by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly newsletter where he shares mental toughness tips for competitive swimmers here.
Undoubtedly you have been there. I know I have. Standing behind the blocks, adjusting my goggles, shaking my legs and arms out for what might be the thousandth time, anxious to just get in the water so that I can get the race over with.
Here’s the good news: you are not alone.
Everyone suffers from pre-race jitters and anxiety.
You see it on the highest stage of our sport, and at the most introductory levels as well.
From novice to Olympian the pre-competition freak-out is a universal experience.
That being said, there is a line that separates athletes who can use that nervous energy as fuel versus those who allow it to consume them.
Here are a few strategies for keeping calm, focused, and sensibly nervous behind the blocks the next time you get up to race:
1. Stay mentally busy.
A common problem for tapering swimmers is that all of a sudden they have a whole lot of free time on their hands, and a whole bunch of energy to go with it. This gives the athlete ample opportunity to think about their upcoming races on loop.
The nightmare scenarios play over and over in their heads. What ifs and doubt abound. Have I trained enough? I wish I hadn’t missed that week of training with illness. I don’t feel that great in the water today. And so on.
As a result, too often athletes blast through a lot of that nervous energy long before they ever get up on the blocks. The solution? Keep your mind off swimming as much as possible in the couple of weeks and hours leading up to the big race.
Fill your day with activities; reading, binge-watching movies & television, homework, cleaning, whatever it takes for you to keep your mind off competition. (The key here is to keep your noodle busy while recovering and repairing physically—a benefit of being a student-athlete is your studies will help keep your brain preoccupied.)
Staying relaxed before your race means keeping your mental state and body in the “off” position until just before you get up on the blocks.
2. Figure out what emotional state works best for you.
When you look behind the blocks at a field of 8 swimmers you will invariably see the full spectrum of emotional states; there is the emotional wreck, the calm and cool customer, the Hulk, and so on.
Find out what works best for you.
Search your performance history. Draw out the commonalities. Add your ideal emotional state to your pre-race routine. (You have a pre-race routine… right?)
Some swimmers will perform at their peak when they are jacked up on anxiety, while others will perform at their best when calm, cool and seemingly acting care-free. Engaging the Hulk might work for some people, while for others it doesn’t.
When you start to get a clearer idea of what it takes for you to perform your best, you can more reliably bring your best to competition.
Having the blueprint cuts down some of the anxiousness and replaces it with excitement (a whole lot more on that shortly).
3. Think of your races as drafts, work-in-progresses, and not a finished product.
A major cause of pre-race stress is the overwhelming pressure we put on ourselves to perform to a certain expectation. Having completed X amount of training we expect a particular result that matches it, meaning that whatever result we get will be representative of the work we did.
If we end up having a bad race all of that training was for nothing, lending an extra layer of stress, doubt, and pressure when we need it the least.
(Often this sense of burden comes from external sources, too. For example, a parent that says, “You better go best times, I spent a lot of money on this meet” can inadvertently add a layer of burden to a swimmer’s mindset.)
Instead, consider what will you learn about yourself from this weekend of racing. View your races as an opportunity to see where you stand technically, how well you can execute a race plan, and remember that your swimming is a work in progress.
Every swim is an opportunity to learn, and this swim meet or this race is no different.
4. Strive for mental calmness.
I used to compete against a death metal geek. The first time I saw him at a race he left a lot of us understandably fearful. Before warm-up he was the kid pounding his chest, doing lightning-fast push-ups, a pair of air traffic-controller sized headphones blasting death metal into his head. It was far more intense than I ever got, and as a result by the time he got up on the blocks he had a lot of us psyched out.
The first time, at least.
In subsequent years whenever we raced I knew that he’d explode off the start, and then briskly and spectacularly fade. It wasn’t that the conditioning wasn’t there, he’d simply worked himself up so much, gotten so jacked up before the race that by the time we dove in the water he’d burned through all that nervous energy.
At in-season meets, however, it was a different story. Because there wasn’t as much on the line, he was far more relaxed between races, and as a result, swam far better.
Try out different ways to stay relaxed and loose before your races and when you find something that sticks deploy it whenever you feel the nervousness and excitement becoming a little too much too handle.
5. Be process-focused.
Competition is great in a lot of respects, but for those who live by comparing themselves to other swimmers it can be hellish.
I was guilty of doing this more than I care to admit—I’d watch the swimmers in the heats before me and would end up worrying about how my swim would measure up against theirs instead of focusing on preparing myself as best as possible.
There will always be things you cannot control: how crowded warm-up is, traffic on the way to the pool, and how other swimmers perform. What you can do is prepare yourself as best as possible and go into race day with a simple process for success.
Instead of judging your swimming by way of where you are positioned within your race, concentrate on the things you need to execute in order to swim a race that will reflect the hard work you have put in:
- Crisp start, easy speed on the first 50m.
- Snap in and out of the terms.
- On the last lap give it everything I have.
And so on.
Swimmers succumb to nerves when their attention is centered on things they don’t control.
But by having a simple, clear, and controllable process for YOUR swimming, you can spend more time getting the most from yourself and less time worrying about stuff you don’t control.
6. Remember the swimmer beside you is just as freaked out.
It’s an awful feeling being a nervous wreck behind the blocks, and then looking up and down the blocks and seeing your competitors loose and in control. It’s important to remember that in spite of the calm exterior they are just as nervous as you are.
They have the same fears; of not swimming to their potential, of looking bad in front of their friends and family, of coming up short on their goals. Knowing that you are all in that nervous, bubbly soup together should be reassuring.
What you are feeling isn’t weird–it’s something you are all going through.
And as we will see next, it’s how you frame the nerves that make all of the difference.
7. Pre-Race Nerves are Actually Your Pal
Competition has a very real physiological effect on us.
The sweaty palms, the racing thoughts, the constant urge to pee, the churning belly, clammy armpits, elevated heart rate, uncertainty, and so on.
Swimmers get into trouble when they frame the nervousness as something that is wrong with them.
What follows are usually suppression techniques (trying to make the nerves go away), which have the cruel side-effect of only creating more nerves and more tension.
Next stop, Choke Town.
Remember that the nerves are there to help you out. They are trying to help you FIGHT. Instead of trying to smother the nerves, embrace them.
Literally doing something as simple as reframing your nerves from “I’m nervous!” to “I’m excited!” will help you channel the nerves for faster swimming.
In the weeks leading up to competition, either in the pages of your swimming logbook or in your journal or as part of your daily affirmations, remind yourself that racing is fun, nerves are normal, and that competing is a reward:
- “I’m excited to race and see what I do with my hard work!”
- “I love competing and seeing how fast I can go!”
- “Nerves are part of the competitive experience–let’s use them to swim fast!”
Stuff like that.
At the end of the day, pre-race nerves are your body’s way of helping you get the most from yourself on race day.
Utilize them and swim on to shinier and faster new PBs.
ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national-level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.
It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes, and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.
Ready to take your mindset to the next level?
COACHES & CLUBS: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which includes a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.
Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.
Originally published Jan 23, 2017 — Updated April 4, 2021