Perceptual Narrowing: The Key to Performance

My older brother was the best coach I ever had. He pushed me to work harder and never allowed me to give up. I remember him telling me once before a major meet to “never hold back, you will never know what you are made of until to turn your body to mush.” Immediately afterwards I went out and had the best meet of my life. His support inspired me to work harder and get stronger.


The work we put in the pool is a result of our mindset. Having a sound mindset results in a positive attitude, which in turn leads to fast swimming. Eddie Reese said it best, “A swimmer will swim fast when they want to swim fast.” 


A bad attitude is the one that prevents the athlete from realizing his or her goals. A bad attitude brings clout to the athlete’s mindset and the end result is often rage, despair, resentment and anger towards the sport. A bad attitude negatively affects our work ethic and hinders progress.


In practice, an athlete who perceives an imbalance between their capacities and those demanded by the environment (in a situation where those demands have great consequence) will experience stress and an escalating heart rate. This increased arousal (heart rate) causes perceptual narrowing and panic.


Perceptual narrowing can lead to increased distractibility, experienced as constantly shifting points of focus. Whether stressed physically or mentally, one is less able to think ahead, and to choose a route or sequence of movements. These factors affect performance in the all environments.


On the other hand, a positive mindset allows the athlete to conceive his or her goals. By thinking positively, the athlete increases their commitment to the sport. Don't tell yourself you need to do "X" to get better, tell yourself you "want" to do "X" to get better.


Those who are committed feel it everyday. They welcome stress and embrace the pain that comes with hard work. They relish every moment where they are pushed to another level. A swimmer with a positive mindset knows how to put the pieces together. They know how to train effectively, recover properly, eat and sleep and have a positive effect on the team’s mission and vision.


They focus on the details involved with daily work. They are willing to push harder every day and are driven towards achieving success rather than falter to failure.They embrace new challenges and continually raise the bar for themselves. They do this so that may they enjoy the results that such rare dedication and effort deliver.


A swimmers with a positive attitude is someone who is greatly motivated to do better. Motivation is something we all have. It is the fire that drives us work harder and push ourselves beyond our limitations. It is the desire to be persistent towards achieving our dreams and is the cornerstone of success for every great achievement.



Achievement motivation occurs when the athlete is motivated to achieve success rather than achieve failure. It is the athlete’s best interest to achieve an ideal performance state where anxiety is limited and motivation is high. These athletes not only understand what they need to do to become better, but they WANT to do what it takes to become better.


Qualities of a highly focused/highly motivated swimmer:


1) Swimmer has a “quiet” mind or a “clear” head

2) Absence of negative-self talk

3) Adaptive focus on task related cues

4) High motivation in regards to skill related components*

5) Excellent management in regards to mental processes

a) Eyes on prize – sticks to goals

b) Relaxation techniques

c) Mental imagery – ability to see the steps that lead to successful swimming


In essence you must want to be where you are, doing what you are doing. Nothing is gained by doing one thing with your body and another with your mind. You have to be motivated.


So where does motivation come from? The funny thing about motivation is no one can motivate any to do anything.


True motivation comes from within.

True motivation starts with a dream and a commitment to that dream. The dream is the spark and the commitment is the fuel. Anyone can dream to be faster, stronger, better, leaner, etc. but not everyone has what it takes to commit to that dream. Achieving that dream takes teamwork. Not just from the athlete, but from the coach and parents as well.


In order to provide an environment that is “motivating” for our kids, the coach and parent must understanding of each other’s role.


The Coach’s Role


Coaches foster motivation through constant feedback in regards to goals while empowering the athlete to make better decisions. All of our coaches love the sport of swimming. Swimming fast is fun and we want to share that with the swimmer. But this is secondary to developing them as a person.


Coaches serve the athlete not only as a positive influence, but as an enabler as well.


Our role is to guide the swimmer by providing structure, feedback, education and support. We do this by mentally stimulating the athlete and encouraging them to be creative in finding a way to reach their goal.

In doing so, we inspire the athlete to push beyond their boundaries.


The Parent’s Role


I don’t have kids, but I can only imagine that parenting is a tough business. However, what I do know is that there is no team without you and your support.

I’ve known many parents who share the same goal – to provide a healthy opportunity for their child to grow. This goal can only be achieved through trust in each other. Trust isn’t something that is given. Trust is something that has to be developed through continual communication and a firm understanding in each other’s role and cohesive cooperation in supporting each other’s role.


With that being said, parents need to understand that it is not their role to coach their child.

It is the coaches job to coach the child. While parets may not agree on how a coach performs his or her duties, it is imperative that the parent does not intervene and cross that boundary. Doing so only results in clout and confusion for the athlete.


Parents must understand that no two kids are the same. All kids respond, react and develop differently.  Never compare your kid to another under any circumstance.Instead let the coach do their job and give your kid their independence. This will allow them to develop self-management skills and allow them to prepare for life. 


Parents must provide support by reminding their kids why they swim and encourgament through praise on how hard they work.


Developing the Child


Your child is person who swims, not a swimmer. Swimming is what they do, not who they are.

Swimming, just like any other sport, reveals character and teaches our kids to be accountable and responsible for their actions. Their approach and the decisions they make have a tremendous impact on how they progress. Learning from those decisions is something they will continue to do throughout their swimming career.  


Real progress in swimming comes not from size, strength, speed and hard training – it comes from the development of the whole person: the character, their values, their personality. 

Real progress comes from understanding the consequences of our actions and making the right steps to move forward. Our athletes will make mistakes and they will fall. What matters the most is their resilience to these circumstances. How they pick themselves back up after falling is far more important and far more enduring than how fast they swim.


Do we want our kids to be winners?  Of course! But winning is temporary and by no means is winning is everything. We want our kids to be SUCCESSFUL and to develop into mature responsible adults. We want them to understand the steps they must take to achieve their dreams. Winning is only a bonus, it is not everything.


The development of skill related components are crucial to obtain a lower heart rate and experience improved performance. However, these areas are not as important as developing integrity, sincerity, humility, or courage. These things not only impact positively on your child’s swimming but on every aspect of their life.


By developing these areas, the athlete will develop the crucial skills needed for success in life such as a strong work ethic, loyalty to their teammates, the ability to perform under pressure, etc.