Swim-Series: Mental Toughness - Getting Started

Mental Toughness - Getting Started

Did you know that "races are won and lost before the start?" We know that this is certainly true training-wise. If you goof off, cut corners and don't put much into your training, then you'll never develop a good enough training base to swim fast when it counts the most. What might not be so obvious to you, however, is that many races are won and lost because of what goes on between your ears. That is, what you think about and focus on before and during your races, what I call your "mental mechanics", will determine whether you experience the thrill of victory or suffer through the agony of defeat. 

This is why so many swimmers go faster in practice than they do in big meets. It's why so many swimmers go faster in their off events than their best ones. This is also why strong, well-conditioned swimmers will mysteriously "die" just 100 yards into their first race of a meet when there's no physical reason for this. Your mind is that powerful! Here's how it works. 

Your pre-race thoughts like, "What if I get DQ'ed", "What if I swim slow", "She/he (opponent) is so much faster than me", "This is my last chance to qualify", "I don't feel good/fast today," or "I never swim well in this meet" make you nervous. When you get nervous, three critical changes happen in your body. Your muscles begin to tighten, your breathing gets faster and shallower and your hands and feet get cold. 

These physical changes will, in turn, slow your swimming right down. How? First, tight muscles will shorten your stroke and ruin your stroke mechanics. Tight muscles will kill your timing on your start and turns. When your muscles are too tense you'll tire much quicker because tight muscles are inefficient. They just don't work well. Finally, tight muscles will be much more painful during your race. 

Second, if you're breathing too fast and shallow before and during your race, you'll tend to take too many breaths, which will add precious seconds to your time. Furthermore, your rhythm will be thrown off and your muscles will tighten even more. Finally, too shallow breathing will completely wipe you out endurance-wise and make you feel like you are in the worst shape of your life. 

Third, if your hands get cold you will lose that all important feel of the water. Swimming fast is about being able to feel what you're doing. What am I saying in simple English? G.I.G.O. Garbage in, garbage out! If you feed yourself mental garbage before or during a race, (What if, I can't, she's faster than me, etc.) you'll feel and perform like garbage! Negative thoughts kill your confidence, distract your concentration and slow you right down. 

So what does all this mean for you? If you want to develop mental toughness and consistently swim fast under pressure, then you have to learn to develop an awareness of your thoughts, self-talk or what I call the dialogue of your "inner coach." If you are not on top of your pre- and during race self-talk, then you'll always end up frustrated with your times. Awareness is the key. 

What can you do to begin to train your "inner coach" to work for you? First, review 2-3 of your very best races. Think back to these events and try to remember what you thought before and during the race. Write this down. Now review 2-3 really bad races in the very same way. What were you thinking about before and during these events. Next, compare the differences in your self-talk before your good and bad races. 

After you do this, begin to keep a training and race journal. In it, keep a record of your thoughts and self-talk during practice and at meets. For example, what were you thinking about before and during that tough set? After you failed to make the interval while another teammate did? After a disappointing race? Write your thoughts down at night, after practice or the meet. Keeping track of your self-talk in this way will help you begin to get control over it. By becoming aware of how negative you are, you can learn to change it in a positive way. Remember, races are won and lost before the start.


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