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It’s All in Your Head

Letting go when a race doesn’t go as you planned

Scott Bay | November 5, 2013

You listened to your coach. You did the yards. You did the dryland training, and you followed the proper nutrition plan. You made it through the taper.

What happened on race day? Not what you expected.

Now it is in your head, which is exactly where it should have been before the race, but also where it shouldn’t be after the race.

Mental prep: It’s all in your head

It is not enough to just have done the physical work. You also have to be mentally ready to race. Think about it: Amazing performances do not come from a “Let’s see what happens” attitude—amazing performances come from thoughtful and purposeful preparation and visualizing what you want to do.

Want a perfect start? Think about what will happen at the start—every detail—from stepping up on the block to the feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Embrace and think about even the tiniest details of what that moment will feel like, including the gritty feel of the nonskid surface on the block. How does that feel against your feet? Imagine it, and you’ll be halfway there.

Next, think about the water. How cold is it? How will it feel to splash into it? How many kicks will you complete during your breakout? How many strokes will you take on the first lap? When will you breathe? Is the far wall slippery?

Know the answers to these questions and visualize everything going perfectly! This is what should be in your head. Lack of focus, just like a lack of preparation, can make for a bad day.

Disappointment: Get it out of your head

But what if something does go wrong? This is what should NOT be in your head.

Has anybody ever had a perfect race? Probably not. Even Olympians and world record holders have room for improvement. Given that none of us are perfect, how do you adjust to a race that’s not going well? On a longer race, you have the opportunity to correct what’s going wrong, but you have to think quickly and get back in the race. Sprints on the other hand, are unforgiving. One mistake can cost you. Either way, shaking off a bad race is hard, but it can be done. Here are a few suggestions for how to get over a race that’s gone poorly and how to keep from repeating those same mistakes next time:

  • Give yourself 5 minutes to be miserable, and then move on. Don’t take your frustration over a bad race out on your friends and teammates. If you had a bad swim and are grumpy, that’s OK. But be prepared for genuine well-wishers to tell you “good job.” They are typically sincere and probably don’t know about that tiny mistake you’re obsessing over. A simple thanks and a smile may be harder than the race, but well worth it later on.
  • A bad time can always be followed by a good time! Swimmers are different from other athletes in a lot of ways: We are typically humble and willing to share over dinner and drinks or desserts. Whatever race problems you had, chances are, you can find someone who had a worse race and share a good laugh over it.
  • Let it go. You will probably have a few more swims and letting negative thoughts rent space in your head can only lead to bad things. Move on.

The power of positive thinking is also contagious. Smiles are common in Masters Swimming and no one wants to be around someone who is negative. You get to choose your attitude so try not to let one (or two) setback(s) stop you. Remember, this is supposed to be fun! 

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About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is an ASCA Level 5 certified coach and has been actively coaching for more than 25 years. Team Blu Frog Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All-Americans, and world record holders who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 USMS swims in just the last five years. Bay is also the chair of both the USMS Coaches Committee and the Florida LMSC, and is head coach of Father Lopez Catholic High School Men’s and Women’s Swimming.

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