London 2012 Team GB Lightweight Four finish


No pain no gain.

The most cliché’d application of embracing failure in sport. But how about not just embracing pain, but bear hugging it with a grizzly-like grip. And in that vein, it is hard to find a sport with a higher total pain threshold than rowing. Officially, categorised as a ‘Strength/Endurance’ sport. That means you are using both aerobic and anaerobic processes at the same time. Not like marathon running which is getting into a groove and pushing that groove as hard as possible. Not like bike riding with 95% of work being done by the lower body. Rowing uses the entire body…constantly. Legs, core, arms. At University, we used to talk about ‘coughing up blood’ at the end of the race, and sometimes the image was more than a metaphor.

This extremity to the embrace of comfort failure is illustrated vividly in Matt Dickinson’s Time piece on Mathew Pinsent, “Pinsent turned a deaf ear to pain

  • “These are the extremes of endurance explored by the elite rower, but you do not just have to take their word for it. ‘Rowing, the ultimate challenge to the human body’ is the title of a paper written by a couple of academics in Denmark. Rowing is unusually gruelling in using 70 per cent of muscle mass — the legs, arms and trunk — ensuring a build-up of lactic acid throughout the body… ‘Rowing is quite a unique sport in that it’s classified as power endurance,’ says Mark Homer, physiologist for the Team GB rowing squad. ‘It’s largely aerobic, but if there are, say, 220 to 240 strokes in a 2,000-metre race, you are doing those almost maximally. Imagine being in the gym doing 240 reps as hard as you can of leg press near your max.’”

Most athletes are pretty accustomed to pain in the preparation of working out. Embracing failure in the training room to achieve excellence in the competition. But, in rowing especially, the workout training is just a tasty starter to the banquet of pain that awaits on the racing lake. I quote a fair from Dickinson’s article because imagery is so deliciously vivid…

  • For a rower, agony is a fact of life. There is no escaping the ordeal, which is why Jürgen Grobler, the Great Britain head coach, will soon deliver the speech that he has used to inspire Olympic oarsmen since 1972. It sounds terrifying. ‘When it all goes dark, the man with the hammer will come,’ Grobler will tell his rowers. “He will be hammering your legs, your arms, your toes and fingers. But that’s when you must think, ‘Just one more stroke.”’ You don’t hear that in archery, or even in marathon running. Will anyone suffer more for their medals than the rowers? Let us hope not. The darkness that Grobler refers to is the state of semi-consciousness that often envelops an oarsman in the torturous sprint for the finish line. Athletes suffer for their sport; rowers push themselves to the brink of blacking out. Alan Campbell, the Team GB sculler, describes how the world starts to be drained of colour, as if he is seeing in sepia, towards the end of a gruelling 2,000 metres. Sir Matthew Pinsent says that his hearing used to go. ‘You start to lose your senses,’ he says. ‘It’s the body under extreme pressure closing down anything it doesn’t need to prioritise.’ The men whom Herbert pushed to that near-death experience were the Searle brothers as they put in a stunning surge for gold in 1992. Greg Searle, who is making a comeback in the men’s eight at this Olympics at the age of 40, revealed the toll it took. ‘Everything was going black,’ he says. ‘I did not know what was going on. It was lucky being brothers because we switched into the same autopilot.’…‘Tolerance of pain can absolutely be the deciding factor in rowing,’ Pinsent says. By the end of a race, the thighs burn, the stomach retches, the chest heaves and the throat is scorched by gulping hundreds of litres of air. The forces applied through the feet make the soles feel as if they have been stabbed repeatedly with a knife… There is, he says, a reason why the medal ceremony is at least 20 minutes after a race — ‘because you can’t be sure if someone will be able to stand up’…Rowers are not alone in suffering. Boxers must endure their own type of pain; endurance canoeists and swimmers and middle and long-distance runners will have to dig deeper than they thought possible. On the bike, time-trialling is all about repeatedly asking yourself the question ‘can I carry on?’ — and making sure the answer is never ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but a pained ‘perhaps’.”

I had the privilege of interviewing fellow Borlase Rowing coach and Olympics silver medallist Chris Bartley. I asked him, “At what metre marker did you feel the most intense pain?” thinking that at least the first few hundred metres one must feel a bit on top of things. He responded, “It hurts pretty much the whole way through, but we train to tolerate it, it’s only in the last minute or so where things start to become unbearable. After finishing it’s often worse than in the race when everything catches up with you. I was sick for about 20 minutes after the race, and that was all pretty painful!.” Dickinson elaborates on the mind games one must prepare to play in this battlefield of agony…

  • “The experience raises a supplementary question that continues to fascinate academics — what imposes a limit on physical endurance? Is it the build-up of lactate and depletion of glycogen in the muscles, or the ability to tolerate pain?…But it is only the rowers whose bodies will be attacked by that man with the hammer. Only rowers who will feel that darkness envelop them as they push themselves to such extremes that even the brain starts to be deprived. Numerous tests have shown how athletes can be easily tricked into improving personal bests time and again in laboratory conditions, which suggests that it is ‘perceived effort’ in the mind that is limiting. Pinsent appears to concur. ‘You need to get your opposition into the position where they can’t match your speed, and the limiting factor is the pain,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘It won’t happen in the first few seconds; even sprinting away from the blocks, our body doesn’t register the pain problem for 20 seconds, and then it only starts to really burn after 40. But after a minute, after two and most certainly after five, pain is a deciding factor.’”

As with failure, “fear” is an intensifier. A person’s natural, innate response to the pain is fear. Sometimes that a jolt of fear can be a helpful trigger to a dose of organic adrenalin. But too much fear is a debilitating distraction and pain intensifier. I find that much of the dividend to enduring pain in training if diffusing the fear response to pain. Especially with younger athletes who get quite startled feeling intensities of discomfort that they have never felt before. From my experience, it’s not so much that you get numb to it and make it go away. But rather you learn to compartmentalise it and stuff it in a corner of your brain for a few minutes. Over time, ‘pain’ level simply becomes another gauge on the mental dashboard of performance along with other functions like breathing rate and pulse.

Mental readiness and mental toughness is primarily about maintain focus. Focus on the task at hand. Focus on the game plan. Focus on optimal performance. But fear is probably the biggest enemy to focus. And two of the biggest phobias in every person are (a) pain, and (b) failure.  Embrace the pain to banish the fear.