Channel Your Pressure, Cancel Your Stress

by Jonathan Dray 0

September 04th, 2023 Lifestyle, Mental Health, Training

You hear the words ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ tossed around a lot in the pool and at meets, but is there a difference? If so, what is it and how is it impacting your performance?

The answer is yes, there is a big difference–a difference that can drastically impact your performance. Understanding pressure and stress and the delicate balance between the two can help unlock more of your performance potential in and out of the pool as a swimmer or coach.

What Diamonds Have to Do With Swimming

You’ve probably heard the saying “no pressure, no diamond”, but have you ever considered how this applies to your progress in the water or on performance on deck?

To make a diamond, intense pressure (and heat) is needed. No pressure, no diamond. In the same way, we must become familiar with and embrace mental and emotional pressure if we are to reach our fullest potential.

Just as there are many contributing factors to shaping a diamond, there’s a lot that goes into creating an atmosphere of pressure in the swimming world. Anticipation, desire to have that best-swim-of-your-life, and the thrill of high-level competition all contribute. Not to mention your coaches as they push you to perform day in and day out.

As you head to practice or your next meet, be a diamond in the making. Take on the heat and pressure your coaches and your competitors create for you. Be aware of your preparedness, the challenge in front and you and your coaches’ realistic expectations.

The Positive Power of Pressure:

Healthy pressure is a blend of:

1) Ambitious yet realistic expectations, fostering a sense of purpose and excitement without breeding anxiety

2) Challenges that stretch our limits without risking burnout or injury

3) Preparedness through physical and mental training to develop our skill in channeling our pressure into performances.

Realistic expectations provide the foundation for healthy pressure. Expectations can be both internal (self) and external (coach, parents, peers, etc). If we have high expectations for an outcome but are unprepared to do it, or the challenge is too great, stress and disappointment will ensue.

Setting realistic expectations for yourself and working with a coach to set achievable but challenging goals and creating a plan to achieve them can help alleviate potential stress.

Challenges also play a pivotal role. Swimming offers us demanding competitions and rigorous training as opportunities to push our boundaries. Each step along the way becomes a chance to learn, adapt, and build resilience. Recognizing challenges as pressure-filled opportunities and channeling your energy to conquer them can build confidence and momentum quickly.

Preparedness is the linchpin that transforms pressure into your advantage. Swimmers armed with training plans, race and training strategies, adequate recovery and mental training tools are equipped to navigate high-pressure situations. With practice, focusing on small goals over time, physical and mental preparedness skyrockets.

Here are some positive effects of pressure:

→ Enhance focus, attention, and heighten the senses

→ Helps develop performance qualities like discipline and dedication

→ Attune athletes to their technique and execute strokes with more precision, more consistently

→ Motivate us to set goals and work diligently toward achieving them

→ Shape team culture by inspiring work ethic and team principles

→ Inspire athletes to set new standards

→ Increase athlete retention

In a sport where microseconds mean the difference, healthy amounts of positive pressure, at the right time, are advantageous.

For the Coach: When To Turn On the Heat

Each athlete comes with their own unique makeup and preference for coaching style and pressure. This is where the art of coaching comes into play. Knowing your athletes and how much pressure to place on them and when is a skill that is difficult to master, but easy to practice.

Pressure can be in the form of a practice variable (interval, distance, etc), vocalizing your expectations, or throwing something like a hero-swim at them spontaneously, to name a few.

By keeping tabs on our athletes’ performances relative to the demands they’ve endured is a great way to start identifying patterns in their ability to perform under pressure. Even watching and listening to their reactions to training and racing can tell us a lot. With enough practice, we can become acutely sensitive to the best time to turn on the heat for our athletes over the course of a day, a week or a season.

The Tipping Point: When Pressure Turns to Stress

While pressure can act as a driving force, it too can be a double-edged sword. Excess pressure can easily tip the scales, transforming into stress. We can think of stress as the psychological weight experienced when the demands placed on an athlete surpass their ability to cope with them. This can quickly cascade into negative effects that impair performance on every level.

When we’re stressed, we end up cutting corners and adjusting our behavior, in unhelpful ways, to meet the demands placed on us. Our minds are always looking for a way out. This can mean shifting our focus from our form and rhythm to ‘just getting to the wall’ or ‘forcing our way through the water’, impairing our technique and only strengthening poor habits.

Additional Consequences of Stress

→ Diversion of valuable mental resources away from the focus

→ Overthinking

→ Over-analyzing technique or race

→ Physical fatigue or lethargy (decrease in endurance and strength and speed)

→ Lack of motivation

→ Self-doubt, negative self-talk

→ Poorer and slower decision-making (hesitations during starts and turns)

→ Tunnel vision racing (focus on immediate competitors rather than their race strategy)

5 Ways to Alleviate Swimmer Stress

→ Talk to your coach about your training and stress-triggers

→ Chunk down your goals into small achievable ones

→ Find that 1% improvement every day, focus on the process

→ Find non-swimming things to do, with friends, to create balance

→ Prioritize recovery time to balance training demands

Coaches: Know the Difference, Teach the Difference, Be the Difference

Stress can be a culture and performance killer. It’s contagious. It is imperative as coaches that we discern for ourselves and for our team when and where stress is present. Once we can identify the stress factors within ourselves, our athletes, or team, we have the power to make change.

It is equally important we have the pressure versus stress talk with our athletes and parents, so we’re on the same page – all working together to create an optimal learning and performing environment. It takes a village.

5 Ways to Alleviate Stress for the Coach

→ Balance training with recovery and fun activities in and out of the pool

→ Host parent meetings – listen more, talk less

→ Spend the extra minute talking to your athlete about their day

→ Prioritize organization

→ Delegate more, recruit help from staff

And make more time for you. A happy coach is a happy swimmer.

Additional Strategies for Helping Athletes Channel Pressure and Minimize Stress

The fine line between pressure and stress must be carefully managed. Recognizing the signs of stress, implementing effective coping strategies, and maintaining a healthy perspective on performance can help swimmers harness pressure while avoiding the detrimental effects too much of it can have.

Here are three additional tools:

Goal Setting – Help athletes set SMART goals

Routine Development – Help athletes develop routines that include mental or pre-race preparation, visualization, and relaxation techniques

Positive Self-Talk – Teach swimmers to replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations to boost confidence and replace doubt

May the Flow Be With You

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