Three modes of thinking to help you swim your best

As a mental performance coach, this time of the year is always my favorite time of the year. Swimmers and swim teams, from the age group level all the way through the NCAA, are getting prepared for their upcoming championship meets where they’re desperately hoping that months and months of training, hard work, and dedication will pay off and yield results. Helping swimmers get mentally prepared for such an occasion is what I love doing most, and it’s what I want to help you with today.

The sport of swimming is comprised of two different distinct set of skills – technical skills and mental skills. As a swimmer, you simply cannot succeed without both of these things working together in harmony. You can have the strongest mind in the world, but if you don’t have the physical skills to perform and execute a race well, your strength of mind will only be able take you so far. However, the reverse is also true. You can be an amazing swimmer physically and know how to execute a race perfectly, but if on race day, your mind is completely out of it, those physical skills will count for nothing as they’ll never be utilized to their fullest.

In this article, let’s talk about three modes of thinking you can take advantage of to help you get into the right frame of mind and swim your best. Let’s take a look:

1. Swim to swim great, not to avoid swimming badly.

There’s a huge difference between swimming with the desire to do well versus swimming with the desire to avoid failing. Swimming with the desire to do well is swimming from a place of confidence and enthusiasm. Swimming with the desire to avoid failing is swimming from a place of fear and doubt. Swimming isn’t something you need to fear or be nervous about. You do the sport because you love it, and it makes you happy. The championship meet is your reward for all the work you put in to your swimming up to this point. Rewards aren’t something to feel pressure or stress over. You know how to swim. You know how to start off the block, you know how to kick, you know how to stroke, and you know how to turn. You know how to execute a race. You’ve done it a million times before. Go and enjoy your reward.

2. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Can you swim well constantly focusing on and stressing over your times, your results, and the cuts you need to make? Sure, you can. Does doing that make it more difficult to swim your best? Absolutely. Is it necessary to do that in order to swim your best? Absolutely not.

One of my all-time favorite swimming quotes is from Olympic gold medalist Anthony Ervin. He once said this: “Having an expectation for a result is meaningless. It can only work against you.” I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, your results will be influenced by a million and one different things on race day, many of which are beyond your direct control. Constantly brooding and stressing over your times, results, and cuts is just going to put an enormous amount of pressure, tension, and stress on you. It’s like trying to swim with weights tied to your ankles. You want to cut that weight.

Approach each race with a “Whatever happens, happens,” way of thinking. This will go a long way towards eliminating much of the pressure, tension, and stress that comes from thinking too much about times and outcomes. Be committed. Be determined. Be passionate. Give it your all. Take your best shot. However, change your objective. Your objective isn’t to get a specific time or cut. Your objective is to execute each of your races to the absolute best of your ability and touch the wall knowing that there’s nothing more you could have given. If you can do that, not only will you give yourself the best chance possible at getting the times and cuts you want, but if you don’t, you’ll still be able to be proud of yourself for leaving it all in the pool. What more can you ask of yourself?

3. Be your own best teammate.

For me, without any shadow of a doubt, self-compassion is the most important mental attribute for any athlete; the ability to lift yourself up when you fall short, to not attack yourself when you don’t do well, and to encourage yourself when things don’t go your way. The mental aspect of swimming isn’t just about your strength of mind during a race. A large part of it is also this – Are you able to maintain a strong frame of mind after a bad race? Can you hold onto your enthusiasm, confidence, and motivation to swim after missing a cut in your first event with three more to go, without letting your mindset collapse?

Self-compassion is the best tool for doing that. Imagine if you had a teammate or best friend fall short of a PB or an important cut in one of their races. You can see the disappointment on their face. What would you say to them? Would you insult them, berate them, and tell them how awful they are? Or, would you do everything you could to lift them up, encourage them, and make them feel good about themselves? I’m willing to bet it’s the latter. If you’re willing to treat a teammate that way after a bad race, why not treat yourself the same way? Give yourself the same kind of encouragement, inspiration, and self-belief that you’re willing to give your teammates. By doing that, you’ll give yourself the best chance possible at maintaining a great mindset from race to race, especially if one of them doesn’t go the way you were hoping.

Thanks for reading, and I wish you all the best at your upcoming meets. Relax, have fun, and go enjoy the sport you love. You can do it. I’ll be rooting for you.

Will Jonathan is a mental performance coach with an extensive background working in the sport of swimming. His past & present clients include Age-Group National Champions, NCAA All-Americans, and NCAA D1 Swim Programs, as well as swimmers competing at the World Championships and in the ISL. He is the author of the mental training book “The Swimmer’s Mind: Mastering The Mental Side Of Swimming”, which can be found at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble Online, as well as at stores nationwide.

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