By Madison Keaty, MS
Note from Will: This article is a guest post from Madison Keaty, assistant coach at Gonzaga University women’s rowing. Madison rowed for Gonzaga University before attending Ithaca College to study sport psychology. We met at the Joy of Sculling Conference in February and had a great time talking about how to get more resources on coaching mental skills for rowing into the hands of rowers and coaches. In this article, Madison provides some excellent and accessible advice for incorporating mental skills training for rowing into a daily practice plan.
Is mental toughness necessary to row?
For the simple act of rowing, or even just completing a 2000m course, probably not. It is, after all, “just rowing.” But if you want to win races, set PRs, and stand on podiums, then mental toughness is definitely a necessary piece of the puzzle for the victorious athlete.
The winning formula is: aerobic endurance + peak power + mental toughness
Yes, there are other key factors such as technical proficiency and boat chemistry, but the physical training AND the mental preparation cannot be neglected to have a realistic goal of winning. Here’s why mental training is so important: The mind-body connection runs on a non-stop bidirectional loop (thoughts and feelings influence actions, and actions reinforce thoughts and feelings). The actual vocalization regions of the brain that create self-talk (thoughts) have been shown to be linked to the regions of the brain that control motor processes, suggesting that physical behavioral responses are influenced by the feedback from your thoughts. Simply put, athletes will move in the direction of what they are thinking or feeling. An athlete’s mentality can be situational and partially dependent on personality, but it can also be developed and enhanced with mental skills training (MST) to create the consistent mental toughness that is necessary for success.
Mental Skills in Daily Practice
Believing in the importance of MST is one thing, but actually coaching mental skills for rowing in daily practice is another. There are definite challenges to incorporating MST into practice. The most common ones I have heard from coaches tend to be “We don’t have enough time” and “I don’t think the athletes will buy into it.” I believe both of these statements hold some truth–we as coaches can find ourselves in a time crunch, and some athletes will view MST as Jedi-mind-trick nonsense. However, I also believe that intentionally coaching mental skills during daily practice is easier than some might think, and can be done within the framework of a normal rowing practice. It is also a great way to proactively ‘plant the seed’ for those athletes who are already mentally tough, but may need strategies later in their rowing career and beyond. The best time to start MST is before you actually have a problem!
Here are my 3 simple steps to coaching mental skills for rowing in a way that can be incorporated into daily practices with the goal of preparing athletes for successful racing.
1) Teach low breathing
Breathing is a core foundation of managing energy in performance situations. It is no secret that racing on the water and testing on the erg can cause nerves for both coxswains and rowers that can tank their performance. When the mind perceives a stressful, exciting, or high-pressure stimulus, like a big race or 2k test, the body naturally enters fight-or-flight mode. This causes increased heart rate, breathing rate, sweaty palms, and those pesky “butterflies” in the stomach. The fight or flight response is a GOOD thing–I often reframe it to my athletes as the body’s way of energizing and preparing to perform. The trick is to not let that energy turn into anxiety; when the heart pounding and shallow breathing leads to tense muscles and self-doubt, taking the focus away from executing the race plan. This is where breathing low comes into play. Managing energy levels under stress starts with breathing low from the diaphragm/belly to maintain composure. Below are some examples of how to teach breathing low:
- Begin with Basics: Have athletes place a hand on their stomach right below the ribcage and feel their diaphragm rise and fall with every breath–if they cannot feel this, have them focus on pushing through their core to inhale and exhale. Once this awareness is established, take 1 minute to breathe in the following pattern: inhale 4 counts through the nose, hold 2 counts, exhale 6 counts through the mouth. Ask the athletes to recognize how they feel afterwards–the goal is to create a sense of composure. This exercise can be initiated during warm-ups, at the end of practice, or wherever you see fit.
- Build into Habits: Once the athletes gain experience with this type of breathing, try applying it regularly to 2k pace work (eg. before a 2k test, take 1-3 deep breaths with this pattern). The more habitual it becomes, the easier it will be for the athletes to access it before their actual races, creating a “shortcut” to composure at the start line.
2) Strengthen the imagination muscle
Imagery, visualization, race walk-thru…no matter what they call it, athletes use their imagination in some form, either consciously or subconsciously, before a race. Visualizing how you want to perform leading up to a race can help you find optimal energy, focus, and enhance motivation and self-confidence. The more vivid the visualization, the more effective it will be. Fortunately, the mind is like a muscle–it can be strengthened and trained to vividly picture how to execute something with brief, simple, and specific visualizations. Below are some examples of how to strengthen the imagination muscle:
- Begin with Basics: Have athletes sit with eyes closed and take 3 deep low breaths to quiet their mind. Then have them picture their room at home for 1 minute. Ask them to notice as many details as possible: What colors do they see? What sounds do they hear? What is in their closet? What is on their bedside table/dresser/bookshelf/desk?
- Build into Habits:
- Show It–See It–Do It: During video review, show athletes an example of what you are looking for (i.e. the ideal catch, the ideal racing start). Next, have them visualize what they just saw from both an external (bird’s eye view) and internal (through their own eyes) perspective for 30 seconds-1 minute. Then, have them try and apply it in practice.
- See the Start: When practicing racing starts, have athletes visualize their perfectly executed start sequence for 30 seconds-1 minute beforehand. Give them some structure for what you are looking for (eg. Sharp catches, long aggressive lengthen to base rate, etc.) Again, ask them to notice as many details as possible. What does it look like/feel like/sound like? Then have them try to execute it just as they imagined.
3) Create confidence cues
The mind and body share a powerful connection–we move in the direction of what we think or feel. Human beings naturally engage in self-talk (thoughts) with the “little voice” in our heads at approximately 400 words per minute, most of which are negative. I like to think of this “little voice” as your own personal “head coach,” where the dialogue mimics that of a coach to an athlete. Since we naturally lean toward more negative thinking, this can sometimes result in coaching ourselves with unproductive self-talk before, during or after performance–especially if we feel stressed about said performance. The goal of creating confidence cues is to train athletes to coach themselves productively to become “success thinkers.” This starts with developing short and simple positive cues or mantras to breed confidence, which in turn will breed successful performance. Below are some examples of how to create confidence cues:
- Begin with Basics: Have athletes write down a few words that they find motivating/energizing (eg. “You can, you will,” “Long, strong, powerful,” “Be bold”). If they have trouble thinking of cues, ask them to recall a few times when a coach/teammate/coxswain said or did something that made them better, inspired them, motivated them, made them believe in themselves. Have them pull a few cue words from these memories.
- Build into Habits: Have athletes practice mentally repeating their cues before (eg. mentally rehearse 3 times at the start of a piece) and during workouts (eg. one word in rhythm with every stroke, rehearse it every 500m, etc.). The goal is to create positive reinforcement, so that in the future when the cue is used, the confidence that comes with it is automatically second nature.
Next Level: Combining Skills
With consistent practice, the above exercises should help simplify MST and make it more feasible and applicable. If you want to take it a step further, the 3 steps can be combined to increase effectiveness. Here are some examples:
- If athletes seem stressed in the days leading up to a 2k test or race, have them close their eyes, reflect on what is stressing them out, and follow it with the 1-minute breathing low exercise. Concentrating on breathing can help shift their focus from worry to calm.
- Pair a confidence cue with the breathing low exercise. Have athletes choose one of their cues to mentally rehearse in between each breath cycle to turn self-doubt and tension into confidence and composure.
- Put all 3 steps into a “Race Routine” that can be mentally rehearsed before each 2k test, each race at the start line, before launching, or anywhere you see fit. This can be done individually, or the coxswains can run through it with their whole boat. Keep it short and simple–it should only take about 30 seconds to rehearse. For example:
- 1) Deep low breath
- 2) Visualize the perfectly executed start
- 3) Repeat confidence cue
Be creative! If you think of other ways to combine and incorporate MST into your coaching, give it a try. I would love to hear your ideas, questions, comments, or any feedback you have, so please do not hesitate to reach out via my contact info below.
Madison Keaty has her M.S. in sport psychology from Ithaca College and is the assistant coach for the Gonzaga University Women’s Rowing Team. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this article or to get on a list for notification of any new resources.
- St. Clair Gibson, A., & Foster, C. (2007). The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance. Sports Medicine, 37(12), 1029–1044.
- Barr, K. (1992). The use of imagery by rowers. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 23(3), 243–261.
- Bray, H. (2008). Positive self-talk between parts of the brain. Hockey Weekly, 34(22), 2–3.
- Shelley, G. (2013). Coach up: 50 rules for building committed, confident, and motivated athletes and teams. Rise Above Performance Publications.
- Madison Keaty photo from GonzagaBulletin.com