The Case For The Coxswain Seat: The Perfect Ride To Develop Your 21st Century Skills

Author: Neil Bergenroth – Head Coach of TYRA (2002-2016) Contact:

I’ve spent a great deal of the last two years of my career studying and researching what a good 21st-century education looks like. There is increasing evidence that in order to manage the ever-changing context of business and society that it takes more than just a great SAT score. If you read the latest book on Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman there’s much more to the being successful in business than going to school to earn your MBA. Goleman indicates that a certain skill set needs to be mastered in order to achieve the most out of your career. It strikes me that a fully trained master coxswain must possess and use many of the 21st-century skills required for success to bring the maximum out of a set of motivated athletes.

At Holland Hall, the school that I teach at in Tulsa, OK, when our faculty assesses each student in our classrooms, we endeavor to look for more than just the grade. Top marks on the latest test are important, but there is more than that, much more…

The important traits and qualities that indicate success for the future (you can call these 21st-century skills) can be encompassed under the following headings.

  • Perseverance

        (resiliency, tenacity, follow-through)

  • Work Ethic                                    

        (dependable, self-directed, diligent)

  • Attitude/Motivation

        (open-mindedness, flexibility, optimism)

  • Creativity

        (takes risks, sees connections, experiments, intellectual curiosity)

  • Critical Thinking

        (Questions actively, identifies implications, synthesizes information)

  • Collaboration

        (Works well in teams, develops relationships, communicates)

Obviously, the first three headings could be applicable to any capable athlete in your program. One should even view them as prerequisites for the coxswain seat. However, it’s the second three that I believe are the most important for the coxswain seat.


In order for a crew to truly sing and resonate a coxswain must have an inquiring mind. The person in that role must have the courage and curiosity to find out what works with a crew and what does not. When something clicks in a crew, the creativity and critical thinking of a person come into play. The coxswain must be able to deliver important information and keep the crew cohesive and focused. Finding out what makes a person tick is a vital leadership skill. There are techniques to leading others. These skill sets may include several styles of leadership involving the ability to motivate others toward a goal, to coach others to row better or to achieve higher levels of fitness. The leadership may involve creating harmony and cohesiveness in a crew or valuing other people’s point of view. The coxswain should also be commanding and a pacesetter in the correct measure.

Critical Thinking

In addition, there are often many situations on race day when a coxswain must have the ability to analyze the situation and make a good decision right in the moment. Ask any coxswain who has steered the Head of the Charles course in Boston in late October. The reality is that it doesn’t matter how many times the coxswain has run the correct line through Weeks footbridge with their coach or teammate, there are other variables in play.  These include the positions of other crews, obstructions and weather conditions. Critical thinking, composure, and good decision making rule the day in this situation.


Teamwork is another important skill for 21st-century success (frankly, it’s been important way before this century). The coxswain must be someone who is able to work with multiple personalities in a crew. I’m a strong believer that coaching and teaching is all about building relationships. A large part of this is communication. A coxswain must be able to communicate a technical change or explain the importance of a particular workout or drill.

This is what I find most exciting about the opportunity to cox. You’ve got to have all of these skills above in order to achieve the best results.

The coxswain seat also presents a unique opportunity for a student-athlete to participate in athletics. I teach in Oklahoma and so football and other similar sports tends to be a big focus for high schools. However, what about those other student-athletes that are 100-120lbs who don’t have the ability to start for their teams?

The SAT is our long-standing method for potentially deciding what path a person might take in life. However, I’d argue that important learning occurs in other avenues of life, especially in the extracurricular area.

The coxswain seat could be the journey that you are looking for.

Are you ready to start your journey? 

Author: Neil Bergenroth – Head Coach of TYRA (2002-2016) Contact: