Flanked by hundreds of thousands of spectators and with cameras tuned to their every move, rowers must hold complete mental focus as they navigate sharp turns, uncertain currents, and a labyrinth of bridges with their team, alone on the water. This weekend, rowers will compete for one of the most sought-after titles in collegiate crew: Head of the Charles.
The three-day Head of the Charles Regatta starts on Friday and will host the top collegiate crew teams in the world on Sunday, with the Northeastern University crew teams amongst them. Northeastern University sports psychology professor Grayson Kimball explains the unique psychological challenges rowing in the event brings and how athletes can rise to the occasion.
Crew requires team members to work entirely in sync with one another, both mentally and physically. In other team sports, such as basketball or baseball, a team can work with one or two teammates who are not on their A-game, said Kimball. The same isn’t true in rowing.
“If one person literally doesn’t pull their weight, it’s going to throw off everything,” Kimball said. “If you have seven that are totally locked in and an eighth that just had a bad week of school, just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, or whatever, that can impact them.”
According to Kimball, the key to a rower performing seamlessly with their team is for them to have clarity in their role. Every rower on the team needs to not only clearly understand their role, but also accept that role.
“You might have somebody in the rear of the boat saying to themselves, ‘I should be in the front,’” said Kimball. “If you don’t accept what your role is, you just may not be as mentally engaged.”
Mental slips, botched turns, and even bridge collisions have tripped up teams along the winding three-mile course up the Charles River in past years. The most precarious moment of the race comes near the end: rowers enter the sharpest turn yet, pushing past Harvard Square and hooking around almost 180 degrees. Suddenly, the low-lying, red-brick arches of the Eliot Foot Bridge come into view. Avoiding potential disasters requires meticulous preplanning and visualization.
Preparing for potential surprises and problems that could arise during the race helps rowers maintain focus on what they need to do right to win, not how to avoid mistakes, said Kimball. This allows rowers to maintain an “achievement” mindset, instead of a defensive “avoidance” mindset. Visually picturing the difficult turns and bridge navigations can help the coxswain gain comfort and confidence with the maneuvers.
“It’s important to identify what potential problems could happen and how to guard for it,” Kimball said. “These are things you think about two days beforehand, not when you see the bridge coming up.”
However, rowers shouldn’t get caught up in attempting to create a perfect race. Instead, the focus should rely on consistency: consistent training, a consistent diet, and a consistent mindset.
“I’m sure a lot of the rowers go into this almost with that perfectionist mindset,” Kimball said. “The reality is, you’re never going to have a perfect anything.”
Thorough and consistent preparation helps rowers avoid negative nerves that boil up into anxiety. Negative nerves manifesting during the event can cut focus, destroy rhythm, and suck away drive and determination. However, not all nerves are bad according to Kimball. Even if rowers prepare perfectly, nerves from excitement are normal. Good nerves associated with the thrill of the challenge can bolster teamwork, concentration, and energy
“To have those butterflies, that’s a sign that you’re alive, that you’re challenged, that you’re excited for this to happen,” Kimball said. “Embrace those nerves. Turn them into positive energy.”
The Northeastern University club crew team is scheduled to enter the water just after 12:20 p.m. on Saturday, and the varsity and junior varsity teams compete in the collegiate championship competition at 1:20 p.m. on Sunday. The teams are competing in both the four-person and eight-person crew races. The Regatta will live stream the entire event on its YouTube channel.
For advice to team Northeastern, Kimball keeps it simple. “Trust yourself. Trust your teammates. Trust the process.”
Relying on the team and their consistent, disciplined training allows rowers to free themselves of any restrictions they may have placed on themselves and allows them to enjoy the moment, Kimball said. The race is difficult and painful — but in a once-in-a-lifetime race, rowers have a choice: embrace the moment or run away from it.
“When things start to feel challenging, you have to convince yourself that you are stronger than the moment,” Kimball said.