The Last Stroke Counts - Henry Fieldman & the Coxswain as Discipline

Thu 9th Feb 2023

The trophy cabinet of Henry Fieldman speaks for itself; a two-time world champion, a six-time world cup winner, and an Olympic bronze medallist, Henry has enormous success in his discipline. During our conversation, he reflected upon what victory truly looks like for him, and the lessons he has learned through the unique position of the coxswain.

“Never Give Up” – An Attitude from Day 1

Henry tells us that as a child he was ‘always crossing the river’ over Hammersmith Bridge near where he grew up. Being consistently exposed to rowing, his passion for the sport grew steadily through his teenage years.

Where rowing coaches honed his technique and unlocked his potential, Henry credits his parents for their crucial influence on his mindset. Pushing himself to the limit for his discipline has always felt ingrained in him: “I was always brought up to work very hard. My dad had printed words to that effect: ‘never give up” on my bedroom wall. Every morning, I would get out of bed, see that sign and say to myself: well I guess I can’t give up”.

Henry took that attitude beyond school to university, coxing first for the University of London then, then Imperial College and finally Cambridge University. Throughout his education he trialed for the national team and was selected to cox internationally for the junior, under 23 and senior teams, culminating in an invitation to join the national team full-time after graduating from Cambridge.

A Unique Position in Sport – The Responsibilities & Challenges of the Discipline

Henry drew the shape of a wave to represent the lifestyle of a rower in a crew. As the rowers push their body to the maximum, the wave rises so high that it must come down so the body can rest. This is a crucial difference from the lifestyle of a cox: “you do need to have a bit of a rest but not as much. Proactiveness and taking initiative are key – it’s about constantly working out what needs to be done to keep the ship going. You’re working in the background a lot and you’re always switched on”.

Coxing is an all-round skillset; whether it is driving sessions from inside the boat, managing the equipment mechanics, giving coaching from the embankment, or making race or session plans: “It’s all about making the boat go quick. This is the ultimate bottom line and there are many avenues to achieve that, which need practice both on and off the water. Then, the icing on the cake is to be able to inspire and encourage the team”.

As a cox, Henry has learned to become a particular kind of leader: proactive in the background to effectively perform in high-pressure scenarios. He outlines the difficulties of the cox role, and the additional pressure placed on the role: a tricky position that ‘can’t win you the race but can lose you the race’. Henry acknowledges the loneliness of the cox compared to the rest of the crew, and turns this negative into a positive; the uniqueness of his position encourages him to connect to his team in different ways and bridge the gap between their joint experience.

Keeping it Simple & Under Control – What Makes a Good Cox?

A willingness and an aptitude for learning have allowed Henry to grow in his discipline. As he practices more, his aims only become clearer: “keep iterating the process, not necessarily making it more and more complex, but ideally making it more and more simple”. This ability to simplify is clearly the product of years of training and has made him an excellent cox.     

As the ‘brain’ of the boat, the cox’s pursuit of clear and precise communication is vital. The ability to manage and profit from his own internal voice and feelings has also been essential for helping Henry to reach new heights: “you’ve got to be aware of what thoughts and feelings are coming through your head; which ones are useful and which are not. My background in Biology helped me to be aware of the body’s response to nerve and stress, and I have learned to reframe it. The stress response is a product of thousands of years of evolution and is there to help you if you let it and if you use it in the right way”.


The Greatest Moment of His Career – Skills Gained & Lessons Learned

Henry alluded to the skills that could be transferred into the corporate world beyond sport. As already mentioned, the cox is a proactive leader and an excellent communicator. Henry plans and prepares meticulously to ensure the execution of a fast race: “By taking the time to think through as many scenarios as you can ahead of the event, what might happen and how you’d want to react to that, it allows you to react decisively, or to be proactive. It also means that if something happens that is unexpected, you have the headspace to think it through and react effectively.”

Additionally, Henry is immensely positive in the way he faces challenges, describing it as a ‘never-ending pleasure’, being excited by the idea of chasing perfection even though perfection will always be impossible. To him, that doesn’t make the pursuit of such a goal any less worth chasing, and is how he ensures he gets the most out of himself and the people around him.

What Henry values the most is the opportunity to work together with others. The river and the rowing boat are powerful crucibles for teamwork skills: any rower experiences first-hand the importance of effective teamwork. The boat won’t even move forwards without an element of working together. When asked to pick the highlight of his career, he surprisingly doesn’t mention any of his gold medals, the world championships, or the Olympics. Instead, he tells us a low-stakes race in Germany, in 2015 known as the ‘Netz Cup’. The coach had given Henry the reins. There wasn’t much time to bring the group together but everyone bought in and became more than the sum of their parts just in time for race day; where they brought home an emphatic win over the German favourites that no one, except for Henry as he says, expected them to win.

The Last Stroke Counts – What Comes Afterwards

Henry was keen to point out that, unlike a racing boat, he has not always moved in one direction. If it appears like his career has moved seamlessly from step to step, the reality was “a lot of trial and error – trying one route, realising it was a dead end and then coming back”. His career path has shown that things do not always go as expected, and that plans can change for the better. Guiding the progression of young talent is something he is passionate about and does with his coxing consultancy, which he hopes to continue with going forward.

Henry’s rowing coach used to tell him that the last stroke counts’, that the race is never over until it is over. For all athletes, there may come a time to reconsider what it means to take the last stroke, to ask themselves whether the race is truly over, and re-evaluate what life after sport might look like. For Henry, as well as continuing his work as a mentor and motivational speaker, he would love to boost the accessibility of his discipline. He believes that the sport of rowing and sport generally offers hugely important life lessons which are useful both inside and outside of the boat: “The most important lessons I learned while at university, and the values I live by, were forged in the boathouse”.

Eddie Laurence

Photo Credit:
Header Image - Combinaition of photos; Henry Fieldman's medal and Getty Images photo: READING, ENGLAND - JUNE 09: Henry Fieldman of Great Britain poses for a photo to mark the official announcement of the rowing team selected to Team GB for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake on June 09, 2021 in Reading, England. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images for British Olympic Association)