Head Racing: The Coxswain's Perspective, with Phelan Hill of Team GB

Cranking through Weeks at the Head Of The Charles (Photo: P. Biro)

The Head Of The Charles is just over a week away, and it's known as one of the trickiest courses around for the coxswain, who has to navigate bridges and traffic on the narrow stretch, always keeping in mind that the most direct route is key, while keeping his/her crew focused on the task at hand. Like the Head of the River Race on the Tideway in London, there are a huge number of crews to contend with, hordes of spectators, and much to think about while executing your race plan. Phelan Hill, the coxswain of the GB men's eight (silver medalists in Karapiro and Bled), has a great deal of experience guiding crews through head races, winning the 2011 Head of the River with Leander Club last April. Here, Phelan shares some of his knowledge with RR, from establishing the rhythm through the start, to the final build toward the finish.

Getting Started
RR: When it comes to head racing, there's much more time to make adjustments, but how critical is it to execute the right start as you establish your rhythm for the piece?

Phelan Hill: Getting the start right is important, but it's not the be all and end all. A good start can always set you up for a great race and the race pace rhythm that will take you over the course–certainly, if you have a target race pace rate, it's far easier to set off with real intensity and settle on something rather than going off too soft then chasing to get the rate; however, a race is not a linked, continuous chain from start to finish–you can always make a change in a race. From a coxing perspective you shouldn’t be scared to say the race rhythm isn’t right and push for a change.

How Much is Too Much?
RR: Guiding rowers over a three or four mile course poses a different kind of challenge for a coxswain. How much energy should be spent on technical points, and how much motivational content is too much over a 20-minute race?

PH: There is always a fine balance to play here. I always think of coxing a head race as a gradual crescendo, starting with a real technical focus as the race develops, and, as you get closer to the finish, building in more motivational calls. I focus on technique at the beginning, getting the start right, finding the rhythm through the technical focus. Then, as you pass halfway, bringing in more motivational calls as the crew gets tired–though its still important to remember technique as fatigue sets out in order to maintain speed/rhythm.

RR: Sometimes it comes down to the wire, but often in head races the critical moment is somewhere in the middle of the piece, passing another crew or choosing the right line. What's been your experience of this and how would you recommend that a coxswain prepare to hold the best line through a race?

PH: Before you get on the water, prepare! If you are going to hold the best line you need to know where it is, so study and visualize the course so that even under pressure you can recognize what the best line is.

In terms of picking the best approach when overtaking, it’s a difficult one. I would say don’t always just go for the line. Sometimes it's best to lose one second going slightly wide and avoid a collision that could cost five seconds. There is no hard and fast rule but you should take the following factors into account:

-How much quicker are you? If you are substantially quicker then going off the best line is going to be less costly as you’ll pass quicker.
-Is the crew in front a major rival? A rival is always going to make it harder.
-How many other crews are going to be in front?
-Where is the course going? Where is the next bend? Is it to the left or right? Sometimes you can go out of the best line in one part if you know you’ll have a better line for the next bend.

Passing Lane
RR: Elevate the stroke rate and make a shift to pass? Or manage the course and try to move within the base rhythm? When you do make a shift up, how to you bring your crew back down into their longer rhythm?

PH: My initial starting point is to stay in the rhythm when passing a crew–your base speed is clearly faster as you’ve caught them up, and so you need to stay confident in what you're doing. But remember that the other crew is going to start working harder if that happens, and if you end up just “sticking” with the other crew, it's then good to call for a push–any change has to be in the rhythm.

Clashing and Recovery
RR: There are many tight spaces and narrow margins for error when passing other crews, which sometimes lead to clashes. How do you guide your crew out of a clash and get your rowers back into rhythm as quickly as possible?

PH: If clashing make sure firstly your crew stays calm—getting back into your rhythm really falls back on your hard training you’ve been doing. Go back to basics on what your crew has been focusing on in training and really bring them back into the boat with that in mind. This is something you can visualize and practice in your mind; for example, if you’ve been focusing on your finishes in training and that’s one of key points then you can say something like, “We need to relax now and find our rhythm again, lets feel those finishes pressing out together. Ready... GO... Press... Press... Press... feeling that rhythm come through again...,” and then just keep working on them like that.

Also, remind them a single clash might not cost them the race, keep the heads up they can still win, places still up for grabs.

Finish Line
RR: How early should a coxswain talk about the finish (only when he/she can see it?), and do you have any advice on sprinting to finish a distance race?

PH: Personally, crews I'm in have a progressive build to the line; for example, a 20-min race we’ll start building 3mins from the line, then moving up every minute, and with 500m to go that’s when we make our final sprint. Never go off sight–always have some specific markers in mind. Again preparation is so important–know your course and finish markers so you can say pass a tent, or come under a bridge, and know at that point its 500m to go, or 2 mins, or whatever it may be, but have a clear idea.

If you haven’t been to the course before and are unsure, go on the organisers website to look at maps and check historical data on results for your category so know what people have done in previous years, and have a rough idea of what to expect.

Thanks very much to Phelan for taking the time. You can find more coxswain and coaching resources via our Coaching page.


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