Boat Race: Oxford rely on mind games to make splash

On occasions the Boat Race has felt more like the United Nations at play than a contest between two sets of students from Britain's most famous academic institutions, but this afternoon's confrontation on the Tideway will feel more like those from an earlier era.

Thirteen of the 18 students taking part are British, the highest ratio for 10 years, and for the first time in eight years the race will feature only one American, the Cambridge president, Derek Rasmussen.

With three undergraduates in each boat – the highest number since 2003 – and only five returning Blues, both crews will be short on experience. Ben Myers, the Oxford president, is the only returning Dark Blue, so it is just as well that his crew are coached by one of the most experienced men in the business. Sean Bowden, who has worked with Cambridge in the past, will be seeking his 10th victory and his eighth with Oxford since the turn of the century.

"The less experienced guys can overreact to the occasion," Bowden said yesterday. "They know a little less about themselves and aren't necessarily so good at the self-teaching side of things, which is really important. If you want to learn to play the piano you don't have a lesson every day. You have a lesson once a week. It's how good you are at practising that will determine how good you will be."

Bowden conducts "visualisation" sessions, asking his charges to imagine a variety of different race situations. "Most people's experience of this sort of thing would be hypnotherapy to stop smoking," he said. "We picture what it might feel like sitting at the start, or how the crew will respond to different race scenarios, different weather conditions. It can create levels of confidence and reinforce your belief."

The Cambridge coach, Steve Trapmore, who is preparing for his first Boat Race, will be stressing to the Light Blue crew the importance of concentrating on the job in hand. "It's easy to lose focus in an event like this when there's a lot going on and there's huge noise from the crowd," he said. "It's also very easy when you race side-by-side to get too focused on the other crew. That can detract from your rowing."

Sir Matt Pinsent, who rowed in three Boat Races and will be umpiring today's curtain-raiser between the second boats Isis and Goldie, believes past experience can be important. "I think there's a big learning curve between your first and second races," he said. "There is a mindset and a technique to a Boat Race that is particular to it."

The race's enduring appeal is reflected in the fact that it will be televised in more than 200 countries, while around a quarter of a million spectators are expected to line the course. The race, which starts at 5pm, has been won by the heavier crew on six of the last 10 occasions. Cambridge, who won last year, have a weight advantage of nearly 4lb per man.

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