It’s the big day. You’re at your championship meet, tapered, suited up, and not a hair on your body. You’ve trained all year for this one race. This one moment. You’re standing behind the blocks for your best event, doing your typical pre-race routine, when the self doubt starts flooding in. What if I haven’t worked hard enough? What if my coach got the taper wrong? What if my suit somehow splits when I dive off the block? The ref whistles for your heat to get on the block. The starter says those three words you’ve heard thousands of times. Take your mark. You crouch down… And the starter releases you. You swim your hardest, but that nagging voice in the back of your head never lets go. You touch the wall, look at the scoreboard and… you’ve gained time. All that hard work. All that preparation. For nothing.
You’re not alone. According to Team USA Sports Psychologist Dr. John McCauley, 99% of athletes struggle with their mentality at one point in their careers. What matters is how you approach your problem and how you find a solution to it.
To help those swimmers that struggle with the mental aspect, here are some reminders and tips to help you relax before your races:
#1. You can control mentality, but not physicality
At the end of the day, only you are in control of how you approach your races. To perform well, you need to accept that you may not feel at your best, but let go and swim fast regardless. Remember that you’ve done the work to put yourself in whatever position you’re in. All you need to do is perform to the level that you can perform at.
Clark Smith, 2016 US Olympic Gold Medalist and American record holder has struggled with the mental aspect of swimming. At the 2016 NCAA’s, he came into the meet as top seed in the 500 free and the 1650 free. He placed 21st in the 500 and 12th in the 1650, disappointing many swim fans in what they predicted was going to be a record breaking meet for Smith. However, Smith returned to the pool in June after changing his mental approach to competing and was able to clinch a spot for the US Olympic team as a part of the 800 free relay, where he went on to win a gold medal in Rio. He followed his Olympic debut by breaking the 500 and 1650 free US Open records at the 2017 NCAA’s. Smith’s advice to those struggling with the mental aspect: “You can’t control how you feel/who you are physically, but what you can do is turn your brain off and keep going.”
#2. There’s always an easy way out
Studies have shown that having the option to quit actually makes you work harder. There are what psychologists called forced choices, choices which really have only one option, such as getting up in the morning to go to school/work. Then there are choices where you have the option to quit, such as swim practice.
In a study conducted about forced choices vs. optional choices, participants in the first group of the study were asked to complete puzzles until the time was completed. The second group was given the option to quit at any time throughout the study. Surprisingly, the researchers found that those who were given the option to quit worked harder and solved more puzzles . Being given the option to quit forces the athlete to take ownership of their sport and ownership of their work effort.
Smith said the support of his teammates also helped him push himself every day in practice. “We have a saying on our team that’s been around a little while. Anytime someone gets in late or gets out to go to the bathroom before a set, usually someone will say ‘it must be nice.’ There’s always an easy way out if you want.”
#3. Dynamic visualization is key
In a University of Lyon study, neuroscience professor and psychologist Aymeric Guillot worked with elite high jumpers to see if there was a notable difference in motionless visualization and dynamic visualization, or moving along with the mental image in your mind, when it came to performance. Guillot had the jumpers perform 10 jumps at 90% of their personal best. He then randomly selected which jumpers would utilize motionless visualization or dynamic visualization. Those using dynamic visualization were asked to use as much of their body as possible in rehearsing their jumps. Guillot found that those who utilized motionless visualization improved the success and form quality of their jumps by 35%, while those who utilized dynamic visualization improved their success and form quality by 45%.
In an interview with Dr. McCauley, he also emphasized the importance of visualization. “Visualization is a profoundly important skill because, when you visualize, let’s say you visualize running, every muscle that you use in running is activated in you visualization of running. So in other words, visualizing is an excellent way to practice any sport.” Dr. McCauley has his patients hone their visualization skills through different activities outside of the athletic spectrum. “I’ll
have them cut out geometric designs on construction paper and have them look at for a few seconds and try to close your eyes and visualize it. So I’ll get them to do all sorts of exercises to stimulate the visual cortex and get them in the habit of visualizing.”
#4. Conquering the mental side of swimming takes time
The physical side of swimming is easy. The mental side is not. When FSN asked 3-time US Olympian and Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel about the physical side of swimming vs. mental side of swimming, she said, “Mastering the mental side of swimming is much more difficult than the physical side. The physical side is demanding, but easy because you are doing the same sets with your teammates and coaches who are with you the entire way… With the mental side of any sport, it is crucial you are able to control yourself in high pressure situations and to always be optimistic and hopeful. This is not something you can practice with a coach or a teammate. This is something you have to learn through trial and error with yourself.”
#5. If all else fails, take a break
Beisel has been swimming at the highest level our sport has to offer since 2007, where she qualified for her first World Championship team at age 14. Her advice on staying mentally sharp? “Take a break. I think as swimmers and athletes, we are taught to never take breaks and to never take it easy. If you give yourself a week or two to refresh and figure out what your problem is – whether it’s being negative or not believing in yourself – you will be able to come back with a new perspective and fall back in love with yourself and the sport.” Taking a two week break to allow yourself to relax and fall back in love with the sport and training at 100% for the following four weeks is exponentially better than half-heartedly training for six weeks.
#6. No one’s expectations matter, except your own
Everyone who swims at a high level swims because they are in love with the water and enjoy the feeling of swimming every day. No one else’s expectations should factor into your performance.
“Pressure should only ever come from yourself,” Smith said. “It’s something that you should be able to control. You decide if getting that cut, goal time or whatever is worth being miserable over. That’s what causes you to be nervous before your race, and upset if you don’t get what you want. At the end of the day you have to be able to live with yourself even if you don’t reach your goals.”
Remember why you swim. We all got into this sport because we enjoy it. We enjoy the feeling of being in the water. We enjoy the feeling of touching that pad and looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a time that we didn’t think was possible to hit. Whenever you feel that self doubt, take a step back, think of why you swim. Take a deep breath, and have fun with it.
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right.” – Henry Ford
Written by Peter Brukx