top of page
  • Writer's pictureCoach Knickerbocker

Mental Skills Part 1: Goal Setting

It’s a few days before the World Rowing Masters Regatta.

Do you know where your mind is?

Do you have a system of prep before a big race? What are you thinking about as you get ready to compete at Worlds or the Head of the Charles?

Mindset before a competitive event is a crucial piece of training that many masters athletes tend to overlook. Most rowers are focused on their technical training, their physiological training, and prepping their boat in terms of rigging and repairs, but what are you missing if you neglect your mental training?

You’re missing a mindset that heightens your competitive confidence.

You’re missing the opportunity to enjoy the racing moment as opposed to being anxious or overwhelmed.

You’re missing an element of training that can give you an advantage over your competitors.

How does mental training specifically relate to competition and make you a stronger competitor?

1. It combats performance anxiety enabling you to access the right emotional state for a strong competitive outcome as opposed to feeling like your emotional state is controlling you.

2. It clears your mind of negative thoughts and creates a positive mindset that heightens your technical performance and creates a confident competitor.

3. It gives you a strategy to achieve your best competitive performance physically, technically, mentally, and emotionally.

4. It guards against a loss of composure if something unexpected happens during competition.

Here are some examples of mental training skills:

Goal setting

Mental Imagery

Deep Relaxation

Positive Self-Talk


Pre-race Routine

Over my next few posts, I will go into more detail about each of these techniques.

Today's post is, as advertised, about goal setting.

Goal setting is used to systematically work towards a higher level of performance and to reach past any perceived limits you have about your rowing.

Goals can be performance based or outcome based. Many of the mental training resources out there will discuss both but I’m going to focus on performance based goals because from my experience these are easier to measure and just as gratifying as outcome goals.

That’s not to say the outcome goals are bad, but simply put, ultimately you have no control over an outcome. If your outcome goal is to win the HOCR in the senior masters 1x, you can do everything in your power to do that and it could still not happen because there are so many elements out of your control related to that outcome, other competitors, weather, equipment failure, injury, entry availability, etc.

Whereas if you have that same intention but instead have performance goals that focus on refining your 1x prowess/boat handling/steering, increasing your power and speed through physiological training, expanding your racing experience and confidence by entering many regattas, now you have achieved several performance goals that certainly will influence and provide at minimum the preparation necessary to have a peak performance experience at HOCR (or whatever regatta you want to have that peak competitive experience at).

Performance goals are goals that are directly related to the improvements you make in a specific area and not on the outcome of an event. Those could be technical, physical, mental, or emotional. They could be better performance on the erg or less anxiousness at the start line or becoming a better coxswain.

It’s perfectly fine to say that you have a goal of bettering your erg score by 5 seconds, but the real question is what are you willing to do to get there and what does that process look like?


Many coaches, myself included, will not set team goals or individual goals, simply because the focus will then become the goal itself as opposed to just relentlessly pursuing the act of getting better in small increments. The goal becomes the driver as opposed to the driver being the satisfaction of improvement over time. Goal setters will sometimes get distracted by the goal and forget that it's just about being incrementally better today then you were yesterday.

The other issue that I find a lot of athletes come up against in goal setting is that if they don’t reach the goal they can become emotionally distraught or can decide that there’s no point in having a goal and so why bother.

An athlete who is setting goals needs to also accept the fact that achieving the goal is not necessarily the point. It’s the process of working towards the goal that ends up being the work. Ultimately the small accomplishments made along the way could be more motivating than the actual goal itself. An unachieved goal just means that there were elements of working towards that goal that didn’t turn out the way you thought. Maybe you were sick for a period of time, maybe there was an injury that you had to work through, maybe there were other speed bumps that changed the trajectory for your goal process. What’s important is to reflect on the process , determine what might have altered your path, reset, and go again.

In the Japanese language the word “Kaizen” means constant never ending improvement. Just reaching the goal does not mean the end of improvement or your evolution as an athlete. It’s really a process of a never-ending ascension to greatness that will sustain you over time.


Goal setting can be done in a myriad of ways. One example is called the staircase method. Set small goals for discreet period of times and build on them as you walk up the staircase you accomplish small goals that lead you to a larger goal.

Each step represents two to four weeks of training (or whatever time period makes sense for your specific goal) and there may be 4-6 steps depending on when you want to reach this particular goal. For each step write in a specific thing that you want to have accomplished in that time period that will feed into the ultimate goal at the top of the staircase.

So if your ultimate goal at the top is to lower your 5K erg score by 5” then each step may focus on taking small increments off of your split time, or developing erg stamina, or building aerobic endurance, etc. It’s a great visual to draw a staircase and write out each small accomplishment as you travel up the staircase closer to your ultimate goal.

That’s just one example of a system used to work through achieving a goal.

Keys to goal setting are the 5 elements of SMART goal setting. Goals are:




Results focused

Time bound

Please keep these in mind when you are setting goals for yourself.

Also remember that goals can be as small as wanting to practice consistently over the next 2 weeks, or as big as wanting to row across the Atlantic in one year. Just make sure they follow the above acronym.


Some athletes are private about their goals because they are afraid that if they say them out loud to teammates or coaches they will be under more pressure to achieve them. Then, If they don't achieve them, they will be judged or looked at differently or not respected as an athlete and/or competitor by others they respect. But this couldn't be farther from the truth, and here's why.

Telling others about your goal(s) makes you vulnerable and therefore gives you power. Sharing your goal creates a level of vulnerability that ultimately is strength.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.” Brene Brown

Giving voice to something makes it real and therefore helps you to own it more than if you did not share it.

That is courage.

There is power in speaking your athletic truth. There is power in giving voice to your rowing goal. People around you will respond to that truth telling, will rally to support you in that goal, and will be there to push you when you want to give up.

I highly recommend you bring your goals out into the light and work with a teammate, a coach, a partner, someone, anyone that can keep you accountable, cheer you on when you are feeling discouraged, reflect with you on why you may be struggling at a particular point, and celebrate with you when you've reached a goal.

Having someone in your corner, walking through reaching a goal with you is a huge piece of accomplishing your goal. Goals are meant to be brought into the light.


Mental training practices are not techniques that you can do spur of the moment and then experience their effectiveness. These are skills that need to be practiced exactly the same way that technical skills are practiced. Just like we need some mileage under our belts in order to feel like more confident rowers, we need some miles of mental training in order to experience the benefits. You will not see the results of your mental training unless and until you practice your mental training.

In my next post I will cover pre-race routines and how they can be incredibly effective in lowering a high arousal level before a big race.

Coach Knickerbocker

Row hard, row well, compete, have fun!

130 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page