3-on-3: Olympic and World Champions Talk Mental Preparation For a Big Season

by Jules Zane, | Jan 27, 2016
Three experts answer three questions, offering unique insights that have helped them and others along the way. This month, we talk mental preparation for a big season with Pete Cipollone (2004 Olympic champion coxswain), Esther Lofgren (2012 Olympic champion in the women’s eight) and Chris Kerber (two-time world champion, ’96 and 2000 Olympic alternate and current Cornell University lightweight head coach).
Three experts answer three questions, offering unique insights that have helped them and others along the way. This month, we talk mental preparation for a big season with Pete Cipollone (2004 Olympic champion coxswain), Esther Lofgren (2012 Olympic champion in the women’s eight) and Chris Kerber (two-time world champion, ’96 and 2000 Olympic alternate, current Cornell University lightweight head coach, and U.S. Under 23 Men's Coach).

3on3 - Esther Lofgren, Pete Cipillone, Chris Kerber

1. It’s always important to remember what your big rowing goals and dreams are, so how did you manage to balance living in the moment without forgetting what you are trying to achieve?

Esther Lofgren: “You don't try to win a race all in one stroke - you try to win it by being just a little bit faster, one stroke at a time, over lots and lots and lots of strokes. Once you truly believe that being your best and your team being their best will get you to the top of the podium, you begin to trust that focusing on making the little gains – finding a quicker catch, going a fraction of a split faster from one week to the next on the same workout – is helping you become that “best”.”

Chris Kerber: “Athletes and coaches alike should control what you can control and place the results out of mind – I believe the term is ‘present tense thinking’ in the areas of effort and attitude. Focus on your race plan and make sure that you are all warmed up. You have to be willing to embrace the pain and go.”

Pete Cipollone: “Forget what we are to trying to achieve happens to all of us, especially when the day-to-day is going miserably. Slumps, injuries and ‘The Shanks’ occur, and there is never a good time for it. That's when the doubt creeps in and you ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’ but struggle to answer.

"I had lots of rough patches throughout my career and the biggest challenge was to live in the moment. When everything is going like crap, ‘in the moment’ is exactly where no one wants to be. What worked for me was to keep breaking it down into smaller challenges, until I could master something (anything!) – ‘Today, I am going to shut up and steer straight,’ or ‘I'm to get out of bed, get coffee, and get my [behind] to the boathouse.’ In the rough times, mental breaks away from the boathouse and all the environments that reminded me I was struggling were a huge help. Even a day or two immersed in something completely different brought me back fresher and ready to try again.

"When things are going well, it's completely opposite. Living in the moment is automatic. It's like a trance, just watching a movie of yourself crush everything they put in front of you. I used to call this ‘Caveman Brain.’ We were so prepared, our instincts took over. In these phases, I always sensed the big goal was there on the horizon, right where I knew it should be.”

2. Preparation is crucial ahead of the big race. Did you do anything special away from practice to help you achieve your goals or did you purposely not?

Chris Kerber:  “While preparing for races is kind of a self-absorbing process.  I tried to do things that help refill the sails or absorb the mind for a bit - like reading a good book or magazine, visit or call my biggest fan, Mom!  And somehow shopping malls and the movie theater actually helped with this.”

Pete Cipollone:
“Totally. Our crews really liked visualization. I was glad they were open to new age techniques like this, because I thought they were really effective. No race ever played out exactly like we visualized it, but there were always individual scenarios that we had visualized and then capitalized on, like a crew getting the jump on us (1999 Worlds) or taking a move that completely broke the race open (2004 Olympics). Picturing yourself doing something incredible takes more than practice. It takes the confidence to believe in your heart that you can accomplish it. Visualization, especially doing it by yourself, is a real gut check on what you think you are capable of.”

Esther Lofgren: “The most helpful thing for me is visualization – both on my own and with my team if it’s a team boat. The more times you practice successfully racing your race, the more energy you’ll be able to channel into executing it well rather than being anxious or reactive. It’s also a great opportunity for the person calling the race to tune everyone in to when and what big calls are coming, and to practice making calls efficiently and dynamically. The best part of visualization is that science says you get a boost from going through your race in the boat on the water, on the erg, and even just sitting on your bed!”

3. What was the most memorable support or sign of appreciation you received from someone?

Pete Cipollone: “The Sydney Olympics were a personal low point for many of us. Something special - so rare and perfect - had died. No words will ever convey how that felt. After the Head of the Charles that year, a woman came up to us and said: "I want you to know you are still our heroes." I thanked her and then cried while I derigged the boat. I have no idea who she was, but I wish I could thank her.

"The other end of this one was hanging with my family and friends after the race in Athens. They came to support us, win or lose, and were probably readying themselves for the something other than what happened. To see them so happy and proud was pure joy.”

Esther Lofgren: “Big picture, it has been my families. That includes my parents and my husband, who’ve collectively supported me through 18+ years of ups and downs in this sport, and my host families in Princeton, the Gunstensens and the Censits (along with several others!), who graciously opened their homes and families to me for more than four years. Having a hot dinner and welcoming home to come back to after a long day of practices and work is a feeling of support that can’t really be measured.”

Chris Kerber:  “My mother is a creative type - so before every World Championships she would paint a big sign and post it on the front lawn for all the neighbors and passersby to see.  Another time she sent me a really awesome poem of motivation that she faxed to my hotel. She never traveled to races and many of my races were before she got the Internet, so this was her amazing gesture to me and my boat mates."
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