Annie Vernon competed for the GB in the women's single, double, quad and eight between 2005 and the London Olympics in 2012, capturing an Olympic Silver in Beijing in 2008, as well as world titles in the women's quad in 2007 and 2010 and a silver in the women's double in 2009. row2k caught up with Vernon in fall of 2020 shortly after the publication of her new book, "Mind Games: an insider's guide to the psychology of elite athletes.". This is the first of three parts.
row2k: In your book, you write about how an injury "requires a different kind of mental resilience" due to being isolated from your team, which made me think that everyone in the sport is experiencing something similar right now. What can or what should athletes or elite athletes be doing at this time to keep it all together?
Vernon: Let's hope we never, ever experience it again but, for sure, COVID probably presents the same challenges and opportunities as an injury does. When I was coaching, I used to say to my athletes who were injured, "Look, the only thing you can't do at the moment is row, but you can do everything else." Rowing is made up of a hundred other things, such as your nutrition, flexibility, core, mental strength, teamwork, communication, your understanding of the sport.
So, actually, taking away the one thing of technical training on the water means you then have space and bandwidth and emotional energy to commit to all the other things. So, although COVID must be incredibly hard, particularly for those people who were hoping to go to the Olympics two months ago, the thing that you love doing, racing about on the water, that's gone for now but everything else is still there and can still be improved.
row2k: What about the team environment? For a lot of younger athletes or non-elite rowers, the joy in sport comes from being on the team.
Vernon: I agree, but rowing is also quite unique in team sports in that there is a really big individual element. We all know that you can do an ergo in a room of 20 other people and it does make a difference if the room is full of energy and everyone's in time on the machines. That's great, but fundamentally, you are on your own. When you're lifting weights, when you're in your single scull, you are on your own. Sports like football or rugby they aren't sports you ever do alone. A soccer player would never go into a session on their own. They'd would always be in a team or being a defensive unit or attacking unit or whatever it is.
So although we call ourselves the ultimate team sport, I don't really know that we are because a large component of rowing is pushing yourself and competing against yourself. For sure a lot of young people love the team element, particularly girls. It's a different challenge, it's a different approach, but you can still have an impact on all the parts of your performance. These days with phones and social media and WhatsApp, you can even do a Zoom session or what have you with somebody else in your squad.
A large component of rowing is pushing yourself and competing against yourself.
I don't know what it was like in the States, but over here in proper lockdown back in March, April, May, actually, you could almost have a bigger impact on the people around you than you could normally. I probably caught up with more old friends during lockdown than I ever do and you can have a greater effect on your teammates, both positively and negatively, based on your behavior during these strange times.
row2k: For athletes that have not experienced serious time away from the sport before, what does that resilience look like?
Vernon: Resilience is such an interesting word because it's such a word of now. I have a sports psychology textbook that I read when I was an athlete that was published in 2000, and I recently looked at it. It's a PDF copy and I searched for the word "resilience" and it wasn't there once. Whereas now, I do work in schools and the word "resilience" is written all over the school; all kids go on about resilience. The concept encapsulates a lot of other things, so that "resilience" is almost the outcome. A resilient person, mentally, can take the kicks in the gut and can get up and keep going.
row2k: This is one of the central ideas in your book. You quote Matt Pinsent as saying "Sport is, you get you get kicked in the chops, you dust yourself off, and you do it again." Is resilience just a fancy word for this collection of coping skills that we all learn in various aspects of our lives?
Vernon: I suppose it's similar. In the book, in the chapter on "Confidence," I spent a lot of time trying to understand what that is. My conclusion is that it's not one thing, it's a collection of lots of different things, and I would say it's the same with resilience. Resilience is the outcome of doing a lot of things well.
If you're good at coping with failure, if you have an inner belief, if you have the right support people around you, if you have the right processes, and if you have confidence in the processes, you will be resilient. But to wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going to try and be resilient," well, you can't. That's kind of jumping to the end point without going through the steps to get there.
So much of it, and I know I go on about this in the book to some degree, is just about self-awareness. Particularly with COVID at the moment, a lot of us have found it really tough. If you're self-aware enough to be able to roll with the punches and are able to understand, "What is it that I'm worried about? What is it that's not quite right with me? Okay let's try and focus on that and sort that out."
'Resilience' means the ability to rebound from setbacks
Understanding that just because something doesn't go right for you in your sport, understanding what hasn't gone right for you and what you do about it involves never questioning yourself, your own ability, and your innate confidence in yourself. There are outcomes with lots of processes, but all of those processes stem from how self-aware you are. There are some six billion people on this planet, and we're all different. So, what resilience feels like and looks like for me will be different to what it feels like and looks like for you. It's the same with confidence.
row2k: To your point about many people being able to roll with it, during the lockdown there were lots of new world records on the erg. The pandemic has great for those of us who thrive on the erg! On the flip side of that was this wave of pre-Olympic retirements. There were a number in the U.K., an NZ sculler Robbie Manson just retired. In the conclusion of your book, you spoke very eloquently of your retirement after the London Olympics, which was calling it quits at a time of your own choosing. I was speaking with a friend of mine who said flat out, "a deferred retirement can be brutal." For those people who had hoped to retire after Tokyo, who now are faced with pushing onwards for another year, is that deferred career end really as hard as we are seeing from this wave of retirements?
Vernon: You have no idea when your career is going to finish. Obviously, you'd love for it to finish with an Olympic gold medal standing on the podium saying "toodle-oo everyone, I'm off into the sunset" but, you know, it could finish on a Wednesday morning, when you have an injury or your funding gets cut and coach tells you "off you go, there's not a place for you anymore." I suppose the delayed Olympics for some people will be really tough.
A really good friend of mine on the British rowing team, Vicky Thornley, this will be her third Games. She had planned to get married straight after the Games, and that's all on hold. She's super positive, she said, "No, it's great. I've got another year to try to get better." At the same time, she had her whole life planned out.
As an elite athlete, you learn through years and years of practice to control your emotions and control your mind. I retired after 2012, and that year was just really disappointing. We came fifth in the eight but we rowed really, really poorly in the regatta. We did amazing work in our pre-Olympic training camp but just couldn't transfer it to the regatta course. I'm not making excuses; we weren't good enough.
I retired after a pretty terrible row in the final and, again, that's not how you want to go out. You want to go out on your own choosing but, by the same token, I knew that I had to retire. I knew I wanted to retire. I knew doing another four years wasn't a possibility. Even as part of me said, "even though you're frustrated at how it's finished, you could still go to Rio," deep down I knew I had to go.
But those mental skills you develop day to day through doing sport, that discipline, in things like your retirement and things like a delayed Olympics, crazy though it is, it just requires more of the same discipline and making sure the right thoughts are in your head.
row2k: All of those things said, do you understand those who felt, for whatever reason, they couldn't and stopped short? With conditioning and camps and selection, making four years into half a decade could be really, really tough.
Vernon: Oh, for sure. It's incredibly hard but, at the same time, you've got, perhaps, younger athletes that would have been good in Tokyo 2020 but actually are going to be great in Tokyo 2021. For every athlete that has said "it's a struggle," there's other athletes that think, "this is great for me."