Rowing experience is Boat Race boost for Cambridge University cox Matthew Holland
Matthew Holland’s gap year away from coxing could end up being of a huge benefit to Cambridge University Boat Club.
The 20-year-old Gonville & Caius choral scholar had agreed to try rowing in his first year studying natural sciences, before committing to singing for three years.
In that fresher year in 2017, Holland was a central figure with Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, helping them to victory over Oxford – their first victory on the Championship course on the Tideway.
True to his word, Holland stepped away from the cox’s seat in 2018, but turned his hand to another role in the boat.
“I did end up rowing in my third men’s eight for the May Bumps,” said Holland, who weighs in at 8st 6lb and is 5ft 7in tall.
“It was great fun – I was utterly useless. I didn’t want to sit at either end because it’s far too dangerous in the third division. If you go at the bows and crash, you get your head cut off!
“If you go in the stern, someone will crash into you. So I said put me somewhere safe in the middle, and I just sat there giving it lots of chat and shouting as much as possible.
“We were so terrible but no-one really cared about our performance.”
Holland first took up coxing aged 13 at Westminster School, and also helped at Imperial, but that spell in the ‘engine room’ of the Caius III eight taught him a new side to the sport. And he has been able to apply that back in the cox’s seat.
“I had a cox of my own and it was the first time really where I had been coxed,” he explains.
“It was interesting to see the effect that her words had on the way we were rowing, how it got quite annoying quite quickly, and how you could only process small chunks of information.
“What I think it taught me and one of the key things I’ve been working on this year, is how to break the message that I want to get across into manageable, bitesize chunks.
“When you’re exerting yourself in rowing and there is a lot going on with your body and mind, it’s quite hard to process a full sentence. It’s something that I hadn’t fully comprehended until I got into a boat myself.
“Really, the calls I make need to be really short and small – one thing to do at a time.
“Less is definitely more, stopping verbal diarrhoea and filtering what you’re thinking and the phrasing to get the best out of the crew and understand it and respond to what I want so I get the change as quickly as possible.”
Having sung for a year, Holland longed for more rowing, and that is why he is back at Goldie Boathouse this season.
It means another break from singing, but while the setting may be the same, it is in a different environment.
It would be fair to say that Holland is not exactly the shy and retiring type, so you imagine that his enthusiastic personality would find a way to fit in with any squad.
Working with the men’s squad compared to the women has been about understanding how they motivate themselves and think in different ways about the boat – after all, the personnel of the crews changes every season.
“I think with the women, I found myself coxing in a much drier style,” says Holland. “It was lots of technical calls and lots of work on tech.
“I think the men like to think a little bit more about work under the water, about how they apply their power. It’s a different atmosphere too, because the boats are moving faster, you have to think about different things.
“Physically the hull is moving quicker underneath you, so you’ve got to look at being able to pick it up at the catch a little bit quicker, for example.
“But really they are quite similar. I think the difference I have noticed is I have found myself trying to get a little bit more aggressive, trying to push a little bit harder, be a little bit more demanding in what I want from the crew. Whereas I think with the women’s team, it was more ‘let’s do this’ – it’s a collective focus.
“With the men’s team, I have found it needs to be a little bit more direct and ‘this is what we’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to do it’.”
That is where the dynamics of each individual crew comes into play, and while the CUWBC Blue boat in 2017 had some big personalities, so to does the CUBC eight this year.
“In my first year crew, we had lots of very big characters, lots of experience – like we’ve got here this year – and lots of gobby people, lots of chat, people were making lots of calls, there were lots of shouts,” says Holland.
“Whereas I think we’ve got a slightly quieter bunch this year, but just as much if not more experience.
“It’s a different crew, we have two Olympians in the crew, we’ve got two under-23 medallists, we’ve got someone who has spent a lot of time rowing at senior level in the US.”
And somewhat appropriately, Holland adds: “There is a lot of experience and it’s a question of me trying to tie that experience together and making sure that everyone sings off the same hymn sheet.”