Question of the Day

I was talking to my coach about what boats I was in consideration for going into the following year, and I got some really great news – he’s looking at me for our V8+ (top boat at my club)! The only bad thing is what came after that. Basically he said, “you could be coxing the V8+ … if you get your anxiety under control.” At first, I thought that was way out of line, but honestly, the havoc my anxiety wreaks on my overall mental health and well being is debilitating, and there’s really no way improving that could hurt in any capacity, so I’m realizing he’s probably got a point. How do you suggest dealing with overall rational requests of a coach when they entail changing something a bit more personal than technique like this?

This is a great question. I definitely see how your first impression was that it was out of line but if you’ve got a good (or at least cordial) relationship with your coach and they didn’t say it with any biting undertones then I wouldn’t take it the wrong way. I’ve said pretty much the exact same thing (with varying tones of empathy and frustration depending on the situation) to one of the MIT coxswains but we’ve had a great relationship for the last three years so even when she’d get pissed at me for saying it, she knew it was coming from a friend who genuinely had her best interests in mind.

I deal with anxiety too and agree that it wrecks havoc on pretty much everything … and the fallout from that just creates even more stress. When it comes to managing it in the context of coxing for example, it seems like a common mistake (that I’ve definitely made too, numerous times) is finding ways to deal with it only in the context of coxing rather than trying to identify and address the actual underlying causes/issues. Like, you can get better at steering or whatever if that’s something you’ve struggled with but if you still suffer sudden and intense bouts of anxiety when you’re on the water, basically all you did was the equivalent of putting a band aid on a bullet wound.

Here’s a couple suggestions – some traditional, some anecdotal – that you might consider.

The first approach is to talk to someone. Not just anyone either, someone who ‘s trained in dealing with stuff like this. If you’re in college, reach out to student health or whatever your version of student support services is and make an appointment. You typically get a certain number of free appointments each semester or year before your insurance takes over so take advantage of it. Similarly, most athletic departments will have a sport psychologist on staff or they’ll have a relationship with one in the local community that they can set you up with.

If you’re still in high school, on your parent’s insurance, etc. … basically if you’re in a situation where you can’t seek treatment without their consent/approval … that’s obviously tough. And yea, it’s probably tempting to not say anything at all because you think it’s embarrassing or whatever but you’ve gotta gauge your personal situation and make that call. Some parents are cool about working with you on stuff like this (and not making a big deal out of it, which is key), others not so much. I think most parents are decent enough though that they’ll get you the help you need if you talk to them about it (as frustrating or awkward as that conversation might initially be).

The second approach ties into the first but in terms of managing your anxiety, behavioral therapy or medication are two options. I know people who utilize CBT, others take medication, some do both, and a couple do neither. One of those friends was a coxswain and he took medication to manage the day-to-day symptoms while also working with a sport psychologist and doing CBT during the school year to help him develop strategies to deal with the rowing-specific symptoms.

Another friend (who didn’t row but did track & field for four years in college) takes a very #millennial approach and uses two apps – Headspace and Pacifica – to help her keep things under control. She said she’s been using Headspace since her senior year but just started using Pacifica after her anxiety got worse while studying for the bar exam two years ago. She didn’t have time to make regular appointments with a doctor or deal with any potential side effects from medication (on top of not having health insurance) so that’s why this approach made the most sense for her.

The bottom line is that stuff like this is just as much of a normal medical problem as any other illness we encounter and we should treat it as such. Have you ever gotten a cold and ignored it because “it’s not like I have pneumonia, it’s not that serious” but you were miserable as fuck for the duration of it, even though you could have knocked it out in two or three days if you’d just gone to the doctor? Whatever preconceived notions you might have about whether people will take you seriously, judge you for asking for help, or think you’re “just not tough enough”, you’ve gotta put that out of your head and not let that keep you from doing what’s best for you. Coxing only lasts for a short period of time but you’ve gotta live with yourself forever so, like you said, it’s not like taking steps to improve your overall wellbeing can hurt.

Below is an email I got from a college coxswain about her experience with anxiety, how she handles it, and how having less-than-supportive coaches can undermine your efforts to get better. There’s a whole “devil’s advocate” discussion to be had about taking someone out of the boat for a short period of time vs. actually kicking them out of it permanently that I won’t get into right now but for the coaches that are reading, seriously, don’t be dicks about shit like this. If your athletes are confiding in you, especially on the recommendation of their doctor, maybe work with them instead of kicking them while they’re down. I can’t believe that’s something that even needs to be said.

“I’ve been coxing at the collegiate level for over two years now..and I’ve had my current coach for two years. I was encouraged by the sports psychologist at school to tell my coach, as she said he couldn’t use it against me. Despite my better judgement, I went ahead and told him. Things were great at first, but I went from being with the top two boats to not having a boat.  He brings up my anxiety every time we talk, and I have come to feel as though he’s put me in a corner as a result. My psychologist at school is actually going to be talking to him about this because the fact that he always brings it up, makes me anxious. It sucks and it’s not fair.

I have really bad anxiety and have played sports competitively my entire life. I’ve always managed to “face my fear” and have learned that by doing so, it makes my anxiety a little more tolerable. It’s not something that goes away(even though I take medication for it and use various techniques as well), but rather something I’ve come to accept and make the most of. I try to remember that they’re only feelings, although easier said than done.

I don’t recommend telling teammates, as they have never been able to understand and basically have just used it against me and underestimate my ability to cox. Especially when it comes to racing, which is one of the times I know how to handle my anxiety best(from experience and sports background). I kick ass when it comes to racing, but it’s more so practices that are a bit of an issue. I tend to second guess myself a lot because of my anxiety, and don’t allow myself to take as much credit as I should. For example, I am notorious for my ability to steer a great course, however if I think about it too much, I start worrying and begin to snake.

Anxiety is a real bitch, but I’m learning to “stay in the present” which has been really helpful. There’s a super short and helpful book that I recommend to just about everyone (those who have anxiety as well as those who don’t) called “F*CK Anxiety; Hardcore Self-Help” by Robert Duff. He’s so funny and down to earth, yet helps you better understand your anxiety regardless of the type. He provides helpful tips for what to do when you are anxious and how to essentially prevent your anxiety from taking the joy out of things. For those looking to understand anxiety a little better, I highly recommend it. This book has changed my ability to cox and has helped me better cope with my shitty anxiety.

But as far as whether to tell coaches and teammates, that depends. Just know there’s a big risk in doing so, as I have learned the hard way. My last coach used it against me as well. I have one year of coxing left, and I’m determined to get a good boat. I wish someone had been able to provide me with this info back when I started, which is why I felt so compelled to share my experiences.”

A couple other coxswains (four collegiate, two junior – two guys, four girls) also emailed to say that they deal with varying levels of anxiety that have at one point or another kept them out of a boat they were in competition for. Even though the situations differed (coxing people they were unfamiliar with, feeling underprepared and overwhelmed, not feeling confident in a given skill (steering and technique being the main ones), etc.), the common symptom, side-effect, whatever you want to call it … was that they’d just shut down and not talk for the majority of practice. Two of them said they were actively taking medication and the others said they weren’t doing anything for it (either because they aren’t sure what to do, don’t want to bring it up to their coaches/parents, etc.).

So … you’re not alone in this. I think we all experience anxiety to some extent during our careers but not all of us know how to get help or handle it so hearing the perspectives of our peers can make a huge difference. Like you said, your coach’s request was a rational one that can only benefit you in the long run so I hope there’s something up there that helps. Feel free to shoot me an email though if you wanna talk more about this and if anyone else has any other advice they wanna share, please leave it in the comments!

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