One of the all-time infuriations (I know, not a word, but kinda
rolled off the keyboard) for swimmers is not being able to manage
pressure. They work hard at practice for months on end, but
when it comes to the Big Meet, they underperform.
For this swimmer, not realizing their potential is the
worst. All that training, all that dedication, all that
commitment…For what? Wondering what could have been
and the frustration of not knowing why they were unable to perform
at their best when it matters.
The truth is this: Working hard in practice is hard
You also need to be able to swim fast under the stress of
competition. Here are three things you can start doing at
practice today to pressure-proof your valuable hard work at
Raise the stakes in practice.
One of the main reasons swimmers choke on race day is because
they are utterly unprepared for the stress they are experiencing in
the moments before they get up on the block. This is why you
need to raise the stakes in training. To make the stress of
competition less novel and scary. How can you do this in
Options are endless, but most likely you have avoided them
specifically because they make your palms sweat a little.
Here are a few ideas off the top of my head:
- Test sets
- Efforts off the blocks at the end of a hard practice
- Doing an interval, you’ve never tried before
- Suited time trials
- Betting a teammate $20 who is going to do the main set better
- Doing a timed 100m off the blocks while the whole team watches
Even mild forms of stress in practice can
help prepare you for the high levels of stress
in competition. You don’t need to make
practice exactly like a swim meet to
pressure-proof your swim meets. And you don’t need to
make every day a “sweaty palms” workout. But you
should do it regularly.
Reframe the pre-race nerves with affirmations
“I get just as nervous behind the blocks at the Olympics
as I did at my first competitions as a five-year old. I take deep
breaths and give myself positive affirmations all the way until my
races are over,” says Jessica Hardy, an Olympic gold and
bronze medalist. Every swimmer experiences the
nerves, the churning belly, the constant urge to pee on race
day. The key is to frame the nerves as excitement, not
something to be feared or squashed or suppressed.
Each day, in the pages of your training journal, write out a
couple of affirmations reminding yourself that competition is fun
and that pre-race nerves are excitement.
- “I enjoy seeing what I can do when I step up on the
- “Competition brings out the best in me.”
- “I love swimming against faster swimmers because it gives
me a chance to see how fast I can go.”
- “Butterflies in my stomach mean that I am ready to
You get the idea.
Choking is often a result of simply misinterpreting what you are
feeling in those arm-swinging and goggle-checking final minutes
before you race. Make the mental habit of framing the nerves
as a performance-booster. And daily affirmations are a great
way to build this habit.
Everything is a challenge
When we are approaching a tough situation, whether it’s a
2k for time at practice or a finals session at the biggest meet of
the year, the way we frame what we are feeling is the
key to unlocking our potential.
We are better equipped to manage stress and anxiety and
uncertainty when we take the view that it’s
a challenge, not a threat. Studies with
athletes have shown that when we view things as a challenge,
cognitive functioning improves, our lungs take in more air, and
anaerobic power goes up.
A challenge-based mindset helps us see things
clearly and primes our body to rock and roll.
But when we view things as a threat, we tense up, we focus on
non-essential cues (“Why did my competitor go so
fast?”), and our breathing becomes shallow. Not an
ideal state to be in when we want to swim our best.
Start adopting a Challenge Mindset in practice today.
- “This test set is an opportunity to see what I can do in
- “This morning practice after five hours of sleep is a
chance to see how fast I can swim on a night of bad sleep.”
Doing this in practice will help you approach the uncertainty
and stress of competition with a challenge mindset as well.
- “This race is going to be tight, but I’m curious to
see how fast I can go!”
When we view tough things as challenges, the fear and the
choking lessen. Ultimately, competition
is supposed to be fun. A moment to watch
our hard work pay off.