Mental Toughness: The Mental Game of Paddling

In the middle of a recent training session I started thinking about how many parts of my body were hurting. I let my mind wander and it became my worst enemy. I started questioning why in the heck I put myself through the hour-long torture session we affectionately call “training,” especially at 5:45 in the morning. My mind started to take over and sadly I willingly let it.

The truth is, paddling is a mental game. Obviously technique is important, and you can’t neglect the physical strength and proficiency needed for competing. But without the mental component, a large portion of your training is useless.

Have you ever noticed that we train our bodies to respond to the physical requirements of competition, yet when our team doesn’t do well we often claim, “We didn’t focus enough” or “We psyched ourselves out” or “We didn’t handle the pressure well”? Every single one of these comments refers to our mental state, not our physical one.

We do time trials and fitness tests, and have a variety of ways to evaluate our physical ability, but how can we determine our mental toughness?

We train for hours on the water and in the gym, yet we so often neglect the mental aspect of our training. We purchase protein powder, gym memberships, new paddles, and a number of other items to help us be better at our sport. But unfortunately mental toughness cannot be bought. It is something that has to be developed over time.

We do time trials and fitness tests, and have a variety of ways to evaluate our physical ability, but how can we determine our mental toughness? How can we cultivate our will or desire to persevere?

Mental toughness Vancouver 2017. Photo Ed Nguyen

Your body will naturally look for an escape route. It doesn’t want to deal with the pain you are inflicting on it during training sessions. And your body’s first line of defense is to get your mind to go along with its evil little plan of sabotaging your training or your performance on race day.

Just because your body is exhausted, doesn’t mean your mind has to be as well.

Our mind will start to come up with lies to help our body avoid the discomfort. “That twinge in your shoulder might be something serious, maybe you should stop paddling?” or “You are creating a huge blister on your rear end, maybe you should stop paddling?” It’s like a giant game of Jenga between your mind and your body. Who will pull the piece that eventually causes everything to come crashing down? Will your body convince your mind to stop? Or will your mind triumph over your body’s attempts to undermine your training?

Mental toughness Vancouver 2017. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Vancouver 2017. Photo: Ed Nguyen

The idea is to figure out your own personal mental game and understand what it takes for you to persist despite whatever you might be experiencing. It is crucial to cultivate a passion to persist. Just because your body is exhausted, doesn’t mean your mind has to be as well. Developing mental toughness means willing your body to be dynamic and unrelenting in the face of such fatigue.

During our hard training pieces, I have found myself thinking, “When will this be over? I’m hurting!” But the reality is that I am most likely not going to die. However, if I allow my mind to go to that dark place where I fixate on how much I hurt and how it can’t be over fast enough, I am letting the fatigue of my body invade the space of my mind.

More often than not as I am driving home after practice I feel tired, but proud that I made it through. The workout didn’t kill me, despite what I may have thought in the middle of the training. I survived whatever our coach threw at us that day. The trick is to recall that feeling of accomplishment in the midst of the feelings of fatigue. When your body is begging for permission to give up, your mind has to say, “NO WAY!” and push through it. THAT is the beginning of mental toughness.

Mental toughness Vancouver 2017. Photo: Ed Nguyen

Vancouver 2017. Photo: Ed Nguyen

One of my tactics for keeping my mind off of the pain and exhaustion is to count my strokes in groups of ten. I share this strategy with the teams I coach – I call it my little “secret” for keeping my mind busy. For every 10 (or even 20 or 30) strokes, I focus on something the coach has been asking me to correct. So, as I go through the groups of ten, my focus shifts from the pain and exhaustion I might be feeling to the rotation I’ve been working on, or setting my shoulder properly, or using my hips well, for example.

As I count my ten strokes, I am keeping my mind occupied so that I forget the pain or discomfort of my exhaustion or fatigue. I make a wholehearted attempt to ensure that those 10 to 30 strokes are the best I’ve ever paddled in that specific target area I was focused on. And inevitably the coach will call me out on something at the exact moment I have been focusing on something entirely different, but that just gives me my next focal point. So, as I’m counting my ten strokes emphasizing setting my shoulder, I’ll hear the coach call out my name and tell me to rotate more. OK, that’s my next objective. Of course, everyone is different and you will need to find what works for you.

A few points to consider:

What are your strategies to:

  • mentally gear up for your training and races?
  • remain focused and tune out distractions?
  • control your thoughts during training and races?
  • accept the outcome of races and move forward with growth?

Taking the time to contemplate these mental aspects of paddling will give you a better idea of your mental state during training and races. Putting forth the effort to improve them will develop you as a paddler. And, as a bonus, encouraging your team to examine their approach to these mental elements of paddling will advance your team as a cohesive unit.

Mental toughness is about perseverance: making yourself do one more rep when you don’t think you can; forcing yourself to run one more mile when you’d rather head home and call it a day; urging yourself to paddle 500 more meters when your muscles are aching and screaming at you. Determination in sport is parallel to determination in personal life. Do you give up easily or do you persist despite any obstacles which may emerge?

Do you ever wonder how everyone else in the boat is feeling in the middle of a race or a training session? If they are giving it their all, they are hurting, too. And, since this is a team sport, ideally you won’t want to let your team down by being the one who gives up during training or a race. You’ve each got to be your own individual cheerleader, hurrahing yourself to the finish line.

What are some of your tricks for remaining mentally tough?

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6 Discussion to this post

  1. Victoria Jackson says:

    Thank you Paddle Chica for the inspiration. There are still times I count to ten during long runs and I think of you.

    • Paddlechica says:

      Thanks for reading. I’m so glad to hear that the counting to 10 still works for you (and that you think of me!). I hope all is well with you and the ladies of SOS!

  2. Steven W says:

    Thanks for the good read this morning… perfect timing since our festival is coming up next weekend and the practices are getting tougher! =)

  3. Christine Kerrigan says:

    Hi PC! I often count my strokes in Our pieces. As my muscles unfurl and start to work cooperatively with my stroke, I tell myself to give it 50 strokes and see what the pinches and slow burns feel like. I love the 10- or 20- count to work on individual parts of a stroke. Good advice, thanks!

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