The Boatrace 2011 – Coxswains; the on-board Sport Psychologist?

So taking a move away from the world of professional Rugby, I wanted to take a look at the world of inter-varsity Rowing.  As an oarsman I always look forward to the spectacle of the biggest grudge match in competitive Rowing on the Thames every March.  There was much speculation about favourites and underdogs but what I find fascinating is that ultimately it will come down to who performs better on race day.  This makes it very tough for the athletes but a great spectacle for the rest of us!

As the majority of the course was rowed with a clear victor, the moment at which Oxford seized the advantage seems critical.  Traditionally the crew with the Surrey station around the long bend from Hammersmith Bridge past the Eyot will seek to work hard round the bend to gain that critical ‘clear water’ advantage.  Meanwhile the crew on the Middlesex station will look to counter this, ‘sit out’ the bend and then attack at Chiswick when the advantage turns their way.  With both crews fairly even approaching Hammersmith Bridge this certainly seemed to be playing out.

What proved decisive however, was a tactical decision by Oxford to unexpectedly attack before they had the advantage of the bend.  They received no significant response from Cambridge who may have been unable to respond or who were preparing to ‘sit out’ the upcoming bend.  Oxford gained half a length with this move, and then attacked again as the bend began to give them that famous advantage.  Cambridge might have expected to lose half a length around the bend, but probably hadn’t expected to be already down half a length.  This turned out to be the critical moment as it allowed Oxford the length advantage that they needed to gain ‘clear water’.  With the psychological wind in their sails, this turned out to be an unassailable advantage…

What I would like to focus on is the Psychology of being a coxswain or cox.  The entire race and indeed the campaigns hinged on one moment, probably less than one minute where the coxes had to make some tough decisions.  Had Oxford cox, Sam Winter-Levy, gambled in the way that he did and failed to achieve the critical advantage, his crew would have wasted energy that they may have rued later in the race.  Similarly, Cambridge cox, Liz Box, might have been right not to waste any excess energy at such an early stage in the race and this could also have changed the face of the race.  They made choices, good or bad, and this is not easy under those circumstances.

A cox, first and foremost takes responsibility for the welfare of their athletes and in so doing, their crew must trust him or her.  In the case of the boat race, they have to fight for a tiny area of stream in order to give the crew the best water, contend with the other crew and umpire whilst executing a precise race plan.  Did I mention that it’s a pretty long race and the crew are a tad tired?!  They have to understand the Psychology of how athletes work and in my eyes they are the on-board psychologist.

They help the crew to be motivated, concentrate and to believe in their abilities.  In a nutshell, that is what a psychologist will help an athlete to do!  In rowing, coxes often get a hard time from us rowers, especially those who are used to rowing in coxless boats.  But it is not an easy job and it requires an extremely high level of mental skills that are often forgotten about.  Sam Winter-Levy’s gamble paid off and he rightly should be congratulated on a great race.  However, Liz Box’s decision very nearly paid huge dividends and she should be respected for the way she continued to encourage and inspire her crew after that decisive moment.

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