Mental Skills for Rowing: Part 3

Part 1: Goal-setting, progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive reframing, and positive self-talk

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

We’ll discuss the final two mental skills and wrap the series up with how to put them all together in a training plan for better training sessions and improved performance.

7. Arousal Management

  • Recognize when you’re outside your optimal zone of arousal and learn how to increase or decrease your arousal accordingly
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Source: ncaa.org

The idea of “zones of arousal” is simply that everyone has their own level of emotional excitement or relaxation at which they function and perform best. I’ve known people who need to get slapped silly to get amped up enough to be at their best, and I’ve known the “zen masters” who are so relaxed before a race that they could be asleep. Both of these athletes are at their own optimal level of arousal. What’s yours? If you recognize that you’re outside the zone of arousal too high or too low, what do you do?

Strength coach and professional strongman Bryan Barrett wrote a great article here about how to increase and decrease arousal using visualization, breathing, and music. Every athlete should have a few different tools in their toolbox.

Combining other skills, such as visualization with breathing, visualization and PMR, PMR and breathing, and using routines is also an effective way to regulate your arousal levels.

COXSWAINS: Your control of your own energy is critical to your rowers’ success. If you’re nervous or anxious before a race and rowers can feel it in your calls and commands, it will likely rub off on them. If you’re too emotionally high before a race, it could result in them expending too much energy early on and hitting the wall. Too emotionally low and they may have trouble getting amped up themselves. Tune into where your rowers’ zone of arousal is and be the emotional leader of your boat.

8. Injuries

  • Use basic mental skills while healthy to prepare for the possibility of injury and make re-entry to competitive sport easier after an injury

Injuries are a risk of any activity, but particularly competitive sport. I wrote an article for Rufo Optimal Workouts detailing how to use sport psychology and the power of positivity to overcome sport injuries. The key points are:

  • Accept that injury risk is inherent in competitive sport
  • Do everything you can under your own control to prevent injuries [6 Tenets of Injury Prevention]
  • If you do get injured, maintain a mindset of positivity and acceptance, then find ways to train around the injury.
  • Stay connected with the team
  • Have a re-entry plan to return to training and competing

COXSWAINS: Help play the critical role of keeping athletes engaged when injured. If someone in your boat gets injured, take point on making sure to check in with that athlete and make sure they stay up-to-date on sport and social events.

Putting it all together

Now you have several different mental skills in your toolbox, so how do you put them together into a training plan? It’s important to realize that just like there’s no perfect training plan in mental training just like in physical training. The best answer is to just start with one variable and experiment from there. Here are some ideas for incorporating these skills into your training:

  • Set some SMART goals for physical and/or mental training. A SMART goal for mental training might be, “practice PMR for 10 minutes four times during the week for one month, then five times during the week for the second month.”
  • Write out a few adverse training situations you’ve experienced and do the ABC exercise for cognitive reframing. Start with three and commit to cognitively reframing when those situations arise. Every rower can think of three adverse situations–weather, fatigue, technical struggles….?
  • Make time the night before practice to review the next day’s training. Start by just looking at the workout ahead of time if you know it and taking note of any particular pieces or technical emphases. Once this is routine, add in visualization for a challenging part or two of the training session. This can be a heavy lift, maximal piece, and/or technical emphasis.
  • Try out a relaxation practice such as PMR or meditative breathing before going to bed or taking a nap.
  • Write out a pre-practice routine and stick to it for at least two weeks.
  • Come up with a mental reset routine for yourself and stick to it for at least two weeks.

As rowers spend the vast majority of their time training compared to competing, most of these suggestions are aimed at incorporating mental skills into a practice situation rather than a competitive situation. It will also be much easier to use these skills in competition once you’ve practiced them in low stress practice situations. As you’ll see from the examples below, it’s much easier to apply practice mental skills to competitive mental skills once you have them dialed in.

  • Set SMART goals for races and erg tests.
  • Write out some adverse events that can come up in testing and racing and do a cognitive reframing ABC model for them to be prepared.
  • Review race courses, race plans, and do visualization leading up to the test or race.
  • Learn what relaxation techniques you respond best to to ease anxiety before a test or race.
  • Modify your pre-practice routine to be a pre-race routine, including warmup, pre-race meals, and any additional routines you’ve responded well to in training.
  • Remember to use your mental reset routine if you need to during race warmups.

Just like with physical training, building a great base of mental fortitude and positivity carries over excellently to performing well in competition. If you spend 90% of your season training, cognitively reframing and positive self-talking when adverse events come up, setting effective goals and checking off progress points, recovering more efficiently between sessions thanks to relaxation and improved sleep, and enjoying better, more focused training sessions due to superior mental preparedness, your mental armor will be so strong that nothing will be capable of fazing you during that 10% of competition.

Make sure to tune in this coming Sunday, April 17th, to the next episode of the Strength Coach Roundtable at Rowperfect UK. Co-rowing strength coaches Blake Gourley, Joe Deleo, and I will be talking all about strength training specifically for rowing performance–favorite exercises, tips for improving carryover to the water/erg, and more.

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