rond, King) These patterns can be identified in the commands that Amanda uses in the midst of her race; this symbolistic language that has been developed among the team is one example of solidarity in a linguistic as well as physical form. These commands (flick, drive through, long strokes, etc.), which are gibberish to most people, have a specific and meaningful implication to the rowers. This secret language gives the rowers the tools to create a physical synchronization that translates into success, and the person who creates (to an extent), modifies, delivers, and must ensure the correct interpretation through different means, is the coxswain and the coxswain alone. In this manner, the coxswain is truly the conductor to this symphony of movement and is the most integral member of the team in terms of rhythm. Amanda ties everyone together in this way.
Not only must Amanda conduct a clean and precise delivery of how to maintain rhythm in a fast moving boat, but she must use clues relating to the water and wind, the other boat, the course, and the performance of her own team to strategize. She stated in our interview: “The toughest part of my job is thinking on my feet without overthinking it. A common misconception is that my job is really just to be a parrot and mechanically shout out commands that have been predetermined. Routines and recurring tendencies do sometimes form over time, especially when you race with the same guys for a really long time, to the point where you guys are all like an old married couple; you know each other better than you know yourself. But just because I know them really well and know our course really well doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of improvisation I have to do.” This is not necessarily an easy task. Amanda must stay focused on what is going on with her boys while simultaneously thinking about many other things. Liz Earle ’15 stated in the Yale newspaper article, “Coxswains must also help execute strategy and facilitate communication between the rowers.” (Condro, Charles) From what Amanda has told me, it seems that this is a skill that takes a lot of being able to go with the flow, adjusting and absorbing changes as they come and accommodating without risking a break in fluidity or a fault in the rhythm. In Anthony King and Mark de Rond’s journal article, they discuss an example of an excellent judgement call made by the coxswain which pulled the whole race together for the Cambridge team. They identify this critical moment in the race as the moment when the team was behind Oxford and Thorsten Englemann, the Cambridge coxswain, cried the word ‘Yoohoo’ to his teammates. (De Rond, King)
Discussing this particular moment in a personal communication with King and De Rond, rower Jake Cornelius of the Cambridge states, “As we were taking a move, I heard Thorsten yell ‘Yoohoo!’ which was our code for ‘That feels good’. The more I think about it, the more important that moment seems. It drew us all out of our quiet personal boxes, where everyone was sinking in his own doubts and pain, and made the process of rowing collaborative again. One of the most important things you can do to get rhythm is talk to your teammates. It’s essential just to let each other know you’re there, and that you all have a shared goal and a common fate. As soon as Thorsten said ‘Yoohoo!’ and we started moving, Dan [O’Shaughnessy] started to yell, and our collective confidence built up. It is reassuring to know that you are not alone.” (De Rond, King)
With the confidence in their rhythm as an interaction ritual was solidified by a meaningful linguistic phoneme, the boat sped up and got themselves level with Oxford. Oxford sustained a small lead around a very significant bend in the course, unsurprising as they were the home team, however “under this pressure, Oxford’s rowing became notably untidy and, at 10 minutes and 15 seconds, Cambridge went ahead for the first time in the race. They extended their lead to the finish.” (De Rond, King)
Mark de Rond and Anthony King make their case in the 2007 Oxford Cambridge Race by zeroing in on specific, moments, specific movements and words spoken, which arguably dictated the results of a historic event. The rhythm is the most important element of their overall success, of their interaction ritual and the coxswain, as the composer of this rhythm, can make or break that for the entire team. Successfully completing the interaction ritual is all about solidarity and coming together as one unit. As de Rond and King correctly pointed out in their article, this solidarity is key. The complexities and extent of the coxswain’s true role in the realm of this ritual is unknown to many but is possibly of the utmost importance.
Books and Library Stuff. 20 July, 2010. http://scarlettlibrarian.wordpress.com/tag/cambridge/
Chatupron, Amanda. Personal interview. 20 April. 2014.
Condro, Charles. “Coxswains more than just cheerleaders.” Yale Daily News October 13, 2011: Web. http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2011/10/13/crew-coxswains-more-than-just-cheerleaders/
“Gallery, Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.” World Rowing. http://www.worldrowing.com/galleries/oxford-and-cambridge-boat-race
“IMPROVE YOUR FIGHT GONE BAD SCORE – THE ROWER (CALORIES).” Momentum. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 25 Aug. 2013. http://www.momentum-training.com/2013/08/improve-your-fight-gone-bad-score-the-rower-calories/
King, Anthony and de Rond, Mark. “Boat race: rhythm and the possibility of collective performance.” The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 62, No. 4 (December 2011): pp. 565-585. Published by: Wiley on behalf of The London School of Economics and Political Science. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41427712
Nolte, Volker. “Introduction to the Biomechanics of Rowing.” FISA Coaching Development Programme Course-Level III. pp. 83-104.
Sultan Shakir. “GW Beats Navy.” Youtube video. Youtube. May 15, 2013. April 21, 2014.