Take Control of the Butterflies in your Tummy: How To Manage Pre-Race Nerves (Coaches’ Corner July 23)

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By Alexandra Kouzas, INT2 Coach.

The biggest meet of the season is upon us. We have two weeks till Regionals. This is where you need to perform. This one meet determines whether you make it to Provincials. For some, the butterflies might slowly be fluttering  in your stomach and for others, the butterflies may not have even started yet.

As a swimmer who has always struggled with the nerves associated around swim meets, I wanted to take this chance to chat a bit about my own experience with pre-race nerves and some strategies to help deal with them.

Ever since I started swimming competitively 13 years ago, I would get nervous before a race. It started off with just the butterflies in my stomach, but as I began to compete at bigger meets, it got worse. It was butterflies, constant trips to the bathroom – it even got so bad that my hands would shake!

Even worse, my nerves would start weeks before the meet, I would have terrifying dreams of my race going wrong. My nerves were constantly eating at me, consuming me. It eventually got so bad that I began to constantly underperform at swim meets, going seconds faster in practice than I would at a meet.  Underperforming in itself made me stressed. I found myself hating swim meets because of the amount of stress they caused me. No matter what advice my coach gave me, nothing was helping.

When I was 15, I decided to go see a sports psychologist. I had qualified for my first nationals and wanted to make sure I was fully prepared for the meet. I would go in every week to see him and slowly tapered it down to once a month. At the time, and especially as a teenager, I felt like there was such a stigma attached to the word “psychologist”. I didn’t tell anyone I was seeing a sports psychologist; I felt embarrassed and stupid for going to see one. Looking back now, it was probably the best thing I could’ve done, and I am so grateful that I was able to see one that helped me so much throughout the rest of my swimming career.

These were the tips I was given to help me control my nerves and think realistically about my race, so if you find yourself struggling with your own nerves before a race, try a few of these techniques to help you gain perspective both on the race and on your thoughts:

1. Trust the process:

Once you are standing behind the blocks, you have to trust that what you’ve done is enough. Even if there are practices you have missed or there are things you need to fix on your turn, now is not the time to be worrying about it. Focus on the race ahead and trust that what you have done is enough.

2. Positive thinking:

This is probably one of the most important points! As soon as you start to think you are going to lose or have a bad race, you have already set up your mind to do exactly that. STAY POSITIVE. Think about how ready you are to race, get yourself excited, do whatever you need to keep yourself thinking positively! If there’s something you are really worried about, write it down and then re-write that sentence so that it is positive. Read over that positive sentence whenever you have the chance, store it on your phone or stick it on your bedroom wall, somewhere where you will see it often. You just need to keep your mindset positive, no matter what.

3. Control:

Focus on what you can control and don’t worry about the rest. There is no point stressing over the “what if’s”. Things often happen in races that we can’t control such as a cap or goggles falling off, missing the wall on a turn, or hitting the lane rope. We may not be able to control this but we can make sure we are prepared for how to deal with it if it were to happen. Making sure we have a good pair of goggles that we have practiced diving with multiple times before the race, and that if our cap or goggles do come off, that we don’t touch them so as not to get disqualified. If we miss the wall, making sure we go back and push off again. These things happen to every swimmer and all we can do is learn from it and know how to react to it.

4. Race Routine:

This was a big one for me personally. Creating a routine that got me ready to race. This included making a playlist that got me pumped before my race. This playlist would only be listened to before my race. My mind needed to know that when that playlist was on, I was in the zone, awakening my muscles for the race ahead.

Before the race, I would find a spot that I could be alone, and I would imagine a place that completely relaxed me (for me this was the beach). I would then sit and tense then relax each of my muscles, starting at my feet and moving up to my neck, taking deep breathes as I moved through this routine.

Finally, as I got to marshalling, I would activate my muscles by jumping up and down and swinging my arms, visualizing the perfect race ahead.

When it was finally time for me to step onto the block, I would take one last big breath in and out. My head would be clear and my body relaxed. No worries about what could go wrong or if I had done enough training. I was ready, relaxed, and had complete clarity over what I needed to do.

5. Learn from your mistakes:

No matter how ready you are for a race, things can and will go wrong. We can be upset for a bit, but then we need to realize what we have learnt in the process, so that next time we will be even more ready for whatever is thrown at us.

In the races that I have done well, I have very rarely remembered the race itself. However, in those that go wrong, you remember every detail. We are going to miss our goal time so many more times than we are going to make it, and to me it is not failure but an opportunity to learn, grow, and be better next time.

So as we head into the final weeks before Regionals, I ask those that have butterflies roaring in their tummies to embrace them. Write down what it is that is worrying you and turn those statements into positive thoughts. Read those statements over and over again. Develop a race routine, control what you can, and trust that what you have done is enough. Go out and race hard, but most importantly, have fun. Your coaches and family are behind you and will be there no matter what. So enjoy every second of that race, and if it doesn’t go according to plan, learn from it.