I remember before every age group championship or big high school meet, my father and I going through a bit of a ritual. My age group coach, the amazing Ken Fittro, had then recently read about and purchased “Smoke on the Water” by Dr. Adam Goldberg. It was a set of six cassette tapes (and yes, I realize that ages me) and on the week leading up to each meet my father would have me listen to the tapes on the way to morning practice, on the way home from evening practice, and in my room as I fell asleep. We were so dedicated to the practice, that even when the tape deck on our car stopped working, we brought a boom box along and regularly stopped at the convenience store for batteries to get the air time in. Being a teenager, I honestly never put much thought into the process. I was (and likely still am) so superstitious that I literally counted and repeated every stretch leading to an event while making sure to always wear my lucky suit on the walk to the blocks over my race suit. I considered the tapes just another small part of the bigger picture, something that only mattered as a piece of a supernatural process. As I look back now as a coach and consider what the method of meditation and visualization likely did for me, I realize the true importance.
While I have studied psychology and I understand all of the science that says that the mental makes a tangible, physical difference, I won’t get into the particulars. On the subject, Dr. Goldberg is a frequent contributor to the world of swim-journalism and regularly speaks at the Olympic Training Center, so there is definitely something to it. Rather, I will offer what I have seen and experienced. Over the course of my career both as an athlete and a coach, I have found the mental side of swimming not always considered. It wasn’t until I came to Colby and Coaches Tom Burton and Kevin Makarowski featured visualization as a regular part of training that I truly appreciated a mental component to the season plan. Mental noise, internal and external pressure, and the environment can greatly determine any race’s success. So without further regaling you of stories of my tape-deck past, here are four suggestions to address your mental approach to swimming a race.
Have a process
If you have a warm-up you have done all season and a particular order of approach; don’t change it last minute. There is always a temptation to look around the pool and attempt to emulate that one fast guy at the meet or try out that warm-up that you just read some international swimming star uses last night. Don’t do it. Stay with what you are comfortable with and what your coach has recommended all season. Muscles memory and the process of getting your body activated are learned and practiced. On the same note, if you listen to the same song prior to any race and stretch the same way, stay invested in your path to success. Having a pattern and knowing your process is just one less thing to worry about.
This one is really what the top of the article touches on. Your mind, just like your body can be trained for any situation. Whether you have your own set of motivational speaking tapes, a set visualization process, or a routine of mediation, use it regularly leading up to the meet. There is something to be said for having a clear mind going into any competition and meditating is one the ways to get that done.
As far as I know, no one has invented a time machine that will allow you to go back and retroactively adjust your training. On the buildup to your race day, don’t fret the uncontrollable. Your heat and lane assignment, the temperature, and the air quality are all examples of things you can’t change, so don’t waste mental power and stress worrying about them. Similarly, remembering that you should have lifted that one Friday or that you really should have worked on that one turn technique but never got around to it will do you absolutely no good. Instead, focus yourself on all the things you have done right and the awesome things you are about to do. It is a much better use of your mental focus.
The heading is a broad topic but it entails a lot. It means not holding anything back and letting go of any reservations. It means letting go any doubts you may have as you step up to the blocks. More than anything, it means swimming your race. Let go of the environment, the guy or girl next to you, and anything else that might affect how you intend to compete. Know your plan, know what you and your coach worked on, and let everything else go. Once you are free, you are on a straight-line to having the best race possible. Hit the water and cut lose and finish the same way. Once you look at the clock, take it in, celebrate or accept, rinse, and repeat. You worked hard for this and let every chance you have to be great happen without getting in your own way. Have fun because you have earned it.