Courtesy of Annie Grevers
I know this sounds like advice from Mr. Rogers, but it’s more than a warm and fuzzy thought. Psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas assigned participants in their study to various stressful activities and asked some to “grin and bear it.”
“Participants who were instructed to smile, and in particular those whose faces expressed genuine or Duchenne smiles, had lower heart rates after recovery from the stress activities than the ones who held their faces in neutral expressions.” –Medical News Today
I’ve found this to be of utmost importance when standing behind the blocks, imagining spectators might actually feel the quaking beat of my heart. Somehow, someway contort your face into a smile before your next race. Your heart will thank you. Your parents will like it too.
2. Visualize. Visualize. Visualize.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
– Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (1926)
The more you envision every stroke of your dream race, the more likely it is to feel like home. By the time you get to your big meet, you should have swam those perfect strokes so many times in your head that you feel like you’re watching the final edit of your feature film when you dive in for the big race. Visualize everything: Being nervous before the race. The dreaded ready room. The confident swagger you will have walking out to your block. The huge smile you will make, even though every muscle in your face is fighting it. Taking your mark. Doing your thing. And do not forget the celebration!
If you are not psychologically ready to win, then you are relying on a fluke to get you gold. It’s not arrogant to mentally plan on winning. If that is your goal, cozy up with it. It took me three years of NCAAs to get comfortable with the idea of myself winning individually. Before my senior year, I visualized myself doing fist pumps and celebrating with my teammates. When the big race came, my smile came naturally and so did every stroke of my race and every fist pump of my victory dance. The only surprise took place after my race, when my teammates flooded the pool deck with hugs and tears of joy.
3. Formulate a Routine
Matt Grevers, Olympic champ (who happens to be my husband, featured image above), was the brains behind this nerve shaker. Watch Matt before any race and he will do the same stretches in the same order. Then he will pull his goggles over his eyes as his name is announced, donning a filter that sees only his lane and his perfect race. No matter what chaos ensued prior to walking out to the blocks, Matt takes comfort in his routine. We’ve all seen Phelps’ routine. The ol’ hug-and-slap-yourself trademark. He’s done it forever and who knows, maybe he would not be the most decorated Olympian in history without the comfort of that manly self-hug.
4. Cultivate A Healthy Perspective
Before my swims in high school I would conjure up a bellyful of nerves and casually stand by the nearest trashcan. I thought those butterflies trying to escape my stomach were all necessary flutters. Without them, I was afraid I did not care enough. Wrong. Before and during your high school years, swimming consumes you. If you move on to swim in college, you may gain some perspective, but swimming and thoughts of swimming will probably still eat up disproportionate amounts of your consciousness. It was not until I looked at swimming as a fun part of my life, rather than what my life hung upon, that I was able to enjoy racing as an exhibition of talent. It’s nothing to fear, only an opportunity to showcase where thoughtful, hard work can take you.
5. Keep Good Company
I see a lot of swimmers linger in an isolated corner, with huge headphones framing their stone-cold warrior faces before racing. If this works for you, keep at it! But if you have tried that method and feel like your stomach twists tighter with every note of the song you were counting on to activate your terminator mode, you’re not alone. Laughing and stretching with teammates eventually became my go-to. I learned who gave off positive vibrations and tried to keep myself in their happy aura. I once watched Megan Romano look at Allison Schmitt and laugh as she took her mark in the 100 back…at Nationals. And she still swam fast. Probably not recommended for all, but I loved it. Swimmers are fine stock. Just the sort to calm your nerves and remind you it’s possible to keep the mood light and still have the eye of the tiger when the long whistle sounds.