Four-time Olympian and Coaching Consultant Bo Hanson was one of the 2009 USRowing convention presenters, and after such overwhelming feedback from the delegates, we asked Bo to share his most valued rowing advice with our readers on a regular basis. Bo’s rowing career spanned four Olympic Games. He won three medals for Australia and he was and remains the youngest rower to compete at an Olympics for his country. He is now an in-demand coaching consultant for Athlete Assessments (www.athleteassessments.com) and works with coaches across a vast range of sports. He maintains a personal connection to rowing coaching through his involvement with his own high school and his rowing clients.

As I write this article, it is selection time for the U.S. National Team and regattas at all levels of rowing are being run across the country. It reminds me of how I felt during my own selection for the various national and Olympic teams and I’m inspired to share the most important lessons I learned about the connection between training and racing. This article is about techniques to help rowers control their nerves so they can race at least as well as they train, if not better.

One of the hardest disappointments is when athletes have not rowed as well in a race as they have done so in training. Why does this happen?  What is the major difference between training and racing? How do you ensure that your rowers race to their full potential?

One key reason is racing has more ‘attached’ to it. It is what all the training is leading to and for many, the reason they row. There is a result at the end of a race, a measure of them and in the minds of the rowers it ‘counts’. Most stake their pride and status on their race results. Training on the other hand, is for many, just seen as ‘practice’. There will always be another training session, so it does not count as much and there is little at stake. Or is there?

To create better race day results, coaches can help their athletes improve their performance in two key ways:

  1. Ensure your rowers treat practice more seriously than just seeing it as another session. During training, set technical, physical and mental goals. This will ensure they are focused on what is going to make them go fastest during training (and ultimately in racing).
  2. Coach your rowers to manage their thinking and mindset for racing. They must first do this in training consistently to be able to do this effectively on race day.

At the end of this article, I’ve also included my top three coaching tips for helping rowers, manage their nerves on race day.

Training is NOT Just Another Practice Session

To train effectively rowers are to have an attitude of professionalism. This is not about being elite or overly serious (it can still be an enjoyable and fun session!), and more about making the session count. Being professional is about having goals to achieve each and every time you hit the water. Each rower should have a technical, physical and mental goal they are working towards and each goal must be measurable and specific. Here are some specific examples.

A technical goal may be to catch the water before the legs push the seat back. This seat and catch timing is a defining factor between the best crews and the ordinary ones. Catch seat timing can be measured by the feel or grip the rower has on the water and the feedback a coxswain gives in the pressure they feel on their back each stroke. Coaches can also video tape sessions to provide accurate feedback on this (or any other) technical point.

An example of a mental goal would be to practice narrowing attention to focus on the person in front for 20 strokes at a time, and then shift this focus to perhaps listening to the rush of air bubbles under the hull. The rowers won’t do this 100% of the session. Explain this before they get on the water and then make calls to do this for set periods throughout the session (say start out with six times during a session of a few minutes each time, then build up to a larger proportion of the training session). The basic premise is to train your mind to narrow your concentration to chosen elements of the rowing stroke. By becoming better at this, rowers improve their ability to focus on what matters to their boat speed when it is time to race and they become better at ignoring distractions which do not add to their performance.

Finally, an example of a physical goal would be to complete the practice session with heart rates within a certain zone as stipulated by the coach. Once again, a specific and measurable goal.

For the coach, you should set goals with and for the crew each session. They could be the same goals for all of the rowers or you may need to set individual goals for each rower, depending on the situation and what is needed. (Refer to the USRowing This Month March 2010 newsletter article “Rowers Improve Faster – Train Consciously”.)

Treating each practice session like it is a limited opportunity to perfect your mental, physical and technical preparation ensures no sessions are wasted. Each session is a vital element in piecing together a performance that the crew and coach can be proud of on race day. The reality is that a lost session cannot be retrieved. The best rowers I know have a high level of pride in each and every performance, whether it is a practice session or a race. They never let themselves down.

From my own experience, I recall what it was like to turn up to a university exam knowing I had not done enough studying. I had not made the most of the time opportunity I was granted. Never is this a confident feeling. Racing is the same, you want to turn up to your races with the confidence you have done everything you can to prepare effectively, that each opportunity was maximized. This feeling of confidence translates into a sense of entitlement to perform well. You deserve to perform well and it is now a matter of doing what you have done in training when it is race day.

Many rowers believe they have to do something different on race day to what they do at training. This belief does not help achieve their best race day performance. This perception is largely based on them not taking training as seriously as they should and therefore it makes sense that race day demands a different approach. My recommendation is to make practice as important as racing and racing as an opportunity to row as well (if not better) as you have done in practice sessions.

Train Your Thinking and Mindset for Racing

On race day, all of the hard preparation has been done and now it is the time to perform your best. The main challenge is to manage your thinking. I am not suggesting this is an easy thing to do, but here is a start. To create a great performance, there are certain inputs that must be combined. Inputs on race day largely relate to how you think, feel and behave prior to and during a race. Thinking is about what you say to yourself. I stressed earlier, the need to have a mental goal at each and every training session. When you train like this, then you know what you need to say to yourself and it comes easily on race day because you’ve been doing this the whole training season.

It is useful to consider a time in your past when you did race at your very best and recall exactly what you had said to yourself and how you had felt before and during that race. Spend some time identifying this to use again. You can also use your past disappointing performances to your advantage by identifying the critical elements of what you had said to yourself on those occasions, and then ensure that you avoid repeating this.

What you say to yourself is a way of expressing your inner beliefs and these will either help or hinder your performance. Focus on saying and thinking positive helpful things. Also, what you say to yourself will have an impact on how you feel. On race day, consider how you need to feel emotionally. That is, specifically for you, do you need to be fired up, calm, quiet, loud, soft or composed? It is different for everyone. Knowing how you need to feel in order to be your best is a vital element in performing well at any time.

Finally, how are you going to behave on race day? Hopefully, your behaviors will be reflective of how you have conducted yourself during all those practice sessions and therefore race day is no different. I have seen some rowers become something different on race day and subsequently perform poorly due to this loss of behavioral control. Ensure you and your crew knows how they should behave on race day. Be very clear on your pre-race routines and what you can and cannot do before, during and after the race.

In the end, racing is all about how you train. So train like your regatta results depend on it. Practice over and over again what you need to say to yourself, how you need to feel and how you need to behave on race day. This will make racing feel familiar and something to be confident about that you deserve the best performance.

Here’s a quick fix for race day (when you haven’t had the benefit of ‘training’ your nerves). If you’re saying to yourself that this article is well and good if you were reading it at the beginning of the training season, but you’re now about to race. So how can this benefit you if you haven’t had the benefit of ‘training’ your nerves during practice? Here are my top three recommendations for racing your best.

  1. Put the regatta or race into perspective. In your life to come, you will face far greater challenges and moments than the one you are about to face in the race. This is a growth opportunity to prepare you to deal with life’s future challenges. This always helped me cope with anxiety. At the end of the day, this is a rowing race so keep it in perspective.
  2. Breathe and think composed thoughts. Composure is a wonderful word and a performance state for most people. Breathe deeply in through the nose and slowly release through the mouth and as you release, feel your heart rate slow slightly. Tell yourself you are in control and the master of your destiny. Do this several times and repeat whenever your nerves kick in.
  3. On the start line, focus on the most important things. The starter’s alignment, your boat’s position, where and how you sit on your seat, your grip on the oar and the first stroke. If racing in a crew, always say positive things to those around you. Provide encouragement without blatantly talking it up or being loud and obnoxious. Do not bother distracting other crews, instead focus on your boat and what you can control. Rowing well, is all about controlling yourself and unleashing your power in a technically confined framework. Getting overly pumped up and aggressive rarely helps fine motor skills.

These strategies worked for me. Create your own and reap the rewards of better and more consistent performances. Good luck at your next regatta!

Athlete Assessments is the leading sports consultancy, supporting coaches, athletes and teams who want to improve their performance by gaining knowledge of their sporting personality and the behaviors creating their athletic results. Clients include some of the USA’s top colleges and the U.S. Men’s National Team. For more information, call (760) 742-5157 or e-mail coach@athleteassessments.com.

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