Getting Over a "Mental Block" - A Warrior Success Story

The following is the story of an RSR Alum, (I will call her Sarah), who is one of our mental fitness success stories. I first worked with Sarah virtually. Sarah had purchased two sets of four week technical video review packages and we worked together in the early winter of her junior year.

When Sarah first approached me, she told me that she had PRd the year before (7:28) but had not come close to that time during her junior year. We did a lot of writing, reflection and discussion after her challenging winter workouts with her team, but she was still 10-15 seconds off her PR. The summer after her junior year she decided to work with me in more depth and attended the 2018 RSR Development Team. The following is her story.

How would you describe the last two years - your mindset?

A year and a half ago I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew I loved rowing and it would be a great hobby and it would be involved in my future- I just didn’t know how to get to the next level at my size. My freshman year I loved the erg and I was killing it. Sophomore year, I got a lot better and my scores were still pretty good - but then junior year is when I hit a low. I didn’t know what I wanted - everything was hitting me. I always thought I was too small. I didn’t know if I should focus on academics even though I loved the sport. I kept asking myself, what am I supposed to make my priority? I thought I wasn’t big enough to row. It did not help that everyone around me always pointed out my size in negative ways and I was constantly told that my height was something holding me back.

So maybe I could row in college, but I thought I would need to be lightweight. Since lightweight rowers are typically on the shorter side because of the low weight requirements. In that case I would have to drop 10+ pounds. That did not turn out good for me. It became a self-deprecating time.

Instead of focusing on becoming stronger I was focusing on my weight. Instead of eating and training like an athlete I was dieting and exercising. What I was doing to my body did not allow it to get where I needed to be. Towards the end of junior year after working with Coach Holly virtually and over the summer I worked on gaining back my strong body and building positive self-talk. The shift started happening when Holly and I were working virtually. She encouraged me to fuel my body and get as fast as I could be. She told me that lightweight was not the best avenue for me and I trusted her. But it wasn’t until the RSR Dev Team, that summer, that I really let myself be me. From everything I learned I discovered I COULD take it to the next level - and the talks with Holly virtually and at Dev camp helped build up my confidence and discover what I could do at the next level. Dev Camp is very challenging and sometimes it felt like the lessons and tools came at me like a firehose. During the actual camp I just did the work and tried my best. It took me a while to comprehend all that I had learned, but after I had time to process, later that summer and put everything into action, I became so much more successful and happy in my abilities.

I realized I do have this in me to do this at the next level.

I am so happy that I found Coach Holly and RSR and I will be rowing Division I next year!

Holly - So you did both virtual training and Dev Team. What did you learn there? Did anything shift?

From virtual and Dev team I learned a lot about how I have to function mentally in order to have the best piece I can. A lot of what I learned from Holly’s help and research was perception and shifting mindset. Becoming successful on the erg and getting the results I knew I had in me, came from learning about mental strength. I was able to do this through the RSR activities that help you discover your weaknesses and strengths in order to fix my mindset. After I was able to teach myself these things and put them into practice, I fulfilled more of my untapped potential.

You had a bad test with RSR - how would you describe that test?

At the end of Dev Team we did a 2K before Club Nats, and I had a similar experience to the previous year - where practice would indicate I could pull a great time and then I wouldn’t test that well. I came into the piece with a “just do it and get it over with” attitude. I became overwhelmed with doing the 2K and everything I was telling myself during the piece. I should have just focused on the task at hand. There was not one stroke in that piece that I felt happy with. I did not allow myself to bounce back from those bad strokes at any time during the piece. I was really mad at myself and fed up. What works for me now, is if I am going to compete, I pretend that I am racing a girl who is bigger than me on the erg. I was really scared that I wasn’t going to hit it. Everything felt overwhelming - I really wanted to make the top boat and it felt like a lot of pressure for me.

Holly - You raced that 2K defensively.

Yes, definitely. I was mentally drained to keep up with everyone all the time.

I have the clarity now to see that I feel like I have to work harder than everyone else all the time even academically. As a small person and always having to BE the energy and be ON all the time - I was so tired.

Holly - I wasn’t very pleased with your 2k either - it was as if you hadn’t showed up and it was nearly 20+ seconds off your PR. I told you to come back the next morning before we boarded the bus to do it again. And the next day you went 10+ seconds faster. Why could you do the second 2K - what did you tell yourself walking into the room?

Ultimatum was the driving force- I worked so hard the past month don’t let the erg test beat you. Do better than last time. Do it not only for yourself but for your teammates also.

Holly - What happened later this summer?

The day I got back, my old summer coach texted me to see if I wanted to join them for the last half of summer so I went and joined them. We trained for 3 weeks and during that time there was one full week where the weather kept us on the erg twice a day every day for a week. We raced at Canadian Henley and I did another 2k right around there. When I did the 2K I was in the best shape ever after RSR and then we did all these super hard workouts on the erg. I felt like I had focused on myself that whole summer and developed myself mentally and physically so much I had no excuses at that point. I felt ready to perform.

I just sat down and did it. I knew that I had the potential to do it and I saw my splits in the erg pieces. I ended up with a PR after months of mental blocks keeping me from my potential. I pulled a 7:18.

How would you describe that test? That’s sounds like a flow state test.

I was not aware. It was like tunnel vision - you’re not thinking about anything else. It was the epitome of “being in the zone.” During the first 750 meters I used what Holly taught me to tell myself which was “your legs aren’t burning they are warming up.” I was able to stick to what I wanted to hold and just kept going. It got to the point in the piece where I wanted to stop but I had worked so hard to see these splits the past few months I told myself it was not worth it to stop. I started to count down from ten until I reached the last 250 then just closed my eyes and went for it. I wish I had learned to focus in more during test pieces in the past.

Holly - What shifted? What worked? What didn’t work?

I needed some time to process it (mental fitness tools I learned from Coach Holly) and process it on my own. And more practice - the RSR 2K may have been too soon for me to implement. I went over my RSR notes every day on what I needed to work on after Dev Team and then I was able to practice what I had trained three weeks later.

Also - Perception - everything you are doing is how you are perceiving it, not actual. And I learned I can’t be so self-deprecating - I needed to be more positive. I don’t have one mantra, but I am consistently spinning it positively. I tell myself now that “I can get past this.”

Holly - What do you know about yourself now?

I know that I matured a lot. I learned that if you just keep working on it - you can do it. If I wanted it, I would have to work harder then I had the past few years to do so. I know that I don’t give up. I wanted to become more mentally strong so I worked really hard and I am continuing to work hard at it, but I can do it now.

I became a lot tougher and now I know how tough I am. In the future whether it is a crew related obstacle or not, I feel as if I have the tools to tackle it head on.

Holly - Yes you do Sarah. I am so proud of you. You ARE tough. You ARE a warrior.