Mike's Mailbag: Tricks to Manage Pre-Championship Nervousness

Mike's Mailbag: Tricks to Manage Pre-Championship Nervousness

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike,

My state meet is coming up and I can't seem to get over my nerves. I have a ton of pressure on me to get state champion, but I am just so nervous. Is this normal? What could I do to settle my nerves?


Nervous Swimmer



Hey Nervous Swimmer,

Before every single big meet, I’d get so nervous, I’d lose sleep, wouldn’t eat, get cranky, feel on-edge, anxious, and swear there were tiny little squirrels living inside my stomach. The worst part? I knew it would happen. I could predict when those little squirrels would begin running around: Approximately four days before any championship meet.

Over the years, I realized, “Actually, this nervous feeling just means that I care about what I do.” Feeling nervous is just a feeling. It is real, but like any feeling — anger, sadness, anxiousness — just feeling nervous doesn’t mean you have to be nervous. When you feel something, it is important to acknowledge that feeling. Say hello to your feeling. Don’t resist it. Instead, look at it, understand it, and over time, you’ll learn how to live with it.

Eventually, I learned a few tricks to manage that nervous feeling. Sort of like how you learn certain tricks to deal with an annoying friend. That nervousness was like my annoying friend — always whispering into my ear about all those upcoming pressures, all those things that could go wrong before and during a race, constantly telling me I wasn’t good enough.

First, I learned to drown out that nervous feeling with the happiest music I could find. For me, I had a few rock and roll albums I listened to constantly. There’s a reason why you sometimes see Michael Phelps behind the blocks with giant headphones on. Music will help put you in a more confident mood (as long as you choose confident music).

Second, I made a habit to find a quiet place somewhere on a pool deck or in a hotel room, close my eyes, and just breathe. For five or ten minutes, I’d just breathe. I wouldn’t look at anything, I wouldn’t think about anything, except my breathe. It slowed down that annoying little nervous whisper inside my head.

Third, I made sure I cheered for my teammates. Getting outside of my head helped me with my own nerves. Cheering, encouraging, supporting — I turned that nervous energy into positive energy.

Lastly, I imagined that it wasn’t a swim meet. Instead (and I’ve written about this before) I imagined that I was participating in a scooter race. You know those scooter races you do as a little kid, where you lie down on a scooter with wheels and push yourself across a gym floor? We used to do scooter races in elementary school, and they were always a blast. I realized: Wait a second, I never got nervous for scooter races, so why am I getting nervous for a swim race? While the elements are a little different, they are, fundamentally, the same thing. You go back and forth, pushing yourself along. So, inside my head, I turned upcoming swim races into upcoming scooter races. And my nervousness just went away.

Try a few of these tricks, Nervous Swimmer. They may not solve everything, but in doing so, you may discover a few tricks of your own. Everyone is different. But what’s important is to acknowledge your feelings (so you control them instead of letting them control you), find a way to transition that nervous energy into something positive, and put swim races into perspective — they’re supposed to be fun.

Just like a scooter race.

I hope this helps.



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