Use Coping Imagery to Develop Mental Toughness and Strengthen Weaknesses

Use Coping Imagery to Develop Mental Toughness and Strengthen Weaknesses

By Alan Goldberg//  | Monday, June 3, 2019

One specialized mental skill you want to be sure you add to your mental toughness toolbox is “Coping Imagery.” Most swimmers are familiar with “Mastery Imagery,” which is used the weeks and days leading up to a meet to prepare yourself for peak performance. With this kind of mental rehearsal, you imagine yourself in as much detail as possible, performing at your highest level and reaching your goals. You “see, hear and feel” yourself going through your race, executing perfectly from your pre-race routine all the way until you touch at the race's finish.

Imagery or mental rehearsal of any kind is a valuable skill for an athlete to develop, because it programs your mind and body to perform to your potential, building self-confidence and giving the swimmer the comfortable feeling of having “been there and done that” many times before. When you repeatedly use all of your senses to vividly imagine what you want to have happen in your event, you are activating the muscles involved in your swim and the connecting nerves to fire at a sub-movement level, building a clear pathway that they can then repeat when the event actually happens.

“Coping Imagery” is a specialized form of mental rehearsal where you deliberately practice experiencing and then successfully coping with things that could go wrong for you either before and/or during your event. This form of imagery, when used correctly, is very effective in helping you turn your weaknesses into strengths. For example, let's say you consistently get far too nervous pre-race and this over-activation sabotages your swims. You would then use “Coping Imagery” to mentally practice staying calm the hours and minutes leading up to your event—from the time you get to the venue right up until you're behind the blocks engaged in your pre-race routine.

Or let's say you repeatedly allow yourself to get psyched out by other swimmers, either from your team or from opposing teams. Because you overthink about and focus on others before and during your races, you make yourself nervous, undermine your confidence and distract yourself from concentrating on the things that help you race well. You would then practice “Coping Imagery” to experience yourself staying in your own lane, focused only on yourself and staying calm and composed both before and during your event.

Or perhaps, one of your weaknesses is that you consistently get tired and die on the back half of your races. When this happens, you notice that your concentration lasers in on how much you hurt as you're flooded with negative thinking about how dead your arms and legs feel. You could use “Coping Imagery” to mentally practice experiencing yourself getting stronger as your races get longer.

Here's how “Coping Imagery” works:

#1) Before you start, you want to identify a specific problem or weakness that you want to work on that you've been struggling with, whether it's pre-race nerves, giving up when someone passes you, overthinking about outcome, breathing into your walls, etc.

#2) Jot down on a piece of paper all of the negative self-talk that usually accompanies your problem. For example, “Oh NO! I'm so nervous!” or “I can't keep up with them. They're just so much better than I am!” or “I have to get this cut! This is my last chance! What if I choke again?”

#3) Next, follow this sequence to guide your Coping Imagery sessions:

  1. Close your eyes and start with 1-2 minutes of relaxation. (Any way you relax here is fine, but an effective technique is simply to follow your breath in and out).
  2. In as much detail as possible, (seeing, hearing and feeling) imagine yourself before your specific problem starts, feeling confident and composed. (If your problem is excessive pre-race nerves, for example, then you might not be able to find this more relaxed, calmer state. If that's the case, just proceed to step #3.
  3. Imagine your problem just beginning to start. Hear the typical negative self-talk that first accompanies it, imagine feeling the physiological changes that you usually experience.
  4. Say to yourself “STOP!” “GET BACK IN CONTROL” “REFOCUS!”, and as you do, in as much detail as possible, imagine yourself doing just that! Refocusing, calming down, picking up your turn-over rate or doing and feeling whatever you would need to do in order to get yourself mentally and physically back. What's important here is that your imagery specifically captures you first beginning to experience the problem, but then quickly and successfully coping with it. Be sure to end your imagery session with you racing exactly the way you'd like to.

Keep in mind that mental rehearsal of any kind is a learned skill and the more you practice, the better you'll get at it and the more effective your imagery sessions will become! Outline your pre- and during-race weaknesses and systematically start using Coping Imagery to practice turning these weaknesses into strengths.



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