Mental Skills for
Tools to succeed in a sport difficult both
physically and mentally.
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How to Use This Checklist
You're here because you think there might be a better way.
Maybe you're tired of being too anxious to sleep the night
before an erg test.
Maybe "just pull harder" isn't working for you anymore.
Maybe the constant pressure to improve is sapping your
enjoyment of this great sport.
I know, because all of those were me!
Anyone who has rowed or been around rowers can tell you that this is a mentally
difficult sport, and maybe you have to be a little crazy to do it. The constant pressure
of technical improvement combined with the drive to improve on the ergometer tests
and in training can be a lot to deal with, and athletes not equipped to deal with this
stress often find themselves burned out after a few seasons. This article series will
teach you some basic mental skills that you can incorporate into your own training as a
rower or coxswain.
In the long term, mental skills training (MST) can help reduce anxiety and build good
mental habits to lay a foundation for race day and tests. Just like in school, you can’t
just cram for a few hours and expect to do well on the test—you have to work at it all
In the shorter term, MST can help improve performance by reducing distractions,
improving focus, and decreasing anxiety. The basis of short-term MST is maintaining a
mindset of positivity and not getting bogged down in uncontrollable factors. Control
what you can control, let everything else go.
Mental Skills: Inner Narratives
Skill #1: Goal Setting
▢ Specific
▢ Measurable
▢ Action-Oriented
▢ Realistic
▢ Time-Sensitive
Skill #2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation
▢ Find a video guide that works for you (example)
▢ Set aside 10-15 minutes in a dark, quiet environment
▢ Commit to trying several sessions before determining if it works for you
Skill #3: Cognitive Reframing/Positive Self-Talk
▢ Identify your ABC situation (activating event, belief, consequences)
▢ Keep your inner narrative positive--what would you say to a good friend experiencing
the same problem?
▢ Minimize negative thoughts and think "I GET to" instead of "I HAVE to"
Mental Skills: Routines
Skill #4: Visualization & Imagery
▢ First-person view or third-person view
▢ Engage all senses: sight, sound, feel, smell, etc.
▢ Focus on positive thoughts and only actions under your control
▢ Practice this in training conditions several times for 5-10 minutes
▢ 5-10 minutes the night or morning before a race or test
Skill #5: Pre-Race & Pre-Practice Routines
▢ Write down 3-5 things you are 100% in control of and like to do or have before practice
(eg. food, drink, music, certain exercises or stretches, etc.)
▢ Stick to it for a week before making any changes
▢ After sticking to your routine in training, come up with another 3-5 for race day
▢ Remember to be in control--bring anything you need for yourself.
Skill #6: Mental Reset Routines
▢ Brainstorm a few possible reset routines for yourself
▢ One that you do before starting a new piece in training
▢ One that you do to refocus after making a mistake
▢ A mantra or motivating phrase you can tell yourself when things get hard
Mental Skills: Mindset
Skill #7: Arousal Management
▢ Identify your zone of optimal arousal for training
▢ Identify your zone of optimal arousal for competing
▢ Brainstorm some ways to get yourself into that mental state (eg. visualization, music,
breathing, etc.)
▢ Practice those methods in training before relying on them in competition
Skill #8: Dealing with Injuries
▢ Accept that injury risk is inherent in competitive sport
▢ Do everything you can under your own control to prevent injuries [6 Tenets of Injury
▢ If you do get injured, maintain a mindset of positivity and acceptance, then find ways
to train around the injury.
▢ Stay connected with the team
▢ Have a re-entry plan to return to training and competing
Bonus Tip
Many of these skills can be combined for more effective training and competing.
▢ Set some SMART goals for mental training as well as physical
▢ Write out a few adverse training situations you’ve experienced and do the ABC exercise
for cognitive reframing
▢ Make time the night before practice to review the next day’s training. Start by just
looking at the workout ahead of time if you know it and taking note of any particular
pieces or technical emphases. Once this is routine, add in visualization for a
challenging part or two of the training session
Overcoming Erg Fear
Originally posted on in November 2015.
With the last few head races of fall complete, this article is for the many
rowers who turn with mixed feelings to the erg for winter training.
RowingRelated wrote a great article hereexploring some of the reasons that
many rowers are afraid of the erg, the consequences of that fear, and how
coaches and rowers continue to facilitate this fear. A crucial observation in the
article is this:
“When compared to other endurance sports like cycling, running,
swimming, etc., I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such
fundamental mental and physical endurance training. A track runner
might complain if he or she had to be on the treadmill all winter long, but
the idea would not strike fear into his or her heart…” [RowingRelated]
This is an element of rowing culture that has outright negative physical and mental
performance consequences and is 100% controllable by the individual. Coaching
education and a cultural shift in rowing away from glorifying the negative parts of the
sport are necessary to fully eradicating erg fear at the root, but that is a slow path. This
article is for the individual rower who acknowledges his or her fear of the erg and
wants to move past it for more productive
training and a happier and more balanced
mental state. The remainder of this article is
based on the premise that erg-fear is a real
phenomenon exhibited by many rowers and
that this fear is not to be derided, shamed, or
celebrated through social media hashtags—it
is to be overcome.
“I am really frustrated by our sport when it comes to the erg being
viewed as a torture device rather than a helpful tool that people can enjoy.
This negative mindset, which is extremely contagious, plagues the sport,
preventing athletes from training to their potential and possibly serving as
one of the reasons that careers in rowing, at every level, are often so
short.” [RowingRelated]
They say that the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. I
was afraid of the erg as a rower. I would lose sleep the night before a heavy workout
and had to resort to ever-increasing measures to psych myself up when the workouts
came around. This is not normal behavior for athletes simply using an alternative
training tool for their sport. This is not something that athletes in any sport should
have to deal with and it is not a desirable part of rowing culture.
First, write down some of your erg-fearing behaviors. Queasy stomach, suppressed
appetite, sweaty palms, sleeplessness, avoidance of workouts, irritability, etc., are all
fear symptoms. While some anxiety is normal before any important occasion, such as
a race, test, or wedding speech, these are not positive, helpful, or necessary symptoms
for routine training.
Time to conquer the erg.
Commit yourself to actually using sport psych practices
instead of just giving lip service to the idea.
It’s popular to tout the benefits of sport
psych principles, such as goal-setting,
visualization, imagery, cognitive reframing,
and pre-practice or pre-performance rituals,
but how many people actually reliably do
them as part of their training? Consider the
mental side of performance just like the
physical side of performance, and write out a
routine for how to work it into your training.
Here are some practical suggestions to actually implement these principles in your
#1: Cognitive Reframing
A mental adjustment to depict what could be a negative event in a positive way. This
is hugely important for this issue specifically. Many rowers have a negative
association with the ergometer, despite the fact that most already know the answer
to overcoming it–treat the erg as a tool. How many times have you heard that, or
even said it yourself? This is an example of cognitive reframing. Every time you start to
think about fear of the erg, the erg as a torture device, or any other negative
association, STOP yourself and repeat: “the erg is a tool.” You can come up with your
own mantra, too.Another easy example is saying “I GET to go erg today,” rather than “I
haveto go erg today.” Seems silly at first, but it is critical for any cognitive reframing to
fake it ’til you make it. It will likely feel corny at first, but the consistency is critical to
success, and it will work. Eventually, the negative thoughts will simply stop coming
because you have counterattacked them repeatedly with the truth–that the erg is a
#2: Goal setting
Everyone has heard about “S.M.A.R.T goals,” but have you ever actually written one
out following the system? “Pull a 6min 2k” is a goal, but it isn’t a S.M.A.R.T goal. Set a
few goals this season along the S.M.A.R.T parameters and see if it helps you. Set one
big goal and several small goals. Success breeds success, so if you can check off a few
of your smaller goals along the way, the bigger goal won’t seem quite so big. To use a
big goal of the 6min 2k as an example, this goal would read:
Specific: Pull a 2k erg test in 6 minutes or less
Measurable: The erg provides a good standard for measurement, time and meters,
so there’s not a lot to do here to adapt it to rowing.
Action-Oriented: Your goal should be positively worded and action-oriented. “Don’t
catch a crab” is negatively worded and not action-oriented, but “pull a 2k in less
than 6 minutes” is positive and action-oriented.
Realistic: Is your goal and the timeframe to accomplish it realistic? If you currently
have a 6:40 2k, is a 40 second drop in 2 months realistic? Only you can answer this–
if you truly believe it is realistic, then go for it, but only set goals that you truly
believe you can achieve. Remember, success breeds success and setting overly
ambitious goals that make it easy to fail aren’t what we want right now.
Time-Sensitive: Put time parameters on your goal to increase motivation and
accountability. You can also set smaller checkpoints along the way. If your goal is to
go from a 6:12 2k to a 6:00 2k in 3 months, you know you need to reduce
approximately 4 seconds per month. You can calculate this improvement into your
other workouts using your goal split–smaller benchmarks could be pulling 500m
repeats at a 1:30 split, for example.
Now that original goal is much better defined, and reads: “Pull a 2k erg test in 6
minutes or less by February 1,” and you have a better idea of what it will take and
what checkpoints you should hit along the way. This same process should be applied
to any goal you set in the boat, the weight-room, or in life.
#3: Visualization and imagery
Visualization is creating a mental picture of a positive outcome and is usually from an
outside perspective. Think about yourself as a spectator. Imagery is creating an
experience of a desired outcome for yourself from an inside or first-person
perspective. Both are useful based on personal preference and the terms are often
used interchangeably. Spend 5-10 minutes the night before an erg workout imagining
in vivid detail the workout, focusing on positive elements under your control. Engage
all of your sense and create the whole scene. Hear the sound of the fan, feel the sweat
trickle, smell the crisp morning air, and be diligent to eliminate negative thoughts.
Focus only on positive thoughts like speed and attaining your goals, and technical cues
for a specific element that you’re working on during that workout. Think only positive
thoughts and start putting on your mental armor for the workout. Like many sport
psych routines, this may feel silly at first. Fake it ‘til you make it—you weren’t a perfect
rower the first time you sat in a boat, your mental skills won’t be perfect the first time
either. You will get better with dedication.
#4: Pre-Practice or Pre-Performance Routines
These are great for getting in a consistent mental state before training or racing. Write
down 3-5 things that you like to do before practice, and then stick to it for at least a
week before making changes. These should be things that you are 100% in control of.
For example, a short playlist for the commute to the boathouse, a certain meal, or a
certain order of doing things to get ready for practice. Do the same for race day, and
then make it happen. If you write down “coffee, perfectly-ripe banana, and a protein
shake 60 minutes before hitting the water,” bring your own coffee, hot water,
perfectly-ripe banana, and protein shake so you are 100% in control of your situation
and not left sifting frantically through green bananas in the hour before your event.
Remove uncertainty and guesswork before training to allow you to focus on the task
at hand. Leave no doubt that you will succeed.
#5: Positive Self-Talk
Self-talk describes your internal narrative as you perform an activity. This goes with
cognitive reframing to some extent, but is more in the moment. When you are erging
or training, it is important to maintain all of the positive mindset that you have built up
before training. The goals, the reframing, the visualization, and the pre-practice
routines do you no good if things go to hell on your first stroke and you flinch back to,
“ugh, this hurts and I’m no good at this.” It is crucial that this self-talk is positive,
especially when things are going poorly. A good way to understand positive self-talk is
to think of what you would say to your best friend experiencing the same problem. Be
as helpful to yourself as you would to your best friend. Positive self-talk helps
maintain self-confidence and concentration.
Erging is hard, make no mistake, and rowing is a difficult and demanding sport. These
tools won’t make erging or rowing physically easier, but they WILL help you accept
and embrace that difficulty, rise to the challenge, and avoid developing mental barriers
or points of stress. Mental skills training is a vital part to overall athletic training, but it
requires equal dedication as physical training. Make it part of your routine and you’ll
reap the rewards!
Artwork by Eamon Smith
Thanks for Reading!
Make sure to check out for dozens more
free articles, videos, and information about physical and mental training
for rowing. Will Ruth has also written an e-book guide to strength
training for rowing, "Rowing Stronger" available in the Rowperfect UK estore, and is the host of the Strength Coach Roundtable, a monthly (ish)
podcast with fellow rowing strength coaches Blake Gourley and Joe
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