• Coach Knickerbocker

Mental Skills Part 2: Pre-Race Routines


In prep for Worlds I wanted to get this next installment out before folks started racing. I hope that some of this info will be helpful to those of you that suffer from the serious pre-race jitters. When I was a collegiate coxswain I would get extremely nervous and anxious before regattas. I would have a hard time eating. I would have to go to the bathroom a lot. I fretted over the time management of my crew and knowing the course of a new location. This made the experience of competing for me fairly fraught.


Once I got locked into the stake boat and we jumped into our start sequence I was great. No nervousness, no anxiety, just the honed sharpness of a coxswain who was confident in her race plan, steering, and motivational ability. So while I definitely enjoyed competing, I wanted there to be less stress and anxiety before the actual competition started.

What happens for you at regattas or just before any competition? Are you comfortable, relaxed, but excited to compete? Or are you anxious, nervous, tense, and feeling like you’re not at your best? Either way engaging in a pre-race routine can be extremely beneficial for all athletes.


A pre-race routine is important for several reasons.

1. It's a self built system that the athlete can use to positively prime their nervous system for competition.

2. They are, for the most part predictable, which for rowers can be an amazing thing since most of what we do is changing constantly (weather, race times, what boat you're using) and not predictable in the same way a routine is.

3. It can inform your self-image of who you are as an athlete and shore up your athletic and competitive self-confidence.


What is a pre-race routine?

This is a series of actions that transition you physically and mentally from just hanging out with teammates, rigging, eating, sleeping, fill in your blank here, to a competitively focused mindset. Pre-race routines organize your nervous system and let it know that you are about to engage in an activity that is a bit different than your normal, everyday existence.

Pre-race routines can involve music, intentional relaxation, a dynamic stretching warm up, a short jog, a particular kind of meal or snack, a mantra, a motivating talk with a teammate. Or some combination of all of the above.

It really can be anything that helps you to feel focused and excited to race, both physically and mentally, and helps with anxiousness or nervousness before racing. The key to developing a pre-race routine is trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t work for you.


I figured out through trial and error (mostly error) that liquid food worked well for me as a rower and a coxswain. While I couldn’t eat anything solid I could drink a smoothie before racing and that worked great.

I also figured out that I needed some quiet time before racing. So I put the hat on, sunglasses on, put the earbuds in, and would either lay down or sit down and tune in to me, while tuning out the other rowers. I did this for 5-10’ before prepping for hands on. During that time I focused on feeling as centered and focused as possible while positively self-talking to myself about what was going to happen on the course.


Picture yourself here!

Some athletes will have specific music that triggers the right mindset for them. Others have a specific stretching routine, a breathing technique, or a couple sentences that they repeat to themselves. Still others will have a combination of all of these things. Again, it’s about trial and error and figuring out what works for you.

A good way to develop this is to try routines out before a practice and notice what helps you get into the right mode and perform well. Most likely some of these same routines will work before racing. If you wait for races to test out certain routines it may take you awhile to figure out what works, since for some of us races can be few and far between. Use the practice time to PRACTICE your “pre” routine.


Communicate with Teammates

As you develop a pre-race routine communicate this to your teammates. Make sure that your teammates, and coaches for that matter, understand what kind of competitor you are. Are you someone that likes to chat before racing and is “up” in terms of your mood? Or are you someone that needs some space and likes to be a bit insular before racing? Let your teammates know so that they can be aware and respect your routine.


Teammates can misunderstand their insular, introverted teammates and the same can be said for the teammates who are irritated by their chatty pair partners.

Know that different things work for different people. Communicate to your boat mates what your process is, ask others what they do, and everyone will be better off for it.


Even better is to work on developing individual pre-race routines as a team. Have a conversation with teammates about pre-race routines. Does anyone have one they practice? What works for them? How can you support each other to engage in a practice of routines that gets everyone into their best head space for racing. Rowers work on rowing technically well together. They physically train together. Why shouldn't this be the case with mental skills and a pre-race routine?


Big Races

There's nothing like competing at Worlds or the HOCR! Right?!

Great venues, lots of awesome rowing and racing, feeling connected to your rowing contemporaries, and maybe coming home with some hardware. Fantastic!


These same races can cause extreme levels of anxiety even in racers that may not experience that for other regattas. You've trained for the better part of the last couple months (minimum) in order to be ready for this regatta. You may have spent a lengthy period of time seat racing for your seat. You may have traveled a considerable distance to get on to this course and lay down your best strokes. So it would make sense that you carry a little higher expectation for your performance which could mean a higher level of anxiety or nervousness before competition.


Consider this in your prepping for this weekend at Worlds or next months Head of the Charles. Your mental state can absolutely have an effect on your athletic performance. Which brings me to my last piece about pre-race routines.


Positive Mindset

No matter how good your routine is, if you let in doubt and fear and worry, no routine will suffice.


Positive self-talk is a bigger post than what I'm going to say here but I want to make sure this is part of your routine. Say good things to yourself. Speak to yourself about your rowing and your competitive performance in the positive. Notice when you begin to question your technique or your fitness, then consciously replace that with something positive.


Positive self-talk does not start with a negative statement. For example saying to yourself "I will not catch a crab during the race." is framing the statement in the negative. instead say to yourself, "I have outstanding roll up technique." or "I can always feel when my blade is squared up."


Some of you may not need a pre-race routine and that’s great! If you are already in the right place mentally and physically to perform at your best than it may be that the warm up to the start line is all you need.


If, on the other hand, you are someone that can relate to being distracted by your pre-race jitters, than I strongly recommend you establish a pre-race routine.


Good luck to everyone racing at Worlds this weekend!

See you at HOCR!


Coach Knickerbocker

Row hard, row well, compete, have fun!

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