Since taking up the sport in 2014 I’ve rowed 27 2k’s for time on the Concept2 ergo (yes, I counted). The majority of these have been under test conditions as part of crew selection. Two have been rowed at the British Rowing Indoor Championships, securing a gold and silver medal in the process.
Over time I have improved my ability to effectively pace the piece and through disciplined training have gradually brought down my personal best to a pretty respectable time close to the 7 minute barrier. There is no question that physically and technically I’ve got better at the 2k ergo test.
There is certainly nothing peculiar about this as I’m sure all rowers will testify. This sport rewards hard work. The long hours on the ergo, in the gym and on the water pay dividends. It is the same for me as for my crewmates, and as for athletes at rowing clubs and gyms up and down the country.
Despite all of this what remains a constant is the feeling of dread that haunts my waking thoughts and has the power to invade my dreams in the days leading up to a 2k test. Added to this is the gut wrenching feeling as I sit on the ergo in the closing minutes of warm up before taking that first stroke.
Why should this be? I’m an experienced rower who has sat on a Henley Women’s Regatta start line on the final Sunday. I have a tried and tested pacing strategy. I’ve taken this test and many others like it numerous times. I’m as physically prepared as I can be. What power does the 2k test hold to invoke such mental turmoil?
Is it simply the pain? As a means of comparison our squad is regularly tested over longer distances – 5k, 10k, 30 minutes. When pushing to our limit these are all exhausting. They all hurt. Yet none of them cause me sleepless nights. One could argue that the 2k test makes a more significant toll on the body than those others. It does, after all, demand a sustained maximal effort. A former coach analogized that the 2k was akin to holding your hand in a flame and being prepared to keep it there. So is that the answer? Quite simply that the anticipation of what you are about to do – the physical demand that must be endured – that causes such mental turmoil in the lead up to that test. While I have no doubt that this plays a major part I suspect there is also something more psychological at play.
Maybe it is the importance that rowers tend to attach to the result of their 2k test. This could come either from an individual perspective (wanting to record a PB or break through a significant milestone) a competitive one (wanting to beat our peers), or a belief that a seat in a particular boat is almost entirely dependent on the outcome. Even non on-water rowers well understand that this is the physical benchmark that rowers use to judge themselves and others against, so I highly doubt they are immune from the psychological trauma.
While there is no doubt that 2k results are important, I’ve never known a coach who bases their selection decisions purely on 2k ergo scores. To do so would be naive. I’ve heard from a reliable source that not one of the 2k scores from the Netherlands men’s eight at the 1996 Olympic regatta would have secured a seat in the United States boat at that same event. The United States placed 5th. The Netherlands crew took home gold!
Those longer distance benchmarks mentioned above also play an important part in crew selection, but ultimately it comes down to our ability to move a boat on the water. Observations over time and perhaps isolated seat race outcomes will likely figure more significantly in a coaches mind when they put a crew together. The score may be the measure to split two similar athletes competing for the same seat, but that’s really where it ends.
Perhaps it is something less tangible. The ergo can be an isolating, lonely place. There are no crewmates around us for support. There is also nothing to look at but the numbers flicking about on the screen in front of us, and those numbers can speak to us in mysterious ways; taunting, goading, providing us the means to doubt ourselves. We may have trained hard for months but within the space of a handful of strokes the ergo can convince us we are not as fit or as strong as we believed. I have seen people stop on the 2k with only 100 metres to go so much had their mental fortitude been whittled down to breaking point. The same athlete wouldn’t dream of doing so on the water in a race with their crew around them.
So then, I arrive at a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, that it is likely a combination of all these things that causes such mental discombobulation in the lead-up to the 2k test. To narrow the feeling down to just the physical overlooks the important psychological aspect. As a consequence of this one can understand why the 2k ergo is such a good test. I propose that the difference between two athletes of similar fitness level and physiological make-up is therefore one of mental strength, and it is exactly that which is ultimately being tested.
Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts? Are you one of the lucky few who don’t suffer from pre-2k nerves? Is the 2k mentally harder for on-water rowers when they are competing for crew seats? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.