By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Monday, October 30, 2017
Every Monday on USASwimming.org and in each issue of Splash Magazine, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question you’d like answered, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For at least a year, I have been struggling to perform well at my meets. My swims at practice are great, but when I try and perform at a meet, I never feel as fast as I do in practice. For example, over the summer I swam at a meet that we tapered for. I was very prepared and ended up dropping a couple tenths in my 100 free, going a best time. The next day at practice we were given a choice of a hard practice or an easy recovery practice. I chose the hard one. At the end of practice my coach said we were going to do a timed 100 free. So we went in heats and swam our 100 free. I ended up going 2 tenths off of my best time I had just gone the day before. I just can't figure out how to unleash my full potential in my races. At the end of a timed sprint or a long set at practice I will do amazing, and nothing can stop me from swimming my hardest. However, at a meet I just can't do this, and I don't know why. What can I do to improve my races?
-Struggling To Perform
Hey Struggling to Perform,
You’re not alone. Many swimmers swim as fast in practice as they do at meets; some swimmers actually swim faster in practice than at swim meets. Understanding why this happens is a mystery: Why would a swimmer perform faster in practice — tired, at the end of the day, when there’s nothing on the line — instead of at a swim meet? It’s difficult to understand, but there are a few things you can do to perform better at meets:
First, when you’re at a swim meet, mimic your practice routine. Eat the same meals. Warm-up the same way. At swim meets, many swimmers don’t warm-up thoroughly enough. At practice, swimmers have hours to warm-up, build up endorphins, loosen muscles, and prepare to swim fast. By the end of practice, swimmers are loose, extremely “warmed-up,” and ready to sprint. On the other hand, at meets, many swimmers get cold, tight, and aren’t ready to swim fast. (Think about all those crowded swim meets, when it’s impossible to swim a length across the pool without slamming into someone’s feet.) Mimic your practice routine as much as possible — nutrition, stretching, warm-up, sleep routine, and everything else.
Second, let go of your expectation to go fast. This goes against typical coaching philosophy of “visioning” yourself to go fast and “expecting” to perform. Increasing expectations has never worked for me. Whenever I wanted to go fast, I never did: My best times were sometimes the week after my championship meet, or like you, sometimes in practice. Only when I learned to let go of my own expectations — only when I learned how to harness that practice mentality — did I learn how to perform when I wanted to.
Think about it: You’re at a swim meet, and you’ve spent nine months envisioning yourself winning the race. On the second length, three other swimmers zoom ahead of you. You think, “I’m losing. I need to speed up. I’m not performing as fast as I should be.” You tighten up. You feel pain. Your body hurts. And you swim poorly. Letting go of those “I’m going to win” expectations can help you mid-race; letting go can help you stay focused and stay in the moment.
Finally, if and when you do swim fast at practice, don’t beat yourself up about it. I think we often think there’s something wrong with us if we swim fast at practice. “Well, if I swim this fast at practice, how come I can’t do this at a meet?” This is the wrong mentality. Instead of self-penalizing thoughts, self-celebrate. Think: “Whoa! I swam fast at practice today! I’m doing everything right.”
Focus on what you’re doing right rather than what you’re doing wrong.
It’s a shift in perspective. But over time, self-defeatist talk can really hurt. Be your own fan. Be your own cheerleader. Be proud that you can swim fast in practice; be proud that you can step up and perform. The more you celebrate your own swimming and attitude, the better off you’ll be, overall — at practice, or at meets.
I hope this helps.