Mental Toughness the Difference Between Good and Great

Feature by Chelsea Howard

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, September 20. EVERY coach I've swum for has said before a near impossible set, "this is what's going to make the difference between a good swimmer and a great swimmer."

No matter how true it is I never want to hear it. But what really is the difference between a great swimmer and a good one? What makes one fall short of their goals while the other one flourishes in accomplishments beyond their belief?

The truth isn't a black and white answer. Each athlete is a little different. But beyond all of the hard training, heavy weights, technical aspects, and true dedication comes the mental game.

Of course there are a number of arguments for why elite athletes, take Michael Phelps for example, are at the top of their game. They train hard, they want it the most, or they have astounding race plans. The list could go on and on. But the one component that makes all of the above aspects possible comes into play with the mental side.

I've spent time working with Penn State's sports psychologist David Yukelson. No matter the problem, he always reminds me of self-talk.

"Take control of negative self-talk. Reframe from ‘stinking thinking' and turn it into positive task-oriented thoughts," Yukelson said.

Sounds easy enough, right? Although it seems basic, there's a lot more to it than just changing your thoughts. Until you think about what goes on through your mind, the same obstacles are going to fall in your path time after time.

Yukelson always reminds me, "You can't block out the negative thoughts. You have to replace them."

I never thought of blocking and replacing as being two different actions. When an athlete blocks the negative thoughts, the negativity is still there. There's no fooling it. But, when the athlete replaces these thoughts with positivity and the "can-do" attitude, the amount of confidence and perseverance in the athlete drastically changes.

In essence, this goes back to the difference between a good and a great swimmer. A good one can take a set, fight to make an interval, but realize it was harder than they thought, allow negative thoughts to creep in and just finish the set.

A great swimmer, however, can take the same set, fight to make an interval, but they won't allow a negative thought to steer them in the wrong direction. They may miss an interval, but they never let the negativity be the reason they can't get back on track.

Taking what Yukelson teaches about self-talk and changing negativity into a positive process reminds me of the ideas W. Timothy Gallwey introduced in his book "The Inner Game".

Gallwey's first point that he discusses is consciousness of the inner game.

"There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure," Gallwey said.

Good athletes take what they know and expand from that. Great athletes go out and explore the "unknowns" of the sport. They venture into territory they've never been and become knowledgeable of what holds them back. How do we know what limits us if we haven't taken the time to become self-aware?

Gallwey describes the athlete's mind as having two parts, referring to them as self one and self two. Self one is the instructor and Self two is the doer. When an athlete can learn to quiet the instructions from the mind when competing and trust in the doer, the body goes into "auto-drive".

At this point, muscle memory takes over and the body can naturally go through the motions it has been trained to do without overthinking. The mind is harmonious, allowing the great athletes to relax under pressure and compete how they have trained while good ones experience inconsistency.

As a competitive swimmer for nearly 14 years now, I find myself curious as to what makes the difference between a swimmer winning NCAAs and one making a travel team. They're both good and have made it far, but a closer look at the difference in body language comes from the seven inches between the ears.

My college coach, John Hargis, quotes Drina Reed at the first team meeting every year we come back in the fall.

"Now remember, if you want something you've never had before, you've got to do something you've never done before," Hargis said. Examining the "inner game" and developing self-awareness, especially if you've never done it before, can mend the gap between a good and a great swimmer.

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