This week rowers from around the country face their final National selection trials to secure their seat at this year’s World Championships. It’s the business end of the domestic season, the time as an athlete you have to step up, hold your nerve and deliver. There’s no crowd, no trophies, and no fanfare. It’s all about getting the result. While the racing requires the usual physical output, selection trials will probably provide the sternest test of an athlete's mental and emotional strength.
Rowing selection trials are not a black and white, first past the post equation. To be selected requires you to team up with others in a crew boat which may produce speed, but swapping one rower for another might also find a one second improvement. At one moment you have your teammates, your crew going into battle, and the next race those teammates become rivals you have to defeat and destroy. The stakes are high; its business and it’s personal. There are numerous permutations, combinations, and seating orders that could possibly work, which means selection trials are not always simple and never easy.
Having rowed for twelve years at the international level I experienced all the highs and lows of trials; the years that you dominate and everything goes to plan, and the years you have to fight your way from the bottom of the pile. These races give you the opportunity to find out the real you; it forces you to answer the tough questions when you’re really under the pump. It tests your focus, your skill to quickly adapt, your capacity to deal with the uncertainty and the voice in your head that will sometimes question your ability. Years of selection racing will make you hard, calculated, and determined – qualities that you'll call on when you line up in an Olympic final.
Most of my race craft was honed in selection races and there are some key lessons I picked up over the years. So if I can offer any advice to athletes entering their first selection trials, the most important advice I could give would be the following:
Keep it simple. Go in with two, maybe three but definitely no more very clear individual focuses that will help you deliver your best performance (eg. quick catches, tall body position).
Don’t warm into selection trials. Set out to deliver your best performance in race 1. This will be critical in determining your whole week. Equally selection trials rewards your ability to consistently deliver, the third race in a rotation will be just as important, perhaps more so, than the first.
Margins matter. The last 10 strokes are probably the most important in the race, half a second quicker or slower may determine your whole selection.
Switch on, switch off. Take a few things up to selection trials that allow you to mentally switch off from everything (eg: playstation, book, TV series etc). You can lose selection trials in between races if you let your mind worry about the what-ifs. You can only dictate how fast your boat goes and that’s it, control the controllables.
Don’t fear the pressure. Enjoy the intensity of selection racing. It’s this experience you will draw on when you need to deliver on the biggest stage for the most important titles.