Take part in research about rowing and mindfulness

Pengwern rower Katie Sparks is studying for a PhD in sports psychology at the University of Birmingham and is inviting rowers to take part in her research


Katie pictured second from left with crew mates Jim, Rosie, Dani and Cath

Katie Sparks is researching the factors that influence rowing performance as part of her PhD. She started rowing six years ago at university and is women’s senior captain at Pengwern Boat Club. She says that rowing has kept her sane during her undergraduate days – “I truly think if I didn’t have rowing, I would have left university, but here I am doing a PhD.”

In her last study she found that mindfulness can be beneficial in preventing rowers from cracking under competitive racing, so she is now keen to investigate this further. Her current research examines the priming effects of conscious processes in rowers under pressure and whether a mindful mindset can be primed.

Katie is inviting rowers to complete her survey which takes about 20-25 minutes to finish. Once completed, participants will be asked to follow the instructions at the end of the questionnaire, so they can then eventually receive the study findings and opt-in to be added into a prize draw to win Amazon vouchers (£50, £50 or £100).

You can take part in the survey here.

We asked Katie more about her studies.

1 – How did you get involved with this kind of research?

Katie: In my final year of my undergraduate sport science degree I was given the opportunity to continue with a funded sport psychology masters and PhD focusing on a research area of my choice. Choosing this area proved to be easy – I was a university rower at the time, so my passion for performance under pressure was growing.

I was also intrigued by a statement I once heard that ‘competitive sport performance is 10% physical and 90% mental’. From my experience I had never heard a truer statement, especially when it came to a 2km erg test or a regatta final.

We all know that the mind and body are connected and if one of these is not working effectively it will negatively influence the other. Subsequently, a rower could be at their peak physical fitness after spending countless hours training, but if they aren’t mentally ready, it might lead to a break down in performance under the pressure. This sparked my interest in finding out what the underlying psychological causes were, and whether there is a way of preventing them.

“Mindfulness has also been linked to stress reduction, less anxiety, increased concentration, focus and flow state”

2 – Can you tell us about your previous studies?

My first study found that high levels of conscious processing such as those who were self-conscious of their rowing style, ruminating over their movement and excessively consciously controlling their movement performed worse during their regatta race than rowers who had lower levels.

Additionally, individuals who crabbed during the race had engaged in higher levels of conscious motor processing; this is where individuals had tried to excessively overthink and consciously control their oar or body movements during their performance.

In my second study I found that the aspects of mindfulness, mindful awareness and acceptance of thoughts (non-judgemental thinking), were the most important in improving performance and preventing the detrimental effects of excessive conscious processing. These results further support the promising effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness has also been linked to other benefits such as stress reduction, less anxiety, increased concentration, focus and flow state.

3 – Is there much research in this area already?

Unpicking the two main themes of my research, conscious processing and mindfulness, there is very limited rowing-specific research on either. More has been conducted on mindfulness and rowing, studies have revealed that mindfulness increases race performance, crew efficacy and flow-state (Pineau et al, 2014; Baltzell & Akhtar, 2014; Kabat-Zinn et al, 1985).

On the other hand, the literature is saturated with research investigating the effect of conscious processing on sports such as shooting, golf-putting, netball throwing, football dribbling and dart-throwing, revealing that it is a possible mechanism causing poor performance under pressure.

However, the majority of this research has been lab-based and the sports/skills are individual rather than team-based, making rowing a sound choice to investigate in this area.

“The rowing community have played a pivotal role in helping facilitate my research”

4 – What’s surprised you most about your findings so far?

Firstly, those who tend to crab under pressure have high levels of both conscious motor processing and self-consciousness of their movement – this would therefore point to crabbing being a result of performance anxiety rather than just a fault.

Secondly, some conscious control and awareness of rowing movements tend to aid technical performance, which is in contrast to the idea that successful athletes execute in automatic pilot. Instead, this finding supports the idea that being able to switch between being on automatic pilot and conscious of movement is beneficial and may be what underpins superior performance. This needs further exploration.

Lastly, rowers seem to be very self-conscious of their rowing movements, especially those who succumb to the pressures of performance. It would be interesting to understand at what points of the race rowers tend to consciously process. I know from my own experience – and from talking with others – that there are points in the race (particularly the middle) where you ‘switch off’ and you are in the flow and rhythm of the race.

5 – Finally, how have the rowing community helped?

The rowing community have played a pivotal role in helping facilitate my research. They’ve not only inspired me but have also spent hours helping me by discussing topics, by being observed, completing pilot studies, wearing kinematic sensors and completing questionnaires.

I’m very grateful for their help and, without them, my research would not be possible!