July 26, 2021
Swimming fast when you're under BIG meet pressure is all about controlling your focus of concentration both before and during your races. Your mental task, concentration-wise, is to discipline yourself to keep your focus on what you're DOING and away from what you're THINKING. But let me state the obvious here: This is far easier said than done.
So how do you learn this master skill of keeping your concentration AWAY from your thoughts?
First, you have to understand that this is NOT about trying “not to think!” Trying to not think is like trying to not breathe. Good luck with that, because it's impossible! The trick is to learn to change your relationship with your “self-talk” so that when it pops up, you have a very different response to it than the majority of swimmers have.
When most swimmers hear that inner critic or “naysayer” ramping up before or during their race, they directly “engage” those thoughts because they think something is very wrong. As a result, they may believe the negativity outright; (“Yeah, I'll probably false start” or “die on the last 75”); try to completely ignore it; or fight it with “positive” thoughts, (“No, I won't false start! My starts have been great, and I've got a great training base to finish strong!”).
Unfortunately, when you engage your negative thinking in these ways, you will almost ALWAYS get nervous, lose your confidence, and worse, distract your concentration from where it needs to be, on the DOING and the FEEL of your race. The end-result of this is that you will swim poorly.
Understand that last-minute negativity is NORMAL. Even Olympic swimmers have these last-minute doubts bopping around in their heads. That inner critic of yours is just letting you know your nervous system is amping up for the race. To swim your best, you must be physiologically up for the race, and believe it or not, one sign of this happening is an increase in your thinking, even if it's negative. Just remind yourself of this the next time you notice those negative thoughts getting louder.
Instead of freaking out pre-race because of this, immediately switch your attention to your pre-race routine. Focus on your stretching, jumping up and down, slapping your arms and legs, etc., behind the blocks. Concentrate on the feeling of every movement you're making. Feel your inhale and exhale as you stretch. Use your pre-race routine as a way to distract yourself from the distractions of your thoughts. Get more interested in what you're doing pre-race than what you're thinking about. When you do this, the negativity will get “softer” in your head and lose its power.
During your race, do the same thing. Keep your concentration on the FEEL of your movement through the water, NOT any thoughts that may pop up. Focus on your turnover rate, kick, how much water you're pulling, staying long or any of those feelings that go with you going fast.
Whenever you notice yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, don't panic. Stay calm and quickly “reset,” bring your focus back to the FEEL of what you're doing, whether this is before or during the race. Learning to allow your last-minute doubts and negativity to pass by without engaging them takes patience and practice. If you work on this, you will have developed an elite-level mental skill that will help you take your racing to the next level.