Mental Toughness for Rowing Performance.

‘It’s OK for you, you are mentally strong’.

‘It’s OK for you, you are good at rowing – you love it’!

I have heard people say these things to me on many occasions. Whether they are true or not is a different story, but what is certainly true is that we are not born with these qualities. They are developed over time with effort, discipline and personal experiences.

In rowing terms mental toughness is often attached to those individuals who keep going when things get tough and where others would perhaps give in. I think it is widely accepted that rowing performance is at least as much a mental battle as it is a physical one, if the brain starts to give in then the body will nearly always follow. A positive (and realistic) mental approach will not guarantee success, but a negative one will almost always lead to a struggle and this is something that we are in control of. I have had many days where I have had a double session scheduled and the morning felt terrible so I feared the evening, yet it went well. This has taught me that there are so many variables in how we feel and perform that we must aim for a mindset where we take each session as it comes. Work with facts and not emotions.

Why do we feel we need to stop?

Putting the handle down (HD or stopping) is common terminology in the rowing community. Some people are more guilty than others, but we are all human so I think it is a situation and subsequent feeling we can all relate to at some point. Generally after an HD we feel angry and wish we had carried on as the pain of giving in is mentally far harder to deal with than the short term pain at the time of the physical effort. Nearly always this is NOT because of the pain that we are in, but because of the perceived pain that lies ahead. It happens far less in training sessions than it does in a time trial when we see our target time drift away as things get tough and the doubts set in. Yet we have been in as much, or more pain, in many training sessions before. The danger of stopping is that will slowly become a habit and more acceptable in the long term

The desire to stop also happens more as our individual performances improve and we near our capacity. The margins we are chasing become finer, meaning the greater the mental and physical effort that is required from us to hit our targets. With improvement and experience also comes greater expectations from ourselves and/or others. With so many variables (energy, mood, nutrition, sleep, hormones, hydration, time of day, health) these fine margins are easily effected so the need for mental toughness grows to ensure those and those greater expectations don’t seem further away.

So what should we do to start to overcome this?

The biggest factor (not easy at all) is to try and work with facts at the time and not your emotions of what you perceive to lie ahead. Be mindful. The pain will rarely be as bad as we imagine and when it does hit, you are close enough to the end by then for us to embrace it and get across the line. There is a critical point (often half way, but not always) where the finish line goes from seemingly miles away to within our reach. This is the first point to aim for when we start to struggle as getting to that point changes our outlook. If the desire to put the handle down is still too big then rather than stop, just back off the pace for a short while. Count strokes in groups of 10 then reassess, even take it a stroke at a time if necessary. These tactics will have a far greater effect on recovery than you think and will also get you mentally and physically closer to the finish.

What happens if we still get the same mental block repeatedly?

If you have applied all the above then quite simply you must at some point carry on when you want to stop. Nobody else can do this bit for you. Even if it means slowing down to below your target. This builds belief for the next time that you can get through also and perhaps at a faster pace. Toughing it out through the hard sessions is in fact building our future performances and the sessions we struggle in are far more important than the straight forward ones for building our physical and mental strength.

Mental strength comes in many forms, from having the discipline and consistency to train when it feels like the last thing we want to do, to not stopping at those vital times when we desperately want to. One thing for sure is that becoming mentally strong doesn’t happen overnight, but takes time to build. We also must recognise that many of these mental hurdles that present themselves will not go away no matter how experienced we get, it is a case of learning how to best deal with them. The good news is that you can make a start with your very next session.

Happy rowing.



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