F is for Fear


BY AIMEE KIMBALL, PhD//Special Correspondent

One of the worst four-letter words in an athletes’ everyday vocabulary is “fear.ý  It is an emotion that most athletes don’t admit to, yet when experienced, is constantly influencing their behaviors. This article will focus on rational and irrational fears, how to accept them and keep them from influencing your performance.


Slaying the Big Bad Wolf

I have yet to meet an athlete who isn’t afraid of something. While a fear of spiders isn’t going to keep most athletes from performing their best, a fear of failure may. If you have a fear that is hindering you from performing your best, you have to examine the source of this fear.


Common sport-related fears are:

Letting down/disappointing others

Making a mistake

Having a bad race

Getting yelled at

Not living up to your potential

Getting hurt

Not being as good as you/others thought



If you can relate to any of these, take a deep breath, because it’s OK. It’s not all bad when you are afraid of something. It’s how you deal with it that counts.


First , write down the fears that you have and determine whether or not they are realistic. If you have an unrealistic fear, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not likely to happen. Be logical with yourself, “Come on. I’m being silly. My parents will not be disappointed in me if I have a bad race.ý


Second , if there is a level of honest concern (i.e., your coach will never put you in the event again if you mess up) then you have to accept this reality. Nine times out of 10, the more you focus on NOT messing up to avoid the reality, the more likely you are to mess up. If there is a realistic reason you are afraid to swim poorly, then focus on what you need to do to swim well, rather than what you are trying to avoid.


For example, the conversation you’d have with yourself would go something like this:


Negative You : The relay is counting on me. I can’t have a bad race or we’ll lose.


Positive You : Yes, the team does count on me, but I’m pretty good, so I’m more likely to swim well than to have a bad race. I just need to get a good start, have smooth turns, and really kick strong. I’ve done it in practice. I can do it now.



Third , have a routine.  When athletes don’t have something they do consistently, there is a greater chance that something is going to feel off or that uncertainty will creep in. By having a routine that you do before every competition — a routine that does not change depending on how your last meet went — you provide yourself with a level of comfort. That is, when you always put your goggles on first or you listen to “Eye of the Tigerý right before you take the block, you feel more in control of your mind and body, the experience feels more familiar, and you will be calmer—all things necessary in keeping those worries at bay.


Swim Your Best Race

When favored to win, athletes who are not mentally tough fear losing and compete that way. They are tentative and don’t do their best. When expected to lose, athletes often do better because they are focusing on causing an upset or because they are more relaxed since they have nothing to lose. If you find you fit into either category, remember who you swim should not determine how you swim. When you swim well against good opponents, you can swim well against lesser opponents. The mindset you have when you swim your best should be the mindset you have against every opponent.


Swim to Win

Fear of the unknown comes because we’re thinking ahead. Stay in the moment and don’t worry so much about negative outcomes. You are out there to do your best, so swim like it. If you swim to win, your focus is on swimming your best and making the most of each stroke. If you’re swimming not to lose, you’re thinking of swimming poorly and the “what-ifsý often get the better of you. Thoughts of losing lead to anxiety, thoughts of swimming well lead to confidence. Which mindset would you rather have?


Choose to be a warrior, not a worrier.


Make it Great!