Since I started coaching, I have found that over thinking plagues a lot of youth athletes. I see it all time at swim meets. More times than not, its pressure that the athlete puts on themselves. "I want to make this cut," "What if I don't make it?" What will my friends think?" What will my coach say?" "What will mom and dad say?" "Why can't I perform as well as Timmy?" "I suck at sports" ”I don’t want to race against her, she’s so fast!” etc. These are often the things that are spiraling in our athletes head
Some times pressure is caused from over bearing coaches and/or parents. Most of these coaches and parents don’t mean to be over bearing, but simply wants their child to succeed and are not sure how to help. Some times it can be caused by a swimmer that was given two totally different race strategies, one by mom or dad, and the other by their coach, and now the athlete has no idea which one to follow and is stuck asking themselves “Do I do what coach says and disobey mom and dad, or vise verse?” Either way, all these scenarios cause the athlete to think too much about their race instead of focusing on the right things.
I want to start instilling the right focus into our athletes when they go into swim meets. I want them to have the best possible experience, which is to be successful and happy. Dr Alan Goldberg, a sport psychologist who works with elite athletes, say’s that “Practice is 95% physical, while meet performance is 95% mental.” You have to do the work at practice in order to train the body, but once you get to the meet, all that work can go down the tube with out the correct perspective and mental strategies in place.
As I mentioned above, over thinking is a huge performance hinderer. Often athletes think about the “UCs,” or uncontrollables. “UCs” can consist of a swimmer’s opponent, water temperature, or anything else that they can not directly control.
Another big topic on their mind can be their goals and swimming cuts. Goals are great to set and achieve. They are great motivators for practices and give you something to work for. However, at a meet, all they do is add pressure to the athletes. Earlier in my swimming career I had a goal of breaking the minute in my 100 free. It was my last shot of the season to break the minute. I had to drop 4 seconds. I was so nervous and it took everything in me just to calm myself, and even then I still had few butterflies in my stomach. I ended up dropping 3 seconds and going a 1:01, a good swim, but the point is that the only good all that nervous energy did was tense my muscles up. When we leave the goals at the practice pool and go to meets with the perspective of, “Let’s just see how fast I can go this time,” racing becomes a lot more enjoyable and can cause the seconds to fall off personal bests.
John Leonard is one of the founders of the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA). I had the privilege of hearing him speak at the Eastern States Coaches Conference in 2008. One of the most memorable lines he quoted was “He who chases two rabbits, does not catch either.” Meaning when giving athletes pre race advice or tips, you should only give them one thing to focus. Coach John would only give his athletes one thing to focus on during their race. “Johnny, just focus on getting your hips up after every stroke of your 100 fly.” “Just do this.”” Just do that.” When a coach or parents gives the child too many things to focus on during the race they tend to over think their race and end up adding time. I have always tried to give my swimmers just one rabbit to focus on, but have caught myself in the past of giving 2 or more things to focus on during their race.
So what should our swimmers be focusing on? When the mind thinks, it thinks in linear sentences and neural activity takes place in the front part of the brain. Dr. Goldberg states that athletes should not use their thinking part of their brains at all, but should use their hind part or the part that senses feeling during their races. Athletes should keep their focus between their lane lines and should be feeling out their strokes through out their race, one stroke at a time. “Does my stroke feel like it does in practice?” What they successfully grasp this perspective they are no longer thinking about what they should be doing. They know what they are doing, because they know how it feels from practice.
When athletes just focus on that one rabbit, keep their focus inside their lane lines during their race, and there is nothing left to think about, all pressure flies out the window. With out any pressure holding them back, athletes will begin to drop more time and begin to enjoy swimming even more. Swimming becomes a lot more enjoyable and a passion for the sport begins to develop or become stronger. They will gain a perspective that racing is FUN, and that’s the way it should be.