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by David Grilli

April 1, 2004

Could just be performance anxiety

Have you ever wondered why you feel like the flu is coming on just before a meet or an important event? I have known swimmers who can actually will themselves to feel sick days before a meet.

Many of the high school kids I coach are convinced they are about to die prior to the 100 fly. Similarly, I have felt a sudden sapping of strength as I approach the starting blocks. I try to tell my swimmers that this ill feeling is temporary and due to anxiety. Typically teen agers, who listen as well as house cats, are only concerned with the here and now and will not look beyond the moment at hand.

My advice is always the same, " the instant you hit the water, the feeling will vanish". It is amazing but true. As soon as your dreaded race is underway, shazam! you're all better.

What causes this and how do we avoid it?

Performance Anxiety can hit us at the worst times. We can feel nervous, scared, insecure, and weak. Not to mention sick. It affects some worse than others but I have seen it turn people to jello.

The best way to handle Performance Anxiety is to have done the prerequisite preparation for your meet. That would be the workouts. If you are confident your training has been honest, that will take care of the fear.

Eliminating the insecurity is accomplished by practicing racing. In your preparation for the meet, check your goggles, Are they tight so as not to fall off on your dive? Have you checked out the backstroke flags? Practiced your turns?

Eliminating the sick feeling is the difficult task. You just have to get your mind off of the meet. Read a book, listen to music, play a game. I have seen swimmers do these things with great effect. Don't get too relaxed. I have also seen people miss their events.

Nervousness is the key. You actually want to be a little nervous before a race. The slightly heightened pulse rate will help your body prepare for the upcoming burst of energy. If you are getting ready for a sprint you want your fast twitch muscle fibers stimulated and ready. If your impending race is a distance event, your slightly higher pulse rate will have your body ready to feed the muscles the energy they need. I always ask my high school swimmers if they are nervous before a race. They will look at me with that "deer in the headlights look" and reply with a kurt "ya" . I will say "good, you are ready". Nine times out of ten they do just fine.

Avoid the extremes however. Too nervous is not good. Your body may actually start to shut down and your performance will suffer. Too calm will make you too slow.

So, when you're approaching your next big event, whether it is a swim meet, a presentation at work, or any other type of situation when you need to perform at your best -- just remember, it's OK to feel a little nervous.

This month's article, "Flu Season" by David Grilli is not about a medical condition -- it is about a psychological condition: performance anxiety. Although the article was written within a competitive swimming framework, it applies to any situation in everyday life when we have to perform at our best. David Grilli is past chair of the USMS Fitness Committee. This article is from David's Self-Coached Swimmer and Workout series, which is published monthly in the New England Masters Newsletter. This article is reprinted with permission from the author. To read other columns by David Grilli, please visit the New England Masters web site at:


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