It’s All A Game, A Mental Game

michael-phelps-usa-swimming-nationals-2015 (3)
Photo Courtesy: Sue Borst

By Emma Schoettmer, Swimming World College Intern

All great swimmers know success doesn’t just come from the hours of training. It doesn’t just come from eating right. It doesn’t just come from getting enough sleep. The key factor often overlooked is the mind. The brain is the most important muscle in the body, and the only way to strengthen it is by using it.

In my own personal experience with swimming, I have struggled with controlling my mind at meets. I was often so absorbed with the “what ifs” of racing or too focused on what I was doing during a race, that I would blow it.

But after this summer’s Phillips 66 National Championships, I have confirmed that the one thing that was holding me back could be conquered. I swam an amazing meet with lifetime bests, clocking times I had only dreamt about in the past. Now, I can positively say that I have my “game” back. I don’t mean my ability to go fast, I mean my mental game.

Taking the Psycho Out of Psychologist

A lot of people probably think they are just fine in the mental department. They don’t need to see a psychologist. And I would agree, most people probably don’t. However, I have often been told that being an athlete makes me different from most people. Being a swimmer definitely makes me different from other athletes.

So why then, was I so against the idea of seeing someone about my supposed racing block? It is a mixture of bad past experiences with societal ideology that you must be crazy if you are seeing a psychologist? Well, I guess I am crazy because after four months of meeting with a sports psychologist, I have broken barriers I had not come close to breaking in over three years.

A sports psychologist is like any other psychologist, yet they specialize in helping people like us– the crazies that are willing to put themselves through years of training for maybe a two minute taper race twice a year. They are trained not to dig deep into our minds to find a problem they can solve, but to help us dig into ourselves to find the problem, create a solution and ultimately conquer the fears that set us back.

Margo Geer qualifies first in the 100 freestyle prelims.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Just Go

In my experience, I have learned that talking about my struggles with an outsider to the sport itself has helped me take a step back and figure out where I seem to be going wrong. From this process I have learned that I THINK way too much about everything. When it came to actually letting my instincts take over in a race, I was failing.

The goal I set (courtesy of my psychologist’s suggestion) was to stop thinking or analyzing and just go.

I wasn’t allowed to contemplate times. I wasn’t allowed to analyze what was wrong with my strokes or how to fix them at a meet. I was to stop thinking. Stay in my lane. Just race. I understand that it is important to reflect on races after they are swum. But trying to over analyze will just add junk to the mind and drain energy needed for your next race.

So why is it so important to learn control? Control of your thoughts, of your game plan, or race strategy will make you stronger athlete.

It is okay to ask for help, because not everyone is going to be an expert on the mind. However, we are all experts on ourselves, and understanding what we need for success is the first step toward extracting the greatness everyone has within.