As someone who works with swimmers all over the country on a weekly basis, one of the most common reasons why a client comes to me, by far, is the following:
“Will, I’m able to swim really awesome in training, but as soon as I go to race in my meets, I get so nervous, anxious, and stressed out before my races that it’s affecting my ability to swim my best and I’m a completely different swimmer. What do I do?”
Well, today, I’m going to show you how you can eliminate feelings of nervousness, anxiousness, and stress before your races. But, before we can understand how to eliminate something like nervousness, we have to start by asking an important question: Where does nervousness come from?
Nervousness has to come from a source of some kind. It has to come from something. Nervousness isn’t just an automatic. For example, let’s say you’re going to race the 100 Fly in training. Would you feel nervous going to race the 100 Fly in training? I doubt it. However, as soon as you get into a meet to race the 100 Fly, what happens? All of a sudden, you’re nervous. Even though you’re doing literally the exact same 100 Fly you did in training without feeling any nervousness, you now for some reason feel nervous doing it in a meet. Why? What’s the only thing that changes between doing the 100 Fly in training compared to doing it in a meet? Where does the nervousness come from? It’s simple:
You’re not nervous at training because there is no result that’s on the line. However, when you go to race at the meet, there’s now a result that’s on the line. And, since you can’t be 100% certain of what the outcome is going to be, you subconsciously fear not getting the outcome you want. The potentiality of not getting the outcome you want produces a feeling of fear and doubt, and it’s that fear and doubt that makes you feel nervous, anxious, and stressed.
If I had a crystal ball, and inside that crystal ball I could show you that you were absolutely 100% guaranteed to get a PB in the 100 Fly before you race, would you feel nervous before that race? You wouldn’t feel nervous at all, right? Why? It’s because you’re 100% certain of what the outcome is going to be. Because you know what the result is going to be, the uncertainty gets removed, the fear and doubt dissipate, and as a consequence, the nervousness, anxiousness, and stress vanish as well.
Unfortunately for both us, crystal balls don’t exist, so you can never find yourself in a situation where the time of your race is going to be 100% certain and guaranteed. However, you can still eliminate nervousness by eliminating the feelings of uncertainty, fear, and doubt that produce it. Here are some ways you can do just that:
1) Stop caring so much about the result.
I’ve talked about the importance of this concept in some of my previous articles, but it’s so vitally important and I can never state it enough: The less you care about your times, the easier they are to get. The less you dwell on the outcome, the better the outcome will be. Remember, you’re nervous before your races because you’re afraid of not getting the outcome you want. By telling yourself that you don’t care about the result or what time you get, and by not creating in your mind the need to achieve a specific outcome, you remove the uncertainty and fear of not getting a result from the equation. Once that happens, the fear and doubt are gone, the nervousness melts away, and you’re able to swim more freely because the weight of needing a result is no longer there. Caring too much about times is literally the equivalent of swimming with weights tied around your ankles. By caring less about the result, you remove those weights.
Having said that, you might ask, “But Will, if I don’t care about the result, why would I try to swim? What would I have to motivate me that would make me want to swim my hardest and try my best?” That’s a great question, and there’s a great answer. That brings us to number 2….
2) Low Expectations + High Standards
In terms of results, you have no expectations. In fact, it was the great Anthony Ervin, the 50m sprinter who won Olympic Gold in Rio in 2016 at the age of 35, who said this wonderful quote: “Having an expectation for a result is meaningless. It can only work against you.” You don’t expect to get a certain time or achieve a certain outcome. However, you set and demand a high standard from yourself. You demand absolute 100% commitment, dedication, and application from yourself in everything that you do physically and mentally. You demand from yourself that you give absolutely everything and try to swim as close to perfect as you possibly can. Instead of being motivated by the result, you’re motivated by the pride you take in the quality of your performance. You take an immense amount of pride in how you swim and you’d rather lose a race knowing you gave everything than win a race knowing you didn’t push as hard as possible. By combining low expectations in terms of results with high standards in terms of your performance, you create a deadly combination for maximum performance without nervousness or tension.
3) Simplify the occasion.
You’re about to compete in the biggest meet of the season, whether it’s a mid-season invitational, a conference championship, a sectionals qualifier, or the NCAA championships. However, in your mind, you don’t see the meet in that way. To you, it’s just another meet. It’s just you doing the same races you’ve done many times before, that you know how to do, and that you’re really good at doing. You’re not doing anything strange or foreign that you haven’t done before. You don’t allow the occasion itself to make you think you’re doing something different than what you really are. You ignore the occasion.
No matter what meet you’re swimming in, the simple fact of the matter is this: You’re swimming in pool that’s filled with chlorine water. It’s 25m up, 25m back. You’re swimming in between two ropes, in your own lane, with a little black line that runs underneath it and that has a little square block at the front it that you stand on before you jump in. Isn’t that the exact same thing you have at your home pool? Aren’t those the exact same things you have in the pool that you train in every single day back home? Aren’t you swimming the exact same event and performing the exact same physical actions that you do every single day at your home pool with ease? The problem is that many swimmers let the occasion get to them by focusing too much on the occasion itself. Never forget that, regardless of the title of the meet or what’s on the line, the pools are all the same and the events you’re doing are the events you’ve done a bajillion times before. Nothing is different. You know what to do. Don’t let the occasion itself fool you into thinking otherwise.
4) Ignore your competition.
The greatest thing about swimming is that, during your race, your opponent literally has zero ability to affect your race. They can’t jump into your lane and try to tackle you or anything. You get to be in your own lane, in your own space, and in your own zone. Who your competition is, how good or bad they are, and whether or not they’re going to outrace you is something you completely ignore because you know that your opponent is outside of your control. They’re going to do whatever they need to do, and you’re going to do what you need to do. Regardless of who your competition is, it doesn’t change how much of yourself you’re going to give in your performance and how you’re going to race.
When you get behind the block, keep your eyes off the other swimmers and don’t allow yourself to focus on the competition. You focus completely on yourself and your own performance, and by doing that, then the best result you can possibly get will happen. If that’s good enough to beat everyone else, awesome. If it’s not, you can feel satisfied in knowing that you gave everything you could and you should allow yourself to feel happy with that, regardless of the outcome. Once again, it was Anthony Ervin that said it best: “I used to be really rattled by what somebody else did, by what my competitors did. This is swimming. It’s a race. There’s nothing your competitors can do that should have an effect on you one way or the other.”
A Pre-Race Routine For Eliminating Nervousness
In closing, here’s a great pre-race routine I’ve created that you can do that will help blast away nervousness and get you into the right frame of mind to swim your best. If you feel nervousness is an issue you struggle with, do this routine before every single race in every single meet as you’re standing behind the block before your race and you want to do them in the exact order they’re laid out in.
Step #1 – Do 5-5 deep breathing exercises. Breathe in slowly for 5 seconds through your nose, and then exhale for 5 seconds slowly through your mouth. Focus on intently on each breath going in and each breath going out. Do this 2-3 times or until you feel relaxed.
Step #2 – Recite confidence phrases to yourself. Talk to yourself in a strong, powerful, and confident way, but do it with feeling. Say your confidence phrases with emotion. You have to feel them in order for them to work! “I know that I’m capable of greatness in the water. I have the strength to push past the pain. Nothing intimidates me and I’m not afraid of anything. I can overcome any challenge or obstacle I face. I can’t wait to jump in and kill it out there.”
Step #3 – While reciting your confidence phrases to yourself, smile and laugh! Allow yourself to smile, laugh, relax, enjoy the moment, and feel good doing the sport you love. I cannot state enough the importance of smiling behind the block. It makes a HUGE difference. Make sure to SMILE!
Step #4 – Stare out into your lane. Don’t look at the people next to you or the crowd watching. Focus your thoughts and get into your own zone. When you get onto the block, shut off your brain. Let your brain take control and let your training take over. Try to think as little as possible during your race until you touch the wall and the race is over.
All the best, and I’ll see you next week!