Alex McMullen |

Overcoming race day nerves

Every rower who chooses to compete, regardless of their level, experiences pre-race nerves. However, these jitters are perhaps most acutely felt among those who learn to row as adults, and women in particular. Alex McMullen outlines some race day fears we can all relate to, and explores some handy strategies to keep these at bay

Common race day fears

Fear of under-performing

Race day brings a totally new set of mental roadblocks that are absent from training. Becca Sproston of Newnham College BC, Cambridge, felt an equal sense of eagerness and apprehension when she first got into a boat for a race. “You can’t help worrying that you’re going to catch a crab, rush up the slide, or run out of steam partway down the course,” she highlighted. “The nerves creep in at head races in particular, when you’re waiting on the water for up to hours on end before you start.”

For those with only a few months of rowing experience, pre-race nerves can be tough to come to terms with. For Gary Walker, who learnt to row at Durham ARC in 2021 and is now a member of their masters squad, confidence came with time. “I was afraid of saying the wrong thing,” he admitted. “At my first race, I could see we were lined up too close to the opposition, but I doubted myself and didn’t speak up. Sure enough, we instantly clashed blades. I wish I hadn’t let nerves get the better of me in that moment.”

Pressure of being the ‘newbie’

Carmel Loch, who learned to row at City of Bristol RC, felt the pressure of being the least experienced member of the crew when she advanced into the women’s performance squad last year. “None of the other people I started with chose to make the jump into the performance squad, so I knew I had something to prove on race day. No one wants to be the nightmare novice disrupting the rhythm,” she explained.

Strategies for managing race day anxiety

Recognise your fears

Learning how to handle race day nerves takes time because knowing that you’ve survived races is the foundation for true self-confidence. However, Becca, Carmel, and Gary all agreed that recognising the nerves and accepting them as normal is the critical first step to overcoming them. “The sooner you come to terms with the fact that nerves are a natural effect of the excitement and anticipation that race day brings, the sooner you can learn to channel them into positive energy,” Becca explained.

“A lot of it is mind over matter in races,” Carmel added. “Whenever I find myself overthinking about what might go wrong during a race, I imagine myself closing the book containing my self-doubt and putting it back on the shelf.”

“Instead of panicking and going too quick off the start, I’ve learned to accept that my adrenaline will be higher than usual, but I channel the ‘less haste more speed’ mantra and pace myself a lot more effectively,” Gary underlined.

Get in the zone

Accepting that you’re going to be nervous on race day is key. So, don’t ‘beat yourself up’ about it, and remember that the opposition will be feeling exactly the same. Additionally, from the moment you boat, going straight into a well-practised warm-up is just as, if not more important. For Becca and her crew, this significantly minimises the chance of panic setting in. “Doing the same warm-up exercises on race day that we do every day in training puts us straight into the right mindset, we immediately start thinking as one crew,” she stated.

For Gary, practising starts and incorporating drills into his novice crew’s training plan left nothing to chance on race day. “Drills are extremely helpful when you’re a novice learning the fundamentals. By putting singular focus on the drill we’re doing, we distract our minds from becoming too nervous or pondering what could go wrong,” he added.

Beyond the boat, a race day playlist is another great way to keep spirits high and keep the nerves at bay. “We have three or four songs that we always play right before boating,” Becca explained. “Collectively singing along helps us to de-stress and takes away some of the seriousness of the day.”

Overall, the goal is to understand that pre-race nerves are a natural human reaction to racing. When it’s time to go, take a breath and trust in the training.

Further reading

For more tips on how to gain a mental edge in the glow of the competition headlights, read Head racing: Mind over matter. And explore the next level of with Performance psychology for rowing.

Photo: Drew Smith