“During practice I am usually pretty confident. On race day though, it’s a different story. By the time my heat comes up, my nerves have rattled me so much that I just want to get the race over with.”
For the swimmer who is confident in training, confident during taper, and confident walking out onto the pool deck the morning of their big race, the sudden free-fall in confidence that happens in the minutes or hours before they race can be as infuriating as it is demoralizing.
The feeling of confusion is perhaps the worst…
We were fine yesterday…even a few hours ago…and then our self-confidence fell through the floor.
The environment and the amount of control you were experiencing.
That’s about it.
The pool size is the same. The technique and start haven’t changed. And your racing suit and brand-new goggles should have helped you swim even faster than you do in practice.
The reason we feel confident when we are at practice and even in the days leading up to a big meet is because we are in control.
We don’t have to experience the threat of competition when we are with our teammates, at our home pool, engaged in our regular daily routine.
That feeling of control dissipates when we are suddenly behind the block, and the enormity of the situation and the threat of competition blindsides us like an avalanche:
- There are the other seven swimmers in the heat, some of whom looked invincible during prelims…
- There’s the crowd in the stands…
- The expectations of our parents, coaches and teammates…
And the sudden realization that we trained all that time at the pool for this tiny, fragile little opportunity to perform our best.
This last second free-fall in self-confidence is actually quite common.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to power through and stay on track mentally and confidence-wise.
Here are some of my favs to use with swimmers:
This is the biggie! When things are getting overwhelming around you, a pre-race routine is something you are able to focus on (boxing out all the other negative thought patterns) and is controllable.
Confidence comes from knowing we are ready to perform well and that we are in control of that performance.
It starts to slip when we view our result as being in jeopardy or in doubt (because of another swimmer, or because we suddenly doubt our own preparation).
A pre-race routine gives you a series of “wins”—nail your warm-up, listen to your assigned pump-up tunes, focus on your race strategy and performance cues—that maintain and build confidence until the moment you’ve gotten up on the block, knowing you’ve done everything necessary to prepare for a fast swim.
Think of your pre-race routine as a guard rail for when the excitement and pressure of competition swirl all around you.
Visualize yourself overcoming the last-minute doubt and anxiety.
There are a ton of different reasons to incorporate visualization into your training.
It’s a mental training skill that has been shown time and again to help performance, whether it’s helping you improve your technique, rehearsing your ideal race ahead of time, or using it as a way to cope with the agony and pain of when it feels like you are swimming through cement at the end of a race.
You should be using it for those anxiety-filled moments when you start to doubt yourself, when you feel the pressure of the moment, and when you catch your attention drifting to things that don’t help you perform your best (other swimmers, people in the stands, etc).
In the weeks leading up to competition, spend 5-10 minutes per day mentally rehearsing yourself in the run-up to your event.
Feel the stress, the anxiety, the pressure. And visualize yourself staying in the moment and focusing on the tasks to help you perform.
Do this enough times, and that free-fall moment won’t catch you by surprise and knock you on your butt. You will have developed the sense of having “been here, crushed this.”
Use affirmations the week of and day of competition.
Self-affirmations are a simple and powerful way to keep your thoughts and self-talk from getting away from you under pressure.
Write out self-affirmations that are designed to help you in those stressful moments on race day.
Here are a couple examples you can use to add to your collection of self-affirmations:
- I swim fast when under pressure.
- I love racing when the pressure is on.
- I love seeing what I can do when the stands are packed
- I’m the kind of swimmer who represents when times get tough
Read them each morning when you wake up. Before you head to swim practice. Before you go to sleep. While you are on the couch watching Netflix.
Read them so often that they get hard-wired into your self-identity.
Don’t sleep on the power of changing up the way you perceive yourself.
Lastly, don’t rush things.
The natural instinct when we get stressed, or anxious, is to rush through so that we can get out of feeling that way.
It’s a natural instinct when we are under pressure and stress. We experience the physical shakies from competition stress and wanna get it over with ASAP. And make no mistake, competition is stressful.
Most of us have routines and rituals that we follow before races. Maybe it’s not as long and organized as some of our teammates or that of our idols, but there are things we do with relative consistency. A favorite breakfast. A specific meet warm-up. Songs that we like that get us fired up. We make like Michael Phelps and do a couple arm swings behind our back.
And so on.
Our little “launch list” or pre-race routine are things that we know help us perform better, but when adversity hits, or we start to feel uncomfortable or harried, we begin to rush.
We begin to panic. And when we panic, we dump the things that usually work for us simply so that we can bulldoze through the stress and anxiety that is burying us.
When things get hectic around you, slow it down.
Take a big breath.
Now, this can seem counter-intuitive: The way to better handle the mental stress from competition is to wallow in it a little longer?
The time is going to pass regardless; you can slow things down and give yourself a sense of control, or you can let yourself get carried away by the pressure and stress and skate through like Bambi on ice.
Locking in a high-performance mindset on race day
Add these suggestions to your training over the next few weeks and let me know if it helps you maintain a steadier level of self-confidence leading into race day.
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.
He’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. Including building a bullet-proof process.
Ready to take your mindset to the next level?
Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.
COACHES: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which include 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.