NCAA Swimmers: How to Mentally Approach the Upcoming Season

I’ve spent the past several years working with NCAA D1 swim programs, first at Florida Gulf Coast University and now at Florida State University. At the beginning of each season, when I start my first round of individual sessions with people, one of the first things I ask them is the following:

“What’s your mental approach for the upcoming season?”

Most of them, if they haven’t worked with me before, have very little to no idea what I mean by “mental approach.” It’s not something that the people surrounding them throughout their swimming careers have ever encouraged them to understand or acknowledge before. What do I mean what I talk about mental approach?

Your mental approach is your overall mindset and outlook towards swimming. It’s comprised of the things you focus on most, as well as how you structure your motivation hierarchy. And, make no mistake – the way you mentally approach your swimming is going to play an enormous role in determining whether or not you’re successful come the end of a season. Your mental approach towards swimming dictates everything from how much pressure you feel going into your meets to how you respond to the various challenges, obstacles, setbacks, and failures you experience along the way.

You and your coaches develop a plan, or approach, for how you’re going to physically produce success in the pool for an upcoming season. To go along with that, you also need to develop a plan, or approach, for how you’re going to develop the best, healthiest, most balanced mindset possible so that you can actually execute the physical side of the sport to its fullest, because without the right mindset or mental approach, none of your physical work in the pool will count for anything and all of that planning will be for naught.

So, for today, I’ll be your virtual mental coach! What we’re going to do is we’re going to go over the best way to mentally approach your upcoming NCAA season so that you can get yourself into, and stay in, the best, healthiest, most balanced mindset possible and squeeze every ounce out of your physical talent and work this season. Let’s get to work!

1) Don’t see your season as “Do or Die”.

Every season, swimmers sit down to write out their goal times for that season and the various accomplishments they’d like to see themselves, and their team, achieve. While this is all well and good, this often comes with a negative side-effect: It lures them into becoming too emotionally attached to their goals, and they lose all sense of emotional balance. Because of that, and often without realizing it, they develop a “do or die” outlook towards the season. They develop a mindset of, “I either manage to achieve the goals that I set for myself, or this season will be a total failure.”

Seeing your season as “do or die” has two really bad consequences. First, because you’ve convinced yourself that this season is “do or die”, “win or lose”, “succeed or fail”, the fear of not achieving success automatically gets introduced. Fear creates unnecessary pressure. Pressure creates stress/anxiousness/nervousness. And, those all create sub-par performances. Secondly, seeing your season as “do or die” can easily cause you to panic and emotionally overreact any time you experience a setback that places you further away from your stated desires. This, just as easily, can lead to developing harsh, destructive self-criticism and you can end up spiraling downwards into a poisonous mindset cycle you can’t get out of, completely derailing the rest of your season.

You should never see a swimming season as “do or die”. It’s not helpful, it’s not healthy, and most importantly, you don’t need to. All you need to do is this – aim to finish with no regrets. Seniors, this is important for you, especially you Seniors who have been right on the cusp of qualifying for NCAA’s but have yet to get there. Approach your season, not with a “do or die” mindset, but with this way of thinking:

“For the next 8 months, I’m going to maximize myself and demand full commitment from myself in every area of my swimming so that, come the end of the season, I can look at myself in the mirror and know that there’s nothing more I could have done to succeed. As long as I can do that, I’ll be happy with myself, no matter what happens.”

If you approach swimming in this way, you’ll feel a lot less pressure, you’ll enjoy your swimming a lot more, and your chances of succeeding will be far greater as a side-effect of that.

2) Stay focused on your own lane.

When you’re on a team, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of constantly comparing yourself to the other people around you – how your accomplishments stack up against theirs, how your times measure up to theirs, and what your swimming skills are like compared to theirs. You saw other people around you achieving success the previous season and you think to yourself, “That person didn’t deserve that” or “That should have been me, I should have been successful too.” Once you get into the nasty habit of constantly comparing yourself to others, and feeling envious/jealous of others, bad things will inevitably follow.

Your ability to have fun, enjoy swimming, and feel confident in yourself is going to be dictated by what other people are doing. You’re going to put your own happiness under the control of others. Just like with seeing your season as “do or die”, you can fall into an extremely destructive habit of self-criticism and self-derogation. And, most importantly, you’re going to sabotage your capacity to improve and get better, since your focus is going to be constantly locked in on other people instead of yourself.

What other people accomplish, or have accomplished in the past, has nothing to do with what you can accomplish. How much talent they have, what their times are, or what their skills are like compared to yours is irrelevant information that, by focusing on it, can only hurt you, not help you. Focus on your own lane. Concentrate on yourself and trust in your own process. You’re the most important person in your swimming, so why not give that person as much focus, concentration, and attention as possible? You’ll be better off for it.

3) Prioritize the championship meets.

After his final race at home as a Gator (As a proud NOLE, it pains me to use this example, but I must!), Caeleb Dressel gave an interview right after the race in front of a large home crowd. The interviewer mentioned to Caeleb that his in-season times weren’t as good as they had been in previous seasons, and asked whether or not he was concerned about that going into the SEC Championships. I thought Caeleb’s response was brilliant. With a smile on his face, he said this:

“Nobody remembers who was the fastest in-season.”

And, of course, we all know what happened at NCAA’s, despite his “poor” in-season times.

Let’s say I came to you with a deal. You have two options, but you can only pick one: Option #1 is that you will be guaranteed to get great times in all of your dual meets, but at your tapered meets, you’ll fail to get your NCAA cuts and not get any new personal best times. Option #2 is that you will be guaranteed to fall short of your personal bests in every single dual meet, but at your tapered meets, you’ll get your NCAA cuts and achieve all new personal best times.

Which deal are you going to take, like, 1000% of the time?

Too many college swimmers place too much emotional importance on their times from dual meets. While it’s obviously good, and in fact necessary, to always demand your best from yourself and try to have the best meet you possibly can every time you go to perform, the simple fact of the matter is this: The times don’t matter. It’s all training to get you prepared for the championship meets.

Unless the times you’re getting in-season are consistently extremely far off your personal bests, then the times don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. As long as you are in and around your best times fairly consistently in-season, and as long as you’re putting in the work, trusting the process, and committing yourself fully and absolutely to your training, then you can be comfortable knowing that you’re setting yourself up for a great tapered meet, regardless of what your in-season times are. Any new personal bests you get in-season are just an awesome added bonus.

Approach your dual meets with the mindset as though they were simply glorified training sessions; an opportunity to practice, work, and improve in a competitive setting where you get to have fun and work hard “training” against other teams, nothing more. This approach is hugely beneficial, for a few reasons. First, it removes all pressure and stress from dual meets. When you see them as simply nothing more than competitive, glorified training, nervousness goes out the window and being your best self becomes so much easier. Secondly, it makes coping with bad results and slower times more effortless. You won’t get emotionally wrapped up in the outcomes as much and you’ll keep yourself in a happier state of mind much more often.

As your virtual mental coach for the day, I encourage you to start memorizing and putting into practice this mental approach towards your upcoming NCAA season.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes for this coming season!

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.

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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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