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
think that the others are working harder.
Wilson sees interval training, commonly used in many sports,
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.
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:
rounding a bend.
b. catching a crab when another crew is alongside.
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
Wilson's tips for coaches
1. 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.
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
A case of Dying in the Middle of a Race
Patrick: A Case of Pre-Race Injury