Managing Your First Race at Trials – Powered by BridgeAthletic

The U.S. Olympic Trials showcases unparalleled competitive energy in swimming. Every four years, our sport becomes a true spectacle to audiences beyond the global swimming community, and our strongest reminder of such hype is at Olympic Trials under the eyes of 15,000 people. But never mind the crowd—that’s not why we compete or what truly makes us nervous. Let’s turn our attention inward, to the swimmer’s mind in the moments preceding the big race, and discuss how to channel your energy in the right direction.

2 Hours Pre-Race

Whether this is your 3rd OT’s or your first does not matter; this isn’t the first time you’ve dealt with nerves and it certainly isn’t your first big competition. Begin your pre-competition warmup the way you have thousands of times. Sticking to your routine gives you something to focus on and prepares your body to perform. High-intensity meets do not demand a change in attitude. Address your nerves how you normally do—by engaging in conversation with teammates, listening to music, or whatever suits you. Hop in the pool for a regular warmup—neither cutting it short nor adding unnecessary yards—and relax before your first race. Be consistent with your hydration and stay off your legs!

Leading Up To The Race

When you enter the ready room, you do you. Don’t mind the nervous talkers or the silently intense athletes either. There is nothing left to prepare and nothing more to warm up. This waiting period makes some swimmers anxious, but you can use the time to your advantage. Let’s call it your calm, cool, and collected moment—that fraction of a second where you do something active to completely center yourself. Some athletes take a deep breath, while others close their eyes or turn their gaze inward. All it takes is a moment to check in with yourself. After this, it’s go time and you really don’t need to think about anything at all. On your walk out, channel all your energy into the physical side of your race. Have faith that the energy of the arena and your excitement will take care of the emotional side.

This doesn’t mean you have to be on autopilot either! Set aside the nerves for a moment to soak in your surroundings and truly enjoy the opportunity to compete here. In the minutes before my first race at OT’s, my coach reminded me to smile. Actually, he shouted it across the arena. It was a simple gesture that became my collecting moment and grounded me in the reality of what I was capable of achieving. It is a fleeting memory now, and all I really needed then.

Post Race Impressions

Warm down is a #1 priority, as always. The post-race temptation to rely heavily on how you felt and whether it met your expectations is very real. Instead, step into your analytical mind and assess what went well and how you can execute race techniques better, much like any other performance. This gives you something tangible to work on instead of fixating on the intangibles. The best athletes compartmentalize their races so that one performance does not drastically affect the next, whether it was successful or not. Keep yourself emotionally even by avoiding huge peaks or troughs in energy. This will allow you to reset quickly and effortlessly for your next race.


However big these moments feel at Olympic Trials, they come and go quickly. Channel those nerves into physical energy, but more importantly, allow yourself to enjoy where you are, the competition you are privileged to be a part of, and the process you went through to get this far. 

About BridgeAthletic

BridgeAthletic builds high-performance training tools for coaches and athletes who compete at the highest levels. The integrated BridgeAthletic platform leverages the power of technology to revolutionize the way coaches create, deliver, and track athlete progress. With customized, stroke-specific training programs delivered directly to their smart phone or tablet, athletes train smarter, power through plateaus, and perform better come game time.

Sport-specific BridgeAthletic strength programs for individual athletes include Swimming, Triathlon, Running, Cycling, Water Polo, Lacrosse, Soccer, Football, Baseball, Volleyball, Basketball and others. BridgeAthletic was co-founded by Michael Sharf, a UC Berkeley D1 water polo player and Nick Folker, Olympian and former UC Berkeley Strength and Conditioning Coach.

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Courtesy of BridgeAthletic, a SwimSwam partner.

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7 years ago

When concepts such as nervousness and strong emotions are emphasized over self-confidence, self-reliance, preparedness and resilience you are going to damage impressionable athletes. Why not let young athletes learn by their own experience, and especially without pre-conceived psychology notions being suggested, implied and labeled onto them as a stereotypes are applied to groups of people? These concepts can easily become internalized and lead athletes to learn to make excuses for their performances, citing nerves, anxiety etc., as reasons why they aren’t measuring-up, and over time they can end up with depression, eating disorders, addictions, etc.
Coaching, teaching, leading and learning by positive example is best, and save the mental health pathology issues for elective psychology classes in school and… Read more »