With the last few head races of fall complete, this article is for the many rowers who turn with mixed feelings to the erg for winter training. RowingRelated wrote a great article here exploring some of the reasons that many rowers are afraid of the erg, the consequences of that fear, and how coaches and rowers continue to facilitate this fear. A crucial observation in the article is this:

“When compared to other endurance sports like cycling, running, swimming, etc., I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training. A track runner might complain if he or she had to be on the treadmill all winter long, but the idea would not strike fear into his or her heart…” [RowingRelated]

This is an element of rowing culture that has outright negative physical and mental performance consequences and is 100% controllable by the individual. Coaching education and a cultural shift in rowing away from glorifying the negative parts of the sport are necessary to fully eradicating erg fear at the root, but that is a slow path. This article is for the individual rower who acknowledges his or her fear of the erg and wantserg1 to move past it for more productive training and a happier and more balanced mental state. The remainder of this article is based on the premise that erg-fear is a real phenomenon exhibited by many rowers and that this fear is not to be derided, shamed, or celebrated through social media hashtags—it is to be overcome.

“I am really frustrated by our sport when it comes to the erg being viewed as a torture device rather than a helpful tool that people can enjoy. This negative mindset, which is extremely contagious, plagues the sport, preventing athletes from training to their potential and possibly serving as one of the reasons that careers in rowing, at every level, are often so short.” [RowingRelated]

They say that the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. I was afraid of the erg as a rower. I would lose sleep the night before a heavy workout and had to resort to ever-increasing measures to psych myself up when the workouts came around. This is not normal behavior for athletes simply using an alternative training tool for their sport. This is not something that athletes in any sport should have to deal with and it is not a desirable part of rowing culture.

First, write down some of your erg-fearing behaviors. Queasy stomach, suppressed appetite, sweaty palms, sleeplessness, avoidance of workouts, irritability, etc., are all fear symptoms. While some anxiety is normal before any important occasion, such as a race, test, or wedding speech, these are not positive, helpful, or necessary symptoms for routine training.

Time to conquer the erg.

Commit yourself to actually using sport psych practices instead of just giving lip service to the idea.

Do your mental skills training! [ReneeMapes.com]
It’s popular to tout the benefits of sport psych principles, such as goal-setting, visualization, imagery, cognitive reframing, and pre-practice or pre-performance rituals, but how many people actually reliably do them as part of their training? Consider the mental side of performance just like the physical side of performance, and write out a routine for how to work it into your training. Here are some practical suggestions to actually implement these principles in your training.

#1: Cognitive Reframing

A mental adjustment to depict what could be a negative event in a positive way. This is hugely important for this issue specifically. Many rowers have a negative association with the ergometer, despite the fact that most already know the answer to overcoming it–treat the erg as a tool. How many times have you heard that, or even said it yourself? This is an example of cognitive reframing. Every time you start to think about fear of the erg, the erg as a torture device, or any other negative association, STOP yourself and repeat: “the erg is a tool.” You can come up with your own mantra, too.Another easy example is saying “I GET to go erg today,” rather than “I have to go erg today.” Seems silly at first, but it is critical for any cognitive reframing to fake it ’til you make it. It will likely feel corny at first, but the consistency is critical to success, and it will work. Eventually, the negative thoughts will simply stop coming because you have counterattacked them repeatedly with the truth–that the erg is a tool.

#2: Goal setting

Everyone has heard about “S.M.A.R.T goals,” but have you ever actually written one out following the system? “Pull a 6min 2k” is a goal, but it isn’t a S.M.A.R.T goal. Set a few goals this season along the S.M.A.R.T parameters and see if it helps you. Set one big goal and several small goals. Success breeds success, so if you can check off a few of your smaller goals along the way, the bigger goal won’t seem quite so big. To use a big goal of the 6min 2k as an example, this goal would read:

Specific: Pull a 2k erg test in 6 minutes or less

Measurable: The erg provides a good standard for measurement, time and meters, so there’s not a lot to do here to adapt it to rowing.

Action-Oriented: Your goal should be positively worded and action-oriented. “Don’t catch a crab” is negatively worded and not action-oriented, but “pull a 2k in less than 6 minutes” is positive and action-oriented.

Realistic: Is your goal and the timeframe to accomplish it realistic? If you currently have a 6:40 2k, is a 40 second drop in 2 months realistic? Only you can answer this–if you truly believe it is realistic, then go for it, but only set goals that you truly believe you can achieve. Remember, success breeds success and setting overly ambitious goals that make it easy to fail aren’t what we want right now.

Time-Sensitive: Put time parameters on your goal to increase motivation and accountability. You can also set smaller checkpoints along the way. If your goal is to go from a 6:12 2k to a 6:00 2k in 3 months, you know you need to reduce approximately 4 seconds per month. You can calculate this improvement into your other workouts using your goal split–smaller benchmarks could be pulling 500m repeats at a 1:30 split, for example.

Now that original goal is much better defined, and reads: “Pull a 2k erg test in 6 minutes or less by February 1,” and you have a better idea of what it will take and what checkpoints you should hit along the way. This same process should be applied to any goal you set in the boat, the weight-room, or in life.

#3: Visualization and imagery

Visualization is creating a mental picture of a positive outcome and is usually from an outside perspective. Think about yourself as a spectator. Imagery is creating an experience of a desired outcome for yourself from an inside or first-person perspective. Both are useful based on personal preference and the terms are often used interchangeably. Spend 5-10 minutes the night before an erg workout imagining in vivid detail the workout, focusing on positive elements under your control. Engage all of your sense and create the whole scene. Hear the sound of the fan, feel the sweat trickle, smell the crisp morning air, and be diligent to eliminate negative thoughts. Focus only on positive thoughts like speed and attaining your goals, and technical cues for a specific element that you’re working on during that workout. Think only positive thoughts and start putting on your mental armor for the workout. Like many sport psych routines, this may feel silly at first. Fake it ‘til you make it—you weren’t a perfect rower the first time you sat in a boat, your mental skills won’t be perfect the first time either. You will get better with dedication.

#4: Pre-Practice or Pre-Performance Routines

These are great for getting in a consistent mental state before training or racing. Write down 3-5 things that you like to do before practice, and then stick to it for at least a week before making changes. These should be things that you are 100% in control of. For example, a short playlist for the commute to the boathouse, a certain meal, or a certain order of doing things to get ready for practice. Do the same for race day, and then make it happen. If you write down “coffee, perfectly-ripe banana, and a protein shake 60 minutes before hitting the water,” bring your own coffee, hot water, perfectly-ripe banana, and protein shake so you are 100% in control of your situation and not left sifting frantically through green bananas in the hour before your event. Remove uncertainty and guesswork before training to allow you to focus on the task at hand. Leave no doubt that you will succeed.

#5: Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk describes your internal narrative as you perform an activity. This goes with cognitive reframing to some extent, but is more in the moment. When you are erging or training, it is important to maintain all of the positive mindset that you have built up before training. The goals, the reframing, the visualization, and the pre-practice routines do you no good if things go to hell on your first stroke and you flinch back to, “ugh, this hurts and I’m no good at this.” It is crucial that this self-talk is positive, especially when things are going poorly. A good way to understand positive self-talk is to think of what you would say to your best friend experiencing the same problem. Be as helpful to yourself as you would to your best friend. Positive self-talk helps maintain self-confidence and concentration.

Erging is hard, make no mistake, and rowing is a difficult and demanding sport. These tools won’t make erging or rowing physically easier, but they WILL help you accept and embrace that difficulty, rise to the challenge, and avoid developing mental barriers or points of stress. Mental skills erg2training is a vital part to overall athletic training, but it requires equal dedication as physical training. Make it part of your routine and you’ll reap the rewards!


Artwork by Eamon Smith

Rowing Related, Why Do Rowers Fear the Erg?, December 2010

Weinberg, R., and Gould, D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5th ed. 2010.

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  1. What about water fear? Coaches and rowers routinely use the erg in preference to going out on the water, even when water and weather conditions are good. Sitting on an erg, pounding out the meters while using music to remove all focus from the task has become not only accepted, but often preferred over going out on the water and working at mastering technique, mental focus, and physical work.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I haven’t encountered coaches and athletes opting for the erg over the water when conditions allow, except for the rare workout that’s been scheduled ahead of time (ie a 2k test date). Any athlete should be able to use the tips in this article to overcome a fear.

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