The Mental Game

Previously: The language of the first 500 || Getting off the line with world class speed

Dr. Adam Naylor is a sport psychologist at BU and Northeastern and his talk at the What Works Summit on the mental aspect of being ready on race day is the focus of this week’s post. We pay so much attention to making sure we’re technically and physiologically ready but we tend to not give as much thought to preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally. This leads to having lackluster levels of confidence that can manifest itself in many negative ways on race day.

Related: What Works Summit

For us as coxswains (especially if you’re new to the sport) it can be tough because not only do you have to sort out your own mental state on race day but you’ve also potentially gotta sort out eight other people’s as well. It’s hard to act as the unifying force in the boat if you don’t know how to do that. Hopefully what’s down below will give you some strategies for how to approach this on race day so you and your crew will be just as prepared mentally as you are physically.

How to help athletes manage themselves

On race day, what do you see in your teammates? The first response given during the talk was “panic”, which prompted a side conversation on how panic manifests itself in the athletes. You can see the look of panic or distress or anxiety in their eyes but what effect is it actually having on their bodies? In my experience, it usually meant my friends were very tense, very quiet, and/or very antsy. Their shoulders would be up around their ears, they wouldn’t be saying a word (which, for high school and college-aged women, is unusual), and they’d be pacing back and forth, walking in circles around the trailer, or incessantly tapping their fingers against their thighs.

The easy response to all of this would be to say “just relax” but the reason why it’s easy is because it’s not helpful. You know how when you’re in an argument with someone and they say “chill out” or “relax” in response to your frustration and it just pisses you off even more? The same thing applies here. Having someone say “relax” when you’re anxious just makes you even more anxious because your brain is going all over the place and you can’t process what you actually need to do to calm down.

The better response is to tell them how to relax. Sometimes this is something you can do one-on-one (a recent example is me putting my hands on our coxswains’ shoulders, looking them in the eye, and saying “breathe … you got this” before they go out) but other times it’s something you can/should do as a crew. One year one of my boats would circle up and we’d actually do breathing exercises together for ten minutes as part of our land warmup. We had this whole “routine” that our five seat (who was really into yoga and meditation) would talk us through that involved a lot of “close your eyes, drop your shoulders, inhale through your nose for a count of five, exhale for a count of five…”, etc.

Similar to coxing rowers on the erg though, you’ve also gotta know when to leave them alone. There are guys on our team who come to the boathouse on race day super tense and completely unlike their usual selves and their way of loosening up is to spend 40 minutes foam-rolling, listening to music, and standing out on the boathouse balcony by themselves. It’s funny seeing them standing 5-10 feet apart just doing their own thing (even though they’re all pretty much doing the exact same thing) but it works.

As the coxswain you have to know your rowers and know which approach is going to be the most beneficial – both of which requires you to communicate with them. If you’re coxing girls the team/social approach might work best whereas with guys, letting them have some time to themselves before getting together as a group might be the best strategy. Regardless of what you do though, consider the language you use on land, on the way to the start line, and at the start line and make sure you’re using words that actually help get in the right headspace vs. saying something useless like “just relax”.

Managing ourselves

So, what about us? I have a tendency to be the most calm and the most nervous person on race day, which can be a really tough internal battle to try and manage. When I was a freshman (aka a novice) I would outwardly try to display a really calm, in-control demeanor not just because I knew it was expected of me but also because I knew my teammates were going to mirror my emotions. The more confident I appeared, the more relaxed they would be. Plus, they were varsity rowers and I wanted to give the impression that I could handle the responsibility of coxing them. Internally though, I was usually bouncing off the walls and visualizing all the things that they were outwardly doing … I’d visualize myself tapping my fingers on my legs, jumping up and down or nervously walking in circles, etc.

Even though I was confident in my skills as a coxswain, despite having only been doing it for a few months, I’d sometimes get into these verbal sparring matches with myself where I’d question why I was so confident when I was just a novice and why I was coxing the 1V or the V4+ because no one else really believed I deserved it … they were all just pretending. I would go from being actually confident and actually calm to putting myself on the verge of full on panic attacks like, five minutes before we were supposed to launch.

Related: TED Talks, body language and … coxing?

Keeping all that internalized though is really disastrous though so once my coach picked up on the fact that something was off, we started going on short walks before our scheduled meet-up times and he’d ask how I felt and I’d say “…nervous”, “…ready”, or whatever adjective properly captured my emotions at that moment. It was at this point where he’d stand in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and say “deep breaths … breathe … you got this”, which, as I’ve said in past posts, became my starting line mantra (and what I sometimes do with our coxswains now).

Throughout the rest of high school, in college, and even now I figured out that the best way for me to be in a good headspace before a race is to get away from other people and be by myself. I, like a lot of coxswains, know that I can be very tough, negative, and straight up mean towards myself so to actually be calm and actually be confident before races (rather than faking it in order to appear so), I assess how I’m doing and repeat exactly what my coach said to me. Deep breaths … breathe … you got this. Being honest about how you feel, admitting that you’re nervous, and acknowledging that you can’t predict the outcome of the race is confident and shouldn’t be something you’re afraid to do.

The beauty of sports + the acceptance of the unknown

The beauty of sports, especially rowing, is that you have to give up control in order to do well. Once you start racing at a high enough level you aren’t gonna know the outcome of your race ahead of time. Sometimes in high school it’s easy to predict that this boat is gonna blow that boat out of the water but that becomes less so the deeper into the sport you get. Eventually you have to race the entire race to know what the outcome is and that’s the fun part. 

As a coxswain the thought of giving up control can be hard to wrap your head around, especially if you’re a control freak like most of us. That’s where your awareness kicks in though and why you can’t go into a race with OCD levels of perfectionist tendencies and being hell bent on just spitting out a scripted race plan. Giving up control as a coxswain during a race means being aware of how it’s evolving around you and being confident enough in your skills, your preparation, and your teammates to say “this is what we’re gonna do … it might work out”.  You have to be willing to take risks and remember the stress that comes with it is what makes it fun.

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