How do we try and beat the pain barrier to achieve better performance?
In June 2014, with just 200m left of her World Rowing Cup women’s eight final, the camera zoomed in on the face of American Caroline Lind.
The layers of factor 50 sun cream with which the 2014 number one female oars woman always coated her face with were striking. They gave Lind the appearance of some ancient warrior queen, like Boudicca, who might have gone into battle with the Romans, her face covered in woad. At that moment, the pain was etched on to Lind’s face. It was then that she decided to let out a gut-wrenching scream. Whether it was as a release for the agony she was experiencing, or because at that point, her crew were just about to overhaul a fast-starting Canadian crew, who had led from the first stroke, is not clear. One thing was clear. The American women, who earlier that day had already raced hard in the pair-oared competition, were paying the price for almost back-to-back races. They were in pain but one thing was keeping them going: the absolute determination not to lose their unbeaten record to their greatest rivals.
Those watching the race might have doubted that Lind’s crew could pull back a deficit of well over a length. But the self-belief of the Americans never wavered. It took them beyond the pain-barrier and past their Canadian rivals. Victory might never have tasted so sweet.
What made that feat possible? Did Lind perhaps possess some super-human qualities which allowed her to push through and beyond the pain barrier? And was it them, which helped make her world’s best female rower? From the mythical Hercules to the comic-strip character wonder woman, the ‘superhero’ archetype has long been a familiar element in our culture. But though society delights on placing our top sports men and women on pedestals, the truth is that Lind was not some super-human but rather an ‘ordinary’ human being who had developed her skills and qualities to enable her to perform at an extraordinary level. The message is that by developing self-belief, resilience, a sense of purpose – as well as a higher pain threshold – most rowers will be better able to push through the ‘pain barrier’.
Mike Teti, who coached the US Olympic men’s eight to an unforgettable Olympic gold in Athens, helped his athletes try and beat the pain barrier by giving them a sense of just what ‘ordinary’ people could endure. Knowing that many of his crew’s parents were there to watch the race, Teti called on his rowers to imagine the pain their mothers would have gone through in childbirth. “That’s more pain than most of you will ever go through in your lives,” said Teti. “So when you go (harder) at 1250m mark; that burst is for your mothers.”
This technique – often known as ‘priming’ - can help athletes build up their resilience to pain. Similarly at Barcelona, 1992, British team psychologist Brian Miller used the story of the Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto to motivate the Searle brothers to build up their tolerance ahead of their men’s coxed pair final. In the 1976 Olympics, the Japanese had broken his ankle in the vault. But if his team were to win gold, he would have to complete the high rings exercise and spot-land his double back somersault dismount on his broken ankle. He did just that before collapsing in agony. His team won gold. In Barcelona, the Searles – with the motivation from that story in mind - went through their own pain barrier to win in the race’s final strokes.
If listening to motivational stories is one way of helping athletes overcome the pain barrier another method is to build and maintain a strong sense of self belief. This is where athletes use a constructive interpretation of their previous experiences to nurture a belief that they have capacity to overcome challenges that face them. This technique was another aspect that enabled the Searles to beat the pain barrier. Unsurprisingly, Lind was well versed in that too. Though she was blessed with an impressive physicality, Lind revealed that a significant part of her crew’s ability to beat the pain barrier came from their reserves of self belief – or in Lind’s words: ‘willpower’. “It was a testament to our will, sheer will. We did what we wanted to happen.”
Both Lind and her crew had honed that self belief in the way they trained over the previous years. Their coach, Tom Terhaar was well known for setting a very tough and demanding programme. Not only that, but competition to get into the US women’s squad was fierce. Lind and her crew had to repeatedly demonstrate the self belief that they could cope with whatever was thrown at them.
Psychologists suggest that athletes like this are capable of successfully storing a reservoir of previous positive experiences that they might draw on under pressure. One metaphor to illustrate this process is to imagine a rower like Lind, using each session – or part of a session to construct his or her own belief wall. Each brick in that wall might represent a successful training session completed; a target achieved, or perhaps a more challenging experience integrated into a valuable learning. Crucially, self belief is nurtured by taking the time to acknowledge one’s achievements. Athletes that take the time to do that are more likely to be able to break the pain barrier.
Along with self belief, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has argued that possessing a ‘growth mindset’ is key to being able to successfully face challenges. Dweck’s research has demonstrated that a significant component of success comes from a person’s drive to learn. According to Dweck, this is especially effective if it is teamed with a belief that: ‘the harder you work, the more your skillset develops’. In this interpretation, rowers with a growth mindset are thus far more receptive to mistakes and feedback and willing to integrate them into a new experience. Rowers that have this growth mindset will be more willing to seek out challenges – like working out how they might beat the pain barrier.
Lind has articulated the core personality traits that need to be nurtured to support a growth mindset. These include: a strong work ethic; self-awareness to improve; clarity of vision to keep her going during tough times. When Lind needed to feel more resilient, she brought to mind an image of an Olympic gold medal. This helped revive her motivation and reconnect her with what was really important to her. Without a key driver, it’s hard to imagine an athlete being consistently successful at breaking through the pain barrier.
Athletes who want to break the pain barrier must also take care to nurture their intrinsic sense of self-worth, or self-esteem. Rowers with a lower self-esteem are far less likely to be able to break through the pain barrier. This is why any coach has a crucial role in creating the right environment for their athletes to nurture and grow their self-esteem.
The connection between self-esteem and resilience to pain was brought home to me during a recent coaching session with a young sculler. Before he got in the boat, I asked him what he wanted to work on. The answer was to avoid stopping in the middle of pieces - when the going got tough. Apparently, during a recent training camp, he’d effectively given up in the middle of a couple important pieces when the pain-barrier had approached. Further questioning revealed that at present his sense of self-esteem was low.
The primary goal of that outing became more holistic. Rather than focus on any specific work or technique, it was clearly important to help that sculler to feel better about both himself and his sculling. Somewhere down the line, the likely by-product of that process was that he would be better able to deal with pain.
During the session it became apparent that one reason for the sculler’s low self-esteem was his self-generated feedback which was almost always overwhelmingly negative. My view from the coaching launch was that this was not only inappropriate but also out of touch with reality. I was seeing a different picture. He looked to be moving well, had a reasonable length and could generate a decent pace. My role, as coach, became one of offering meaningful support linked with significant challenge; Support to help the sculler develop a positive feedback loop and challenge to encourage the sculler to find ways of rejecting their overly negative interpretation. Being ready to beat the pain barrier would take more than one outing. But the athlete felt that they had taken a really big step towards building a better tolerance to pain.
Control the controllable
Being able to ‘control the controllable’ is also a crucial element in being more able to break through the pain barrier. This means developing the ability to remain focused on the things you have control over. Staying ‘in the moment’ and focusing on breathing, length of stroke, or looseness on the recovery can provide a lifeline for the over-stressed rower. Another crucial technique is to shift the focus of attention from the distance left in the race to just a small number of strokes – maybe even just one.
Matthew Pinsent has spoken of his experience in the final of the Athens Olympics. There, neck-and-neck with the Canadians, he had ‘emptied the tank’ in a last 30 stroke burst. But the ‘last 30’ call had been misjudged. There was still 100m left to go. And, as Pinsent explained, ‘that’s a long way when you’ve got no energy.’ But he had a strategy. It was to focus on the next three strokes, look over and see if his opposition had gone through then he could stop. After three strokes the crews were still level, so Pinsent took it down to the next two strokes. Then down to one. All he focused on was avoiding making a mistake. The wait for the photo finish was agonizing. In the end, Pinsent had won his fourth Olympic Gold by a few centimetres.
Finally a rower must be prepared to look for counterintuitive solutions to help their performance – sometimes the sensation of being: ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ may be the answer. After the 2012 Olympics, Norway’s Olaf Tufte invited some of New Zealand’s medalists back to his farm. Even at the age of 40, Tufte – who won back-to-back Olympic singles titles in Athens and Beijing – probably works and trains harder than most of his contemporaries. He set the kiwis a challenge of hauling logs up a steep embankment. Once they got used to managing a particular sized log, Tufte would saw a bigger chunk off. By the end of the session the New Zealanders were hauling bigger logs than they ever thought they might have.
Of course, it’s tempting to assume that it’s necessary to beat the pain barrier to win that gold medal. And while that may be the case in training, it’s not always necessary during a race. Sometimes when everything clicks an athlete can feel ‘in the zone’. Erin Cafaro, a crew mate of Lind’s in the US women’s eight that won gold in 2012 recalled how she felt when her eight crossed London’s finish line. “I remember walking away and thinking I don’t feel destroyed. I actually felt like I could go out and do another race. And I started crying. But later I realised that when you’re prepared, that’s how you should feel. In that race, I think I found the Holy Grail.” On that occasion, there had been no gut-wrenching scream from Cafaro or Lind. But you sense that it was always there – if needed.
By Martin Cross, World Rowing commentator and Olympic champion