Mental Toughness Toolbox: Moving Up to the Next Level Blues

Mental Toughness Toolbox: Moving Up to the Next Level Blues

By Dr. Alan Goldberg//  | Monday, October 15, 2018

In my one-on-one, mental toughness coaching practice with swimmers from around the world, I see “IT” happening to younger athletes when they age up. Overnight they go from being a “big fish in a small pond” to being a minnow among sharks. No longer are they the oldest, strongest or fastest and the transition to this next level, racing those older kids is emotionally difficult for some and quickly strips them of their confidence.

Then, I often see “IT” occurring when a swimmer changes teams and moves to a bigger, faster club. Surrounded by faster athletes, the swimmer must move from the fast lane to a slower one, and from the position of leading the lane, to a place towards the back. This doesn't do much for their confidence, either.

“IT” also happens big time when a swimmer graduates high school and excitedly moves on to the next level, swimming on their college team as a freshman. Now they feel that they have to compete with older, better conditioned swimmers as well as prove themselves to their coach!

What's the “IT” that I'm referring to here?

We could call it the “moving-up-to-the-next-level blues,” and a lot of swimmers end up caught up in its' “melody,” “singing” along! Suddenly they start struggling performance-wise and lose their mojo. Time drops don't seem to come as easily as they did in the past, and many of these swimmers mistakenly think that something is very wrong with them! If the time plateau that they may be stuck on continues, the athlete's all-important belief in themselves gets shaken. Oftentimes these “blues” are accompanied by an increase in pre-race nerves and self-doubts and a fear that they've somehow lost their ability to go fast and just maybe they won't ever be able to get it back.

So what is really going on here?

First, swimmers who struggle with these kinds of “moving up blues” need to understand that this transition to training and competing at a higher level is NORMAL, along with their increased anxiety and shaken confidence. It's part of the territory. Second, the real culprit here feeding their problem is their pre-race and during-race concentration! They have unknowingly switched their focus both before and during their races away from what they're doing and towards what others are doing. They are over-focused on how well everyone else is doing and most likely continuously comparing themselves.

If you want to sabotage your swimming, kill your motivation and undermine your confidence, then this is a great strategy: Focus on others and NOT yourself! 

If you really want to “sing” a happier song when you move up to that next level and continue to swim like your old self, then here's what you need to do:

#1 Swimming wise - NOTHING SHOULD CHANGE. Your focus in races and in practice should primarily stay on you and what you are doing! Sure, you can race your new teammates. But when you do, your main focus (a good 95%), should be on the feel of what YOU are doing and NOT on your thoughts about how well others are doing!

#2 Stay away from thinking about and evaluating yourself during practice in relation to everyone else. This will NOT help you get better and will only hurt your confidence. Simply put, lose the comparison habit. It's bad for your “swimming health.”

#3 Understand that now that you're swimming at the next level, you have a choice! You can embrace the OPPORTUNITY presented here to you by being surrounded by faster teammates OR, you can view it as a CATASTROPHE and use it to beat yourself down and kill your love of the sport!

Better swimmers are exactly what YOU need in order to get better. Embrace the right attitude and your new teammates will help you reach your dreams in the pool.


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