Why Do We Get Less Optimistic The Closer the Big Race Gets?

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

It’s a familiar scenario.

It’s four weeks out, and the pool is abuzz. In the last weeks of hard training, a swimmer, let’s say his name his Alex, pounds the last few reps of a near-RP set of 50’s. Feeling good, he slides out of the pool and loudly exclaims, “I am going to destroy my best times in a month!”

Despite the fact he just swam a blistering two hour workout, our young example has a pep in his step as he leaves the pool deck. Swagger in a Speedo.

Three and a half weeks later, and that same exuberance, that same confidence is beginning to get a little shaky. “I think I can,” Alex says with a slight uptick at the end when asked if he will still destroy those best times. The quick uptick at the end of his answer signifies he is searching for validation of his beliefs, where before he was upright with self-confidence. “I mean, I hope so.”

What happened here?

Alex’s training didn’t slag off; he has continued to show up every day, perform as asked, and taken care of all of the extra-curricular stuff like nutrition, rest, and keeping his home, school and personal life relatively stress-free.

Perhaps you have experienced this as well. (I know I have; and still do on occasion.) When you are at a safe distance from your big day, whether it is a meet, or even an exam or a big day on the social calendar, you are rife with optimism. Oozing with positivity you cannot wait to get your hands on that day so that you can demolish it.

But then the months turn into weeks. The weeks into days. And along with this shortening of the calendar comes a rising pessimism, a sprouting series of thoughts that being to pop up like weeds—

“Maybe I am not ready after all.”

“I wish I had more time to prepare.”

“I am not so sure I can do this.”

Research (Sweeny & Krizan, 2012) has shown that this is a common phenomenon, and that it crosses all fields and aspects of our lives, not just the way we view swimming:

  • With medical tests. Patients were much more optimistic about their test results a month away than a few moments away.
  • With school exams. Students were significantly more confidant in their odds of success a month prior compared to an hour before the exam.

In other words, these crises of confidence are not only common, but natural. Knowing that this is typical is a step in the right direction, but it still begs the question: Why does it happen in the first place?

According to Sweeny and Krizan, there are several reasons that we temper our expectations as our respective big day approaches:

1. Lowered expectations make for a bigger upswing. If you go into the meet expecting to only final, and then you end up medaling, the exceeding of expectations provides a bigger upswing in happiness/pleasure than if you go in expecting a medal, and simply meet it.

2. Expectations are a form of control. During our races the outcome often leaves our hands. We cannot control how our competition will perform, nor can we predict or control any random external influences that will affect the outcome. While we cannot control the outcome, we are still able to control the expectations.

3. You see more room for error the closer the race gets. When viewed from a distance we tend take all the things that might go wrong and sweep them under the rug. With the long view we see our goals in the abstract; in the short term however, the goal grows in detail, and with that detail we see what can go wrong.

4. Not wanting to be embarrassed. With that race coming up quickly we begin to wonder if we have taken on more than we can handle. We end up tempering our expectations in order to not look silly or mistakenly ambitious.

The next time you are closing in on a big day, and you feel the seeds of doubt and pessimism start to grow, take a few moments to label them into one of the above categories. Knowing that it is going to happen, and being aware enough to understand why you are suddenly feeling that way can be enough to help you stay focused and positive.

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HS junior
4 years ago

This is happening to me as we speak, months out from juniors I felt supremely confident. Now with two weeks left I’m starting to feel worried and not very confident.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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