How to Properly Support a Competitor Mindset
Encourage swimmers to go for the gold
One of the best things about Masters Swimming is that we welcome the entire spectrum of aquatic athletes, from Olympians to tentative neophytes whose primary desire is to simply be safe around water. We can’t help but share our love of water with everyone we meet, knowing that the world would be a better place if everybody swam.
Some of us also love competition because it provides benefits we treasure:
- Goals to strive for that keep us focused and engaged in each practice, throughout the season, and as we advance through the age groups.
- Excitement and stimulation that incentivizes us to be our best.
- Motivation to exert the effort that returns maximum fitness benefits.
- Opportunities to meet people, form friendships and motivational rivalries, and travel to fun places.
Competitive people can be happier than their noncompetitive peers, because working to improve provides personal rewards above and beyond any prizes given for performance. I still smile when I remember a daily ritual I shared with one of my workout rivals in my earliest days as a Masters swimmer:
Terry: Dude, are you ready to race me on this one?
Cary: Amigo, I was born ready.
Competing made us each better, and a strong friendship grew as a result.
As coaches, we set the mood for our swimmers. I’m not suggesting we ever coerce athletes to do things they don’t want to do, but we can create an environment that promotes a healthy outlook toward competition in multiple areas:
- Event-based competition—Meets, ePostal events, Fitness Series challenges, etc.
- Workout competition—Leading the lane, outperforming lane mates on long sets, striving to be the one the coach calls on for stroke demos, etc.
- Self-actualization competition—Trying to beat your time from the previous week, seeking personal bests, mastering new strokes or events, etc.
Don’t use shame, pressure, or arm twisting to get someone to enter a race. Instead, help everyone understand that if they do want to compete, you’ll be there to support and guide them through a stimulating and delightful experience.
Here are ways to encourage healthy competition.
- Emphasize the clock—Promote the idea that time matters. Help people understand how to use a pace clock, how to calculate intervals, and how to set mini- and micro-goals within workout sets. Ask them to remember their times and strive to reach new levels.
- Practice racing—Include maximum-effort sets in workouts, and track the times achieved. Assign swimmers to evenly matched relays to develop team spirit and unified goals. Remind swimmers that today’s effort is a building block that leads to the sublime satisfaction that accompanies achievement.
- Acknowledge effort—Find ways to recognize and reward competitive efforts, especially when they come from slower or less-experienced swimmers. Create an atmosphere in which every swimmer cheers for their teammates when they perform at their best, regardless of what place they finish. Lead the team in applauding personal bests, first-time achievements, and the courage to try something new.
- Eliminate mental barriers—Establish a can-do attitude. Help athletes believe in themselves by demonstrating your faith in their abilities. When you know an athlete well and have earned their trust, they’ll make breakthroughs simply because you assured them they could. If they lose focus because of fatigue or fear, re-focus them by asking them to concentrate on a particular technique (e.g., catch, breathing), a specific part of the race (turns, cadence), or on simply having fun.
- Point out possibilities—Publicize upcoming swim meets, Fitness Series challenges, and open water events. Emphasize the benefits of competition, such as camaraderie and team spirit, awards/records, opportunity to travel, and the chance to assess one’s fitness and training program.
- Make it easy—Help swimmers understand the concepts of competition. Include discussions of rules and strategy in your training program. Hold fun meets at your own pool (including food, families, and silly events like fin relays). Prep athletes for competition by outlining meet procedures and helping them get signed up as needed.
- Celebrate—Show your appreciation for competitive spirit. Display your passion during races; make eye contact with swimmers in the water, jump up and down on the deck, whistle, wave, and shout with joy! Distribute high-fives and attaboys with enthusiasm. And consider a team awards banquet to recognize those who put in extra effort throughout the season.
Use positive language when discussing performance. Instead of pointing out failure, describe opportunities for improvement. Everyone has bad days, bad sets, and bad swims, and can use the lessons learned to perform better in the future.
When my team fails to perform to the expectation I’ve established for a set (predicted times, legal turns, stroke execution, etc.), I’ll ask them to repeat the set by saying “We have just earned an opportunity for significant improvement! Here’s our chance to master [insert desired technique or goal here]! I know you’re going to impress me on this one!”
These guidelines will encourage and motivate the majority of Masters swimmers but not all. What inspires one swimmer to a peak performance may be meaningless to another. Our knowledge and sensitivity to the personalities and goals of individual swimmers will help us modify the guidelines for specific athletes. Get to know each participant and tailor your competitive conversations accordingly.
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