When I was 9 years old, racing In Mumbai, my coach told me that I would never get over the nervousness I felt on the starting blocks, no matter how many times I raced. I didn’t believe him at the time, but looking back over twenty years of competitive swimming, I think, I have to agree with him. I was as nervous for my first race at 7 as I was for my last one at 27!Many swimmers do better in training, where there is little pressure, and end up clocking slower times at meets when it matters most. The best athletes in the world, however, figure out how to be at their physical and, more importantly, mental best when it really matters. Through my competitive career in the pool, though the nerves never left, I got consistently better at dealing with the stress of competition, the excitement, and the pressure that inevitably comes with it.
There are only two ways you are ever going to approach a competition. One is stressed and scared, and the other is excited and waiting to get up there and win! I tell swimmers that I train, that you have to consciously develop the skill, just as I did over a period of time, to recognize the nervousness, excitement and all the pressure of expectation that exists, and use that energy to drive you to do your very best on race-day. This is as important as the hours of physical training you put in to be your best.
I often joke with swimmers about how we train several kilometers through a training week, and come race-day, swim so little! So, we must love racing because it is so much less work. Most laugh and agree, and there are a few who admit that race prep and race-days are what they hate the most !
So to start the year, I’m going to share some thoughts on how you can prepare and deal with stress leading up to race-day to race better. My advice comes from what I’ve learnt through training with some of the best coaches in the world, observing what the world’s best did at big swim meets, as well as figuring out for myself, little ways and means of distracting from what isn’t good for my focus, and paying attention to what really is!
Race Tip 1: Focus on your process
My mentoring sessions on race preparation typically begin with what swimmers should consciously be thinking of ten days out of a meet.
For instance, focusing on how they are going to put together their swims at the meet rather than what he or people close to him expect in terms of timings and medals, is usually the first step toward preparing better. The list could range from smooth turns and explosive underwater kicking that he may have been working on to better stroke rate and efficiency. Race splits and energy distribution through a race are also something that my swimmer would plan and focus on in this time.
Beginning to plan how to swim the race a few days in advance, helps distract swimmers from the result and competition - something he has no control over, to maximizing results based on his training and personal skill, things he does have control over. The more detailed and specific this process is, the better the results. I encourage swimmers to keep working on bringing their focus back from vague negative thoughts to this practical step-by-step process of swimming the best race they can.
Race Tip 2: Visualization and muscle relaxation
The opposite of panic is calm. To hold your mental equilibrium on race day, you must practice it in advance. So my next suggestion towards getting the athlete ready, would be to add a 10 minute visualization exercise to the process above, that they could probably do at the end of the day just before going to bed, at least ten days in advance.
The swimmer could spend these minutes, either in Shavasana, clearing the mind of distractions and worries, by focusing on the breath, or progressively tightening and releasing muscles with control, from the top of their heads to the tips of their feet, with an aim of consciously feeling relaxed all over and gaining muscle control. I would then give them a few moments to visualize themselves on race day, doing everything on the process-list that we made in the earlier step, and swimming that perfect race!
Repeating this exercise twice or thrice a day, always helps my athletes prepare better, mentally, have a more clear race plan, and most importantly help them spend as little time on worrying about end result!
Race Tip 3: Put the ritual in practice
Stress - mental or physical can really hold back swimmers back on race day.
To get rid of the muscle stress, you must first recognize it and be able to identify when it occurs. It is at this point that the relaxation exercise I spoke of earlier, comes in handy. If you have done it enough times, you will recognize when you are holding stress in your muscles, and are sitting tight before a race. You can then immediately begin relaxing your muscles by focusing on your breath or through the muscle control exercise we spoke of. This ability of muscle control becomes better with practice and helps you stay loose and supple, before your race.
Staying mentally sharp, switching from being scared to being excited is the other challenge that we attempt to get better at, once we are physically relaxed! Focusing on your process, as we practiced in step 1, will help even on race-day.
There have been so many times I’ve been over-stressed pre-race, and at these moments I’ve learnt the art of focusing on everything I need to do in my swim to achieve that personal best time, rather than focusing on my result. What ends up happening is, I distract myself from negative thoughts, and I spend time doing something constructive instead.
All in all, through an hours session with an athlete, we always figure out ways where he or she can be prepared better mentally, through accepting what he feels holds him back and then applying any or all of my methods to race better to his pre race preparation practice.
I will be sharing more racing tips on my next blog. So follow this space for more.