The Rowing Mind – Performance Under Pressure (Part 1)


My passion for rowing began 6 years ago at university. It was a definite change to my previous sports, football and boxing, but it turned out to be a sound fit; it needed the stamina, determination and psychological resilience of boxing but also the team spirit of football. Three years into my university education I was given the opportunity to continue my academia and partake a Masters and PhD in Sport Psychology focusing on a research area of my choice. This was an easy choice, with my passion for rowing and performance under pressure growing – I wanted to win – so what better PhD than exploring possible processes to give competitive rowers the psychological edge.

the rowing mindKatherine Sparks explores possible processes to give competitive rowers the psychological edge.

Athletes need the right mindset

We consistently hear that competitive sport performance is ‘10% physical and 90% mental’, with rowing being no exception to this. It is a sport that is just as physically demanding as it is psychologically, with the most successful rowers exhibiting the likes of grit, determination, discipline and risk taking. The rower may complete all the physical training that is required for a racing event but if their mental game is not up to scratch all those hours spent in the gym or on the water will be wasted. The pressure to perform is immense, especially during the moments before the start of a race or the last 250m of a 2K regatta or erg test. Athletes need the right mindset to be able to deal with these moments to enable them to optimally use their physical training to perform successfully.

The Rowing Mind – Performance Under Pressure

Under pressure athletes tend to strive for a peak performance state. This state tends to be characterised by this sense of ‘automaticity’, which is a state of unconsciousness, where the athlete is thinking less about their movement so they can execute it without distraction or disruption, leading to a cognitively effortless performance of the skill. Nevertheless, under pressure athlete’s sometimes choke, this is a significant decrease in performance, when self-expected standards are normally achievable (Mesagno Hill, 2013). This is induced by high levels of anxiety which tends to be due to a threat rather than a challenge appraisal of the situation, so rather than an ‘I’m ready I can do this’ (challenge appraisal), there’s a ‘I can’t do it, I’m not good enough’ (threat appraisal) mentality. This anxiety evokes a self-focus mechanism that interrupts automaticity, as there’s an increase in conscious attention to their automatic movements where they then try to control their movements in a step-by-step fashion, resulting in a break-down of performance.

Human BrainWhat is the typical mindset and thought process of rowers?

The Investigation

Consequently, my research investigated:

  1. the possible mindset and thought processes of rowers that causes their performance to breakdown under pressure and
  2. what mental characteristics may prevent this from occurring, the main interest being mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a popular topic in general psychology but it is less known in sport. Nevertheless, it is a new but promising topic of interest, the few studies that have explored mindfulness have found it to facilitate performance and evoke beneficial performance states such as automaticity, flow, confidence and stress reduction. My studies revealed the psychological processes behind choking and the beneficial act of conscious mindfulness on these detrimental processes.

In the next couple of blog posts I hope to remove the research jargon and clearly present the need-to-know information in regards to sport psychology with its application to your rowing performance. Stay tuned!

Katherine Sparks is an aspiring Sport Psychologist, lover of all things rowing-related, passionate writer and current PhD Sport psychology student working to bridge the gap between academia and practice.

Katie would love your support for her scientific research! Your can partcipate in her latest study when you follow the link:


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Stu Wenman

    Very interesting post. I’m a massive advocate of mental training for rowing so I’m looking forward to seeing your next post. Thanks

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