Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Coaches' Corner: Setting the Standard, and Building Mental Toughness

Mentally tough, to be precise (Photo: © Kate Mead)
Mental toughness is a necessary trait of all great athletes. It is a trait that, unlike many other important characteristics, is not based on genetics or natural ability. Anyone can be tough, be disciplined, and possess great work ethic if he/she makes the decision to do so. Mental toughness, resilience, tenacity–all are important in terms of pushing one's body through physical pain in training and racing.

It is also of the greatest importance to have the resilience and fortitude to be disciplined with respect to the technical aspects of the sport, in order to focus on all the details, with the goal of refining one's boat moving ability.

As a coach, the key to ensuring that the athletes develop this mental state of focus and attention to detail is having high expectations–do not accept anything less than the necessary standard. Obviously, it is important to make sure the standard is achievable and realistic–novice rowers cannot be expected to row like Olympians. However, I think the expectations can and must remain very high. In this way, the athletes will be pushed to achieve to their fullest potential.

I think that often times, coaches are guilty of not expecting enough from their athletes in the early stages of development. As a result, these coaches let the athletes get away with undisciplined rowing, which can develop into bad habits that not only become ingrained into their muscle memory, but also become a part of their level of expectations, and their understanding of the allowable standard. It only does the athletes a disservice to let them row at a level below the necessary standard, as they will be under the false impression that what they are doing is good enough.

So, while it is important to keep the standards achievable and within reason, it is also important that coaches push their athletes, from both a technical and physiological standpoint. It is amazing what the human body and mind can do. When you think about the fact that the body heals itself when sick or wounded, regulates itself in terms of chemical and hormone levels, and is a true biomechanical system, where usage strengthens rather than weakens, you begin to appreciate just how much you can accomplish. The body does these things because it has to in order to survive. So, if more is asked or required of the body as an athlete in order to have success in training and racing, the body will respond.

It's amazing what people can do when the bar is set at a high level. It has been said before, but I have found that people will rise or fall to wherever the bar is set (within reason). Lots of what separates different programs is the level of coaching, and the level of expectations. Expectations inform the athletes not only what is okay/acceptable, but also what is possible. It can be surprising how much of an impact can be made on performance, technically and physically, merely by raising the standard of what is acceptable. If a coach expects a lot out of the athletes, and knows how to go about teaching them the way to get there, they will rise to that level of expectation. If we make the mistake of having expectations that are too low, it will affect the ability to perform and achieve. If you don't first expect yourself to be great, you will lack the confidence necessary to achieve at a high level, and will naturally doubt yourself and your abilities.

If, in a given program, one only needs to go 6:20 on the erg to make the varsity eight, the athletes might not perform as well across the board as if they were in a different program, where an erg score of 6:05 or better was required for the varsity eight. There are two reasons why this would impact performance: first, by having no chance to get in the top boat without going a certain speed, the athletes are left no choice but to find a way to achieve that or get as close as possible–so, even if an athlete can't achieve the level required, they will likely push themselves a little bit further than if they could get into a top boat without going as fast; second, in an environment where athletes are going faster, the athletes will realize what is possible when they look around at their teammates.

This is why world records will continue to drop over time in all sports. Of course, technology and training methods help performance to increase over time, but merely having the bar set at a certain place will cause people to find a way to rise to that level. Even though things like training methodologies, technology and nutrition have improved significantly over the last 60 years, I don't think they are the sole reason we have seen the world record in the mile or marathon drop so significantly in running. The four-minute mile was a perfect example of this. Roger Bannister became the first to break four minutes for the mile on the track when he did it in 1954. Once he broke the magic barrier that top runners had been pursuing for some time, it opened the door for many others to go well under that mark with others doing it that same year. The world record in the mile has since been lowered almost 17 seconds under the four minute mark to 3:43.13. A similar progression has taken place in every nearly every other event in all sports. As the bar gets raised, so does the performance of the top athletes because what it takes to be successful is constantly improving.

This also applies to technical standards. If rowers can make a boat without being particularly disciplined or technically savvy, they may have unnecessary inefficiencies in their technique. These same rowers, were they in a more competitive environment, may be capable of eliminating those inefficiencies, and would be pushed to do so more quickly because of their situation. While some of this may be the result of complacency, a large majority of it is a sort of Darwinian-type 'survival of the fittest' phenomenon, by which people will achieve more if they are required to do so. It is part of the coach's job to create an environment that encourages this kind of evolution of athletic performance. This is a large part of the difference between collegiate club rowing programs and top varsity level programs.

We see it in many team sports, when a coach is fired and a new coach begins, takes the same athletes that couldn't win under the old coach, and turns those same athletes into winners by raising the bar, demanding a certain level of performance, and, most importantly, creating an environment which both forces and allows the athletes to find a way to succeed.

-Justin and the RR Team

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