Years ago the Winklevoss twins made their Hollywood debut in The Social Network, which is perhaps most famous for the intense rowing scene where they went head-to-head with another boat on the Charles River. 

Their Viking-like statures made an impression on me and it was that scene that, on probably a subconscious level, nudged me to join the university rowing team.

The team-based high-intensity sport is actually highly individual in nature. Everyone has the responsibility to train and push their physical and mental limits, and if one person is absent, slacking, or not aligned with the rest of the boat, the entire team suffers. The hardest part is waking up at 4:30 am for a torturous workout with while the rest of the city sleeps. Woody Allen was right — 90% of success is showing up.

When you do choose to show up, it pays off. A typical 2,000 meter race starts with a rush of excitement for the first half, but the race doesn’t really start until you’re halfway through. While it’s not a marathon, you do have to pace yourself or else you’ll burn out quickly.

Eventually you reach a point where the entire boat is stroking in sync, at the same pace. And then, something magical happens. Everything — your thoughts and even your legs that had been screaming in pain — all quiet down to a murmur. For as long as you can keep the perfect rhythm — a question of technique, not strength — you transcend yourself, and eight individuals become one vessel.

But none of this would be possible without the coxswain.

The coxswain (“cox” for short) is not rowing, but they hold an equally important, arguably more crucial seat. They sit at the front and steer the boat, keeping the rowers safe, directing the boat to victory. They are not technically the coach, but they act as one. Unlike a coach in other sports who sits on the sidelines, the coxswain is physically on the boat and has skin in the game, just like the rowers. If the coxswain were to mix up right from left or get distracted for one second, it could result in hitting another boat or crashing into the shore.

The boat is equipped with sensors that detect the pace of the boat, split times, speed, all the way down to the individual-level for rowers, allowing the coxswain to tailor feedback and shout it through loudspeakers. Coxswains are smaller than rowers and have a maximum weight cut off as not to slow down the boat.

A coxswain knows when the boat is struggling, the best timing and the right words of encouragement to get the boat moving. In fact, since we all have different motivators, they’ll often collect individual requests for race day. My personal favorite was when the coxswain would shout (at my request), “Stop f*cking around and just ROW. Winklevoss ain’t got sh*t on you!

And most amazing of all, the coxswain is the only person on the boat that can see where they’re actually going.


The Coxswain Effect

I define the Coxswain Effect as “the ability for us to reach new heights in our lives by being vulnerable and open to feedback.” This is in contrast to trying to go at everything solo. You may feel more comfortable being able to control every aspect of something, and you don’t have to worry about criticism — but without external guidance, we risk falling flat on our faces.

the coxswain effect = the ability for us to reach new heights in our lives by being vulnerable and open to feedback

Your first coxswain was your mother or father (or maybe both). As you entered the world you literally couldn’t see which direction you were going. Without them you would not be able to even start the race.

Later in life when you were struggling in school, a supportive teacher stayed late to help you with your calculus homework. They steered you in the right direction but didn’t row the boat for you; you had to put in the legwork yourself.

When you graduated and started your first job, you were inspired by your boss who took the time to listen to you, but gave you brutally honest feedback that helped you realize your own strengths and weaknesses. They knew what made you tick, probably because they’d been in your position before and had a clear vision of where you could be. They believed in your potential.

Perhaps it was different people who played these roles, but whoever they were, you had to show a degree of vulnerability to take their guidance to heart. Maybe you didn’t notice it, but these guidances surely played a big role in allowing you to confidently move forward in life, shaping who you are today.

Two types of coxswains: “Great job” VS. “Just row the f*cking boat!”

There are typically two ways in which we receive feedback and guidance — positive and negative, which is referred to as PEA and NEA in the language of emotional intelligence.
  1. Positive is based on positive reinforcement through encouragement = “The timing of your stroke has improved since last week, great job and let’s keep working at it!”
  2. Negative is based on spiking stress levels through honing in on a person’s mistakes and weaknesses = “My grandma rows faster than you!! Stop f*cking around and just ROW!!”

When a coxswain takes a more negative approach it stimulates our brain by grounding us in the present moment, while a positive approach encourages us to imagine future goals and look ahead.

I’ve been on boats with coxswains that enjoyed yelling at us, calling us out and dropping a lot of F-bombs when we weren’t rowing at the right pace. There were others who hardly did any shouting, but I really wish they would have. Personally, I most enjoyed the coxswains who took a 70/30 split approach; they were encouraging and gave us positive feedback most of the time, but slammed the hammer down hard when we needed it.

“We need a certain level of stress to help us survive, but we need the positive emotional attractor to help us thrive,” explains Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western University.

A good coxswain needs to be dynamic and flexible, alternating between these two styles during the course of a race in order to maximize outputs and results.

Perhaps you have a coxswain in your life, or maybe you did but have lost touch with them. For those of us who are not fortunate enough to have one, though, we must proactively seek one out. They could be anyone, but they should have certain characteristics.

Research on mentorship can give us some clues as to what makes a good coxswain.

1. Mutual respect (I respect/trust the role of the coxswain as they do mine as a rower)

2. Reciprocity (I promise to work hard, they promise to give me honest feedback)

3. Clear expectations (precise feedback, both positive and negative/winning the race)

4. Personal connection (a coxswain usually starts out as a rower and transitions into a coxswain)

5. Shared values (you’re on the same boat!)

When seeking out our coxswain/mentor, we can use the above 5 traits as a screening method. Ultimately, we should find someone with a balance of positive and negative coaching styles, but that can mostly encourage us and isn’t afraid to give us a metaphorical slap in the face when necessary.

Have we forgotten about coxswains?

When we “grow up” many of us no longer have a coxswain, or forget how important they can be to navigating the river of life. We’ve moved out of our parents homes, our boss is uninspiring, and our friends are busy with their own lives — it’s like we’re all on our own now. But that’s what being an “adult” is, right? Self-accountability and responsibility for our own lives?

Yes, we are accountable for our own actions; like if we start rowing in the wrong direction, or if we drink too much the night before our competition, ultimately we suffer the consequences. Life, though, isn’t a one-man show, and the greatest feats are seldom achieved by one person.

A new endeavor (job, relationship, startup idea) puts us out into new, uncharted waters. These initial stages is when we need a coxswain the most. It doesn’t mean that we’re being hand-held the entire time, as a coxswain is more of a guide, an oracle, and someone that simply cares enough to point us in the right direction.

So, who’s your coxswain?

It’s harder to row a 2-person boat with no coxswain than being in an 8-person boat with a coxswain. If anyone tried to row an eight boat with no coxswain, they’d crash!

In other words, the bigger your dreams and aspirations (and obstacles!) are, the more weight you’re carrying. And the greater the feat, the more crucial it is to have a coxswain onboard.

So, next time it feels like we’re being pulled uncontrollably down a river with little hope for recourse, maybe it’s not about us. It’s possible we’re doing the best we can do in the situation given our resources and knowledge.

The secret to putting power in every stroke isn’t about what, it’s about who.Who can help us achieve our goals, and who are we missing? Who can hold us accountable, who can give us honest feedback, and who can give us the positive (and negative) encouragement that we might need?

Now go and find your coxswain before you crash into the shore.

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