Mental Skills for Rowing: Part 1

Anyone who has rowed or been around rowers can tell you that this is a mentally difficult sport, and maybe you have to be a little crazy to do it. The constant pressure of technical improvement combined with the drive to improve on the ergometer tests and in training can be a lot to deal with, and athletes not equipped to deal with this stress often find themselves burned out after a few seasons. This article series will teach you some basic mental skills that you can incorporate into your own training as a rower or coxswain.

In the long term,

MST can help reduce anxiety and build good mental habits to lay a foundation for race day and tests. Just like in school, you can’t just cram for a few hours and expect to do well on the test—you have to work at it all quarter.

In the shorter term,

MST can help improve performance by reducing distractions, improving focus, and decreasing anxiety. The basis of short-term MST is maintaining a mindset of positivity and not getting bogged down in uncontrollable factors. Control what you can control, let everything else go.

1. Goal-Setting

  • Make it easier to achieve your goals by clearly identifying your start point, the endpoint, and checkpoints along the way. “A goal without a plan is just a hope.”

Everyone knows about SMART goals, but have you ever actually written one out?

  • Specific: Pull a 2k erg test in 6 minutes or less. What’s your race plan? Negative split? Even split? What’s your start sequence and 500m targets?
  • Measurable: The erg provides a good standard for measurement, time and meters, so there’s not a lot to do here to adapt it to rowing.
  • Action-Oriented: Your goal should be positively worded and action-oriented. “Don’t catch a crab” is negatively worded and not action-oriented, but “pull a 2k in less than 6 minutes” is positive and action-oriented.
  • Realistic: Is your goal and the timeframe to accomplish it realistic? If you currently have a 6:40 2k, is a 40 second drop in 2 months realistic? Only you can answer this–if you truly believe it is realistic, then go for it, but only set goals that you truly believe you can achieve. Remember, success breeds success. Setting overly ambitious goals can make it easy to fail (“oh well, it was a reach anyway”) and right now we want achievable checkpoints to get you on a path to success.
  • Time-Sensitive: Put time parameters on your goal to increase motivation and accountability. You can also set smaller checkpoints along the way. If your goal is to go from a 6:12 2k to a 6:00 2k in 3 months, you know you need to reduce approximately 4 seconds per month. You can calculate this improvement into your other workouts using your goal split–smaller benchmarks could be pulling 500m repeats at a 1:30 split, for example.

Coxswains: Your goals will be more focused on processes than outcomes. You can set a goal for weekly time spent preparing, whether that’s reading, listening to recordings of other coxswains, watching videos of upcoming race courses, reviewing your own recordings, or preparing for the next day’s workout. Coxswains can also keep a log or notebook–set a goal to write down three thoughts from each training session.

2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Improve mental control over muscles and facilitate relaxation to make it easier to fall asleep and make rest/naps more productive

PMR is a process of progressively contracting and relaxing each muscle from your forehead down or toes up, combined with deep, rhythmic breathing. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, or only have a short time for a nap, focus on relaxation instead of sleep. PMR can help this by removing subconscious muscle tension and giving you something to mentally focus on as you relax. PMR also develops greater muscular control and awareness.

Coxswains: You’re just as prone to sleeplessness as rowers, so PMR can be helpful if you find it hard to wind down for bed.

3. Cognitive Reframing and Positive Self-Talk

  • Any situation is potentially negative, it’s up to you to reframe it as a challenge or as something positive. Cognitive reframing is reframing potentially adverse events as challenges, and doing this on a consistent basis combined with a positive inner narrative is positive self-talk.

ABC Model: Activating Event, Belief, Consequences

For many athletes, a failed 2k test follows this ABC Model: “I blew up on a 2k test, I suck at this and will never PR,” which leads to the consequence of feeling unmotivated and disappointed. A cognitively reframed ABC for a failed 2k test might be: “I didn’t achieve my 2k test goal, I know I can get it if next time I do ____ better,” which resets the goal for the next test and includes a proactive action item for the rower to take. Try to be aware of your own ABC models–how does a bad water workout, grueling land workout, or missing the A boat affect your beliefs and what consequence does that have?

Positive Self-Talk

Think of positive self-talk as just saying to yourself what you’d say to a close friend or teammate experiencing the same problem. Keeping your inner narrative positive is a real key to long-term success in sport.

Self-talk describes your internal narrative as you perform an activity. This goes with cognitive reframing to some extent, but is more in the moment. When you are erging or training, it is important to maintain all of the positive mindset that you have built up before training. All of your mental training does you no good if things go wrong on your first stroke and you flinch back to, “ugh, this hurts and I’m no good at this.” It is crucial that this self-talk is positive, especially when things are going poorly, to maintain concentration and self-confidence.

Coxswains: Often, you ARE the source of positive talk for your rowers. It’s important to know what sort of activating events can lead to a negative belief and negative consequences so you know how to reframe that as a challenge with a potentially positive outcome. For example, the “A” is a boat walking on you in a race. Your rowers’ “B” might be “they’re gaining on us, we’re screwed,” which has the consequence of them losing motivation. If you can pre-empt their negative belief with your own positive call, you can turn that adverse event into a positive challenge. You also have to be positive in your own self-talk. You won’t always get the A boat, rowers won’t always like you, and you’ll probably someday hit a dock or another boat. How you manage these adverse events has a lot to do with your own mental mindset.

Part 2: Visualization, pre-practice, pre-performance, and mental reset routines

Part 3: Arousal management, injuries, and putting it all together

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