How to Mentally Cope with Races You Fear

One of my all-time favorite movies is the original Karate Kid. My favorite scene is near the end of the movie when Daniel Larusso is fighting against Johnny Lawrence in the finals of the All-Valley karate championship tournament. Johnny is kicking Daniel’s butt (pretty much literally) and they’re near the end of their fight. It’s at this moment when Daniel’s sensei, Mr. Miyagi, gives him a piece of advice that turns everything around:

“It’s ok to lose to the opponent. Must not lose to fear!”

There’s no shame or weakness in admitting you fear a particular race. As you know, swimming is most definitely not an easy sport. It hurts. It’s painful, both physically and mentally. And on top of that, it’s rife with a variety of challenges and obstacles that have to be overcome. All human beings have fears and insecurities, so there’s no shame in that. However, despite how difficult it may be and no matter how many challenges and obstacles you have to face in the sport, you still have to always attempt to perform your best and be the best that you can be.

Having said that, utilizing ways of coping with races you fear so that you can mitigate that fear and be your best is absolutely essential. As Mr. Miyagi said, it’s fine to lose a race. It’s not fine to not swim because you’re afraid, or to allow that fear to keep you from giving it everything you can.

To help you mitigate any fears you have towards a particular race, here are some things you can do to help you overcome them so that you can put your fears aside and swim as well as you possibly can.

  1. A) Remind yourself that what you go through in training is WAY HARDER than what you go through in any given race.

I’ve been working recently with a swimmer who has been having difficulty getting herself mentally prepared to swim races that are of a longer distance and that she knows is going to hurt more than her shorter events. She was telling me how, at a training session recently, they swam 20 100’s in a row for time. 20 100’s in a row!

I don’t care what event you’re racing – doing 20 100’s in a row for time is FAR more difficult than anything you’re going to do in a meet. We talked about how, if she’s able to get through 20 100’s in a row in training, then she’s much stronger than she gives herself credit for and that she’s more than capable of getting through a mid-distance race in a meet. So, before every difficult race, she says this to herself: “20-100’s. 20-100’s. If I can do 20-100’s, I can do this race no problem!”

Think about how hard and grueling your training sessions can be. If you can get through that and if you can handle the physical and mental pain you experience during those hard training sessions or quality sets, then you’re more than capable of handling whatever comes your way during a race in a meet. Remind yourself of that before you compete and it will help to put things into a healthy perspective and mitigate the fear you may have towards painful or exhausting races.

  1. B) Make your opponents faceless.

I’m a huge proponent of making swimming as internal of a process as possible, and the less externalized swimming is, the better off you’ll be. One of my all-time favorite swimming quotes is from Ian Thorpe, a multiple-Gold medalist and one of Australia’s greatest ever swimmers:

“When I go out to race, I’m not trying to beat opponents. I’m trying to beat what I have done, to be myself, basically.”

Another one of my all-time favorite quotes is from Anthony Ervin, the Olympic sprinter who, at the ripe old age of 35, won a Gold medal in the 50m Free at the Rio Olympics in 2016. He once said this:

“I used to be really rattled by what somebody else did; what my competitors did. This is swimming. It’s a race. There’s nothing your competitors can do that should have an effect on you one way or the other.”

It sounds a bit odd and counter-intuitive, but when going to compete, ignore the opposition. You’re in your own lane. You’re in your own space. Yes, you want to beat any opponents you have and touch the wall before anyone else, that goes without saying. However, the best way to accomplish that is to ignore your competition as much as possible. Internalize your swim. As Ian Thorpe said, the person you’re competing against is yourself, no one else. You want to attempt to beat the best version of you, not the people who are around you. By swimming from that perspective, you’re much more focused on yourself and your own performance. You’re not distracted or disjointed. Through that, your mind is in a much better player and you can swim better. As a consequence of that, you naturally end up beating others.

  1. C) Focus on the things that can go right, not just the things that can go wrong.

Genetically and biologically, we modern-day human beings are no different than the Cro-Magnon cave people from 15,000 years ago. Our brains are the same, and we still suffer from the same primal, instinctive, survival-based tendencies that they did. In other words, we still have a survival-oriented brain. This means that, any time you find yourself in a situation where you can’t be certain of what the outcome is going to be, your brain is going to automatically get you to focus on the worst-case scenario as a survival/protection mechanism.

The only problem is that we live in a modern day society where survival is hardly an issue anymore. Food can be delivered to your doorstep. Your shelter is built by others. Your clothes are made by companies and all you have to do is go and buy them. Water is cleaned, filtered, and run through pipes directly to your house. However, even though we live in a society where survival is practically a non-issue, we still have a survival-oriented brain that we have to do deal with, which means that those survival instincts still show up, even in swimming.

Do you know why you fear a race? It’s because you’re uncertain of the outcome. If you were certain of the outcome, you wouldn’t be afraid, would you? For example, let’s say I had a crystal ball, and when you looked into that crystal ball, you were able to see that you were absolutely, 100% guaranteed to get a personal best time in your next race. Would you be scared or nervous going into that race? Of course not. Why? Because you know what the outcome is going to be. The result is certain, so you know you no longer have anything to fear. And, because you know there’s nothing to fear, the fear goes away.

However, when you go to swim, guess what? You can’t be certain of the outcome. You don’t know with 100% certainty what’s going to happen. So, because your brain recognizes that the outcome isn’t certain, what does it do? It causes you to think worst-case scenario as a survival/protection mechanism. You start thinking about and focusing on everything that can go wrong – the mistakes you could make, the bad performance you could produce, or the bad time you could get.

You can fight back against this by “turning on” your brain, taking control of your thought processes, and intentionally and consciously directing your thoughts and focus towards the positives, the things that could go right instead of wrong. And, realistically, that’s what you should do, because in reality, you have a much better chance of doing well in a race than doing badly, don’t you? You train hard every week. You’ve been swimming for a long time. You know what you’re doing, and you’re not doing anything different that you haven’t done a million times before. You have a much better chance of doing well than you do poorly, and it always helps to remind yourself of that by focusing on the things you know you can do well and the great things that can happen during a race as opposed to what can go wrong.

In closing, I’d like to provide for you another one of my favorite quotes, this time from Garth Stein, the best-selling author of the book The Art of Racing in the Rain. He once said this:

“There is no dishonor in losing the race. There’s only dishonor in not racing because you’re afraid to lose.”

The feeling of fear is natural, but the acceptance and permission of fear is a choice. Utilizing methods for mitigating and dealing with those fears is the obligation of every athlete, and these methods can certainly help you to do just that.

Thanks for reading, and all the best!

About Will Jonathan

Will Jonathan is a sports mental coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of sport and peak performance to various sports programs and organizations across the country. He’s currently the official mental coach for the Florida State University Swimming & Diving team. He provides private, 1-to-1 mental coaching sessions for swimmers on location or through Skype, as well as providing talks and presentations to swim teams across the country on the mental aspects of swimming.

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About Will jonathan

Will jonathan

Will Jonathan is a sports Mental Coach from Fort Myers, Florida. His past and present clients include athletes on the PGA Tour, the Tour, Major League Baseball, the UFC, the Primera Liga, the Olympics, and the NCAA, as well as providing numerous talks and presentations on the mental aspect of …

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