Interview: Sports Psychology

7th March, 2019

James Byron-Daniel
Lecturer in health and sports psychology at the University of the West of England.

Your qualifications are evident, but what’s your relationship with rowing?

I have an academic not a rowing background. I used to live in Bristol and had worked with Bristol Rovers’ Academy applying sports psychology as research, and wanted to change to another sport. I had absolutely no experience of rowing, but after moving to Ross-on-Wye, I got in touch with Ross Rowing Club. I decided to do the Learn To Row course and instantly fell in love with it. Now I’ve been rowing for four years and I’m the oldest novice in British Rowing I think!

I’ve always been a bit of a loner in exercise – so to meet people to exercise with, who became friends, was a real bonus. I row weekly in a men’s coxless quad and in a sweep 8 and also some pairing. I’ve competed, and been disqualified (!)… but I have a go. I am relatively confident now and help out with Learn To Row courses and the Juniors.

The Head Coach at Ross is massively interested in the psychology of the sport and was keen to get me involved. I have worked with the J15 and J16 crews – doing sports psyche sessions on the little things they could do to deal with pressure, making the most of training… things like improving their effectiveness in the boat; the psychological skills they could use.

I am obsessed with erging.

Interesting… so what role do you believe psychology plays in rowing?

A massive part! Right from the beginning when you are learning – all the way to top competitions – the psychology is crucial. From a learning perspective there are huge amounts of psychology involved, like how to take on and be open to information. One of the big things for me is ‘what is the motivation to do it’…? And that’s quite individual.

Personally, I love just the process of rowing: the pleasure from being on the water, achieving things; it feels good to improve, to crack something you couldn’t do – and for me, getting quicker on the ergs is part of the pleasure.
What we really want people to do is have outcome goals (by crew or by race for example) but getting there is a process. The outcome goals should be week by week, training session by session, in increments… it’s the training aim each time, rather than the final end result, that we should focus on as goals, to really get there.

A common mistake is that goals can be very unspecific or huge – but that doesn’t tell us anything about how we get better: how we are improving. You should focus on ‘what am I trying to achieve at the end of this session – the end of the month’. We call them smart goals… what does success look like and what, specifically, are the stages to get me there? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a personal best each time… it could be a certain amount of water time or crew development as a team. Not just ‘I’m gonna smash it’.

And at least part of the reason you do it must be because you love it. That will get you there quicker.

What techniques do you use, or teach the Juniors at Ross?

For example: a breathing and relaxation technique that anyone can do is to focus on being grounded.

It’s useful for a whole crew together. We focus on rowing up to the start of a race and using this technique just before the race starts… There is often lots of time to think in between boating and the race… and it’s not necessarily always a good thing: you can be stressed by all the jostling and manoeuvring. If you centre together as a crew – breathe deeply and allow the tension to go out of your body – you are better mentally ready for the race. Our cox called it for the whole men’s 8 at the same time as we lined up. The coach describes it as “chilled” amidst the chaos… and for the opposition, it is also unnerving!

Is that how you deal with the pressures in rowing?

Rowers need to learn to make pressure work for them. Consider what you can do to control it and the make it work for you instead? One of my approaches is about enhancement – not thinking about what you are doing that is wrong, but how you can add a bit extra to make what you are doing well, better. You can also focus on bringing consistency to your activity or technique for the day. Mindfulness has to be a part of that – to concentrate on your own techniques and not others.

Another way is to recognise that, even if what you are doing doesn’t go well, it teaches us something and is therefore a positive thing. Having what’s known as a growth mind set – being open to the experience of failure – is often talked about. Rowers who learn to fail, ultimately win.

And a controversial question – is there a different psychology between men and women?

There is a difference, but it’s complicated! Really it’s about character, previous learned behaviours and experience.

What is definite is that children need to be treated with a different psychological approach. They are often treated as mini adults and that’s not what they are… Teenagers have to have fun! If they are to row into their adult like, they are going to train a lot and the fun can go out of it. It’s also crucial that they are supported by their parents… they must not coach but support them them doing what they love. Parents can be too into it and then it’s about them as well.

There’s a massive drop out of sport in adolescence and that maps into later life – so you need to keep the fun in Junior rowing.

So tell us more about your obsession with erging…?

I had an injury in my knee – I had two operations to remove cartilage – and couldn’t run any more, so I went to the gym and was advised to use the rowing machines instead of treadmills. But I used to find that the hardest thing to do – super tough! What has been most remarkable is that that has changed and I am now erging four or five times a week.

In rowing, it’s especially tough if you are comparing yourself, or being compared, with others. Psychologically, getting over that is about picking yourself up each time. It’s so interesting as a psychologist because it is SUCH a mental battle – long pieces, tests, the pain or whatever you are struggling with on that day. You are staring at that screen and it’s not very inspiring is it? I employ a lot of the things I recommend in the middle of an erg – I tell myself to get out of a negative mental cycle. So I might say: ‘Next five strokes – reset/Next ten – focus on technical… because the psychological and physical pain you are suffering will come in waves… but because of that you know there will be a point where it will ease off. Be prepared for it. Tell yourself: ‘you can do this – you have done it before and hundreds of times – and will do it again. It will pass.’ It’s about accepting the suffering and embracing it as part of the journey to another point. Negative thought processes create a disadvantage – but it doesn’t make it true! You can turn it around with positive thought.

Importantly, you must do sessions where it’s not about getting faster – there has to be a mix to keep your relationship with the psychology of ergs healthy. But don’t avoid it until the big deal test!

What other psychologies have you been able to help with at Ross?

Shouting! We all know the scenario when a cox or coach has a loud persuasive style…! Different people need different things and have a different psychology. Some like arousal – they need to be pumped up – but some need to be in the zone and the shouting is tricky to accept. It’s about having more of a culture of dialogue and being open to disclosing these likes and dislikes… Coaches need to recognise that the same approach is not the same for all – and individuals have to recognise that sometimes in a crew you need to go with the majority.

So would you recommend rowing for anyone?

Yes, in as much that any kind of activity is good for your mental health and there’s hundreds of years of consistent evidence for that. If you are less active, you are more likely to be depressed or anxious. If you get involved in a sports activity and it’s done properly, then it really can meet the basic psychological needs people have: being with other people, experiencing something at the same time. But eventually you need to feel you are competent… you need to see and hear about improvement. At Ross we like to mark achievements along the way with recognition.

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