Lessons from the Coxswain Seat
Coxing Taught Me to Embrace Risk, & Learn to Take Failures in Stride
By Amy Yao, St. Lawrence University
I never chose to be a coxswain, and that in itself led to the most worthwhile leadership experience I have ever undertaken. To tell you the truth, I was afraid of the role, and of the gargantuan responsibility that accompanied the title. Coxing is perhaps the most unique experience in the athletic world. You would be hard-pressed to find another sport that propagates the smallest (and sometimes most athletically insufficient) member of the team as the de facto leader. The famous Shakespearean quote from Twelfth Night, “…and some have greatness thrust upon them,” must have been written about the “9th seat,” as the coxswain is often called, because people who are selected to be coxswains are suddenly burdened with the fears, anxieties, internal struggles, and (occasional) joys of eight other people, all of whom place their trust in one diminutive human being.
On paper, coxswains steer the boat and keep the eight rowers together by calling out various drills and technique pointers. On the water, however, we are responsible for the safety and security of the rowers and the equipment (which can run nearly $100,000). We are tasked with leading eight individuals who are undergoing constant and relentless physical pain, with directing people who cannot see where they are going, with keeping them in sync with one another when their dearest wish is to let go of the oar and collapse in exhaustion.
Of course, coxing has taught me a lot about navigation and the value of proper enunciation, but nothing else in my life has ever taught me as much about the inherent value of failure. Just as a muscle is not able to grow without being ripped apart, I have failed many more times than I have succeeded in the sport of rowing, and I have grown immeasurably because of it. The best coxswains, in the words of our coach, are fearless. Trying out a new call or a drill can be catastrophic, or it can produce phenomenal results that no amount of traditional training can achieve. Coxing taught me to embrace that risk, and I have learned to take my failures in stride, which in turn has translated into greater creativity and success in my research, writing, and designing.
My time with the women’s crew team has also instilled in me a sense of personal accountability—out on the water, sometimes surrounded by nothing but fog, there is no one that is going to hold my hand and give me step-by-step directions. There is no hands-on experience quite like it, and I have yet to experience a more effective way to learn. All of these lessons, however crucial, pale in comparison to the greatest lesson that I believe only coxing could have taught me. At the end of the day, the true leader should not be at the forefront of the ceremony. The best leader is the one who has recognized the intrinsic talents and potential of everyone who has placed their trust in them, who has figured out how to hone and polish those talents, and who willingly gives up recognition so that the people who trusted in them can receive their due credit and praise. It is my daily ongoing mission to become that sort of leader, and I owe every step of my journey thus far to rowing, the sport that taught me that to fail is to succeed.