The inevitable swim. Last time you checked, triathlons were not a contact sport. Or are they? The mass start of the open water swim has you in a panic because you fear that you’re going to get kicked, punched and your goggles might get pulled off. You worry that you might not be able to sight adequately enough to keep you swimming in a straight line. Your friends have freaked you out about overheating in a wetsuit or even worse, they’ve told you about how the neck on their wetsuit feels like it’s choking them. You’ve heard rumors that the water is rough and choppy for your event or that sun was blinding and caused limited visibility. Maybe this is your first triathlon and you’ve decided that a pool swim is best for your race debut. You get to the deck and you’re overwhelmed with panic because every lane in the pool is jam packed with chaos and it doesn’t look like there’s anywhere to swim. From beginners to experienced athletes it’s no doubt that the swim section of a triathlon is a source of great anxiety for many triathletes. Whether you are racing in open water or in a pool, here are a few tips to help you better regulate your arousal and gain control of your anxiety.
You spend countless hours training physically for competition, how much time are you spending preparing for the mental and emotional aspects of competition? In order to have control over your anxiety, you need to understand the root of your anxiety. Start by tracking your arousal levels during your trainings and competitions. Write down your physical, mental, and emotional states for both your best and your worst performances. How did you feel before, during, and after? When are you most calm? When are you most anxious? What triggered your anxiety? Once you have a better idea what is triggering your anxiety, you can better prepare for high anxiety situations that will lead to more control over your arousal leading you to optimal race performance.
Use Imagery to Build Your Confidence.
In order for imagery to be successful to relieve stress or anxiety, it is important to relax. Find a quiet place where you can be alone to think about your best swim performance. Re-create it as vividly in your mind as possible, using all five senses. What do you see as you walk up to the pool, or as you stand on the beach with the open water challenge in front of you? What can you smell? Is the water warm or cold? What can you hear around you? What does your body feel like as you cut through the water? Imagine what you will think and feel as you turn your head out of the water to breathe. How do your muscles feel? Are you tense? Make this imagery realistic, so much so that you imagine swimming each lap in real time. If it takes you 45 seconds to swim one lap, try to spend 45 seconds re-creating that lap in your mind. Feel every movement as if it were actually occurring. Imagine yourself being in control of every movement. Your technique is perfect. You are breathing on cue. If you are imagining yourself in a pool, imagine your turn before the wall perfectly executed. If you are imagining yourself in an open water race, imagine yourself feeling confident and strong as you run into the water and as you swim through it.
What are you focused on while swimming? Are you thinking about your technique? Are you concentrating on your breathing? Is your focus positive or negative? While you are training and using imagery to re-create your swim, think about something positive that relates to swimming. Don’t allow negative thoughts to get in your way. Replace any negative thoughts with positive thoughts. For example, if you are thinking, “I never do well swimming in competitions”… replace that thought with, “In this competition, I am going to swim the best I can”. When you are in the water (in practice and competitions), use a cue word to help you block negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. Cue words are helpful to elicit either a motivational or emotional response. For example, if during a triathlon your goggles get pulled off by another swimmer passing you, instead of getting frustrated and thinking about how you are going to avenge yourself, or about the amount of time you lost, use a focus word (e.g., wall… Get to the wall, put your goggles on and start again). This will help you focus, collect yourself, and start again. If you are feeling nervous before the swim starts think about your breathing. Use the word “breathe” to remind you to breathe and relax. Focus on you, your swim, your technique, your breath, and your goals. Focus on what you can control.
Control the Controllable.
There are many factors in every triathlon that cannot be controlled. Recognizing what you can and cannot control is an important part of regulating your arousal. You cannot control the environment you are competing in. However, you can control your thoughts, and your emotions. If you are in the pool and another passing competitor passing you punches you in the face, what can you do about it? You can plan how you are going to get back at them, but in the end this is mental and physical energy wasted on something that was most likely an accident. Use your cue words to get you re-focused and back on track. You can’t control the other swimmers in the water; you can control your thoughts. You can’t control the water itself, especially if you are in an open water race, but you can control your emotions, your reactions, and possibly the outcome of your own best race.
The swim portion of any triathlon doesn’t need to be a source of anxiety for you. Prepare yourself mentally by understanding why you feel anxious before your swim. Use imagery to help build your confidence. Block negative thoughts and replace with positive self-talk and cue words to get you back on track. Let go of what you can’t control, and choose to focus on what you can control. Go swim. Have Fun!
Colleen Sager, M.S. is the owner and founder of Mind Games Pro Performance Consulting and current Bolton Endurance Sports Training (BEST) staff Sports Psychology Consultant. While working towards her B.S. in Psychology at New Mexico State University (NMSU), she spent her spare time racing throughout New Mexico and Arizona for NMSU’s cycling team. Training her mind for athletics never occurred to her until her first 100-mile bike ride with her father, when she crashed mentally 60 miles in. When she returned to school after this particular ride, she researched Sport Psychology and immediately knew this was something she wanted to study. After earning her degree, Colleen attended Ithaca College where she studied Sport Psychology under one of the nation’s top sport psychology consultants – Greg Shelley.
Colleen can be reached at email@example.com.