The Focus Factor

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, October 1. LET's face it. Swimming is not always the most engaging sport. Monotony during practice is inevitable. As such, it is impossible to focus the entire time. The trick is learning to switch your concentration on and off at the right times, and to not let it your focus end up outside of the pool altogether.

Keep your thoughts in the pool.
Where do your thoughts go? Do they tend to replay the events of the day? Do they delve into problem-solving of the latest drama? Do they mull over what ifs or if onlys? Do you worry about homework you have ahead of you or tension at home or with friends? Samantha R., 16 years old, told me "… practices are a great time for me to sort out problems in my head, make a schedule for the next day, or even study for a test by thinking of questions that I know could be on the test or quiz for any given class, answer the questions, and if I don't know the answer, remember to look it up after practice. Spanish is a great example: think of a verb and conjugate it in all of the forms…" She is not the only one; several swimmers have indicated practice is a good time to think.

There is something meditative about robotic movement in water. When you have been swimming for years, you no longer need to think about your swimming. It becomes automatic, and your mind is free to think of whatever it wants. However, if your thoughts are mostly about happenings outside of the pool, your swimming will likely suffer.

Motivation for swimming tends to decrease when you think about events outside of the pool. You could be actually completing that Spanish homework; you could be on the phone with your girlfriend; you could be involved where your thoughts are. Where your thoughts go, your energy flows.

If your thoughts are outside the pool, your swimming will lack the energy needed for improvement. Your stroke will fall apart upon fatigue without your thoughts holding it together. And if it is supposed to be a challenging set, you will likely not be working as hard as you could. When you work hard, your thoughts shift to associate with the exertion. Your thoughts are needed to encourage your body forward without dropping off pace, in spite of the discomfort. If you can think of other things, you are not uncomfortable enough to improve.

This is not to say there is absolutely no place for wandering minds in swimming, as long as the thoughts do not direct focus elsewhere or consume energy with non-swimming related problem-solving. Some swimmers sing songs, and this can work well because it distracts the mind from pain without thoughts leaving the pool or taking too much energy. Sometimes pacing is the goal, and on especially long sets, it can be helpful to forget about what's going on and entertain yourself with other things. It can, at times, also be a helpful distracter from the pain. Just make sure those thoughts are also automatic, requiring little mental energy.

The best solution to keeping your mind in the pool is to practice mindfulness (See MINDFUL SWIMMING). Let your mind wander, but do not latch on and go into deep problem solving. That takes energy away from your swimming. Instead, allow thoughts to come and go; develop a detached awareness of what you are doing. Mindfulness is about keeping your mind in the moment, but not putting effort into focusing. Therefore, it is the most effective state of mind when you are not focusing in on specific strategy or technique changes.

There are many ways to help you focus better during practice and competitions. Try implementing some of the following suggestions into your daily practice, and use what works when you go to meets. If you are able to learn to fully invest your mental energy into your swimming, imagine how much better you will be!

Streamline your life.
The more you have going on in your life, the harder it is to focus on the moment. All your other responsibilities and concerns will intrude on your water time. You might need to take some time to streamline your life, cutting out that which is not as important, resolving conflicts, and making sure your activities line up with your priorities. If nothing can be cut or scaled back, then it becomes even more important to set up "thought boundaries." Thought boundaries are areas where you allow your thoughts to go during certain activities at certain times. At practice, inside the boundary includes all thoughts related to your swimming and excludes all thoughts related to school that day or upcoming activities. Keep your thoughts in the moment, fully involved in what you are doing at the time.

Set up a pre-practice focusing routine.
Keeping your thoughts in the moment is much easier said than done. If you tend to take your day into the pool, you might try setting up a pre-practice focusing routine. This routine can help stay within your though boundaries.

You could visualizing the day's thoughts and troubles coming off with your clothes, and the focus of the practice ahead entering your mind as you put on your suit. If you change at a locker, you can imagine slamming the day's thoughts into the locker and then leaving fresh. When you put on your cap, it could be your "swimming thinking cap." Or you could imagine diving into the water and leaving everything "on land." In the water, your thoughts are on swimming only.

Once in the water, as you do a few bobs, you could focus in on swimming by blowing your bubbles out and remembering why you swim and what your goals are. You could ease into focusing during stretching or during warmup. Perhaps the first part you allow yourself to "finish" your mulling over the day's events. The second part you start tucking it away and letting it go. The last part you check in with your stroke and review your goals for practice. Whatever method works for you, the key is to consciously let go of distracting thoughts and bring awareness and energy to the moment.

Redirect your focus.
A good method if you tend to get distracted it to try redirecting your focus. A good drill suggested in the USA Swimming Mental Toolbox is to select a period of time from 30 seconds to 2 minutes during which you direct your focus on one thing only. Your focus could be technique or feeling. Practice changing focus during the time interval you chose. For example, you could focus in on the feeling of your legs kicking, then switch to sound of your arms entering the water, then switch to the rotation of your body, then to your breathing, and so on. Choose three areas and practice switching among those three.

You could also practice switching your focus on and off. You could allow your mind to wander for 50 yards and then focus for 50 yards and so on. You'll likely find that when you allow your mind to wander, it gets hard to bring it back when you are supposed to. Do you tend to lose count or forget where you are in a set? This is an indication that your mind wandered off while your body went on autopilot.

Whenever you notice your mind is not where you want it to be, just gently bring it back. There is no use in berating yourself for being unable to focus. This is a challenging skill. You are practicing awareness of your thoughts every time you notice they are elsewhere, and you are practicing discipline of your focus every time you draw them back to the present.

Focus on specifics.
It is much easier to focus on swimming if you have something specific to work on. Often your coach will cue you in on where your focus should be. Your coach designs sets to help you work on certain areas such as breathing, pushoffs, descending, building, sprinting, transitions, and so on. When your coach does not give you specifics, you can turn to feedback from the most recent meet or to your personal progress goals. For each stroke and event it helps to have a technique or strategy goal to direct your focus (see GOALS THAT MOTIVATE and USING PROGRESS GOAL TIMES TO IMPROVE).

Challenge yourself and others.
You can also practice racing. The wonderful thing about swimming on a team is you have the opportunity to race all the time. Try challenging yourself. Determine to remain ahead of the swimmers on the same set in the next lane. Volunteer to lead the lane or try to pass the swimmers ahead of you and get as close to the front as you can. If you simply remain comfortable as you stroke away, you might just get bored. That's when your mind tends to wander.

Another little trick is to continually encourage others. By counting down and announcing "halfway" or "only three more to go!" you are keeping your attention on the set. By warning others ahead of you that you are coming, you are setting up a challenge that you need focus to achieve. When the coach gives something to focus on, you can ask others how they are doing. For example, "How many strokes per length did you do this time?" or "I'm descending by 2 seconds each time, how about you?" Verbalizing where your focus should be helps direct and keep your thoughts there.

Focus only on that which you can control.
If you are able to consistently focus on swimming during practice, you will find it easier to focus during meets. Some of the same tools described for practice also apply to focus at meets: streamline your life, set up a pre-race focusing routine, use your goals to focus on specifics, and challenge yourself!

The biggest tip for successful focus at meets is to focus only on that which you can control. There are a myriad of distracters and surprises at meets. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all the things that crop up. Focusing on uncontrollables is like simply rolling a dice and hoping for the best. You cannot control where the numbers will fall. Learn to focus only on what you can control. That is like rolling a rigged or weighted dice so that your chances of a high roll are much better.

One of the most common mental mistakes swimmers make is focusing on their competitors. Focusing on your competitors means that your mind is not concentrating on your own swim, and so all your mental energy is in the wrong lane! When this happens, it means that your mind is focusing on something you can't control and this type of thinking drains your energy, leading to slower swims. Focus only on what you can control, and that means your race only.

Let your focus go during long periods between races.
At meets, if you are someone who gets nervous under pressure, some distraction might be good for you. During those long spells between races, you might want to purposely put your mind elsewhere. It might be best not to focus until just before your race. To get rid of jitters in the interim, laugh, play games, read a book, do homework, listen to calming music, etc. until it is time to get step up for another race.

Use focusing cue words.
When you are behind the blocks, it might help to have a few simple things that are under your control to focus on. This will keep your mind from soaring with doubts and worries and getting overwhelmed. You can repeat these things to yourself as focusing cue words. For example, you can cue your thoughts with "fast start," "explosive breakout," "sprint through the turn," "charge it home," or whatever controllable aspect of the race you choose (or your coach chooses for you) to focus on.

Remind yourself you are ready!
Lastly, focus on your readiness for the race. Direct your thoughts to the reasons you are going to swim well. Remind yourself of all the racing you did in practice, and all the pain you went through, all the hours, the sacrifice, the dry skin and chlorine hair. Remind yourself of all the training and energy you put into this moment, and then take that energy with each breath, imagine it flowing in your muscles, and "let it happen." Accept the challenge, step up like a champion, and enjoy!

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.

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