Swimming With Fear: Discover How It’s Impacting You

If we had all grown up long long ago, in the earliest of human times, we would be grateful for our biological fear-response that might have saved us from the human-eating beasts lurking in the murky waters.

In today’s modern times, we do not face these same threats. However, we are still at the mercy of our fear-response when it comes time for meets and training, as it is a central aspect of who we are.

“Don’t be afraid!” … “Have no fear!”… are some of the things you’ll hear on deck at meets as swimmers hype up their teammates and coaches give their teams pre-race pep talks. Both are noble attempts at minimizing the paralyzing effects fear can have on us but neither truly penetrates the real issue: not knowing where our fear comes from, why it exists, or how to have a healthier relationship with it, let alone how to use it.

This week we dive into the three types of fear: the fear of judgment, the fear of failure, and the fear of success.

Fear of Judgment 

Fear of judgment is a universal human experience and one that is heightened in the competitive environment–the pool being no exception. Fear of judgment stems from the need to feel significant and the desire to be approved by others.

An athlete’s fear of criticism and judgment from peers, coaches, parents, or spectators can manifest as anxiety and dramatically impact their confidence and performance.

“It’s crucial for swimmers to realize that everyone, even the greatest champions, faces judgment at some point. What matters is how you respond to it. Focus on your goals, not on the opinions of others.” – Bob Bowman

Once athletes realize and accept that judgments are inevitable and remove themselves from the attachment to what others think, they are liberated to train and compete freely, without fear of judgment. This can be extremely empowering– no longer being at the mercy of how they think others think about them. It’s important to help athletes realize this.

It’s not so much about avoiding judgment but about channeling it into a source of motivation and self-improvement.

“My life was filled with terrible misfortunes…most of which never happened” –Michel de Montaigne

Most of the time, the fears and anxieties our minds create usually never even happen.

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure can manifest as self-doubt and lead to reluctance and procrastination in setting and tackling new challenges. This type of fear is closely related to the fear of judgment because each can trigger the other. “What if I don’t drop time? Then everyone will think I’m slow.”

So often in swimming we only consider our times as the metric for success and failure. The ‘If I drop time then I’m successful’ or ‘If I add time I failed’ mentality.

As soon as our athletes realize their times are purely reflections of consistent training efforts and technique habits, our athletes will begin to adopt more of a growth mindset–helping to foster swim teams of resilience and courage.

Eddie Reese emphasized the idea that failure is an integral part of the journey to success when he said, “Coaches should encourage their swimmers to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s through overcoming setbacks that athletes achieve their greatest successes.” Coaches play a pivotal role in shaping their athletes’ perspectives on failure. By fostering an environment where failure is not stigmatized but celebrated as a source of valuable lessons, coaches empower swimmers to confront their fears head-on.

An athlete’s fear doesn’t need to be a paralyzing force. It can serve as a catalyst for their best performances. Every missed goal, every lost race, and every setback can be reframed as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and ultimately excel. Swimmers who recognize this fundamental truth are better equipped to face challenges with resilience and a growth mindset.

“Failure is part of the process. I’ve lost many races and faced setbacks. But every time I failed, I learned something that made me stronger for the next challenge.” – Michael Phelps

The path to success is riddled with failures, each one a stepping stone on the journey toward your own greatness.

Fear of Success

Surprisingly, the fear of success exists as well. It can be just as daunting as the fear of failure. It’s a fear rooted in the anticipation of the added expectations, pressures, and responsibilities that come with achieving one’s goals. Even coaches may fear that their achievements will raise the bar, making it harder to meet the expectations others have of them based on their past performance and results.

Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist, said, “Success can be intimidating because it demands even more from you. But remember, success is an opportunity to inspire others and raise the standard for excellence.” Rather than being seen as a burden, it can be harnessed as a force for positive change–both a motivating force and one that serves as an example for others.

When working with our teams, “Coaches must help swimmers understand that success is a journey, not a destination. Embrace success, set new goals, and use it as a stepping stone for even greater achievements.” Bill Sweetenham reframes success as a continuous process, encouraging individuals to view each milestone as platforms to jump off of.

Help Your Athletes Identify and Overcome Fear

Knowing where athletes’ fear comes from (what type) is the first step in coaching them through it. Fear can tell us that:

  1. We need to build up our self-confidence and depend on the approval of others less
  2. We value growing, reaching our goals and performing at high levels
  3. We feel intimidated by the possibility of taking on greater responsibility or setting higher standards for ourselves and we know it is possible we may not always meet those standards

Listening to athletes share how and why they feel intimidated, fearful or what their challenges are can give us greater insight into how to better coach them as human beings, not just swim beings.

Overcoming fear is about getting to know it. Know fear = no fear. It’s about nurturing a mindset that values progress and over perfection and recognizing that fear is often a reflection of our insecurities and desires to swim (or coach) to our potential. When we peel back fear and can see what it is really trying to say we can use it as a source of inner strength.

Have a great week swimming your way to greatness.

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