More Thoughts on Controlling Your Pre-Race Jitters: Trust and Music (Coaches’ Corner August 7)

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By Sam Corea, Coach INT1.

After seeing how the Vikings family reacted under pressure at Regionals, I think it is important to give more attention towards some effective ways at managing pre-race stress.  These mixed emotions of excitement, fear, and unrest are normal and pretty typical of every swimmer. But, it is how we decide to manage and navigate through these feelings that determine your end performance.

Coach Alex’s write up on this topic was fantastic! If you haven’t read this you should go back and do so here. She talks about the stigma associated with seeing a sport physiologist and the benefits she gained from doing so. Her coaches’ corner really gets personal and has some deep insight on the matter. She goes into depth about: trusting in the process,  positive thinking, focusing on what you can control, following a race routine and learning from your mistakes.

Even though Coach Alex has already touched upon the subject, the idea of controlling one’s emotions and thoughts is such a relevant and large part of competitive sport that it can never get too much attention. I’d like to focus and expound upon the ideas of…

Trusting in the process

Freakanomics radio does a great episode entitled, Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To) ( is worth a listen. A part of the episode that resounded with me was when they talked with Jeremy Abbott, one of the best American figure skaters of his time. He was a national champion but didn’t perform to his best at the Olympics. In both 2010 and 2014, Abbott failed to medal in the individual events and now uses his own experience to help guide the next generation. His most insightful words from the interview are:

“I should have been focusing less on outcome and less on performance and more on the process and getting my job done, and accomplishing what I do every single day in training, and really taking all of that experience and all of that work and putting it to use, rather than focusing on, “What if that, what if this,” anything could happen. But whenever I skated my best, it was never focusing on a placement or a point total or pleasing somebody else. It was always just, “Okay, I’m here, and I’m going to do a job.” And that was when I always skated my best.”

Abbott’s words really struck a chord with me because they showcase how two completely different sports have the same core foundations when it comes to mental preparation.  TRUST IN YOURSELF!  Trust that you have put in the work. Trust that you’ve done enough flip turns, dives, sprints and underwater this season to be comfortable in all aspects of your race. You’ve come too far to start doubting yourself now.

I can’t even recall the amount of times I heard these types of questions, “What if I false start?” / “What if John Smith goes faster than me?” / “What if I can’t?” Try to eliminate these thoughts from your mind before you get to the pool. A good way to get these hindering thoughts clear from your system is to write down what you are worried about the night before a big race. Once you are done, give the sheet a good look over, then RIP IT UP. That is the last time those thoughts will cross your mind. We understand that you are nervous and anxious but we don’t like that you are worrying about external factors you can’t control or that you are doubting your own abilities. Trust that you are prepared enough to perform your best!

Following a race routine

Having a set race routine acts like a funnel or horse-blinders. It censors out all the extra stimuli and keeps you focused on yourself. I think it is therapeutically calming when you focus on these mundane tasks instead of constantly worrying about your race.  It is hard to give advice about this topic because every swimmer will be different. But, what I can suggest is that you find your “Goldilocks Zone”, a list of activities that is just right for you. What might be right for some might not be right for others. Your own activities could include anything within reason. I knew people who would do some pretty specific things because it helped centre themselves. One of my friends would only eat half of a PB & J sandwich (made from a specific brand of peanut butter) right after warm up and only drink Evian water 30min before their race. Weird, I know, but it worked for them! Below was my routine and how far out from my race I would preform each activity:

  • 90min – Drink Coffee + Foam Roll + Activation+ Music
  • 60min- Warm  Up
  • 30min- Put on Racing Suit + Music
  • 20min- Legs up (5min) + Visualization+ Music
  • 10min- Put On Cap and Goggles + Suit Straps Up + Music
  • 5min- Focus on breathing + Music
  • 0min- Race!

Noticing some repetition in my routine? Music plays a huge part in a lot of athletes’ pre-race routines. In 2007, the USA Track & Field banned the use of headphones and portable audio players at its official races. They created the rule “to ensure safety and to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.” Many runners protested this rule and it was later amended but the fact that a rule like this was ever created really showcases the transformative power of music.

Putting in a pair of headphones and losing yourself in a song help diverts your mind away from those self-doubting thoughts and the nagging sensations of fatigue you may be experiencing. It also promotes a state of “flow” or what some athletes refer to as “in the zone”. Music enables you to put aside all other outside distractions in order to concentrate and envision what they want to accomplish during the race. For me, the music that I listened to had to be something catchy an with a constant beat. A beat that would mimic a slightly active heart rate the a heart rate at approx 80-110 BPM. Anything with a higher beat would cause my heart to race and anything with a lower beat would cause me to be too relaxed. FIND THE RIGHT TUNES TO GET YOU GOING!

Examples songs at my preferred beat:

  • Can’t Stop – Red Hot Chili Peppers, 91 BPM
  • Who Do You Want to Be – Oingo Boingo, 104 BPM
  • Let’s Go – Matt and Kim, 110 BPM
  • Wild Child – Juliet Simms, 81BPM
  • Ain’t It Fun- Paramore, 104 BPM

Vice has done an interesting article based on this idea of using to music in order to achieve maximum performance ( They interviewed six 2016 Olympians and asked them some pretty insightful questions on how they prepare for their events. The article also gives a snapshot view into what is specific about each Olympian’s pre-race routine. This is definitely worth the read if you want more examples and ideas to incorporate into your own race routines. They give reasoning behind the music they choose which is very interesting to see how each athlete needs are different.

I’ve rambled on enough but hopefully reading this will give you more confidence on how to handle your those pesky detrimental thoughts and get yourself ready to race!

Good luck at Provincials!