Be Your Own Support Team – 4: Sports Psychology


This series looks at the areas which can supplement your training to maximise your performance and show you how you can be your own support team.

4: Sports Psychology

In this article we look at how rowers can prepare themselves mentally to achieve their goals in training and racing.

Create a Culture

Whether you’re coaching a squad, rowing in a crew, or a single sculler, creating a culture is vital in ensuring that your training is effective in achieving your goals. The culture you adopt should focus on the things which make success possible, while address potential weaknesses and factors which may hold you back. It should be simple enough to be summed up in a ‘mission statement’ style paragraph, or even just a sentence.

The University of Washington rowing team create the culture “Who we are is why we win”. Athletes become part of the bigger picture; the team. The feeling of teamwork pervades through everything that Washington do, allowing athletes to draw motivation from each other. The psychology which develops is one of pride in the team, not just individual performance. Success can only come through the team and the team must be greater than the sum of its parts. Rowers at UW know that when they are pushed to the limits the team will hold together.

“Rowing here at Washington is bigger than you or I. It’s bigger than our daily pains, or our occasional joy. It’s the combined effort of all of us.” – Rusty Callow, UW Class of 1915

Mike Spracklen, coach of the Canadian Rowing Team men’s squad 2000–2012, builds a philosophy of removing limitations; pushing back the point at which athletes will stop, or give up. Spracklen takes away reasons for missing training; the only things which stop his crews going on the water are ice and fog. This builds an understanding between coach and athlete that the only other factors which stop training come from the athlete. These factors will either be physical (injuries) or psychological. Realising this makes the athlete discover that they can control the psychological factors that threaten to stop them.”Why are you stopping? What’s causing you to stop? Is it your brain or is it your body?” – Mike Spracklen

The GB Men’s Eight for the 2000 Sydney Olympics had a very clear culture which could be summed up in a simple sentence:
“Will it make the boat go faster?” – Ben Hunt Davis
This question was asked during every decision about training, equipment… any factor which influenced the team. The culture developed a psychology amongst the team of being very goal-driven and professional in their approach.

Your culture may be one of professionalism, teamwork, commitment or anything else which promotes the qualities you want in your team. For a culture to be adopted it needs to be accepted by the team (coaches and athletes). For it to work it needs to be evident in everything that you do. The culture of a team has an overall effect on how that team approaches training, but a more specific approach is needed for racing.


Racing brings feelings of nervousness and apprehension to all athletes, but preparation can help to calm these feelings. It reminds us of the work we’ve done in training and how we plan to implement that in the race. A race plan is the first stage, but many rowers fail to mentally rehearse the race plan adequately.

Visualisation is a powerful tool for race preparation, but is also very effective in preparing for ergo tests, or even working on technical aspects between training sessions. It provides a way of mentally rehearsing a race, practising for different scenarios and reinforcing technical changes.

“Studies show that it doesn’t seem to matter how you develop and reinforce the neural pathways created with perceptual learning, the results are very close to the same whether or not you physicallyperform a task, or just imagine yourself performing it.” – Training When You Can’t Train

How to Visualise:

Think about what you want to achieve. This could be practising a race plan or working on a specific technical improvement for a training session.

Find a quiet place. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing to relax yourself and clear your mind.

If you’re running through a race plan, start with your warm up on with your boat on the start line. Imagine yourself in the boat on the stretch of water you’ll be rowing on. Run through the start in your head, your preparation and the calls of the starter. Perform each stroke of the race in your mind. Think about what you’ll be working on through each stage of the race (power, rate, rhythm etc). Go through the changes you intend to make during the race: pushes or focus-points at each 500m, for example.

For technical work, visualise what you want to achieve; the path of the blade, the handle and how your body creates these movements.

Rowers who are new to visualisation may ‘see’ themselves rowing from side-on as they are most used to this angle from video analysis. As you continue to practise visualisation you should start to replicate your perspective from within your seat in the boat.

Crews can benefit from team visualisation sessions as preparation from races. The cox, coach or person making the calls in the boat can lead the session to ensure everyone is thinking through the race at the same time.

Visualisation Articles:

Visualization Techniques and Sports Performance –

The Power of Visualization – 5 Tips that will change your experience –

Find what Motivates You

Different people on a team will draw motivation from different sources. It’s important to discover what motivates you as an individual, as well as what motivates your teammates.

Many athletes have favourite quotes which they refer to throughout the season, or music which gets them ready for races.

Some examples from rowers on Twitter:

“I look at my opposition and pick out all their weak/bad spots, and i listen to ‘motivational’ music beforehand” @AnnabelPooley

“I find thinking about all the training I’ve done to get to the startline builds confidence”@tkcarter82

“Putting my sunglasses on at the start to help me focus and music before I go out” @JackRowing
“I go into my zone, think about the race plan have a three track motivational playlist” @zaracottrill

“My motivation for all improvements ‘What got your here won’t get you there’, Marshall Goldsmith” @KlgKaren

Knowing what motivates you will help you draw on these things during tough times in training and racing. Knowing what motivates others will help you pull together as a team, especially if you are the cox in a crew or making the calls during a race.

In his book “If Not Now, When?”, Greg Searle writes about the difference in mental connection between himself and Ed Coode in the GB pair in the Sydney 2000 Olympics and that of their rivals, the French pair of Jean-Christophe Rolland (J-C) and Michel Andrieux.

The GB pair led most of the race, until the 1250m mark.

“On the mark, Ed calls our set plan. Plan A. Our only plan.

‘750. Lengthen. Hard. Push.’

A second or two later, the French hit the same mark.

‘Pour nos enfants!’ Michel Andrieux then reels off the names of both his and J-C’s children. There is no other call.

At their core, Michel and J-C were connected in a way Ed and I could only dream of.”

The French pair went on to win the Olympic gold medal. The British pair finished fourth.

Review your Results

Effective sports psychology can put you in the best place mentally to prepare to achieve your goals, but is equally important after races, especially when results have not been achieved.

It is crucial to review performances (both good and bad) to learn what can be improved and plan how best to make improvements. After a poor performance all athletes will go through a period of disappointment but this needs to be turned into an opportunity to improve before it gets to a state of despair.

Teams and individuals will benefit hugely from an honest review of a performance. This also serves to allow athletes to move on from previous races and refocus on the next event.

Do you actively include psychology in your training plan? Does your team have a culture which breeds the right qualities? Does it know what motivates each individual? Do you rehearse your race plan in the minds of your crew, as well as just on paper? How do you refocus after good and bad races?


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