Mental Preparation Matters: How Australia Can Reinvent Itself

Australia, still the only country where second tier swimmers can make the tabloids, continues to wallow in Rio disappointment. There are plenty of well-qualified voices conducting the autopsy. Bill Sweetenham, for one, certainly hasn’t held back (he never does).

Sweetenham, now untied to any specific country and in business for himself, makes a living off of such criticism. The coach whom Sweetenham singled out for praise, St Peters Western coach Michael Bohl, must still work within a system. He has to be more measured. 

Both men agree on one thing: the mental preparation of Australian swimmers for the Rio games wasn’t good enough. Sweetenham states that “the psychologists…got it wrong, they gave bad advice”. Bohl gave credit to swimmers like Kyle Chalmers who won gold while recognizing that “you have people that overperform and people that underperform”.

My purpose is not to argue with two extremely accomplished swimming coaches. I’m sure they could talk at length about what needs to be done. Media coverage of Sweetenham has focused heavily on criticism, perhaps because it’s far more entertaining to hear someone “tell it like it is” than offer mundane solutions. Bohl, as a coach on the staff, is naturally in a defensive position.

Bohl can only point to America and the advantages they have in this regard. While it is helpful for Australia to recognize what America did well, it can also be dangerous. Because America is so dominant in swimming, one can extrapolate that everything they did was “right”. Australia did a lot of things really well, and if they set a new standard for mental preparation, they can be stronger than ever in 2020.

Consider for a moment what percentage of sport performance you believe is “mental”. In my career I’ve heard varying estimates of 50-90%. How much time do coaches spend on physically conditioning your average Olympic medalist? 25-30 hours? How much time do coaches spend specifically working on mentally conditioning? Far less than that.

You may object to that argument in the same way another great coach, Matt Kredich does. He states (I’m paraphrasing) that the mental and physical parts of the sport are impossible to separate. He is right.

To that I say, how many coaches are structuring their practices specifically around research based psychological interventions? The swim coaching world is rife with arguments about the proper physical conditioning, and dearly missing discussion about what works for mental preparation.

Likewise, coaches should identify and direct to treatment athletes with mental illness. It is very possible that some athletes in Australia’s that suffered from “nerves” have an anxiety disorder. There are professionals well educated in treatment who can help them.

My colleagues Jeff Grace and Emily Brunemann have done tremendous work on this website to discuss mental illness, and Australia can make huge progress by leading the world in helping their athletes to get treatment.

If Australia wants to thrive in 2020, they have to do more than emulate the success of the US. They must blaze a new trail, and their leadership can do so by engaging the single greatest “room for improvement” area in sport today.

Chris DeSantis is a personal swim coach and consultant. He has an advanced degree in research backed methods for mental preparation. Like his facebook page and email him at [email protected] to book a consultation.

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7 years ago

The biggest “choke” happened in women 100FS which is maybe the only event where Australian trial was harder than US trial (Manuel/Oleksiak gold winning time would have given them only a 3rd spot in Australian trial). Campbells were certainly on top of the food chain. I’m not sure the solution is here.

7 years ago

Take out the Super Fish and the Liar and the USA will be brought back to the field in the men’s swimming team.
Aussie women will again be competitive as long as there isn’t any drug cheats to contend with. We are talking a fraction of a second between winning a gold or missing out completely. I agree with only one point in this article , Australian swimmers need to peak at exactly the right time, this has been their downfall of recent times. I am sure this will be addressed over the next 4 years, also competing in their own time zone will also be advantageous..
It’s time the USA were gracious in winning rather than preaching”… Read more »

7 years ago

Huh! Way too touchy feely and not that easy. I am not thinking the Aussies will read this and have a head slap.

Brad Cooper
Reply to  Micah
7 years ago

The author’s assertion “that it is very possible” some of Australia’s best swimmers have a mental illness seems a bit rich. Does this mean every anxious person on the verge of taking a bungee jump is likewise clinically afflicted? Of course anxiety plays into race outcomes: but the few tenths of a second separating first from fifth surely shouldn’t be used for such a glibly speculative diagnosis. In addition, it dishonours the winner by turning victory into a default achievement. In sport you honour the winner by not making excuses. Any race is an incredibly complex intersection of form, vitality, mood and preparation. Our swimmers didn’t make excuses and they have won admirers for it. That is called a grip… Read more »

7 years ago

Well the strength was there for the Women’s 100m Free at the Australian trials- it was considerably faster than the Olympic final. It was light years faster than the US trials. Third place was quicker than the Olympic Record. How was that for stress testing?
How did that go for the 2 who made the Australian Olympic team come the 100m Free final?

Reply to  Torchbearer
7 years ago

Not sure if you are replying to the original poster or to me; but even in this case I’m not sure it classified as a stress test other than the usual “get to the wall 1st or 2nd”. It was clear that the QT was never going to be an issue but rather whether C2’s injury issues would “deal her out and McKeon in” The real “stress tests” WERE the events where it was unclear whether there would be a qualifier let alone a 2nd swimmer.

7 years ago

Whilst you are correct that AUS swimmers do not race nearly enough; it is foolish to draw a parallel to US Trials. Why ??? USA is the only country who’s spread & depth allows such racing. With AUS, and any other country, the depth and spread just isn’t there.
In a couple of events, there is sufficient depth to make the competition for the 2 qualification spots “interesting”; but in others the 2 qualifiers are generally clearly apart from the field or there may be only one likely qualifier …. sometimes none at all.

There IS no “one quick fix” solution. Changing the date of Trials to something akin to US would be helpful (in that it means they… Read more »

7 years ago

The Aussies can and will do better. They need to fire the mangemeant and replace them with a new fresh set. It’s no good giving the swimmers loads of chat about performance and accountability, when it doesn’t apply to the guys at the top. Change is a good thing, so let’s see some.

About Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis

Chris DeSantis is a swim coach, writer and swimming enthusiast. Chris does private consulting and coaching with teams and individuals. You can find him at Chris is a 2009 Graduate from the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the first professional athletic coach …

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