As the racing season ramps up for athletes and fans alike, the focus is currently all-in on fierce competition, lung busting sprints and an intense focus on creating the perfect race to finish the season. But as the finish buzzer sounds and the boats get packed away, what happens next?
In the world of rowing, the off-season is a unique place. It's a chance for athletes and coaches to take a breath, recover from the intensity of the previous season, and evaluate their performance before moving forward. But always looming is the idea that, if next season is to be better and faster, then the re-dedication to fitness must be well-balanced with adequate rest and recovery.
Often the first few weeks after the last race are a time of high emotions.
Fueled by the still raw memories of narrow victories or disappointing defeats. As the team disperse from the boathouse, a sense of depression and loneliness also usually sets in as the close knit camaraderie fades and veterans graduate from the team for the last time. Thoughts of quitting will eventually cross everyone’s minds, but most will decide at some stage to rededicate themselves to rebuilding and starting the next chapter in their rowing career.
In essence the mental recovery from the previous season must be addressed, before the physical preparation can begin in earnest. Research shows that it is critical investment in future athlete (and coach) performance and welfare, through increasing enjoyment and lowering the chances of burnout.
As rowers and coaches embark on this journey to preserve their mental and physical health and well being, recent research has suggested that there are three distinct phases to a successful off-season.
The first phase is the Decompression Phase – a time for athletes to come down from the mental and emotion day to day demands that peaked as the season ended.
Often this is best done as a full team due to an inability to successfully immediately switch off from rowing and team atmosphere, and is ideally done mostly outside of the normal rowing environments and activities. Examples of good things to do here are some team debriefing meetings, traditional end of season social gatherings, and a team vacation or camping trip, and hopefully a relaxed farewell row for the seniors. Going cold turkey from the social support of their team now has been associated with a decline in mental health for those athletes and not recommended.
This first phase gives athletes and coaches a week or two to process the events of the season while dwelling together on decisions and situations that maybe didn’t go the way they wanted. Analysing what was done, learning from the successes and failures, and thinking of things to improve (maybe even setting some big new goals!) create a clearer sense of shared closure on the season.
The next Detachment (or Vacation) Phase is all about stepping away mentally, emotionally and physically from the sport.
If the previous decompression phase was a success, athletes and coaches can now genuinely mentally switch off and detach from thinking about the sport. This is a time to spend with family and friends, and removing stressors from your life. This Vacation phase is critical for psychological recovery, but can and should involve some physical activity. Enter the wonderful world of cross-training—a realm where rowers explore alternative activities to complement their rowing skills. From cycling to swimming, yoga to weightlifting, rowers can find creative ways to stay fit and keep their muscles engaged.
Off-season cross-training not only maintains their fitness but also helps prevent burnout and injuries by challenging different muscle groups. But be careful out there, a study of elite youth rowers suggested cross training was a great place to get injured - with ankles being particularly vulnerable.
For many rowers, this phase also means reconnecting with nature while enjoying being a fit and healthy athlete. They embark on long, group bike rides on country roads. Or hikes in the forest, soaking up the tranquility and solitude. Enjoying the simple pleasure of running with the wind in your hair across your local parkland, or chasing a ball with friends. Exercising in the wild has well documented positive short and long term mental health outcomes that all rowers should be seeking.
Mentally refreshed, the final phase of the off-season is the Preparation Phase.
Time to get back into rowing shape and arrive at the first team training session physically prepared to get stuck in. Properly preparing for the upcoming rowing season means now is the time to address any still lingering injuries, and to begin to get back into rowing specific movements.
It's also a chance to rediscover the joy of rowing, to appreciate the hypnotic rhythm of the strokes, and to develop an intimate bond with the river or lake you row on. These moments of quiet reflection before the racing season chaos are cherished and serve as a reminder of why you fell in love with the sport and being an athlete in the first place.
The primary goal of this off-season journey is to set a team up for success in the following Spring. By arriving at the start of Fall season fully recharged and as ready to be as resilient as possible to the physical and mental challenges that the rowing season will present. Rowers and coaches need to be like a climber back again at the base of Everest. Belly full, backpack stocked, eyes clear and mind focused for the hard climb to the mountain peak above.