Four Tips From Sports Psychologists For Fall 2020

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Four Tips From Sports Psychologists For Fall 2020

By Kaleigh Haworth, Swimming World Intern

Eight months after the first case of the COVID-19 virus appeared in the U.S., widespread uncertainty and unconfirmed swim seasons emphasize the importance of mental fortitude for athletes. When it comes to understanding the mental aspect of swimming, the field of sports psychology provides various tools for athletes to improve their mentality.

For the use of swimmers looking for an edge on their competition, or simply a lifejacket in a vast and empty ocean of a season, four sports psychologists offer their strategies for the 2020 season.

1. Staying in the Present Moment

Keeping one’s head above water in a pandemic all comes down to staying in the moment, according to Adam Gallenberg, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology.

“When we are faced with challenges our mind tends to focus on those,” said Gallenberg, “and as much as these things are really out of our control, sometimes it just takes that willingness to take a step back and realize, okay. What is still in my control?”

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Photo Courtesy: Dan D’Addona

A licensed psychologist at Premier Sport Psychology in Edina, Minnesota, Gallenberg works with athletes to understand their mind-body connection and enhance their motivation.

“Our approach is, when you can’t train your body, the thing in our control right now is to train our mindset,” said Gallenberg. “There seems to be more of an openness and an awareness from athletes to engage in this type of work right now.”

Gallenberg argues that uncertainty can be combatted by planning out the day, scheduling events to look forward to, or writing an agenda of achievable tasks for oneself.

The W.I.N. (What’s Important Now) strategy, Gallenberg says, is his go-to recommendation for athletes. The idea is to focus on what is important to an individual now, whether ‘now’ is a practice, a Zoom class or a virtual team meeting.

“If we’re able to throughout the day (and) ask ourselves what’s important now, chances are our mind will go to our values, our mind will go to the goals that we have set in place or the goals that are important to us,” said Gallenberg. “Then we’re more likely to act on those thoughts.”

2. Looking at the Big Picture

“When you think about performance, as a swimmer, so much of what you’re doing is getting ready for,” said Jim Slager, who has a doctorate in counseling psychology, and works as a consulting psychologist for athletes at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

For Slager, sports psychology is highly individualistic, and involves a patient-doctor type relationship bent on achieving peak performance from a mental standpoint. However, without as many events to prepare for, he has encountered more athletes concerned or impatient with the process of returning to play.

Identifying what connects someone to the world around them and what their values are, he said, is a starting point for helping them to cope with feelings of anxiety and frustration.

“What we have control over is our attitude and effort,” said Slager, “and so, let’s try to find a way to keep your chin up, keep your shoulders back, and find what we can under the circumstances that’s beneficial.”

Perspective, he said, is a difficult concept for younger swimmers to understand, but critical to coping with this season.

“If you take your life and what you’re doing, try to see, in the big picture of things, how does this fit?” Slager said. “Life is probably going to be okay for me even though I’m really disappointed that this is going on right now.”

Slager also recommended meditation and breathing exercises as a useful tool for settling the mind.

3. Visualization

Sharon Colgan, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology with a specialization in sport psychology, has worked as a clinical sports psychologist for 30 years, most recently with University of San Diego athletics.

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Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

For swimmers with limited pool access or less racing opportunities, she recommends implementing visualization into training. This strategy involves entering a relaxed state and visualizing one’s event in the mind from beginning to end.

“The first time, (athletes) won’t have a lot of muscle contractions because their visualization isn’t that clear,” said Colgan. “If they’re really clear, my god, their legs are flopping, their arms are twitching, their body is moving and the breathing changes based on if they’re coming through on the last lap. You can see the major physiological changes just through the visualization.”

For swimmers looking to take this skill even further, Colgan recommended taking splits while visualizing. She suggests athletes raise a pinky each time they finish fifty yards in their mind, so someone can record the time.

“I say to people, if you’re worrying about an event, do it constructively where you actually see it in your mind’s eye, feel the water, use all your senses when you use visualization,” said Colgan.

Colgan said this technique should be completed daily; this will best help swimmers’ muscles to remember exactly how to swim the event once they do compete.

4. Creating Support Systems

Building a support system comprised of teammates, coaches, or family, is an important part of maintaining a healthy mental state and managing stress this season, according to Ashley Zapata, who has a doctor of psychology. A clinical and sports psychologist at Premier Sport Psychology, Zapata feels the most devastating effects of the pandemic are upended routines and regimens and decreased social interaction.

“I think about athletes who are, for example, transitioning to college and to collegiate teams, not having the opportunity to establish the relationships with one another because they are virtual,” said Zapata. “That does create a significant shift in how they get to support and experience each other.”

Zapata said she has been working with athletes to create new regimens this season. This requires accountability, which she said can be difficult for swimmers to maintain when they don’t have teammates they feel comfortable engaging with.

A solution for this, according to Zapata, is turning activities athletes would normally do alone into group activities, for example, utilizing apps and programs to turn a movie into a team watch party.

“It’s recognizing that it’s not going to feel like interacting and engaging with one another the way that it once did,” said Zapata. “Accepting that is really important because you don’t want to end up finding yourself comparing what you would have done before and what you’re faced with now … I’ve really encouraged athletes to think about what they have agency over today.”

Another strategy she recommends is creating benchmarks by setting out dates to have mastered a certain skill or hit a goal time in training. Zapata also advises swimmers to train as if they are going to get a call saying their season is back on at any given time. This way, they are in constant preparation, and never caught off guard.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Christie Haworth

    Awesome Kaleigh!! Such a great job!

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