By Will Jonathan//Contributor | Monday, August 20, 2018
“What separated me from everyone else throughout my career was my mental game. It was everything between my ears.”
Ultimately, without doubt, the mental side of the sport of swimming is the difference maker. The fact is, you train as much as you want, you can receive world-class training, you can go hard in the gym, you can eat a pristine diet, you can taper perfectly, and you can have the most modern, hi-tech suit in the world. However, when you show up on the day to perform, if your mind is not in the right place, none of that stuff is going to count for anything. You simply won’t be able to be your best.
Your physical performance in the pool is a direct reflection of your mental state when swimming. If you’re feeling fearful, unconfident, stressed, and tense in the water, those feelings will become manifested through your physical actions in the pool. Your stroke will be tight and tense. Your power and pace will be lacking and labored. Your body will feel heavy and slow. This means that, when you climb onto the block and jump in to compete, you need to be in the right frame of mind.
To help yourself accomplish that and perform to the maximum of your ability in your races, you want to fulfill what I like to call “The Five Performance Priorities.” These five things are the key fundamentals of the mental aspect of swimming that you want to put into practice every single time you go to swim. By doing so, you’re going to put yourself into a strong, performance mindset and give yourself the best chance possible of being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. What are the “The Five Performance Priorities?” They are as follows:
Performance Priority No. 1 - Process
When you go to perform, you don’t think about times. You don’t focus on results. You don’t brood over potential outcomes. In fact, I have a phrase I use all the time when working with my swimmers – “The less you care about the times, the easier they are to get.” And, there’s a very real reason why that’s true. The more you allow yourself to think about and focus on things like times, results, and outcomes, the more pressure, nervousness, tightness, and tension you’re going to feel, all of which all terrible for maximum performance. Instead of worrying about your times and results, you instead focus on performance and execution. You focus on swimming as close to perfect as you possibly can. You focus on putting the pieces of your race together to the best of your ability, and you allow the result to come to you as opposed to chasing after it. You don’t have any expectations, and you approach every race with a “whatever happens, happens” mentality.
Performance Priority No. 2 - Presence
When you go to perform, you’re always in the here and now, immersed in the moment that you’re in. What this means is that, from the moment you walk through the doors of the pool until you walk back out at the end of the day, that meet is the only thing that exists in your life. You’re not thinking about the meet from two weeks ago, and you’re not thinking about the meet that’s coming up two weeks later. You don’t think about what’s going on in your personal life. You fix your focus on the present moment and the meet that’s in front you. And, you do the same thing for each of your swims. When you go to swim your first event of the day, you don’t think about your second event, or third event, or the final relay. The only event that exists in your mind is the one directly in front of you. You swim that race, and then once it’s finished, you erase that swim from your mind and fix your focus firmly on your next race, and you repeat this process with each race until you’re finished. In other words, you take things one single race at a time, and you don’t allow your mind to become distracted by the past or the future.
Performance Priority No. 3 - Standards
When you go to perform, you set a high standard for yourself. What setting a high standard means is that, in everything that you do, you demand excellence from yourself. You demand your absolute best from yourself, and you don’t allow external factors or circumstances to determine how committed you are to your performance. It doesn’t matter if it’s an exhibition meet or the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if it’s a prelim or a final. It doesn’t matter if it’s a D Final or an A Final. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest person in your heat or the slowest person in your heat. And, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lot at stake or nothing stake. In everything that you do, you demand your best. You demand excellence. You don’t strive for mediocrity, and you take great pride in how you perform in the pool. That desire for personal excellence is what drives you and motivates you, and you demand it from yourself in everything that you do at all times, from how you prepare for a race to how you much effort and application you apply in the water.
Performance Priority No. 4 – Control
When you go to perform, throughout the entire day, you stay in control of your mind. You control your thoughts and emotions. You control your inner conversations and self-talk. And, most importantly, you control how you react to the challenges, obstacles, and setbacks that you will inevitably experience throughout your performance. You don’t engage in negative thoughts. If they come up, you immediately counteract them and shift them out. You always make sure to talk to yourself in a strong, positive, powerful, confident, encouraging way. When faced with a challenge, you embrace it and face it with confidence and excitement. When approached by setbacks and obstacles, you respond to them with determination and a desire to overcome them. If you have a bad race, you don’t allow that bad race to make you overly emotional and carry that bad race with you into your next event. In the end, you don't allow your mental state to be negatively impacted by what happens around you.
Performance Priority No. 5 – Enjoyment
When you go to perform, you make sure to have fun, enjoy the day, and love what you do. I know “Having fun” can be a bit of a cliché, but in my time working with swimmers and swim teams, it’s all too common to see swimmers sacrificing fun and enjoyment for the sake of needing to achieve external results. As swimming becomes more and more competitive, and as the stakes get higher and higher, swimmers all too often make the mistake of sacrificing fun and enjoyment for the sake of external achievement. Yes, winning is important in swimming. Results are important in any sport. That goes without saying. However, if you sacrifice having fun and enjoying what you do for the sake of winning, you’re not only doing it wrong, but you’re going to make it more difficult to win. The more competitive swimming becomes, and the higher the stakes become, the more important having fun and enjoying your swimming becomes, not less important. Have fun, enjoy swimming, and love the challenges of the day. You simply can’t perform to your maximum if you don’t.
You work incredibly hard day in and day out. You put both your mind and your body through an unbelievable amount of physical and mental pain. Don’t waste all of that hard work by neglecting the mental aspect of swimming. Start putting these performance priorities into practice, and you’ll give yourself every opportunity of being the best version on yourself that you can possibly be on meet day.
Thanks for reading, and all the best!