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Mental toughness

glenmore lodge coaching

By Dave Rossetter – Head of Paddlesport Coaching at Glenmore Lodge

This article is back into the realms of the Psychological aspect of coaching. A lot of coaching paddlesport focuses on the technical – “the strokes / manoeuvres and how to do them” or the tactical – “the choice of stroke, timing, angle etc.” This is appropriate but must not exclude physiological or psychological aspects that are equally important.

dave rossetter coaching

This is often pictured (figure 1) with the circles showing the overlap and how the four different areas can impact on each other. You can be the best technician or tactician going but with the wrong motivation or psychological aspect then the performance and outcome will not be as desired.

An area that is often cited in the media to do with this is that of “Mental Toughness”. We here it a lot at the moment with the US Golf Masters just finishing where this player needs to be mentally tough to handle the pressure going into the last few holes. Or Leicester City coming into the last few games of the football season and are sitting top of the league. If they are to win then they must stay mentally tough towards the end.

This maybe be true but how do we define this?  This though is often difficult.

So two questions for us to ponder:

  • What is mental toughness?
  • How would you be able to recognise someone who is mentally tough or not?

This short article is going to look at a case study of someone that I have been coaching (names have been changed). It will help us recognise some behaviours and actions of a paddler.

For the purposes of looking at the area of mental toughness I am confining this article to the area of white water kayaking. The specific environment would be classified as Grade 4-5 water. The international river grading system is from one to six where Grade six is listed as the limit of possibility and includes a threat to life.

Advanced whitewater kayaking has a large technical and tactical aspect to it. This is from a long list of techniques that are required to successfully control and move the kayak around. However, without the tactical comprehension of river reading and stroke/manoeuvre selection then the outcomes are very unpredictable.

The ability to keep focused while the river is raging around you along with the ability to predict what it is doing is vital. Staying sharp over often long committed sections of river with little or no rest points is part of the skills a whitewater kayaker needs to be successful. Add the constant threat to your life if things go wrong would mean that the kayaker needs to have a positive attitude and have mental toughness.

In looking at behaviours I am looking at a paddler (Graham) that is working towards a journey to a remote river. The river has had only a handful of successful descents before and I am coaching him towards his goal.

When looking into defining it what comes through is some critical areas that we can recognise in paddler(s). These are the four C’s from Clough, Earle and Sewell (2002):

  • Control – the ability to perform and influence and not be controlled.
  • Challenge – to deal with threats as opportunities and embrace the challenges.
  • Commitment – deeply involved in achieving the goal.
  • Confidence – the strong self-belief despite the knocks.

These are incredibly useful for us as coaches and as paddlers. They allow us to hone in on the observables of our paddler(s) and therefore know where the issues maybe.

dave rossetter coaching

Bull, Shambrook, James and Brooks (2005) highlight three parts which again will aid  us in our observations:

  • Pressure – to perform for the team even though they are more experienced better paddlers.
  • Endurance – keep going over the multi-day trip despite the lack of sleep / food.
  • Danger – Remote river with few descents and no guidebook that is at the upper limit of paddling (grade 4-6).

These combine well with the four C’s and when linked they can bring a real understanding of what mental toughness is, how to recognise it (behaviours of paddlers) and therefore areas that we may need to be involved in as coaches.

This would be a prudent time then to give a definition for mental toughness.

“The maintenance of goal-driven behaviour despite difficulty.” Calum Arthur, Stirling University.

Recognising behaviours
What follows will hopefully bring to life the areas highlighted above. I have taken the time to look at various behaviours that you can then map back to handling of pressure, endurance or danger as areas that define the mental toughness. Then look again at the four ‘C’s. These four areas are crucial in recognising someone who is mentally tough and someone who is not.

1) When training with a group of better (more experience of this type with better technical and tactical skills) paddlers, Graham needs to be able to handle the pressure. I see him constantly engaged with the group and seeking advice from the team but also me as the coach. This confidence in his team and ability to keep a strong focus on the goal show me his mental toughness. This area has improved as to start with he would go quiet and make poor tactical route choices and blamed the others for not supporting him.

2) Graham shows a strong tendency to having an open mind and engage in the training. He shows this by the easy acceptance of new challenges in the training. He treats the change as opportunities and starts to recognise the patterns required to solve and overcome these threats. He will do this by checking on where he should be focused during the manoeuvre or running of the rapid. From this information I can then see him visualising and ‘walking through’ the strokes before starting to paddle.

3) Graham was very dependent on his group around him when paddling. He was a follower and attributed every roll or capsize as the others fault for where they led him. When watching him paddle now I see him following but then making his own decisions based on the information at hand. He is showing that he is in control and can remain influential in the outcome and not just be a passenger.

4) Graham is showing strong tendencies in his focus towards the goal. He will regularly attend the training sessions with new information that he has sourced and willing to share this with me and the other team members. This interpersonal relationship brings cohesion to the team which keeps the goal at the forefront of the mind.

5) The multi-day white water kayak expedition is something that needs a lot of endurance both mentally and physically. Graham has spent time working on his physical preparation by attending weekly gym based training sessions. However, from a mental point of view we have been using sections of river that have the harder or more challenging rapids towards the end. He often used to withdraw from the rest of the team and bring a lot of negative chat when we were together. He will now actively bring them together at the start of that section and be the one that will be positive and recognise the need for some motivation – often citing the reason for this and the goal they want to achieve.

6) Expedition white-water kayaking is committing and has real danger attached to it – often with a risk to life. To even want to take part in this shows some form of thought and recognition of the danger. Graham shows that he is up for it by challenging himself to talk positively often out loud about the focus areas so that he has these cues as an aide memoir prior to starting a run down hard grade 4-5 water.

7) Being on top of the water is a key to successful paddling. If you get pushed upside down the consequences are unknown. There are rocks in the way plus other debris that can be trapped under the water. If upside down the kayaker needs to either come out of their kayak and swim or complete a roll. Graham has an 80% success rate on his roll. When paddling the harder rapids he will often end upside down. Despite this he keeps working on it. He will practice his roll now at the start of every trip and show real belief in his ability to master his roll so that it is 100%. He also is working hard to avoid the roll and stay in control by repeating rapids where he has gone upside.

8) The commitment to time strokes and get the body ahead of the kayak is crucial in advanced white water. Graham used to make very poor decisions in this aspect and shy away from committing to the stroke. This poor decision often will result in going upside down or pulling away from the harder sections in training. I know will see Graham fully commit to his strokes and also be happier to wait. This state of flow and rhythm in his paddling shows he is aware of the need to perform under pressure and not buckle.

9) His work ethic is phenomenal. He is the first at the training sessions and the last to leave. He often arrives in his paddling gear and will readily inform of the paddling he has done between training sessions. He will have questions that have arisen during his own training as well as thoughts about the previous session/learning worked for him or not. This attention to detail and commitment to training is impressive despite still learning to technically paddle at this grade where he still needs to roll.

10) Paddlers will watch someone run a rapid and base their decision to run or not by how successful the outcome was. Graham is prepared to make his own mind up based on his paddling ability and not of those around him. He needs to be able to watch a performance (often because he is providing safety support for the paddler) and then make his own choice as to what line to paddle. I can now see him reflecting on what he sees and use that to inform his plan. He will use me as someone to download his plan to and describe what he saw but more importantly what he is going to do.

dave rossetter coaching

Think back to either you as a performer or the reviews of the football / golf etc. and see if you can spot someone who is mentally tough or not using the four C’s as the framework.

As so often the way being able to recognise the issue that needs fixed / worked on is half the battle.

Happy paddling/coaching!

dave rossetter coachingDave Rossetter
Dave is Head of Paddlesports at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. He has been involved in the development of the new awards and provides expert advice throughout the industry on all things to do with coaching, safety, leadership and personal paddling. He is passionate about all things paddling and specialises in white water kayak and open canoe where he will most often be found.

About thepaddlerezine (699 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and Windsurfing UK magazines

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