The Upper Limit Problem – How to Reach a New PB in rowing

I always wanted to be better. I always wanted to push harder, or row faster. One of the issues that I have now identified later in life, is that I never gave it everything I had while competing. This was always an issue for me. I would sacrifice speed and power for technique instead of learning to do all three at the same time. It was soon that I realised that this was my upper limit problem. I only identified this years later when I was analysing my own performance as an elite athlete (a few years too late) and I only came to know the term “upper limit problem” this year.

What is the Upper Limit Problem?

The upper limit problem is a term coined by Dr Gay Hendricks to describe how we as humans sometimes naturally limit our own happiness or gratification by sabotaging ourselves in some way. A typical example of this is as follows; you receive praise for doing something really well by lots of people. Be it a success at work, or a competition win. You go on to play it down to seem a bit modest instead of big-headed.

Another typical example is in relationships. Person A receives a promotion and decides to go out with their partner, Person B to celebrate. Whilst on their way home Person A starts an argument for no apparent reason or for something really small which escalates into a full-blown argument. Instead of being happy and celebrating together, your brain switches to “I don’t deserve to be this happy” and then you automatically sabotage yourself to bring yourself back down to a level you feel comfortable with.

How to Overcome it

The first, and most important step in my opinion to overcome your upper limit problem is to identify it. If you can’t identify an issue you can’t take effective steps to overcome it. Another important step is to remove negative self-talk from your life. You need to be able to talk about yourself in a positive way. I’m forever finding that I chastise myself for doing something wrong. I always catch myself after and make a note of it. This is a practice I have put in place to remind myself that I’m only human like everyone else.

Once you’ve identified your upper limit problem you can start to work on it. Try and focus on your strengths and keep the negative self talk out of your life wherever possible. If you finish a sprint a second or two slower than usual congratulate yourself on giving it everything you had in the moment and feel happy that you’re a good enough rower that you can still keep your results semi-consistent.

“The productive thing to do is to look for the positive new emergence that’s trying to happen. In other words, when you find yourself worrying, know that there is something positive trying to break through.”

Gay Hendricks – The Big Leap

There’s a lot more to it, but I’m not a professional and I’m not the right person to give advice about such serious matters. If you would like to know more there’s a fantastic book all about this by Gay Hendricks called The Big Leap. In this book, he explains much more about “the 4 zones of work” which I haven’t covered in this article but they are really helpful to identify within yourself what zone you work in.

How to Use an Upper Limit Problem to Reach a New PB

upper limit

One of the ways that I was able to break through my own upper limit problem was by removing my own self-imposed limits. I knew that I was one of the fastest off-water rowers in my team but I wanted to become the fastest for myself. I’d let this goal cloud my judgement a few times and put too much pressure on myself to accomplish it. By putting this much pressure on myself to be great, I missed the bigger picture which was to enjoy what I was doing and just to try as best as I could.

This is really important in my opinion. The enjoyment of whatever it is that you’re doing. I could spend hours and hours on a rowing machine and absolutely hate it instead of specifically training for what it was that I wanted to accomplish. Enjoyment of a task is really important to make sure that you can keep reliably doing it.

“This won’t last forever, but it’s wonderful while it’s happening”

Gay Hendricks – The Big Leap

The biggest thing to take away from this observation is that no matter how hard you try, if your heart isn’t in it then you’re destined for failure. Regardless of how many hours you put into training, if you’re not enjoying it then you’re training for nothing. Use this as a motivator next time you get on the water, or when you next sit yourself down on a rowing machine. The hours and hours of practice you put into this sport are totally worth it because it’s something that you enjoy doing.

Positive Self-Affirmations

By far the biggest fan you can have of yourself is yourself. In order to reach new heights in rowing, it’s important that you become your own cheerleader. I remember sitting at the start line of a race and hearing everyone cheering for my crew. Obviously, there were people there cheering for the other teams too, but when you’re in the moment your brain has the marvellous ability to be able to hone in on specific things. In this situation, it was chants and cheers. It’s such a massive motivator to have people cheer for you or your team. But what do you do if you can’t hear the people cheering you on? Enter: positive self-affirmations.

These are a fantastic way of keeping your motivation levels up, and they’re super simple to implement. Take out all negative thoughts and just think of a sentence that motivates you. This can be as simple as “you can do this” or “you’ve got this” or it can be complicated like a phrase or saying that you have memorised.

The overall important factor here is to keep your motivation levels high and your positive self-affirmations strong and steadfast.

Marginal Gains