Choppy Waters

We can learn much from the crews training for the 2021 Boat Race. Combining training with full-time study is both physically and psychologically challenging at the best of times. It’s even more challenging now. We are still in the grips of the novel coronavirus epidemic and whilst we know more than we did last spring, and with a range of vaccines being mobilised, much is still uncertain.

In the run-up to this historic Boat Race, for the potential Oxford and Cambridge crews, plans necessarily have had to keep changing. Lockdowns and tiers were in place and then moved. Training had to be done alone in bedrooms and kitchens. Work in boats on the river was truncated. Remote coaches provided guidance over Zoom. Races moved location or were cancelled. People could have no symptoms but transmit the virus. The long-term impact on health is still unknown, particularly on athletes. Nothing has been certain.

A lack of certainty can breed anxiety. Anxiety peaks when we don’t know what’s best to do, what will happen next or who to turn to. If we’re not careful, it can become a vicious cycle of worry and uncertainty. The data supports this: a recent study by Bristol University found that anxiety in young people doubled during the first COVID-19 lockdown, and was higher in this group than for their parents. Not only that, but the levels of anxiety remained high even when the lockdown restrictions were eased.

People are often surprised to learn that, even without the challenge of COVID-19 complications, outwardly confident athletes can be beset with anxiety and fear. Worry can sometimes be extreme, as they deal with the uncertainty and unknowns about their health, performance and whether they’ll be selected for teams and crews.

Yet whether you are a student of Oxford or Cambridge aspiring to row in the Boat Race, or a spectator watching on the BBC (for now we can only dream of watching the race with a pint in our hand on the riverbank), we can all worry in the face of uncertainty. At the end of the day, rower, coach or spectator, we are just human beings.

So what does behavioural science and psychology tell us about the strategies the potential crews might have used to get to Boat Race day in the best mental, and hence social and physical shape possible.

“Lean in and explore your anxiety, like a curious scientist, without having to run from it.”

Lean in and be curious about your feelings and thoughts 

A key capability in thriving during uncertainty is learning not to fight anxiety, push it away or try to suppress it. Whilst our brain might kick into the fight or flight response where we want to run away from difficult situations and their accompanying thoughts, memories,  sensations and feelings, it is not productive. Instead, try and stay open and curious about the feelings and emotions you have right now:

• Grab a piece of paper or a journal if you use one. Note down the thoughts and feelings that come up for you.

• Lean in and explore your anxiety, like a curious scientist, without having to run from it.

• Set yourself a limit on the time and situation you spend being caught in your thoughts and feelings. Try making a commitment such as: “I am going to go to place _____ where I may feel anxious, and I will stay there for _____ amount of time.” And then limit the time to 10 minutes, 5 minutes or even 1 minute.

• The aim is to make space for the uncomfortable feelings and let them come and go, watch them, and see how they change and begin and end.

Be kind to yourself

 Secondly, there is no perfect response to anxiety. It is ok to feel anxious and have thoughts and actions that spiral around. There are no rules you need to follow. Imperfect is fine. So be kind to yourself.

For example, you might find yourself having to vary the training load, doing a session at lunchtime and not the scheduled 7pm slot; or think about how you treat yourself when your split is slower in a piece because you can get through it better – most athletes are not slackers, they know what it takes to race 6.8km and truly want to get there as fast as possible. So:

• Simply notice your thoughts, and name them if you can. Just doing that helps you to put things in perspective.

• Remember that it’s human to feel anxious at this time – give yourself some slack and say to yourself what you might say to a friend in the same situation.

Connect to others

The most evolved response for us to take, in reply to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the current pandemic, is to engage our smart vagus nerve. The smart vagus nerve is thought to be recruited when we connect with others, by calling out to our communities to look for support and help. Our most sophisticated response to anxiety is ask for care, support and protection from those people around us. Smart approaches to this have included socially distanced recovery walks with someone else, checkins with each other and with coaches, and at least facial Zoom connections:

• Keep connected – whether virtually or through a social distance.

• Make sure people have daily contact with one or two people so they can get support, reassure themselves, and have people who care about how they are feeling.

Stay present and do one thing you care about

 And finally, we can choose the next action we take. We can put our attention on doing what matters. Anxiety does not need to stop us from doing the big and little things that are important. Whether it’s winning the next Boat Race, getting yourself fit or connecting to other people like yourself:

• Bring yourself back into the present moment: sit at your desk, on the way to work or college, or during the working day. Notice what’s going on around you, however trivial –a colleague’s smile, people talking, a car going by, the sounds of the wind, and realise that we are part of a bigger world than in our heads.

• And despite the noise going on in our heads, and the desire to run away fast, do one small thing that we care about – enquire how someone is, laugh with another person, get outside and walk, help a neighbour. We can direct our actions, even when there is thundering in our mind.

Athletes are human. You are human. Being uncertain and living with ambiguity is hard. Try to remain open to that ambiguity, notice and name your thoughts and all the feelings that come with it, be kind to yourself, lean in and stay present. So, as we get ready for The Gemini Boat Race 2021 remember that this moment is all that we know for sure. Choose to do one small thing right now – and take one step at a time towards what is important today.