What Can I Do Behind the Blocks When I Suddenly Get Negative Thoughts?

One of the more upsetting, confidence-eroding events for swimmers is having to deal with the flood of last-minute negativity and doubts that frequently rear their ugly little heads when you’re behind the blocks, right before a race.

You know the drill! You’re feeling good in warm-ups and confident when you step behind the blocks. Then, just as the heat in front of you nears its finish, you suddenly start to get “serenaded” by the noise inside of your head: What if my goggles fall off? What if I die on the last 75? What if so & so beats me? What if I don’t make finals? Maybe my warm up wasn’t that good! I shouldn’t have eaten that bagel! I don’t think I got enough sleep last night! The list goes on and on.

Keep in mind that these last minute “unwanted guests” are very normal. I’ve worked with Olympic medalists who get bombarded by this negative noise right before their events!

When you’re ready to race and these negative nasties pop up, your job mentally is to calmly let these thoughts go without engaging them. What do I mean by “engaging them?” Most swimmers listen carefully to everything they think and actually believe this nervous-driven garbage. Or they try to replace these negatives with positives, like “I’ve been training well! I feel good! I can do this,” etc. Or, they fight with the negatives, trying to push them away.

Understand this: Engaging your last-minute negativity will only make you more nervous, undermine your confidence and distract you from the task at hand, which is your race! Instead, you want to train yourself to immediately switch your focus of concentration away from the thoughts to whatever you’re doing behind the blocks in that moment.

For most swimmers, the best technique you can use to distract yourself from your thoughts when you’re behind the blocks is to use your pre-race routine to keep you out of your head and in your body, focusing on the feel of your movement. For example, as you go through your stretching routine, you want to totally and completely focus on the feel of the movement as you stretch! If thoughts pop up, quickly and calmly return your focus back to the feel of your stretching. When you do this, the noise in your head will eventually quiet down and you’ll be able to remain calmer pre-race.

In addition, there are other strategies that you can use to help both distract yourself from the negativity and keep you calm. One behind-the-blocks technique that I teach swimmers is to build in the “fist squeeze” technique into your pre-race routine.

If you experience yourself getting nervous as the negative thoughts build between your ears, you can make a fist with one of your hands and bring the tension up to about 90% of your strength. As you do this, you want to be sure that you visually focus on your fist as well as keeping your concentration on the feeling of the tension in your hand. By keeping your focus in your body on the tension in your fist, you’ll be less distracted by the doubts.

Hold the tension about seven seconds and then very slowly relax the fist, making sure that all of your focus remains on the changing feeling in your hand as it relaxes. Notice the relaxation in your hand, wrist and arm and then repeat the entire process of tightening and relaxing a second time. If you have enough time before your race, repeat it an additional time or two making sure that your focus is on feeling not thinking.

You might remember me saying in previous blogs that swimming fast happens when you focus on the feel of your movement during your race. However, before your race, staying in your body, focusing on the feel of your routine will help you neutralize these last minute negative thoughts and doubts so that you remain calm and confident!

Another additional last-minute technique that you can use to neutralize the negatives is to practice “orienting” behind the blocks. What this involves is to find something in your environment that you can visually focus on and describe to yourself. This should always be something inanimate and neutral! You don’t want to orient to anything that will get you anxious! For example, I certainly wouldn’t want to “orient” to the heat sheet or to another, faster opponent. Instead, you can look at a banner on the pool wall or, if you’re outside, a cloud formation passing by and describe it to yourself in exquisite detail.  Or, you can find a mark at the back of your blocks to place your focus. Orienting is what all animals do in the wild to insure that they’re safe. They use all of their senses (sight, hearing, smell and even feel) to scan the environment for any signs of danger. You, as a swimmer, can use this same technique to distract yourself from any last minute negatives that might pop up and it will help you settle your nervous system pre-race.

Remember, your races are almost always won or last before the start so be sure to stay aware of where you put your pre-race focus and when negativity and doubts pop up. Stay calm, remind yourself that they’re normal and then immediately refocus your attention on the feel of whatever you’re doing, on orienting or using that fist squeeze technique!

by Dr. Alan Goldberg

As a Sports Performance Consultant, Dr. G works with swimmers at every level from Olympians right down to age groupers. A popular presenter at coaches clinics and clubs around the country, Dr. G specializes in helping swimmers get unstuck and swimming fast when it counts the most. Dr. G. is the author of  Swimming Fast When It Counts The MostDMTS (Developing Mentally Tough Swimmers), and his newest mental toughness training program, Swimming With The Competitive Edge.

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