7 Tips for Managing Pre-Race Anxiety (Coaches’ Corner #13)

admin Coaches' Corner

By Sarah Mackay, Coach, INT1anxiety

With Regionals this weekend, I wanted to address a very common feeling that all swimmers experience… pre-race anxiety. Undoubtedly, you’ve 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 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.)

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. 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 (see #5).

3. Think of Your Races as Drafts, Works-in-Progress, 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.

Meaning that if we have a bad race all of that training was for nothing, lending an extra layer of stress, doubt and pressure when we need it least. (We view the performance as an indictment of our training; if it goes poorly, then all that hard work was fraudulent in a sense. If it goes well, then phew, all the hard work was worth it.)

Instead, consider what you will 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.

There will never be that “perfect” swim, just a swim where less things go wrong than the next.

4. Remember That This Meet is Just a Step in a Long Journey.

Your swimming journey is long from over. Wherever it does end up taking you, this competition won’t be the defining moment for you and your swimming. Similar to the point above, we tend to view our big championship meets as representative of all that has come before.

Wherever you are with your swimming career, this is just a step in the lifespan of your swimming career. Enjoy it for what it is, a chance to get up and race with your friends, and not as the defining moment in your swimming career.

5. Relax, Bro.

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.

6. Focus on the Things Within Your Grasp.

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 let your swimming do the comparing.

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 turns.

· On the last lap give it everything I have.

And so on. By focusing on the aspects of your swimming that you control you stay within your own lane mentally (and physically, hopefully).

7. 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.