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Oh, Those Prerace Jitters!

Let that nervous energy work for you

Linda Brown-Kuhn | January 2, 2014

Butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, and dry mouth—these are the calling cards of “nerves” that all competitors have probably felt before a race. They’re not pleasant, but the key is to use those jitters to your advantage; don’t let them overwhelm you. 

“Mental toughness is really about putting yourself in control,” says Betsy Shoenfelt, sports psychologist and professor at Western Kentucky University. “So if you can take that nervous energy that produces adrenaline and channel it into a positive direction, it can help you swim faster.”

Shoenfelt teaches all her athletes to engage in positive self-talk. Looking at a competition as a challenge, they can rise to it rather than focusing on possible negative outcomes.

If the bad “what ifs” (a really slow start, getting disqualified, losing your goggles on the start, hitting a brick wall midway in your swim, etc.) are preying on your mind, try to prepare for them ahead of time. That’s one of the things that Shoenfelt did when she worked with butterflyer Claire Donahue who earned a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. They figured out how she’d successfully deal with all of her “what ifs,” and Donahue visualized each scenario to prepare. 

Should you feel jitters taking over before a race, try breathing slowly in and out two or three times to relax your body. Or try progressive muscle relaxation, a simple technique where you tense and then relax muscle groups one by one. “If you start getting tight in your neck or in your shoulders before a race,” Shoenfelt says, “isolate those muscles and intentionally tighten then relax them. Again, that puts you back in control.”

Some swimmers like checking heat sheets to find out whom they’ll be competing against while others get more anxious when they have that information. “When I’m on the blocks looking at competitors who are my same age, that brings out my will to win,” says 55-year-old Garden State Masters breaststroker Benn Doyle. Donahue, on the other hand, focuses on swimming her own race.

A lot of swimmers use precompetition routines to help them settle down and focus. Donahue listens to a tape she narrated that goes through her whole routine from the moment she enters the building continuing all the way through her swims. That may be beyond what most Masters are willing to do, but listening to music can be a great way to relax or rev up while limiting distractions.

You’ll see it all at a Masters event: people stretching, jumping up and down, chatting, sitting alone, or resting. The trick is figuring out what works best for you. Distance swimmer Lynn Ascione, 46, of Berkeley (NJ) Aquatic Masters, has learned over her eight years as a Masters swimmer that a warm-up of a couple thousand yards, whether in the pool or in open water, makes her feel calmer and race ready.

Regardless of what you find works best for you, remember to embrace those prerace jitters, because they could actually help you swim faster.

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About the Author—Linda Brown-Kuhn

Linda Brown-Kuhn, 54, has been swimming for a team since she was 12 and has belonged to the Berkeley Aquatic Masters in NJ since the early 1980’s. She has written for Good Housekeeping Magazine, Self, Arthritis Today, and many other publications.

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