When presented with the question “Which is the hardest sport? ” most people might reach for boxing or wrestling (ESPN; Kevin Neeld). While these seem like plausible choices, society forgets the psychology behind sports. When adding psychology, rowing should definitely score higher than 39th out 60 different sports(ESPN). Even based off of physiology most people seem to underestimate how hard repeating and perfecting a rowing stroke can be. Physiology, psychology, and experience prove that rowing is more difficult than other sports.
Lactic acid is what supposedly causes muscles to burn so painfully after the initial adrenaline rush, but according to Dr. Trent Stellingworth, it isn’t actually lactic acid that causes the muscles to burn. What actually causes the muscles to burn is the build up and separation of the lactic acid into lactate and hydrogen ions. What most rowers understand is that they produce a lot of lactate quickly, but most don’t even know why. A 2000 meter race for a rower has 98-110% of VO2 max (maximal aerobic activity). Once you reach that max you start using your anaerobic metabolism.
This means that rowers are constantly training for anaerobic exercise which is much harder than aerobic exercise. In comparison professional marathoners are only 85-90% of VO2max, and their lactate measurement typically ends up under 4 millimoles. Rowers typically end up at 15-18 millimoles, maybe even higher (World Rowing). According to this information I, a 16 year old in high school, experience more pain from something that lasts about 8 minutes than my 51 year old grandmother who runs marathons in about five hours.
There was research done by three Czech scientists comparing rowing and cycling machines. In their findings they found that rowing “confers a more intensive load on the cardiovascular system compared with cycling”(Horn 206). The scientists compared three things to draw these conclusions: stroke volume, cardiovascular output, and heart rate. In all three categories, rowing was higher than cycling; and when comparing stroke volume and cardiovascular output rowing was significantly higher (Horn 205). All the men who participated in the study were healthy and not professional athletes.
If one were to compare an elite rower to these results would find a great difference. All rowers are in a tremendous fight. “Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a twothousand-meter race takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back to back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes”(Brown 40). These two sentences really pack a punch on non-rowers; going based off of this, a rower faces the same risk of blowing a knee or injuring a part of the body that a professional basketball player does if they played two games back to back.
Usually during races rowers do a multitude of races, including heats and finals not just different types of races. Brown states that” a well conditioned oarsman or oarswoman competing at the highest levels must be able to take in and consume as much as eight liters of oxygen per minute; an average male is capable of taking in roughly four to five liters at most. ” Based entirely off this sentence elite rowers are pushed to go much further than the average human just to be able to breathe. Brown even compares rowers to a thoroughbred horse.
Rowers “must immediately produce anaerobic energy” due to the hard sprints off the start. “The skeletal system to which all those muscles are attached also undergoes tremendous amounts of strains and stresses”(Brown). This means that rowers are easily able to harm anything in their body quite easily without proper training (Brown 41). Basically the fastest way to make a boat go faster is to go at a faster stroke rate, but the body is able to miscalculate even more easily at higher rates and the physical pain is also increased, thus losing some amount of focus (Brown 178).
This focus is all encountered in the mind though, and the mentality of rowers is insane. In a Romanian study, scientists asked rowers what they competed for. This included, but is not limited to, better facilities, passion for the sport, content in the training, the prestige of an athlete, fear of failure, and the need to succeed. Rowers showed that “intrinsic motivation leaves its mark on the training of athletes” because they tended to rate intrinsic motivation more important than that extrinsic motivation (Cucui). Looking at individual rowers, one will see a conflict of personality.
They’ll be cocky yet still humble. A rower must be this way in order to endure the long grueling amounts of pain they go through only to earn little fame and praise. The other part of rower mentality relies on the team. Some of the best motivation that I encountered came from the girls who supported me and went through the same experience. Throughout history the best boats are always the ones who work the most cohesively, on and off the water. Those teams are never the ones that are exactly alike. And each rower must be able to compromise on these differences(Brown 179).
George Pocock once said, “Good thoughts have much to do with good rowing. It isn’t enough for the muscles of the crew to work in unison; their hearts, and minds must also be as one”(Brown 297). Many rowers speak of getting tunnel vision. While this may sound like a bad thing during a team boat race, I personally find that the tunnel vision I feel focuses on three things, the person in front of me, my pain, and my coxswain(the jockey for the boat). Essentially that’s all you need to keep going. A teammate to pull for, the spite you have for pain, and the small person with an audible cheer for you.
In the moments before a race, rowers are often quiet and focused on the outside; and are nervous as the anxiety builds on the inside. They’re waiting for the words “Ready All? Row! ” to come from a megaphone. Lacrosse players face a more intense moments. They’re getting “ready for running, hitting, and being there on [t]he field… and mentally ready for quick movements, reaction time, and coordination”(Childs). According to Zach Childs, (ex-lacrosse player at Westlake High School and current rower in the Texas Rowing Center’s junior program) rowing is more focused due to the race being the sole focus in a short amount of time.
Lacrosse also has more room for variables within in the game and the ability to make changes quickly. Rowing does not have this advantage, if a boat loses a race it is due to the rowers not being as competitive as other crews. Childs also mentions being aware of the ball constantly within a game and having one on one competitions within the game. Rowing is definitely not like that. As Pocock said, “From the first stroke all thoughts of the other crew must be blocked out” (Brown 105).
While Childs’s ten years of lacrosse gives him obvious knowledge that I do not possess, he also has the privilege of saying he’s raced in a single. According to him during the race you are able to do what feels right and focus on yourself instead of having to worry about the others in the boat. In singles one has to be the best of the best, which means a rower has to be “much more self pushing” (Childs). Overall Zach would say that both sports are equally hard, but admits that personally rowing is harder due to the components it focuses on, physical insurance and mentality.
While Zach Childs took time to compare lacrosse to rowing, Alyssa Schaefer compared rowing to different sports and what elements were similar. While Schaefer did many sports before rowing, she decided to use the four she did in the year before joining rowing, track, lacrosse, basketball, and volleyball. According to her lacrosse and basketball were both very physically stressful sports with all the running, but in lacrosse she mentioned that as midfield goalie she was focused on being strategic as well.
Volleyball was also the most team dependent and impossible to be able to win without anyone helping. On the other hand track was very mental with almost no team and was similar to rowing due to there being no time outs or substitutes in the middle of a race. To Schaefer rowing is a combination of these sports, but with more emotion. She says that rowing “you have to push with your team because not one person will move the boats by themselves and win” (Schaefer). Schaefer also mentions hitting a wall in both track and rowing. She also states how having a coxswain motivating is like no other sport.
In the end she said rowing was the hardest because it has the mental and physical demands of other sports; but it can take as short as 6 minutes up to 35 minutes to enact these demands, without the rower knowing where they stand until the end of the race. Schaefer’s thoughts on the sport coincide beautifully with Albert Ulbrickson’s thoughts on searching for his 1936 Olympic Champions.
The team must be incredibly powerful and able to push through the pain, but they must also be able to devote themselves to one another (Brown 23). the 1920’s and 1930’s collegiate rowing was as big as football and baseball with millions of loyal fans. No longer is rowing given that level of fame, but the rowers pursue their dreams. Despite the pain rowers keep on. Quietly accepting being passed over for other sports until someone asks them privately. Rowers will fight for their right to be considered strong and great. The hydrogen ions in our blood shows how hard we work to achieve greatness amoungst our community.