During February we are going to publish a range of articles on psychology for rowing.
We kick off with a fabulous article from Dr Joan Ingalls writing about A Coaches Psychology of Rowing
Dr. Ingalls maintains a private practice in sport counseling in New York City and Salisbury, CT. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A COACH’S PSYCHOLOGY OF ROWING
Recently, while browsing in a used book store, I found Modern Rowing by Paul C. Wilson (Stackpole Co.: Mechanicsburg, PA, 1969). What a pleasure to read the words of this great coach of the 1967 1st and 3rd Trinity (England) crew who describes the innovations of the Ratzeburger Ruderclub in Germany, and includes some of his own psychology of rowing: “Some people think that such things as ‘guts,’ ‘will to win,’ and the ability to push oneself to one’s limit are simply part of one’s basic personality. In fact, these qualities depend as much on the rowing programme as anything else… psychological training must be planned along with the rest of the training programme.” (p. 111)
He goes on to say that for optimal rowing, the athlete needs “the highest possible threshold of pain… [which] generally follows the same pattern as his level of physical fitness.” (p. 112) That is, as you become more fit your threshold of pain rises. But how does this come about? Purely by conditioning or by some mental effort? According to Wilson, both happen simultaneously and one facilitates the other. He goes on to explain that psychological training consists, in part, in learning to recognize that you can go beyond the level of effort you think is possible. That is to say, the first signals of agonizing pain are not to be taken seriously. After experiencing this pain, you can push yourself safely beyond it and raise your threshold of pain.
The best way to achieve this raised threshold is by a “power 10” — ten strokes at maximum power. Wilson specifies a 36 to 38 stroke rating for his eights. He recommends that “power 10s” be done after the warm up when the crew is still fresh. The crew first should be assured that there will be plenty of time to fully recover from the effort. Otherwise, they may hold back to save energy for the remainder of the work.
This “power 10” is an exercise for the mind, not the body, writes Wilson. The athlete must concentrate, estimate, and then apply her maximum effort to each stroke. Technique invariably falls apart, partly due to the increased tension of the effort, but the athlete learns what her maximum effort is at that moment in her development. She learns how much less than her maximum she usually rows at. If she then tries to row at her maximum, she quickly become completely exhausted after 20 or 30 strokes. After she becomes more fit, the “power 10” can be increased to 20.
With this approach, athletes can take more responsibility to work harder. The coach is relieved of at least part of the burden of motivating his athletes and any resentment that the athletes might harbor for when he attempts to motivate them. Wilson’s approach improves the morale of the entire crew, because each oarsperson learns that she is not the only one working hard – in fact, any individual may think that the others are working harder.
Wilson sees interval training, commonly used in many sports, as including the same kind of exercise for the mind as the “power 10”. When a crew can row a second 500 meters, after resting from the first, at full power without fading more than 7 to 8 seconds, it is ready to tackle 1000 meter intervals. If the crew is fit, fear of longer intervals lessens as they learn that the intervals are not so hard and their performance does not suffer during them. Through repeated trials, the crew gains complete confidence that it can row 2000 meters at specified maximum pressure.
It seems to me, that this is “coaching psychology” at its best. It is an approach to the psychology of performance that is not available to a sport counselor; the job of designing workouts to shape the development of an athlete’s mental attitude or in this case mental fortitude simply belongs to the coach. The sports psychology consultant, however, can complement the coach’s efforts by assisting athletes in enhancing their mental processes that accompany the development of their increased tolerance for pain. For example, sports psychology consultants know that if an athlete makes a mental image of himself in a situation in which he feels pain, and then zooms that image off into the distance, the pain decreases. Likewise, if he increases or decreases the amount of light in the image, the intensity of the feeling of the pain will increase or decrease.
A sport counselor can also teach an athlete to “access” particular mental “resources” when they are appropriate for a given task. For example, if an athlete, as well as the coach may have prepared him, is nervous about not having the energy to complete a race, perhaps, he can improve his confidence by remembering situations in which he had sufficient energy to complete a difficult task, or even imagine another person who has that energy. The body responds to such a simple strategy by mobilizing the physiological components of the energized state. This and similar processes are becoming better understood by scientists all the time. “Tracing Molecules that make the Brain-Body Connection” (February 14, 1997 Science) reported findings to support that claim.
During a race what to think about
According to Wilson, due to the great use of blood by the musculature during hard physical work, there is little left for thinking. What little thinking that is done should be confined to that which is most useful.
1. “… at the end of a race, power equals form.” An oarswoman should train herself to think about technique when she is very tired. The coach should insist on good technique during the power intervals by being particularly careful to point out specific faults that she knows the athlete could correct were she rowing at low pressure.
2. An oarsman should train himself to think about the power he is applying in each section of the race – the section of the race that he is in the act of rowing is the most important one in the race. Ideally, he should concentrate on applying in small increments a greater greater amount of power on each stroke throughout the race so there is a sprint at the end. Exceptions to this general rule are situations that require more than a small increment in power:
a. rounding a bend.
b. catching a crab when another crew is alongside.
c. when, for any reason the rating has dropped
d. hitting a head wind.
As sport counselor, I do not tell athletes what to think about during a race. I facilitate the athlete in thinking about what the coach told him to think about. I might ask the athlete, “How are going to concentrate on your technique during the race? Are you going to make mental images of the correct technique? Are you going to repeat to yourself certain key phases about correct technique that you have heard your coach repeat? Are you going to remember how your muscles feel when you are using correct technique?” Each of these questions can, in the athlete who knows proper technique and has paid attention to his coach, evoke help him to remember useful information and concentrate on important details during a race.
If a coach has told an athlete to think about consistently increasing power in small increments during a race, I can facilitate that. I might take the athlete through a mental exercise in which he remembered times when he increased power. I would allow him to thoroughly and completely examine that experience so that he identifies exactly how he summoned the energy to do that. He can then begin to develop the capacity to do that automatically when appropriate.
Wilson’s tips for rowing coaches
- The coach should avoid frightening the crew with hyperbole about how hard the workout is going to be — such comments cause the crew to hold back their maximum effort. It is the oarsman who makes himself fit, not the coach. The motivation must come from within.
- The coach should tell the oarsperson at the beginning of the outing the intended duration of the workout, the distance to be rowed and the distances of the intervals so that she can calculate how many meters of maximum effort will be required. In this way she can reach exhaustion at the end of the workout.
- The coach should offer, at the beginning of a workout, an optional interval to be done on the condition that the crew feels that it can manage it. This enables the crew to bring itself to exhaustion if the workout the coach planned hasn’t.
- The coach should avoid taking the crew to the point that it has to give up. “It is pointless for a crew to row with no spirit or strength.” In these conditions, technique fails and bad habits are ingrained – hanging at the catch, missing water, incorrect proportion of back and leg motion, and washing out, etc. can all result from trying to save energy. Progress is made when the crew is tired, but can still apply nearly as much power as when fresh. The psychological effect of giving up is that morale, self-esteem, and pride are destroyed. The oarsman distances himself from his performance, and becomes accustomed to giving up – even anticipates it so as to prematurely bring it on. Finally, the oarsman has learned to “crack” under pressure and psychological help may be needed to correct the problem.
Wilson never mentions talking to the athletes about winning or giving them inspirational speeches. I don’t know why he neglects these areas, but I know why I do. Winning is not within the athletes’ control. Why have them waste energy on in the pursuit of something that is not under their control? Only a superb performance is under their control. Inspirational speeches, if on race day are too late and before race day deprive the athlete of some measure of his own inner motivation.