By Janine Stephens (as told to Katherine Dolan)
One ordinary day in the lead up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, I was training in Florida with Team Canada. That particular day we trained, I decided to treat it, as if it were the Olympic final.
I warmed up my absolute best.
I went out to race like it mattered.
I competed like it was the biggest race of my life.
I was the only person who won all 4 races that day.
I would never have said in my outside voice how ecstatic I was at the thought that I might have made the Olympic team that day, but I was thrilled. I didn’t want to get too comfortable thinking that way and or to stop working hard, but I knew deep in my brain this was the day that changed it all for me.
I still have teammates who remember that day seven years ago. It was significant to them and it still is to me because I did go to the Olympics in London and I did win a silver medal.
Today I am the head coach for Manitoba Rowing working with athletes as young as 15 all the way up to 31 years of age. My coaching philosophy is to help facilitate the athlete to get to their goals. This is one of my biggest challenges I find, because oftentimes what an athlete says they want to achieve and do is not what they are actually doing.
For example, if an athlete wants to get faster on the water and they only show up twice a week because they’re busy with other things, that’s okay, but let’s refocus on your goal if that’s your plan. If that is your goal and you want to lead the pack every time, then you’re going to have to come out more than a few times a week to achieve it. In rowing you have to work for every stroke you take, you can’t just go through the motions and expect to win every time.
It doesn’t work that way.
The next step in working with my athletes is to help them understand just how much mindset plays in competition. If you want to lead the pack, if you want to win, if you want to be the best in your country, it really does all come down to mindset.
I don’t teach mindset as I have yet to master teaching it but we do bring in experts in this field. It’s sad but true that some of our athletes see sports psychology as a weakness instead of viewing it as another tool in their bag like strength and fitness.
This past summer I think every coach and or sports psychologist was thrilled when Bianca Andresscuu said she visualized her U.S. Open win so much that it wasn’t any different for her when she did win. As a coach, I just kept thinking how much that might make a difference for kids hearing her say it and possibly starting to implement that as one of their tools.
If they did implement that tool, in rowing it would mean being able to refocus after a bad stroke or few strokes, refocusing their technique. That’s a huge challenge, but one that if an athlete is able to utilize mental mindset to get back to their ideal stroke, it can and will make a huge difference.
It comes back to this idea of practicing how you want to race as I mentioned at the start of my story. If you are rowing and not taking good strokes then when you are tired in a race environment and you’re giving it everything you’ve got, you won’t have enough. You don’t want to be thinking about those technical things, you want to let muscle memory take over and if you haven’t executed that stroke every time your muscle memory doesn’t know what technique to resort to.
My best advice for kids that want to get to the highest level or compete for Team Canada at an Olympics is to make sure that you’re NOT going through the motions in practice, or at a match or performing your routine. Whatever your sport is, you want to make sure that you practice how you want to race.
As for parents, I have 5-year-old twins now, so I am starting to see a different perspective in terms of parent involvement. One of the best things I remember hearing is that when your kid is done their practice or race, one of the first things you should say is, ‘I love watching you play’. I think that just says so much to your child and gives them a huge confidence boost.
I remember my Dad in the car on the way home from my soccer games, would always ask me if I gave my best that day. It wasn’t a critique as much as it was a self- reflection which helped me think about whether or not I put my best effort on that day. Your child needs your support, regardless of whether they were at their best or not.
As a coach, my favourite moments are when athletes all of a sudden get it or see the light go off. To me when you can see that they can feel and know the difference between a good stroke and a less good stroke is, I just love seeing that transformation over time.
Parent, coach or athlete, practice how you want to race, focus on mental mindset, be supportive and enjoy the journey. I know I always have.
See you on the water,
Feature Image Photo Credit: J.S Action – Mike Murray