A Simple Trick to Stop You From Freaking Out Behind the Blocks

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for swimmers by clicking here.

When we are standing behind the blocks it can be easy to succumb to the flurry of activity going on in our noggin.

From the bright lights, to the media in attendance, your family, friends and teammates in the stands, and the self-inflicted pressures that you have been rather mercilessly pounding yourself with over the course of the days and hours leading up to the big race, it can be easy to slip in a state of panic and over-thinking.

You think about that one practice where you did a rehearsal swim, and performed slower than you should have. But then you did one the day before, and it went pretty well. Your turns felt slow and clunky when you warmed up earlier. But your start felt fluid, precision-like. Your thoughts are so all over the place that you begin to feel the panic rise up in your throat.

You begin over-thinking anything and everything, and before you know it, you have primed yourself to choke in epic fashion.

The only thing worse than a poor performance in the pool is a poor performance that comes about as a result of choking. It is a hard one to take because we view it as something that should have been preventable. The end result wasn’t emblematic of the training and hard work that we invested.

The good news is that short of going into a full-blown meditative trance behind the blocks (which might actually be a good way to freak out your competitors) there are things you can do to calm those nerves while you stand behind the block.

One of them is to simply focus on a desired feeling or state.

In 2008 researchers in Australia found that athletes (well, golfers) were much less likely to choke when they focused on a single word or phrase that summarized what they wanted to accomplish. (The examples used for the golfers were “strong” and “fluid” which translate well to swimmers.)

For swimmers, we can take it a step further by having expressions for each part of our race. Starting from the time you spend behind the blocks, where your mind is racing and you need to chill out, to each stage of your race, here are some sample cues or expressions you can use:

  • Behind the blocks: Loosey-goosey!
  • For the start: Explode!
  • The first lap or two of the race: Smooth and relaxed!
  • The second to last lap: Power through!
  • Final lap: All-out!

Don’t feel like you only need to use this in only during competition. Unleash your own little mantras during tough sets to get used to using them so that it is second-nature when it comes to racey-race time.

Why Not Focus on Technique?

In past posts I have discussed focusing on your technique when you are in the middle of a tough set. It is a good way to keep your mind off of the agony that you incurring over the course of a long workout, and during training is exactly when you should be focusing on the technical elements of your swimming.

Hammering down your technique over the miles and miles of training is necessary so that when you get to competition time you can focus on how you are feeling instead of trying to make in-race technical adjustments. By the time it comes to getting up on the blocks, you will have your technique dialed in, for better or worse.

Trying to make adjustments with your technique mid-race is a recipe for disaster – you should be making those incremental improvements in training, laying down the tracks for you to fly down when rested and shaved. Messing around with your technique mid-race is akin to changing the tracks as the train is whipping down the rails.

In Summary

Next time you are standing behind the blocks and you feel yourself over-thinking things, or as though your thoughts are getting away from you, dial in on your little action statements.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below!

First published November 2015.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

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?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

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Kids should know that they can be serious/quiet before a race. Or that they they can chat with another person before a race! It doesn’t always have to be the same prepping. Sometimes I needed some space to think to myself. (Away from my parents or a teammate that was up in my business:) Other times I was laughing about something and it felt great….i know a kid that does the hood over his head everytime before a race and he might be getting tired of it…..talk to your team, man….stay sliding my friends


haha “…athletes, (well golfers)…”


Will definitely try this before my sectionals swim on Saturday! Thanks 🙂

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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