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What does a rowing cox do?

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Martin Gough | 08:12 UK time, Saturday, 29 August 2009

At the World Rowing Championships, Poznan, Poland

If you're watching the TV coverage on Sunday and someone nearby asks what those little people at the back of the boat do, it's fine to kick off by saying there are eight big men with small cox but there's a lot more to tell.

Phelan Hill, a 28-year-old from Bedford, says his role in the Great Britain men's eight is like combining those of jockey, football manager and occasionally mother.

When he needs it, he also has experience of dealing with crisis situations thanks to his afternoon job, working as a banking and financial advisor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

"You go out there with a plan but races sometimes don't go to plan so you have to make a value judgement, like a football manager would," he told me.

"I like the jockey analogy more, though, because that makes the rowers the horses. If you whip them too hard they get tired before the finish but if you don't do it enough they won't work hard enough.

"And, like horses, you have to show them who's boss.

"But you sometimes have to be a mum, aware of how people are feeling. You have to be critical and know when they're being lazy but you can't hit someone all the time."

Phelan Hill

Phelan steers the boat using small handles, which attach to a rudder below and behind him and he also speaks to the crew via a microphone that connects to loudspeakers by their feet. He also has a "cox box", which tells him times, speeds and stroke-rates, all of which he will relay.

He isn't the coach - that job is shared by John West and Christian Felkel - but he is the voice of the coach in the boat. And you will only see a cox in an eight at big events, since other coxed categories were cut from the Olympics in 1996.

Garry Herbert was the cox who won a thrilling Olympic gold in 1992, in a coxed pair with Greg and Jonny Searle.

These days he is the BBC rowing commentator who produced adrenaline-packed sound tracks that accompanied famous victories in successive Olympiads for Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, and the GB men's four in Beijing.

He believes Phelan is a good mix of head and heart, which is just what is needed.

"Training is all about the head but racing is the head and the heart," says Garry. "You need to be able to say one word, when they're in pain, to make them go beyond that.

"You can only make a change to improve a crew's racing without panic and with a closeness that you have to build up over time."

After the heroics of 1992, Greg Searle moved into coxless boats (where steering is done using a plate attached to the feet of one of the rowers and instructions are a few grunted calls from an assigned member of the crew) winning bronze in the four in Atlanta and coming fourth in a pair in Athens.

Phelan Hill and the GB eight hope for a place on the podium on Sunday

Greg Searle, Jonny Searle and cox Garry Herbert won gold in Barcelona

"Garry coxed the way he commentates," Greg told me. "He was very enthusiastic about our prospects, had a high level of belief.

"When he said, 'I can see you're coming back on them,' we believed him and dug deeper."

Just before the Searle brothers surged past Italy in a thrilling finish 17 years ago (which I can't link to but which is well worth watching on YouTube), Herbert famously asked: "If not you, who? If not now, when?"

Greg only recalls hearing the first half of the line but it was enough to remind him of the phrase being used during a meeting the three had with psychologist Brian Miller.

"It took us back to that meeting, sitting around a kitchen table, looking into each other's eyes and telling each other what we were prepared to go through for each other.

"Garry knew what to say to get the extra out of us. If he'd said, 'You could be famous' or 'You could make a lot of money out of this' it wouldn't have worked."

Garry, Greg and Jonny came up through the rowing ranks together, which the first two believe plays a major part in the bond between cox and crew.

But they cemented their gold medal-winning bond on an altitude training camp in Silvretta, Italy, when they chose to throw three beds into a two-man room.

In the same venue 17 years on, Phelan and his crewmates were building camaraderie around an in joke about cut-down shorts. It's at least better than the fancy dress sported by last year's lot.

Phelan Hill and the GB eight hope for a place on the podium on Sunday

Phelan Hill and the GB eight hope for a place on the podium on Sunday

Five of the eight are called Tom so Phelan (although he can be seen on TV on Sunday saying, "I'm 'Phelan' there are too many Toms around here") has to work in nicknames to tell them apart.

It's difficult to be one of the lads, though, when they're pushing their bodies to exhaustion while you sit, steer and shout.

"I need to work more on my experience, being more of a leader," says Phelan. "As a cox you're part of the crew but not. I'm a link between the guys and the coach.

"You can't be their friend all the time and that's sometimes quite difficult."

Phelan has only had two months in this line-up but the bulk of the crew have raced together all season and have identified opponents in other crews, who Phelan will mention in his calls.


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