Rowing Against the Tide

Rowing Against the Tide

Sports such as rowing are not just challenging physically, but also mentally. Here, Emilie and Jake discuss some of these challenges. 

Great Britain has topped the Olympic Games’ medal table in rowing for the last three games, winning 9 golds, 6 silvers and 5 bronzes in that time. This is a huge haul, considering there are only 14 events offered. But what does it take to make it to this level? The foundation of it is actually pretty simple: you need to train yourself to be at 100% of your physical potential. However, putting this into practice is a whole different story.

Most of us live our lives at around 40% or 50% of what we could be physically, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You could be a perfectly healthy weight, do the ‘prescribed’ 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week, and live to be 112, all while living your life at 40% of your ‘physical fitness potential’. So how do you move yourself from being at 40% to 100% (or even 75-85% like a normal university rower), and how much can this undertaking mess with your mind?


A Rower’s Perspective: Jake Figi

At any half-decent rowing program, your first year should be relatively smooth sailing. The main thing to overcome is an incredibly steep learning curve. Beyond this though, most clubs are supportive and try to reassure their novices (i.e. those who have very little experience) that they are making incredible progress (or at least this is what I think UCL’s Boat Club [UCLBC] does well).

At UCLBC, we try to ease novice rowers in slowly, but no matter what you do there’s still a massive learning curve for them to overcome, which is both a positive and a negative. On one hand, you have the huge pressure of trying to learn a fairly complex new sport from scratch. This adds all sorts of mental strains. For example, you experience substantial amounts of self-doubt, thinking to yourself “why am I so awful at this sport?!” while you’re actually just as inexperienced as everyone else who has just started.

Some people will also obtain their first taste of non-academic competition, whereas others may experience real ‘failure’ for the first time (or rather, failure to achieve their own goals, such as making a top boat). Yet, on the other hand, you experience the huge physical and mental benefits of regular exercise. As a result, most new rowers will get a great deal of satisfaction as they see themselves improve on a near-daily basis. Once you move into your later years of rowing, a whole new host of problems and benefits instead may arise.

A common theme that underlies life experiences is that the deeper you delve into a subject, and the better you understand that subject, the better you then understand the subject as a whole, and just how much there is to learn about it. It’s the classic iceberg description: once you look under the surface, you realise just how much there really is.

It often feels like it’s one step forward and two steps back, even when you aren’t taking any steps back.You reach your goal, but as soon as you do, you realise that your goal wasn’t very ambitious to start with. Five goals later, and you are still dissatisfied with what you have achieved. There’s always someone better, faster, stronger, lighter, more technical, having better endurance, a better squat, more flexibility, a stronger core, or just more knowledgeable about the sport. It always seems to be a losing battle. A typical outing (rowing on the water) will consist of between 1,250 and 2,000 strokes – blade in the water and back out again. To put what I have just discussed into perspective, I’ll briefly run through my typical thought pattern during each of those strokes:

“Ok, hold your core and keep your back upright and forward. Push. Strong swing back, but not too far. Get that tap down with your left wrist at. Keep that back straight and get the arms out in front quickly, and keep the knees locked down. Blade staying level, check the man in front for reference. Square the blade up and keep in time. Don’t dip that outside shoulder. Strong position at the front, and make sure you don’t rock over any more once the position is set. Lift the hands now, quick. Damn, too slow again. I hope I didn’t splash the guy behind me…”

That’s pretty much what I think for the three seconds each stroke takes. Over 1,000 times, five times a week. Some of it is subconscious, but most is near-active thought. So, this provides an ideal opportunity for me to doubt myself, and judge myself thousands of times, in a short hour and a half. Constantly striving to take that one perfect stroke, the one the coach makes sound so easy and is constantly trying to drill into my head. But it isn’t easy. And, often that pressure and doubt makes me question my place in this sport. Why should I bother with this if I will never be good enough, or row well enough for people to think I’m ‘good’ at rowing?


A Coxes’ Perspective: Emilie Morrow

In rowing, the cox is the person who sits at the end of the boat, sometimes at the front, and sometimes at the back (depending on the boat itself). Ultimately, they act as an all-knowledgeable coach, sitting with a microphone linked to speakers which project sound all the way down the boat, and juggle being aware of the boat’s surroundings with being aware of what’s going on in the boat. They’re the voice of the boat, controlling when the boat stops or starts, the rate at which it’s moving, and how and when it turns. They also analyse who is doing what in the boat: who’s blade is going in early? How level are the handle heights of the blades? Is everyone in the boat squaring early enough?

Whilst being aware of the internal workings of the boat, a cox must also be aware of the position of the boat on the water – what is the effect of the wind on us when we’re stationary? How powerful is the tide? How shallow is the water in this area at this water level? The positioning of the boat must also abide by the Tideway Code (a set of rules dictating where boats can be according to which way they’re going, which way the stream is moving, as well as other factors, on the Thames).

Perhaps to someone outside of the rowing world, this sounds quite stressful – equally, perhaps not. But in rowing, there has long existed somewhat of a stigma surrounding the role of the cox. Often seen as a ‘dead weight’ in the boat, annoying or useless, coxes were historically treated poorly and treated as verbal punching bags for frustrated athletes. Whilst things are now significantly better, a lot of issues still linger surrounding personal wellbeing in coxing.

Speaking to coxes, the issues seem to start with outsider perception: their role is not as physically exerting, and therefore is seen as less demanding than that of rowers.The mental stresses and strains of coxing are frequently belittled, and, unlike rowers, there is often no opportunity to burn off steam in the same way. Certainly, there isn’t the same feel-good release of endorphins that those rowing will experience through physical exertion.

This is acknowledged by coxes alike.“Whilst not very helpful or necessary to compare the roles of rowers and coxes, given each have different requirements, and the impact on either varies, coxing doesn’t get the physical benefits of rowing, which does counter the mental exertion and stress.” stated a fellow cox.

“Therefore, I often finish coxing and feel mentally drained after two hours of responsibility and leadership, and having to constantly analyse the boat and its inhabitants.” She continues. “Yet, the stress sits with me long after a session, as I haven’t physically worked it off. Whilst I could then do some exercise independently, I am often too tired to do so. This is quite a harmful cycle, and this manifestation of stress is also hard to express, given that the other four or eight individuals in the boat have physically exerted themselves for the same amount of time.”

Whilst not physically moving a blade through the water, coxes are also required to maintain a strong core, particularly in fast paced races, in order to increase the fluidity of the motion of the boat. This, in combination with the physical impact of having to provide a constant stream of calls, is often underestimated – this is not to say that it is comparable to the output of the rowers, but rather, these factors are rarely acknowledged to exist at all.

However, the issues that have been described from both perspectives lie in a much larger-scale problem with society as a whole, in that mental health is still not perceived as of equal importance to physical health. As efforts are made towards changing this perception, sports such as rowing should benefit, and ultimately, sports will serve to enhance both physical and mental wellbeing for all athletes involved, no matter what role they may play.


UCLBC’s Rowathon for Mind: Laura Riggall

Every year, UCLBC complete a rowathon for a charity of their choice. The aim is to accumulate as many kilometers as possible, whereby rowers take turns to row continuously on two rowing machines over a 48-hour period. Held in Covent Garden Market, the public can not only donate, but provide motivation. UCLBC believes it’s important to give something back to the community, and given some of the challenges rowers and coxes alike face, chose Mind knowing the importance of good mental health for everyone.

Specifically, Mind aims to change public attitudes and government policy towards mental health whilst raising awareness. They also continue to ensure that everyone with a mental health problem has somewhere to turn for advice and support.This year, UCLBC raised over £1,500 for Mind.

This article was originally published in Issue 722 of Pi Magazine.

Image Credit: Ellen Forsyth