The Benefits of Visualization Before Competing (Coaches’ Corner #3)

admin Coaches' Corner

By Jonathan Kraft, Group Coach, JRsMP

The most effective way to use visualization is to help you be prepared for anything on race day. The reality is that there is no distinct difference between an actual experience and an imagined one. This means that your mind cannot tell the difference between a race that you swim in-person and a race that you swim with your mind’s eye.

Just as an actor must rehearse every line and gesture of an upcoming performance, a swimmer should prepare for each scene and situation that can happen on race day.

Compare the example of Coach Rebecca and her ripped cap that ruined her race at nationals, to Michael Phelps and his goggles that filled up in the 100 Fly in the 2008 Olympics. The difference was that Michael Phelps had visualized the perfect race so many times that when something unexpected was introduced it did not affect the outcome of his race! For this reason, all swimmers should work at visualization so that adversity is merely an extra challenge not an insurmountable task.

Here are tips that will help you in your journey to perfecting your visualization:

Step 1: Be specific and detailed

In order to properly visualize the way your race day will play out, it is important to do your homework. Focus on building a complete mental picture, covering all five senses.

Imagine yourself at the starting line, surrounded by thousands of other high-strung swimmers: is it hot, is it cold, what are you wearing? When the starter sounds, envision the acceleration in your heart rate and the claustrophobic feeling as the stampede begins. By conjuring up these emotions, sights, and sounds, you can prepare yourself to remain calm, collected, and execute your race plan in a chaotic environment.

The more specific you can be with the sights, sounds, and emotions, the calmer and more confident you’ll be on race day.

Here are some important elements to consider:

  • Weather. Will the pool be cold at the meet? Will it be warm? Find out this information by looking online at average weather temperatures for the area as well as the actual forecast closer to race day.
  • Race. What event are going to race? What stroke, what distance? How are you going to swim the race? Will you put an emphasis on the first half or second half? Where will you make your move? Will there be spectators/ parents/ coaches/ friends cheering for you, helping push you? Is the race going to be long course or short course? Is it in an outdoor pool or indoor?
  • Population. Who is racing you? Are they swimmers you know, or competitors from other districts?
  • Event. Is this finals at Provincials, the prelims at Regionals, or the time trials?

Step 2: Don’t just visualize the positive – expect the unexpected

Likewise, visualize positive and negative scenarios. Let’s face it, no matter how fit you are, a race is going to hurt at some point… whether that is the first 50 of a 400 IM or the last 10m of the 100 freestyle. Imagine yourself working through those bad moments during the race, embracing the pain, but also not empowering them. This way, when they inevitably occur, you’ll know exactly what to do and be confident you can work through them.

Furthermore, visualize what you’ll do and how you will feel should something go wrong. What if your goggles fill or your cap rips or your suit rips (do you have a spare?) or you have to go the bathroom? By visualizing these scenarios, you’ll have a specific plan in place and instead of panicking, you’ll be calm, cool, and collected.

Before a big race, grab a pen and paper and write a list of the things that are not foreseeable. Here are some examples of unforeseeable events:

  • Cramps
  • Racing by yourself
  • Racing with a group
  • Wardrobe malfunction (goggles, cap, suit, etc…)
  • Fueling malfunctions (forgetting water bottle, forgetting to eat, etc.)

Step 3: Boost your self-confidence

Another advantage to visualization in training is the opportunity to boost your confidence. It’s been well documented that high confidence correlates to an increased level of performance. By visualizing yourself succeeding, you can subconsciously improve your belief in yourself and your abilities. Spend 5 minutes each night before bed standing in front of the mirror repeating specific, positive messages to yourself. The mirror helps engage the visual receptors in the brain and helps internalize the positive messages. Phrases such as “I am fit, I am fast” are great reminders of the hard work you put in every day and the reason you show up to practice.

Create your own self-affirmation phrase and spend 5 minutes repeating it to yourself. Before you know it, there won’t be a doubt in your mind you’re going to perform at the meet.

Visualization before the race
As your race draws near, if you are like most others, you get nervous. After all the hard work you’ve put in, you don’t want it to go to waste. You are afraid that all the time and hard work will not pay off. But, you can implement the visualization techniques you used in training to reduce these pre-race nerves.

Remember all your great workouts
If you find yourself getting nervous before the race, start thinking back to all the great workouts you had during your training. Think back to that great set where you were cruising to victory every effort or visualize your last successful race and begin to conjure up those same feelings of accomplishment.

Focus on what you can control
We get nervous when we don’t know the outcome of things, like when the killer is going to jump out of the shower in a scary movie or how we’re going to feel half way through the race. Visualize yourself executing your race plan, going through your activation routine, and even focusing on your breathing. By directing your thoughts to those physical and mental aspects you can control, the nerves will dissipate and you’ll increase your chances to be successful.

Visualization during the race
Swimming is tough, and racing can be even tougher when you are up against someone else who has also worked as hard as you! At some point on your way to becoming a great race or a new PB, you’re going to hurt and you’re going to have self-doubts. Letting negative thoughts creep into your mind is one of the easiest ways to derail your performance.

Stay positive with self-affirmation and self-talk as well as implementing mental cues
Before you begin the race, decide on a few easy to remember key words or phrases that will help you gain confidence and allow you to push yourself to new limits beyond what you previously thought was possible. For example, use “I am strong, I can do this” as opposed to “push through the pain, don’t give up”. The second phrase uses negative words such as “pain” and “give up”. Another option would be “Long and Strong”, giving you technical quest for when the going gets rough… either of these options are a great idea to bring comfort in the hard times of the races.

How to implement visualization:

1. Relax.

Choose a quiet dark place with no distractions, and begin by relaxing your entire body, from your head to your toes. Think of a beautiful, quiet place. This can be personal to you: a garden, the beach, or a forest, for instance. Once your mind and body are at piece, begin the visualization.

2. Set the scene.

Using your list of race scenarios, see the starting area with your mind’s eye. Feel the breeze on your skin, hear the noises of the crowd or the music in your headphones. Develop a mental picture involving all 5 senses before you begin the race.

3. Focus on emotional and physical sensations.

Feel the doubts and nerves of the starting line but use positive language to overcome them. “I AM an athlete, I CAN do this, I AM supposed to be here.” Once the starting alarm goes off and you begin the race in your mind, focus on calming and relaxing, not starting too fast and establishing a solid rhythm. Visualize the pain of the race and with your mind’s eye look at the other runners around you, tell yourself that they are experiencing the same pain that you are, but follow that up with the realization that you will be stronger and push through it better than any of them.

4. See a positive outcome.

Imagine the time that you see displayed on the giant clock as your hand drives into the touch pad, imagine the feeling of joy as all of your hard work pays off. Imagine your family and coaches congratulating you after the race.

5. Repeat.

Insert a different situation from your list of possible race details (different weather, different possible physical difficulties, etc.) and repeat the process. Make sure to visualize at least 1-2 nights each week in the month or two leading up to the big day.

Granted, no amount of mental imagery and visualization during training and racing will compensate for poor training: without attendance and hard work during practice, visualization will not help. However, if you’re already pushing your physical limits and want to take your race performances to the next level, incorporating visualization techniques into your training and racing will provide the advantage that you need to get there!