6 Thoughts That Go Through the Mind of an Anxious Swimmer

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6 Thoughts That Go Through the Mind of an Anxious Swimmer

By Tara Draper, Swimming World College Intern

As an athlete who has battled anxiety for most of my life, receiving an official diagnosis was a relief. It allowed me to understand why my brain works the way it does and find ways to change my thoughts. I wanted to share my most common thoughts, so others with the same thoughts know they are not alone. I went through a phase where every time I competed, I became so nauseous it was hard to deal with. Talking to a sports psychologist really helped, and he gave me some excellent advice and methods for handling it.

One of the most useful pieces of advice he gave me was to step outside of the pool deck. Take a second to watch the rest of the world continue to live their lives. Realize that the woman walking her dog, or the family playing frisbee doesn’t care how you swim today. Their lives will not change whether you post a world record or get DQ’ed. Taking time to remove the pressure I place on myself helped me realise precisely how unimportant this race has. Here are some of the thoughts that have gone through my mind and how I manage to control them. 

“Is that jump two or three?”

I, and many other athletes I know, have rituals before they race. Mine goes like this. Three tuck jumps followed by a straight jump, and then I swing my arms across my body, intending to smack myself on the back three times. I don’t know what it is about threes that I like, but I always do things in threes. Once the heat before mine finishes, I will also go to the water’s edge and splash myself three times. The first two splashes were on my lower body, and the last was one higher on my body. If you ask me why I do this, I would probably tell you something about wanting to adjust to the water temperature by getting water in my suit, but I’ve been doing it for so long I no longer remember the reason. 

I’ve tried many times to stop this habit, but I start to feel weird if I don’t do it. I often cannot remember how many I have done because I am so focused on the upcoming event. At this point, I start again to calm my nerves. Although I know this has little impact on my performance, the discomfort I get from not doing it would surely throw my mental game off, so I guess it does have a slight impact. 

“This is heat three, right?”

One of my biggest fears is missing my heat. I would check continuously with the people around me to make sure I was in the right spot. I have never missed my race, and I have only once come close. In Australia, you have a marshaling room where you have to report before your event. You sit in heats, and officials take you out heat by heat.

The time I nearly missed my event happened about five years ago when I was in the tenth grade. In this particular meet, I was in lane 8, and the girl in lane 9 was someone I knew in first grade. I moved schools in second grade, so needless to say we did a lot of talking. The marshaling room was so loud that we didn’t hear our heat called, and I turned around to realize the person in lane 7 had disappeared. We both got up and sprinted to pool deck, running onto the blocks as the official was whistling us up. Ever since that day, I am terrified of missing my heat and always check multiple times with those around me. 

Coming to school in America, marshaling rooms don’t exist, and the scoreboard doesn’t display your heat until after the race starts. I have found myself checking more with those around me to make sure I am in the right heat and lane. I haven’t found a means of reducing this anxiety, but I have yet to be in the wrong spot, so I guess checking works. 

“Are they talking to me?” 

Another thing of significant concern for me is my interactions with my coach. And not even my current coach, just coaches I have had in general. Every time a large majority of the team makes the same mistake, the coach will stop the entire team and give us an earful. Even when I know I did nothing wrong, I will still end up slightly upset. I don’t know what it is about it, but any time someone gets yelled at in front of me, I get upset. It may have made me into a better swimmer, but it doesn’t always help my mental health. 

This is another one I have problems preventing. I will try to remember that I know I was doing it right, and it wasn’t targeted at me. Communication is key here. My coach knows I have bad anxiety, and so he will sometimes come up to me after practice and remind me that I did a good job.

“I’m so far behind! Everyone is going to judge me.”

At the start of the season, everyone is a little unfit. For me, I have been on teams where I am never at the same level as my teammates. So as they get more fit, the time cycles get bumped, and I am still just as far behind.

I was always the kid who started at the back of the lane, and had to stop because I was so far behind and stay back after everyone else was done so I could complete the set. It was something I did to myself because I was afraid of the judgement. Although I ended up just lap swimming because I had missed the cycle so many times. I was always afraid that if I just cut off the second part of the 100 after the entire team lapped me, someone would call me out for it. 

Now that I am at college and swim on a D-3 team, I rarely get lapped. Not because I am the best on the team, because we have different cycles per lane. I still worry on the days when I am not able to make the cycle that others on the team are going to judge me or tell me I don’t deserve to be on the team. To combat this, I remind myself that everyone else is just as tired as I am. Also, they are most likely not even watching what I am doing. It also helps to remember that often the people who call you out are just as terrified of the same things. 

“I have to get this cut time.”

I don’t know much about the high school swimming culture in America, but in Australia, most of the focus is on club swimming. These meets don’t involve much inter-team competition, and it is mainly a race against the clock. At every meet you suit up, you are trying to make a state or national cut time. Due to the pressure I put on myself, I felt disappointed if I didn’t swim what I needed to. This pressure is a large contributor to the nausea I used to feel. 

This is where that technique I was talking about earlier comes in. Stepping out and realising that no one besides me and maybe my family cares how I swim helps me to remember but how little that particular race matters. It helps to bring down my nerves, which often disappear by the end of the warmup. 

“Did I miscount this?” 

Another thing I am credibly paranoid about is miscounting during practice. I am not a distance swimmer, so I don’t have to worry about longer events at meets. With that said, there have been a few occasions where I have been happy I was not leading a 200 breaststroke because I wasn’t sure how much I had left. 

At practice, especially in sets where we have to do multiple reps, I am always concerned that I have miscounted. This is especially prevalent when I am leading or the only one doing that specific set, and I don’t have others to check with. I always worry I am one rep short, or stop a 50 early, purely by mistake. Part of this comes from number 4; I don’t want people to think I am lazy when I just have the memory of a goldfish. 

An old coach gave me a method to counteract this, which involved using the lane lines disks to count reps. Often the lane lines aren’t filled with disks, so before we started I would push them down the pool, and with every rep pull one closer to the wall. For the most part, this worked, but I have to make sure I tell my teammates, or they will end up moving them back. 

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below!

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