The best way to deal with the pressure of a big meet is to stay relaxed before the start of your races.
Do you ever wonder why so many good swimmers seem to fall apart at the big meet? Why do they tend to go faster in practice than they do at the championships? Why is it that many race better in a relay or an off event than they do in their "best" events?
The answer is simple: pressure.
Pressure tightens swimmers' muscles, chokes off their breathing and robs them of their confidence. Big meet pressure can make a well-conditioned swimmer feel completely and totally out of shape after just 75 yards of her first race of the day! It can turn her arms into Jello and her legs into lead.
Pressure is what Olympic legend Mark Spitz was referring to when he said, "Racing is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical."
Once you learn how to handle the pressure of competition, then you will start swimming faster when it counts the most.
First, you need to learn how to relax.
The biggest secret to swimming fast when it counts the most is to keep yourself loose and calm right before that all-important event. The more relaxed you are before your race, the faster you'll go.
Unfortunately, not too many swimmers understand this. As a result, they put far too much pressure on themselves before they swim: "I've got to get my cut." "I have to beat Allison!" "I need to make finals!" "What if I lose again?" "This is my last chance to qualify."
It's pre-race thoughts such as these that will create a sense of urgency inside you, tighten you up like a drum and make it impossible for you to relax. As a result, your stroke will be shorter, your rhythm will be off and you'll probably swim slower than you're capable of doing.
The bigger the race, the more important it is for you to stay cool, calm and collected before the start. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean that you can't be excited for your swim. Pre-race butterflies are not only normal, but important. The issue is that you want your butterflies "flying in formation"-in your stomach where they belong.
Staying physically and mentally relaxed before your race will ensure that your excitement doesn't turn into tension. So, your primary goal before all of your races is to stay calm and loose. If you do this, then you're almost guaranteed to swim the way you want.
Unfortunately, far too many swimmers, coaches and parents don't focus on achieving this pre-race state of relaxation. Instead, they're more caught up in the "outcome goals" of beating someone, achieving a certain time or finishing in a desired place.
Don't get me wrong: having outcome goals is vitally important to your ultimate success in the pool. But these goals should be confined to your workouts. They'll help focus your training efforts and will serve as a valuable source of motivation. They'll enable you to push through those tough practices and "hang in there" during the down times.
Continually reminding yourself in practice why you're training and what you hope to accomplish will fuel your desire "to keep on keeping on."
However, there's a cardinal rule in swimming psychology: Never take your outcome goals with you when you're about to race!
Having these kinds of goals dancing around in your head before you race will make you too nervous to swim to your potential.
If your primary focus during competition is to stay relaxed and loose before your events, then your outcome goals will take care of themselves.
TIPS TO HELP YOU RELAX
There are numerous calming techniques to help you relax before your race. If you can master your pre-race nerves, you'll be on the right track to swimming fast under pressure.
This is the second of a two-part series.
In the first article on swimming fast under pressure ("Stay Cool," SW Sept.), you learned that the biggest secret to swimming your best when it counts the most is to be loose and relaxed before you race.
If you're too nervous before your event, your muscles will tighten, which will zap your energy, shorten your stroke and make it impossible for you to swim to your potential.
Therefore, learning how to stay cool and calm under big-meet pressure is one of the most important mental tools that you can have in your racing toolbox.
How do you develop this critical tool?
First, you need to understand two things:
* Relaxation is a skill. Like any skill, the more that you practice it, the more proficient you'll become.
* There isn't any single "right way" to relax. Relaxation is a very individual thing, and your job is to find that relaxation strategy or combination of strategies that work best for you.
Try one or more of the following calming techniques to help you begin to master your pre-race nerves:
STRETCH WITH AWARENESS
Stretching is a great calming influence. It helps you stay loose. Keep your entire focus of concentration on the muscles that you're stretching and how they feel at that moment.
FOCUS ON YOU
One sure way of raising your level of nervousness before a race is to pay too much attention to your competition. Instead, keep your focus on yourself before your events. You'll definitely stay more relaxed and will avoid the temptation of becoming intimidated.
Remind yourself of all of the work you have put into your training. Focus on your race. If your mind starts drifting and you begin to think of your competition, quickly return your focus back to YOU!
Far too many swimmers think too much about their race, times or opponents before their event. Instead, do other things before a race that will relieve you from unwanted pressure. Try talking to or joking with your friends. How about reading a book? One thought is to play video games. And you can even do your homework (uh, sorry about that)!
LISTEN TO MUSIC
Listening to your favorite music is a great way for you to keep yourself calm and in control. If it's the right kind of music for you, the tunes will not only distract you from focusing on what's stressful, but at the same time, they will keep you relaxed.
I teach many of the swimmers I work with to go to a "safe place" in their mind's eye, where they feel completely relaxed and far away. This can be a beach, a vacation spot or anywhere else. If you regularly practice visiting this special mental place at night before you go to bed, then it will be available to you on race day.
LEAVE YOUR GOALS AT HOME
Understand that bringing your outcome goals to your big meet will most often make you nervous. Instead, write your time and place goals on a piece of paper at least a week before the meet, then put that paper out of sight until after the meet is over.
DO DIAPHRAGMATIC (DEEP-BELLY) BREATHING
You cannot "freak out" if you are breathing low and slowly from your diaphragm. It is physiologically impossible!
Leam to do diaphragmatic-or deepbelly-breathing. Sit quietly, inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4, pause, then exhale through your mouth to a little faster count of 7 or 8. Focus your concentration on the rise and fall of your diaphragm as you do this.
Try practicing this at home for four minutes a day. When you're under pressure, one or two of these breaths will help you immediately "chill out."
Dr Alan Goldberg is a sports psychology consultant who works with swimmers at every level.
Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Oct 2005
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