They are the little people with a big weight on their shoulders.

In a sport that is dominated by 6ft-plus giants, the coxswains cut a rather comical figure next to their teammates at this week's world rowing championships.

They can often be the joke of the rowing world as well, receiving the odd jibe about being a glorified steering wheel.

But in truth the crews know a good cox is worth their weight in gold. Probably double in fact, given their small stature.

Because their role is more coach than athlete, Francie Turner, cox of the New Zealand women's eight, said there could often be a lack of understanding from people outside of the sport as to what a cox actually did.

"Probably for someone that is new to the sport they think 'oh they're getting a free ride'," said Turner. "But coxes have got a lot of responsibility - it takes nine people to row an eight."

A cox's primary job is to look out for the safety of the crew and keep the boat in a straight line. But they do much more than simply act as a steering wheel. They are the leaders of the boat, during training they act as the eyes and ears for the coach, reminding the crew of form and technique.

Come race time they are the calling tactics, making sure the crew execute the race plan and act as a motivator for their team.

"I'm almost like an on-water coach, my job is to motivate and keep the girls focused. They just need the communication and someone to bring them together to make sure they're executing the race plan," said Turner.

Clearly, it takes more than just being tiny to be a good cox, but inevitably most initially land the role because of their size.

Ivan Pavich, cox of the New Zealand men's eight that pushed the world champion German crew right to the line in yesterday's heats, was scouted in his high school canteen. Which, ironically, meant he had to make his visits to said canteen a little less frequent.

"I was standing in the lunch line at school and the rowing coach was there. He tapped me on the shoulder as I was having lunch and he told me not to eat anything more. So I asked him why, and he said 'I want you to be a cox'," said Pavich, a former pupil of St Paul's Collegiate in Hamilton.

At the time Pavich had no idea what the job entailed, but went along to the team meeting to find out and was handed a dream assignment.

"I was told I was going to be coxing the girls to start off with, so I thought that was pretty cool, and it just went on from there."

The role came naturally to Pavich, who is only 18, and he quickly worked his way up the elite rowing ranks.

Now he's got bigger things on his mind than chasing girls - performing well at this week's world championships and building towards qualifying for the London Olympics.

Born: 07/11/1991, Hamilton
Height: 159cm
Weight: 55kg

Born: 06/04/1992, Hamilton
Height: 159cm
Weight: 50kg