Coaches' Corner: Setting Goals, Part 2

Evening light, Castrelo de Miño, Galicia, Spain (Photo: © B. Kitch) 
It is hard to get around the reality that world records are broken incrementally–people seem to rise to specific numbers based on a previous 'best' performance. Rarely are world records shattered in this day and age. The main reason for this seems to be that we are pushing right up against the physical limits of the human body at this point in the evolution of homo sapiens; however, part of it is undoubtedly psychological. How often does an elite athlete train hard enough to break an existing record without knowing what that record is? It is very rare that an elite talent can train and race in a vacuum, without knowing what the competition is, and without knowing what it means to be 'good' relative to his/her peers. What if Usain Bolt grew up sprinting without ever competing against others, with a coach who told him that the world record for 100 meters was 9.40 seconds, and that he would have to go that fast to win a gold medal in the Olympics or be a professional athlete? Would he have run faster, in that case? What if he never raced anyone, and never knew what was considered a fast time? Would he go faster in either of these scenarios than when he had all the information at his fingertips?

The point is this: the psychological motivation of competition is significant. Many people step up or down to meet the necessary standard–you hear it all the time watching broadcasts of professional sports ('So and so is playing to the level of the competition,' etc., rather than to his/her potential). Despite the difficulty, it is important not to allow others to determine the limits of your potential, though they may help you to reach those limits.

It is amazing what people can accomplish based on where the bar is set. People subconsciously put ceilings and floors on their capabilities based on perception. The way you view yourself, and the world, in training and racing goes a long way toward determining how you will perform, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is often the reason for what people commonly refer to as 'plateaus,' both in training and in racing. Sometimes people get stuck in a rut, year after year, because they come to expect the same things out of themselves, and they strive for gradual improvements. If you want to get faster, you must start by rowing faster. In other words, don't pull the same splits day after day, and month after month, and expect to 'magically' get faster. At some point, you have to start by pulling a faster split.

Yet, at times, athletes forget this, convincing themselves that they aren't capable. I think that many athletes who seem to be stagnating later in their careers may be victims of a stale framework–the framework, too, must be adapted over time. In this case, if the athlete is training hard and consistently, but not improving, he or she needs to shock themselves out of the rut by doing something different.

For example, if you have been out of college for three years, yet haven't set a new 'PR' (personal record, or 'PB'–personal best) since your junior year of college, and you are pulling the same steady state splits & are testing at all the same splits, either the training should be altered to spur change in development, or you need to take the plunge and push yourself into new territory. The longer you've been training, and the closer you get to your peak, the easier it is to settle into a training/racing rut. If, throughout the previous three seasons, you did all your steady state splits at a certain pace, maybe you need to start by rowing a little bit faster in order to nudge yourself into new physiological territory. This is a passive mindset, versus an active, more aggressive mindset.

Think about the attitude of a rower in his/her first or second year in the sport, when he/she is constantly improving. Sure, most of the improvement is born of being new, and finding out how hard you can push yourself, while simultaneously enjoying the rapid jumps in performance that occur physiologically when one starts training seriously for the first time. However, the mental attitude and approach during this time is one of active pursuit of significant gains. By expecting to make significant increases in speed early on in a career, athletes may pursue these gains more aggressively in their physical and mental approach to the training. While in a period of stagnated performance over several years, one comes to expect the same baseline, minimal performance.

Athletes often have trouble making the all important paradigm shift to view themselves as a newer, or different athlete. The longer you train, the more carved in stone your self-perception becomes, both what you expect from yourself and what you are capable of. If this happens, then you need to find a way to take a fresh approach to the way you think of yourself, your training, and the sport, in order to 'reinvent' yourself, just the way you did when you were new to the sport, and so had no choice but to create a new perception. Undoubtedly, some of periods of stagnation are, in fact, physiological limits. It is important to address the mental limits to make sure the physiological limits are the only ones preventing the athlete from getting faster.

-Justin and the RR Team

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