A Mind for Sport
Unless you've had your head in the sand these last twelve months, you can't have failed to have read or heard something about mindfulness. It seems everyone is talking about this most ancient of disciplines to help with modern day problems such as stress, anxiety and many health-related issues. Even the scientists are started to take note and more recently studies have shown the benefits of training in mindful techniques to improve health and well-being - see details of one such study here.
But what about the benefits for sport, performance and physical well-being? Or even for rowing? Can being mindful on your rowing machine help?
If you've read some of my other articles on this website about The Zone, or you've already read my book, The Peak Performance Zone, you'll know my answer - absolutely yes! There're are plenty of books written about the mind in sport, Joseph Parent's Zen Golf has been a best-seller for years now. Timothy Gallwey's popular series of Inner Tennis and Inner Golf are another example that comes to mind.
But I'm also interested in the direct effect of mindfulness on the body from a performance point of view. Here are my thoughts:-
You may be more familiar with other terms for mindfulness, these include 'being in the moment', or 'in The Zone'. And here's the clue in my view. Being in the moment means being focused purely and what you're doing at that very moment. So what can this mean for a rower?
Let's think about the physiology for a moment. When you want to pull back on the handle on your rowing machine, your muscles react in a way that can make this happen. You don't have to know exactly which muscles are needed because it's all coordinated in a lower level of your brain. Muscles are either contracted or relaxed to allow the movement to happen as efficiently as possible.
Sounds pretty straight forward - what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out... plenty. In my role as a teacher of The Alexander Technique I see many sports people whose coordination is all over the place. This means muscles are contracting when they should be lengthening and therefore increasing resistance to the movement required. This can not only reduced your speed, it can also lead to injury.
On a rowing machine, if you're not in the moment and thinking of returning to the 'catch' position before you've reached the end of the 'recovery' - see here for animation of the technique - those muscles necessary for the effort to pull back, are active before they need to be. The same applies to all movement. If you're thinking ahead and not in the moment, your muscles will be responding before they should.
If you think I'm talking through my... hat (and I admit I often do), see what happens when you want to get up from a chair. Do you lift your shoulders? Pull in your lower back, or push up with your chest? Even before you've even before your butt has lifted from the seat! None of these actions are necessary for the movement, but all the muscles that perform those mentioned actions are active when they should be relaxed.
So in a nutshell, if you're not focused on the activity and, you're either trying to hard and getting a head of yourself, or your mind has wandered off to what you're going to have for dinner, your muscles could be all over the shop and working against you.
Start with a very slow, deliberate row and be aware of the movement in your ankles, knees, hips etc. You don't need to concentrate, just be aware of what's happening - also include your breathing. Then gradually build up your speed without losing your focus. If you do, slow down and build it up again.
Trust me on this. Give it a go and see what a difference it can make to the rowing experience. With practice it can also improve your performance.
Also see A Mind for Rowing and All in the Mind
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.