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rowers rowing in boats
Rowing requires extreme physical and mental endurance. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

Rowing: Mind and body unite

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“Rowing is a very psychologically demanding sport,” McGill rower Kylie Shorter said emphatically, as if she knows that most people have the opposite perception of rowing. 

She went on to explain that many members of the McGill rowing team never rowed prior to their McGill experience, and that training is especially intense when individuals are learning the sport while simultaneously learning to work as a team.

“Our coaches spent a lot of time on psychology throughout the season,” Shorter explained. “Especially since [some girls] had to go from never having rowed before to racing within two weeks.”

Rowers need to have an astronomical level of preparedness, but this is part of the appeal of the sport; rowing is an elite physical endeavour that can also be picked up fairly quickly. McGill operates its rowing team on two levels:—the novice group for relative beginners, and the varsity team for more established rowers. Every year, the best rowers from the novice team usually move up to the varsity level. The system works well as it ensures that the McGill coaches develop novice rowers, and fosters a sense of reciprocation and familial feelings between both levels of the rowing team.

The tension between psychological strength and physical excellence is apparent from the moment novices start learning the sport, vying for a position on the varsity team, and striving for excellence in races even though they are relatively new to the sport. Essentially, McGill rowers have to learn quickly in order to become good enough to compete at the university level.

“[Rowing] takes an immense amount of awareness and adaptability […] to make subtle adjustments,” Amanda MacPherson, one of McGill’s coxswains, explained. “It’s about being able to apply power efficiently and consistently,” something that spectators don’t necessarily see.

Awareness is one aspect that separates team rowing from the sport of indoor rowing, which makes use of a stationary ergometer, instead of a boat on water, to simulate race conditions. The insight is particularly interesting in light of the European Rowing Indoor Championships that took place this past weekend in Gyor, Hungary. Entry was open to all for the competition, so essentially rowers were self-selecting themselves to compete in specific heats throughout the weekend. A variety of events and heats were offered, depending on weight class, distance, and gender. Unlike rowing in the water, indoor rowing is an incredibly individual sport, and while personal psychology is still imperative, the individual rower’s performance rests in his or her own hands.

At McGill, athletes do indoor rowing as a method of training as opposed to a sport—two ergometers are permanent fixtures in the varsity gym. 

“I’ve done many challenging erg sessions,” MacPherson said. “It’s really about tuning out that part of your brain that tells you to stop, that tells you you’re tired and that you’re pushing too hard. You have to get in a zone where each stroke becomes automatic.”

McGill rower Daniele Bercovici concured and jokingly called the ergometer the “death machine.” Most rowers, however, understand the importance of indoor rowing sessions. 

“During winter training, the psychological aspect is even more prominent [than summer training on the water],” Shorter said. “No one likes erging, and when you are expected to pull long sessions, it can get very boring. In the end, it’s mental preparation and strength that gets you through the workout.”

Indoor rowing is an exercise that requires at least a basic level of fitness to begin and a substantial amount of mental fortitude to complete. When asked why rowers would put themselves through such an exercise, Shorter, MacPherson, and Bercovici all had similar answers: It teaches them that perceived limits can be broken.

“Rowing really changes your perspective on what you’re capable of,” MacPherson said.

Shorter smiled in agreement, “Rowing has taught me that I can push myself to obtain anything,” She added.

Bercovici believed that lessons learned from rowing can be applied across both athletics and everyday life. 

“You are much stronger than you think,” She concluded.  

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