Sick of nerves (mental toughness)

This is a first attempt to run a session on ‘managing the nerves’ so it’s a bit of an experiment.!

It introduces the concept of “mental toughness”, associated with “mental resilience”. You may prefer the tabloid title, “Sick of nerves”. What can you do to deal with the anxiety, fear, even, in the lead up to a big event, British Masters, Henley Masters, or just, Durham Head, getting through that damn bridge.

The basic human responses kick in … Fight, Flight, … or Freeze

“I’m up for this, I want to beat Pete, I’m going to give it everything”

“What am I doing here, I’d rather be anywhere else than here. Why am I putting myself through this”

“I just froze, panicked, didn’t do myself justice”

How can you deal with these responses and what strategies can you use to recognise and overcome ‘the nerves’.

I’ve been competing in a single for over 20 years, I still get nervous or keyed up, full of adrenalin, but I’ve gradually learnt some strategies, that help me, to some extent, to ‘manage the nerves’. This may not be of use to you, because, a) you’re not me, and b) you have to find your own ways to manage that pre-race anxiety. But maybe it will give you a few things to consider in ‘managing your mental state’

If you’re bored already just ask me to describe one of my glorious failures:-

  • Fumbling in my tracksuit bottoms at Durham City
  • Up a dead end at Tees Head
  • Racing blind through Elvet Bridge
  • Massive crab at National masters
  • Seizing up at Strathclyde
  • 2nd again at World Masters

What is mental toughness, mental resilience?? (The opposite of mental toughness isn’t mental weakness, it’s ‘mental sensitivity’. Mental toughness has a physiological/genetic component – they say? But it can also be developed)

See two approaches below – the theoretical/academic (some much abridged slides), and my own ‘learning’, from many different races, of what seems to help me, with ‘the mental side’ of racing.


Strategies (that’s a bit grand) for coping with the ‘mental side’ of racing – Andy

I do believe that this ‘mental toughness’ thing is to some extent bound up with personality. So what works for one person may not work for another.

Thumbnail sketch: I am highly competitive/determined, like a challenge, excitable, intuitive, not systematic, not good with the details, sometimes unobservant.

The positives can be overplayed … for example highly competitive/excitable – go off too fast and ‘die’ with 200 metres to go. And the negatives, if not managed, will cause problems … not good with details – bobble hat slipping down over my eyes as I raced through Elvet bridge.

So, in no particular order, here’s some personal strategies I’ve developed over the years.

  1. Manage the details/be systematic/be calm: get my boat out 1 hour before, check everything & clean the slides; get my number & put it in the empacher slot; ask someone friendly to pin my paper number on while we have a chat; walk the course, look at the conditions (know which side I’m on); if I know the opponent decide how I will race him; envision the race; decide exactly when I will do my ergo 5 min warm up, and when I will boat; as I get closer to the race notice how I am switching into racing mode etc. (If I was at away regatta there would be other things, like seeking out someone with good local knowledge about the course, tides/stream etc.) This is not how I used to be. I was consumed with nerves and mentally ‘all over the place’
  2. Stay in the moment: being keyed up it’s easy to ‘get ahead of yourself’; there are so many potential ‘distractions’ at a regatta/head; so I try to treat each step systematically; for example, getting onto the stake-boat quickly and efficiently and then just ‘doing the process’ of the racing start from blades perfectly squared to just thinking about the 1st 3 strokes. And not being thrown by something unexpected – a delay; a poor starter rushing you; stay aware of what’s happening, be assertive, go back to your process.
  3. Be aware of your impact on other crew members/choose your language: One doubles partner I had, just before a very important race used to say, “Andy, I really hate the waiting, it’s the worst time .. I get so nervous”. I thought to myself, “I really didn’t want to know that .. it’s certainly not helping me to deal with my own nerves, thanks mate”. Then I had a new doubles partner for a fairly important race. Sitting waiting just before the start, I said, “How are you doing?”. He said, “I’m excited”. I thought, wow that’s a surprise! I said “Yeah .. I think I’m … excited, as well”. (Excited, yeah, similar emotion to nervous, just a lot more positive!) Now I try and decide not to be too nervous because – it doesn’t help. Acknowledge the adrenalin, acknowledge being ‘keyed up’. Look forward to the challenge of racing against a good opponent.
  4. Do the work, train hard, put yourself through the pressure of lots of racing stuff – time-trails/chasing/being chased/side by side starts etc. during training sessions. All of this helps me to feel more confident going into a race. I’m not going to be fazed, the training will kick in. I can perform at near my best. Then, whatever happens, I’ve given it my best shot
  5. Losing is a good source of motivation: Finally, more of a strange realisation that all the anxiety/fear I experienced the night before big races – World Masters Singles Final on Lake Bled, Henley Masters Singles Final, is then associated with something I look back on with a degree of pride, as an exciting memorable race, one of the best experiences … even though I lost, narrowly, on both occasions. Losing makes me more determined to train harder, train smarter, and to get myself, mentally, in the best possible place.