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Over the last several weeks I’ve had interactions with paddlers who, for one reason or another, have felt that they’ve failed to race to their potential.  In each case, they’ve made common mistakes that we see athletes in all sports, at all levels, regularly make.  It’s wholly unrealistic to expect to never make mistakes when competing.  We’re human and we’re fallible.  We’re going to make mistakes in the heat of the moment, even when we may very well know better.  What is important is that we learn from the mistakes we make and the experiences that result from them, then endeavor to never make those mistakes again. 

Though I’m not a sports psychologist, I’ve worked, as both an athlete and a coach, with some of the best.  And, of course, I am a three-time Olympian who has experienced the entire range of performance at the highest level.  I’ve had it all come perfectly together and stood on the top of the Olympic podium, I’ve raced my best without top form and finished a close fourth, and I’ve raced poorly and finished a disappointing seventh.  I’ve had perfect races and I’ve made mistakes which have cost me dearly.  I’ve learned a lot – certainly, enough to help most SUP paddlers navigate their way through racing with the focus and mindset required to achieve their personal best performances.  So, over the next few issues of The Catch, I’m going to look at a variety of issues on the mental side of racing, share my experiences, and provide you with strategies to avoid making common, costly mistakes.  

Focus on the process, not the outcome

Like anything else done at the highest level, racing requires a high level of focus and mental clarity.  You can’t have a bunch of random thoughts cluttering your consciousness and expect to do your personal best.  If you’re going to do well, you need to paddle well, and that requires a high level of focus on technique, connection and paddling rhythm.  The easiest way to concentrate on these essential elements of good paddling is to focus on each stroke, one at a time, at the exclusion of just about everything else.  

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen paddlers make when racing is “focusing on the outcome”.  Simply put, it’s racing with a focus on the result, rather than the process required to get that result.  Invariably, it leads to poor paddling which in turn leads to results that aren’t as good as you’re capable of.  

Throughout my career, I made a point when racing of trying to focus on my paddling, one stroke at a time, rather than the results.  I learned that if I did that well, invariably I performed well and the results would generally take care of themselves.  More often than not in my career, that meant that I ended up the type of result I was hoping for.  If it didn’t, it was usually because another competitor had a fantastic race and was simply better.  I may have done everything right and gone as fast as I could possibly go, I just got beat my someone who was better on the day.  I’ve always been able to live with that.  After all, how you can do any better than going as fast as you can possibly go?

Unfortunately, a lot of paddlers enter races thinking about the results rather than what they need to do to go as fast as they can possibly go.  In fact, for a lot of paddlers, this starts with how they set their goals.  I can’t tell you how many paddlers have shared goals with me that sound like:

  • “I want to be top three in my class at the Carolina Cup”
  • “I want to be on the podium in every race in my local race series”
  • “I want to be first in my class at Chattajack”

There’s a right way to set goals and a wrong way

The problem with setting goals based on an outcome is that accomplishing them depends on the other competitors as much as it depends on you.  You can have the best race you’ve ever had, by a long shot, and simply get beat by a couple of paddlers who were even better.  It’s happened to me numerous times.  Does that mean that your performance was a failure?  

If the goal you set for yourself was “to win”, then it’s easy to feel like you’ve failed even when you’ve just had the best race you’ve ever put together.  However, how can you do better than a personal best?  Doing a personal best on race day is awesome.  It means that you’ve put it all together when it matters most and gone faster than you ever have before.  That’s a win.  Yet, if you’re goal was to be first and your personal best ends up getting you second place, you’ve missed your goal and feel like a failure.  That’s the stupidest thing ever.  You didn’t lose, you simply got beat by someone who was better. 

The problem really arises when you set a goal “to win” and then begin to realize mid-race that you’re not actually winning.  In this situation, too many athletes find it difficult to think about the process of paddling their best and begin to fixate on the athlete that is ahead of them and the fact that they are losing.  Doing this almost always results in a few undesirable things:

  • Your focus begins to shift from what you’re doing to what your competitor is doing 
  • With this shift of focus, you begin to lose connection and your paddling rhythm 
  • With this loss of connection and rhythm, you begin to tighten up, which leads to a further loss of connection and paddling rhythm, making the stroke feel heavier and tiring you out more quickly

These things tend to compound on each other, making it increasing difficult to paddle well and maintain the speed you’re capable of.  Invariably, you end up going slower than you were when you were focused solely on the process of paddling well.  

I firmly believe that many paddlers are destined to a performance that is less than they’re capable of by the mindset they bring to the starting line.  If they’re focused on the results as they approach the start line, invariably their performance will be less than it could have been which obviously has a negative impact on the result they can achieve. 

Instead, it is far better to set goals that are performance rather than results based.  Your goals should sound like this:

  • I want to be able to maintain a 6:00 min/km (for example) pace for a 10 km race
  • I want to maintain my connection and rhythm at my optimal level for the entire race
  • I want to maintain optimal technique at race speed for the entire race

Goals expressed this way depend solely on you, not on other competitors in the race.  They are based on your performance, which you should be totally in control of, and not the outcome which, for a variety of reasons, can be out of your control.  

Going to the starting line trying to achieve a performance-based goal makes racing easier.  You’re focused on you and nobody else.  No matter what others are doing, you’ll be focused on what you need to do to paddle well, not whether you’re winning or losing.  This allows you to paddle with a higher degree of mental clarity which is really important if you’re going to maintain good connection, rhythm and technique.  And, to a large degree it takes the pressure off.  All you’ve got to do is paddle like you do in training.  The fact that it is a race will naturally provide you with the extra adrenalin required to give a “race effort”, yet your focus will be as relaxed, clear, and clinical, centered squarely on technique, connection and rhythm, as it is in your best workouts.  

Of course, racing isn’t just about yourself.  You are on the course with others and you need to be aware of where they are and what they are doing.  Whether you’re drafting or whether you’re setting up a sprint to the finish, it’s important to know exactly where your competitors are and how they are paddling.  However, there is a huge difference between being focused on yourself yet mindful of the others, and being fixated on them, which you are more likely to be if your focus in on the results rather than the process.  

It’s important to maintain the right focus through the entire race

While it can be hard for some paddlers to go to the start line focused on process rather than outcome, it can be even harder to maintain that focus throughout an entire race.  Many things can happen on the race course than can shake even the most experienced paddlers out of their focus and shift it elsewhere.  You can pretty quickly go from having a perfect race to a disastrous one once this happens.  And, it is extremely hard to get your proper focus back once you’ve lost it. 

In 1987 I was racing the C1 1000m final at the World Championships in Duisburg, Germany.  I was confident and well prepared and had raced very well through the heats and the semis.  

The race started and I was locked in.  My connection and rhythm felt amazing and everything was going perfectly.  I got through the 500m mark with a lead that grew in the third 250m.  My focus was firmly rooted in my own boat and on each stroke I was taking.  I passed through the 750m mark in complete command and feeling great.  

Duisburg is a great course – 2000m long, narrow, with tall trees on either side.  You race towards a massive grandstand on one side, all the boat houses on the other, and the flags of all the competing nations at the end of the course.  When you pass through the 750m mark, the finish line looks unbelievably close.  

All it took was one lapse in focus, lasting perhaps only a second or two, to ruin my race.  As I passed through the 750m mark I could see the finish.  It was right in front of me and looked so close.  And, I was way ahead!  In that moment, my focus shifted from connection, rhythm and the next stroke to “I’m going to win this race!”   That was enough to change things dramatically. 

Though I still felt strong and didn’t feel like my energy was fading, with 200m left I could begin to feel the competitors around me making their final push for the finish.  Rather than responding to those moves with a clear head, I instead felt a little tightness creep into my stroke.  By thinking “I’m going to win”, I suddenly felt like I had something to lose.  As I got tighter, both my connection and rhythm suffered, and with it my speed.  As my speed decreased, by boat sat a little deeper in the water and each stroke became a little harder.  I’m certain that some of the stronger finishers in the race were able to sense this, like sharks sensing blood in the water.  Seeing that they were moving on me gave them energy, while it just made me get tighter and tighter.    

I was still winning with 100m left, but hanging on for dear life with the wheels beginning to fall off.  With 50m to go I was 3rd – still on the podium – but fading.  I finished 5th.  It was an epic collapse and one brought about largely of my own making.  

I’m not going to say that I would have won if I had only maintained my focus.  The strong finishers in the race were simply too good to ever count out.  However, I am convinced I could have reached the podium.  I wasn’t particularly tired when the race got turned on its head, I had just stopped paddling well.  I’d done the first 750m as well as I ever had, and then, once I focused on the outcome, suddenly felt like I had something to lose, and began to feel the others charging, began to paddle really poorly.  Try as I might to regain my focus after I’d lost it, I couldn’t.  Not with all the pressure that I had suddenly opened myself up to.  

This was a devastatingly disappointing performance and one of the hardest lessons I’ve experienced in sport, but it is a clear example of what can happen when you allow yourself to focus on the outcome rather than the process.  

Practice focusing on process – in training, in races, and in life

Being able to focus on process rather than results is an acquired skill.  Most of us aren’t wired to think this way and to be able to do it, consistently, takes practice.  

If you’ve got training partners that you regularly do your workouts with, set up competitive situations in your training and practice focusing on what you’re doing at the exclusion of everything else going on.  Connection, paddling rhythm, how the board responds underneath you, and any technique cues you use to paddle well should be your only focus.  Nothing else matters.  Maintaining this focus in your daily training, makes it easier to maintain in a race.  

Racing is a great opportunity to test your ability to maintain your focus, and the more you race, the more learning opportunities you have.  I strongly advocate doing lots of small, lower priority “training” races.  These become laboratories where you can try different strategies and tactics and where you can practice maintaining your focus.  Make how well you maintained your focus a big part of what you assess in your post-race analysis.  Where was your focus at the start?  How well did you maintain your focus during the race?  What, if any, distractions caused you to lose it or made it hard to maintain during the race?  If you can identify these specific distractions and where they occurred on the course in less important races you can develop strategies to address them so that they don’t disrupt your focus in more important races when it matters most.  

One of the amazing side benefits of learning to maintain your focus as an athlete is that it is transferable to other areas in life.  I can tell you that what I learned about focus as an athlete has helped me in other areas where I’ve been under stress and need to perform – writing tests, job interviews and doing television commentary to name just a few.  It stands to reason that if focusing skills are transferable from sport to everyday life, they should be transferable from everyday life to sport as well.  

I think there’s real benefit for your paddling if you practice maintaining your focus in things you do off the water.  Learning how to completely immerse yourself in what you are doing, whether it is work related or simply spending time with your family, and blocking out distractions is not only going to make you more successful, but also make what you are doing more enjoyable.  It’s going to make focusing when you’re racing easier as well.  Learning to focus on process is actually habit forming.  If you develop the ability to completely immerse yourself in what you’re doing and narrow your focus to it alone, you’ll be able to do it in virtually anything, your paddling included.  

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Learning to focus on process rather than outcome is a skill and it’s hugely important if you’re going to realize your full potential in races.  The inability to do so, and fixation on results that often goes with it, is certain to lead to your mind getting in the way of your paddling, rather than helping it.  You’ll end up underperforming and leaving the water disappointed.  

Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to learn to focus on process and keep any other thoughts at bay.  It just takes some practice.  I strongly encourage you to start practicing in your training, your next race and in everyday life.  You’re sure to notice a difference in your racing, and you’ll find this skill transfers to every other area in your life as well.  

I’ll be providing more tips on the mental side of racing in future issues.  If you’ve got questions or have had experiences, good or bad, related to the mental side of racing please share them below and I’ll address them in future posts.  

Happy paddling!

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