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!

Question of the Day

Hi! I am a recently graduated high school senior that, due to my birth year, has to race U23 this summer. Do you have any tips on how to make the transition from junior to intermediate rowing easier? I will be competing at some major races this summer (IDR, Henley) so any info on how to get into a U23 training mentality would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!!

I think the best/most important piece of advice is to just go into it with an open mind and be coachable. You’ll definitely be pushed at a level higher than you probably have been thus far so your mentality has to be one of holding yourself accountable to doing the work more than anything else. Don’t overlook the simple stuff either – Wes Ng talked about this at one of the camps I was at last year and it’s all great advice that would definitely apply to your situation. That post is linked below.

Related: 10 simple things you can do to be a better athlete

One of the things I remember friends in college saying about moving up to U23s (and college rowing in general) was how much more seriously they had to take their recovery. The changes in training were obvious but if you don’t follow that up by adapting how you recover, the training itself will be less effective.

They all also kept pretty detailed training journals but one also kept a separate recovery journal where he detailed the different routines/recovery methods he tried before finding the “sweet spot” of what worked, in addition to laying out his thoughts on how he was feeling mentally about training, what hurdles he was facing and how he overcame them (particularly when it came to hitting new PRs), etc. Ultimately I think that journal (which was a physical notebook compared to an Excel doc for his training journal) proved to be the most useful tool for him simply because of the introspection it allowed. It’s not something that works for everyone, which is fine, but it’s definitely something worth trying to see if it helps you too.

For him (and a lot of other rowers I know), being more in touch with the mental/emotional side of training helped in a lot of different ways (the least of which being able to train smarter) but it all went back to holding himself accountable to keeping those journals in the first place so he could track his progress/mentality throughout the season.

Video of the Week: Should you workout when you’re sick?

I’ve talked about this before but this video does a good job of explaining how to know if you’re good to continue working out while you’re sick or if you should just stay home.

Related: How to train when you’re sick … as a rower

Like they said, it’s better to lose a small amount of gains by taking time off when you first start feeling sick than it is to prolong your illness by continuing to workout, which can ultimately end up costing you more in the long run.

Training: Overtraining vs. Burnout

Now that we’re approaching the midway point of the winter training season, I wanted to follow up on the previous training post on pain vs. soreness and talk about overtraining and burnout. Today’s post is a super brief overview of what both are so that as we continue through the winter months you (rowers and coxswains) can be aware of the signs + symptoms and hopefully catch yourself (or a teammate) if you suspect you’re experiencing one or the other.

Overtraining

The simplest definition is this: overtraining is the result of working your body too hard and putting it under more stress than it can handle. It occurs when you go through a period of high intensity training and fail to give yourself enough time to properly recover and repair the damage done to the muscles. Since overtraining happens over time rather than with a sudden onset it can be tough to nail down whether or not that’s what you’re actually experiencing – an easy way to tell if that’s what’s going on (or if you’re trending in that direction) is if you experience “unexplained underperformance for approximately two weeks even after having adequate resting time”.

When you push your body despite it telling you that you need to back off, your performance is gonna suffer (or the very least plateau) because muscles that are this fatigued aren’t able to work as efficiently or respond as quickly as muscles that are receiving an adequate amount of rest post-workout. (This is another reason why it’s important to know the difference between pain and soreness.)

Related: Training: Pushing hard and pain vs. soreness

It can be easy to explain away the more obvious physical symptoms of overtraining (having trouble finishing workouts, having low energy, insomnia, etc.) but one of the stand out symptoms is an elevated resting heart rate over the course of a few days post-workout. Tracking your resting heart rate is good practice in general but it can be really useful in instances to help you identify what’s going on with your body.

If in the two to three days following a hard workout you notice that when you wake up in the morning (i.e. after a sufficient period of rest) your RHR has increased from its usual average of (for example) 52 BPM to 60 BPM, that can be an indication that your body hasn’t fully recovered from that workout. Keep in mind too that RHR is pretty variable – a fluctuation of a couple beats is normal but what you’re looking for in this case is an increase of 5-7 BPM above what your normal average is.

Now, obviously one data point isn’t enough to declare yourself “overtrained” but if you continue tracking your RHR in the mornings and see that over the course of two or three weeks it continues to rise, it’s likely that you are overtraining and need to take a step back to give your body more time to recover between practices.

Burnout

Burnout and overtraining tend to get used synonymously but where overtraining is a type of physical stress, burnout is a type psychological stress that’s characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion. You tend to lose interest and motivation in your sport (before developing aggressively strong aversions or resentment towards it if you continue trying to train), your energy levels are pretty low, and there’s this nagging feeling like you’re fighting a losing battle because regardless of how much (genuine) effort you put in, you’re not satisfied with the results you got and/or you’re not achieving the ones you want.

One of the things that leads to burnout is not having any semblance of balance between rowing and your actual life. There’s a big difference between “loving” it and being so obsessed with it that you become what’s known as a “24 hour athlete”, where you essentially live and breathe crew to the point where you have no time for anything else (social or otherwise). The resulting loss of your internal motivations leaves you with only external “obligations” to continue on with the sport – the big one that we’ve all probably experienced at some point is not wanting to let down our coaches, teammates, or parents.

Another factor that can lead to burnout is one I struggle with and know other coxswains will relate to as well: self-imposed unrealistic expectations. This leads to the same loss of energy, motivation, and interest in participation that I mentioned before because you’re consistently failing to meet standards that go beyond what would be considered reasonably achievable in any normal situation. When you hit that tipping point (which is different for everyone but you know it when you experience it), you find that you’re just exhausted trying to process everything to the point where all you want to do is … nothing … and even that can seem like it’s too much effort.

The process of recovery here is a little more complex thanks to the scales being tipped more towards the mental wellbeing side than the physical side. That’s not to say there isn’t a physical component, it’s just not as prevalent as with overtraining. When it comes to burnout, an extended period of time off is usually the first step, mainly because it helps you clear your head which in most cases is what’s needed the most. Another step is reevaluating your goals … or if you didn’t have any concrete goals to begin with, developing some so that you’ve at least got something to work towards rather than just aimlessly going to practice each day without any actual reason to (beyond those external obligations).

Recovery from burnout isn’t a quick process. With overtraining you can take a week or two off to let your body sort itself out but with burnout … burnout gnaws away at you over a really long period of time which means the time it takes you to get back to 100% isn’t a matter of weeks but rather a matter of months. I took five years off from rowing (and sports completely) before I felt like I was mentally and emotionally stable enough to jump back into it. When you consider that burnout is usually coupled with anxiety and/or depression too, it makes sense why taking an extended time off is the healthy and necessary thing to do … it’s just a matter of convincing yourself that it’s actually OK to do that, which in my experience is the hardest part.

There’s a lot more that goes into overtraining and burnout than what I’ve listed here so I’d definitely recommend doing some research on your own so you can educate yourself further on the signs + symptoms (and dangers) of both. Between the horde of exercise physiology and sports psych classes I took in college, I read a ton of papers on this so you’re interested in reading some actual peer-reviewed research, let me know and I’ll dig out the links to the ones we spent the bulk of our time discussing. If you wanna read something a little less dense, Wikipedia and the NCAA both give a solid overviews, as does this article from The New York Times called “Crash and Burnout“.