How to Survive Winter Training: The light at the end of the tunnel

Previously: Rowers || Coxswains || Music + TV

Lately I’ve gotten a couple emails and questions about how to make it through the winter season mentally in tact so I figured that was enough to warrant its own post. I wrote this with those in mind whose teams aren’t doing anything organized over the winter but the more I wrote, the more I realized that this is really for everyone. There’s going to be a point during the winter when everyone is going to have that “blah” feeling, so even if you are lucky enough to have your coaches and teammates around you on a daily basis, this is for you too. I reference a lot of college-y stuff too – that’s just out of habit. This is most definitely for high schoolers, in addition to collegiate rowers. And coxswains, don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you either. Just because we aren’t necessarily following a training program like the rowers doesn’t mean we can’t still experience that drop in motivation over the winter.

What do you do when you’re on your own? When your team has closed up shop for the winter and your training is up to you? When your motivation is at an all time low because all you can see in front of you are four long months of erging, lifting, and the proverbial lack of light at the end of the tunnel…

You sit down and you think about three things. One, why did you join this sport? Two, what do you want to get out of it? Three, where do you want to be in five months when spring season is in full swing? Think about your answers. REALLY think about them. None of this “I joined because of my friends, I want to have fun and compete, I want to be on the podium” bullshit. That answer is OK for runners and swimmers and basketball players. No. YOU are a rower. You can’t be in this sport if you can’t come up with more complex, more REAL answers than that. THINK. What are you here for?  Once you’ve answered those questions, look at yourself again. Think about the common thread between all three of your answers. It’s the same, no matter what your answer is or who you are or what team you row for or whether you’ve been rowing for three months or three years. Know what it is?

Hard. Fucking. Work.

You wouldn’t have joined this sport if you weren’t ready for the hours of commitment each day or the amount of physical exertion it required. You wouldn’t have joined this sport if you didn’t have goals and expectations for yourself. You wouldn’t be HERE right now, getting ready for spring season, if you didn’t want MORE. Hard work prepared you for it and hard work is going to get you through it. The work never stops. If you’ve lost your motivation, there comes a time when you realize you need to find it again if that hard work is going to continue. That time is now. I’ve gone through many periods of lost motivation over the last few years and each time I look back on those periods I realize that it comes down to three simple things:

Related: Words.

I don’t think I can do it, so why bother trying … I don’t know what I want, so do I even want anything … I have no direction, so what am I even doing all of this for…

For most people, I think these are the three main reasons why we lose our drive. With rowing, if you spent the fall season frustrated by your erg scores, splits, spot in the boat, etc. it can weigh on you and make you lose confidence in yourself. If your focus is all over the place to the point where everything is a blur, it’ll make you wonder if you really want anything at all. If you don’t know what you’re training for, it’s hard to get started because there isn’t anything tangible to latch your motivation onto (yet). Remember how I said there comes a time when you have to find your motivation again and that time is now? I mean it. That time is RIGHT fucking now. Look in the mirror and tell the person looking back at you to get their shit together. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to figure out what you want and how you’re going to get it.

Why did you join this sport?

You joined this sport because you wanted a challenge. Sure, the allure of a new sport was there but you were really in it for the adrenaline rush. That feeling of pushing your body to the brink, of knowing what the brink felt like. You stuck with it because you felt that adrenaline running through you when the official dropped the flag and you realized in that moment that you don’t ever want to NOT feel like this. You stuck with it because you know your body still has more to give, that you haven’t pushed yourself hard enough yet, that you can go harder.

What do you want to get out of it?

People start rowing with a lot of “wants”. They want to get in shape, they want to win … that’s fine. No sarcasm. It shows you have goals and like with life, it’s hard to move forward if you don’t know what you’re moving towards. As your rowing progresses, your goals are going to evolve. Like you, they’ll mature. They’ll go from “wanting to win” to “placing in the top 3 of the Grand Final at Dad Vails”, from “wanting to lose weight” to “increasing your squat PR by 45lbs by the end of the season”. You might not know what those goals are yet (which is why most people start to lose motivation when December rolls around) so you have to set new ones. It’s like New Year’s resolutions, except better, because you’ll actually stick to these.

Take some time and really think about what you want for yourself this year. Put your team and your boat aside for a moment and think about YOU. Grab a calendar for each month from now until the end of your season. Sit down and think about what your goals are and when you want to achieve them by. Goals can be ANYTHING – hence why they’re personal goals. Remember to make them tangible, relevant, and something that is genuinely attainable with the proper amount of work and commitment.

Now that you have that written down, think about how you’re going to attain each goal. What’s it going to take? What are you going to have to do over the next few months (potentially on your own with no outside motivation) to make sure those goals are met? Make a list and hang it and the calendar up somewhere where you are going to see it each day. I mean it – every day. A day should not go by over the next few months that you don’t see those two pieces of paper. As the days go by and you begin meeting your goals, cross them off.

As the season progresses, your goals might change or need to be modified. That’s OK. It’s not a sign of failure, AS LONG AS you aren’t changing them simply because you weren’t putting the effort in to meet the original ones. The goal of this goal-setting is to give yourself something to work WITH and something to work TOWARDS.

Where do you want to be once spring season is in full swing

 This is a question that most people think there’s only one answer to – “I want to be on the dock in Worcester getting a Sprints medal.” Awesome, but no. Mentally, where do you want to be? You want to be in that place, that place that only athletes know. That place that is the most evil and beautiful combination of tranquility and intensity where you can feel yourself getting stronger, mentally and physically, as you start knocking down walls, brick by fucking brick.

Psychologically, you want to be 100% sure of the fact that you spent the entire winter busting your ass to get to where you are right now. You don’t want to get back on the water in March wishing you’d erged more over the winter or be about to seat race in April wishing you’d gone to those optional lifts – you want to KNOW that you did exactly what you needed to do and THEN some. Remember what I said about attitude? Prime example, right here. Your mentality is everything and the one you have when you wake up each morning can make or break you.

Now that you’ve got the “whys, whats, and wheres” figured out, it’s time to figure out the “whos”, “hows”, and “whens”. The “who” is that person that is going to be there to push you, to motivate you, to kick your ass when you can’t kick it yourself, to tell you that you deserve it, you want it, you’ve worked for it, and it’s yours to take. I am a firm believer in always being there for yourself before you’re there for anyone else, so the first person on your list of “who” should be you. Sometimes you’ve got to split yourself in two so that the part of you that wants to give up can be pushed by the part of you that has their eyes on the prize or so that the part of you that always knew you could do it can congratulate the part of you that just did it. Whoever comes next on your list is up to you. Parents, friends, teammates, siblings, coaches, mentors, teachers, significant others, etc. – it doesn’t matter who they are.

Next, the “hows”. How are you going to make it through the next five months? Through the next 5k? Through the next lifting session? Through the next run? Simple. One day, one stroke, one lift, and one step at a time. Don’t look at it as being the same day, stroke, lift, or step all the time … it’s one at a time. If you made it through the last one, you will make it through this one. Confidence and assurance in yourself will get you through winter training. Know how each part of your winter training is going to affect you when you’re in the boat. Those squats, deadlifts, leg presses, and jumpies? They’re all building up your leg muscles so you can explode off the stretchers at the top quarter of the slide.

Every time you do one of those exercises, think about that. When you do the second set that is 10lbs heavier than the first and you feel like you can’t get through one rep, let alone ten, think about the start of your race at NCAAs in May. Think about the final sprint against Harvard, Brown, and Washington at IRAs. Think about that move in the middle of a race, the one your coxswain saves for just the right moment. You want to build up as much strength as you can for THOSE moments. Don’t think about how sore you are from the bench pulls and pull ups you did yesterday – think about how happy you’re going to feel when you’re sore in May but you’ve got a medal around your neck to show for it. Remember, you’re stronger than you were yesterday, but not as strong as you will be tomorrow.

There are two outcomes to winter training, both relating to how you feel. You can either feel proud, encouraged, motivated, and strong or you can feel disappointed and “meh”. How much effort you put into training is going to effect how you feel when the winter season ends. We both know which one you should be aiming for, so … how are you going to go about getting there?

Finally, the “whens”. Finals, holidays, and life all get in the way of training if we let it. Don’t take that as saying rowing should be a higher priority than all of those – theoretically it shouldn’t but in reality, to some, it probably is. Priorities are good. It’s up to you to look at your schedule, look at your activities, etc. and figure out your order of priorities. Where does training fit in? Even if your coach doesn’t give you a set schedule for the winter, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one. One of the best ways to make sure you stick to your training is to schedule a specific time every single day when you’re going to erg, run, bike, lift, etc. Treat that block of time like you would class – you wouldn’t skip or schedule something during a lecture, so why would you do that during your scheduled practice period?

Now some of you are probably thinking, “um, hi, we’re in college – of course we’re going to skip class.” I know you are. I did. But think about this scenario for a second – the first few weeks of class are always boring and you don’t really learn much but then there are those few occasions where the midterm or the final rolls around and you’re thinking to yourself “DAMMIT. I should have gone to those first few lectures…”. Sure, you might end up doing OK on the exam but think about how much better you would have done if you’d gone to all 15 lectures instead of just 10. Your races are your exams, conference championships are your midterms, and NCAAs are your finals. Sure, you might do alright if you go to 30 winter training sessions, but imagine how much more you could have achieved if you’d gone to all 50. Make a schedule and stick to it. The benefit of winter training, especially on your own, is that the times are usually way less strict than they are during the fall and spring. Your coach might give you the workouts and say “do this on Monday, this on Tuesday, etc.” but on your own time. If you don’t want to wake up at 5:30am to go to the gym during the winter, then don’t. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re more committed just like not doing so doesn’t mean you’re less committed. Find a time that works for you and stick to it. That’s all that really matters.

You’re a rower, which means we can assume a lot of things about you. One is that you’re a team player. You’re someone’s teammate. Rowing is not an individual’s sport – you simply cannot be an individual and be a part of a crew. Even if you’re a sculler in a single, it can’t be done. Why? Because your team has goals. Your team wants to win the overall points trophy. Your team wants to be the first three time defending champion at Junior Nationals. That can’t be accomplished if even one person thinks about “me” instead of “us”.

If motivation for yourself is ever lacking , take a second and think about your team. Think about how your performance is going to directly effect the eight other people in your boat and the 54 other people on your team. Don’t be that teammate that slacks off and thinks they can get away with it by “pulling hard”. There’s one on every team and it doesn’t take long to figure out who it is.

Before you go on Christmas break, sit down with your boat or your team and figure out what the preliminary goals are for the spring. Look at past results from regattas and determine where you’re capable of placing this year. Set team goals for weight lifting (a 1RM squat average of 200lbs for the boat), 2ks (everyone under 7:35), etc. Add these goals to your calendar so you see them along with your own goals. Work towards them with the same intensity as you are your own and know that everyone else in your boat is working towards those same goals. They’re just as tired and sore as you are right now, but in five months, would you want to share the podium with someone who isn’t tired and sore? No. You are not nine individuals, you are ONE eight. Remember that.

Winter training is a psychological battleground to see who’s willing to put the effort in on the days when they don’t want to. It’s a test of discipline and doing what you know needs to be done when you don’t want to do it. You will make it through and you will be a stronger person when you make it to the other side. You’ve got what it takes – you’re an athlete! You’re part of an exclusive club that doesn’t let just anyone join. Keep your chins up – you got this.

Next week: 2k strategy

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