Swim Psychology: The Basics

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, September 1. SPORT psychology has been getting a bit more press lately, so you may have an inkling of what it is. Many top athletes have found it vital to their success. I like to ask swimmers how much of success is mental. What do you think? I get answers anywhere from 50 percent to 95 percent. Although no one knows the correct percentage, it is generally agreed upon that success is largely mental.

As an athlete, you spend hours in the pool training. You work out physically in order to get your body into peak form. Do you use your mind? Well, you think something. If you have not been taught the best mental techniques, then you might be training bad habits. Think of it as if you were never taught good freestyle technique and spent hours upon hours thrashing away – developing bad habits a good coach would cringe at and not getting any faster. In the same way, if you were never taught the most effective mental techniques, you might be solidifying harmful thinking at such times as when you face a challenging set, feel pressure in a meet, or fall just short of your goals.

For this reason, sport psychology, also called mental training, is important to implement into your plan for success. At its most basic, swim psychology is about streamlining your life and your mind by getting rid of that which hinders your swimming (creates drag) and striving to do only that which helps your swimming. Whenever you question your swimming technique or your mental processes, you can try simply asking yourself, "Is what I am doing or thinking going to help me improve?" Of course, there are times when you do not know the answer, and there are times when you do not even know to ask the question.

That's where mental trainers come in. Their job is to point out the areas where you can improve your thinking in order to perform your best, and then help you make necessary changes.

Sometimes it helps to go back and review the basics. The basics in swimming are to blow bubbles, float, breathe, streamline and reach. Let's take a look at them in terms of the physical and psychological lessons that can learned from them.

It all started with blowing bubbles.
One of the first skills swimmers learn is how to blow bubbles. Whether it was "talking to the fishes" or simply watching bubbles rise to the surface, this was fun. Water is a natural motivator for children. One hot summer day, just take a moment to watch a group of young boys and girls playing in a pool, and you will see that splashing, getting out, and jumping in is exhilarating. It is simply fun to be in the water! Splashing around, swimming underwater, cannon balls, and rings off the bottom is a great way to spend an afternoon. Perhaps you remember swimming through hula-hoops or viewing the sky from the bottom of the pool, holding a "tea party" or talking underwater. Maybe you pretended you were a mermaid or a dolphin as you learned dolphin kick. As swimmers grow older, the simple of joy of being in water tends to be replaced with the pressure of constant striving.

Why do you swim? To answer this question, I have designed a simple exercise that has been powerful for the swimmers with whom I have consulted. Take a moment to write down the top five reasons you go to practice every day. Once you have done that, go through each one and decide if you would still go to practice if that reason were absent. For example, you might swim because your friends are on the team. Would you still go if they were not? This process will help you pick the top 1 or 2 reasons. Go ahead and write down these reasons in the middle of a paper, and circle them. This is your "bubble of joy" as one swimmer called it; it's your bubble of love for swimming.

Now take a moment to write all the things that get in the way of swimming. These are the burdens, pressures, negative thinking, emotions, fatigue, activities, and situations that interfere with swimming or your joy of swimming. Write these as daggers pointing toward the bubble. Make a commitment now to yourself that you are going to protect this bubble. You might not yet know how, but just the commitment is important.

When you are on the wall in the middle of a tough set in practice and wondering if all this hard work is worth it, take a moment to bob underwater and blow out your bubbles. Not only will this lower your heart and get you ready physically to go again, but you can use it to mentally prepare as well. With your first few breaths, blow out all the stress and negative thinking. Then remind yourself of the top reasons why you swim. Remind yourself of your commitment to protecting your joy of swimming. Rediscover the fun. By your fourth and fifth bob, blow out bubbles of joy.

Do not let anyone burst your bubble!

Children are taught to float as a survival skill. Floating on the front is better than sinking. Floating on the back allows the child to breathe. Once a child can turn from a front float to a back float, a small kick can be added to get to the wall.

In order to stay afloat in your life as a swimmer, it is important to prioritize and decide where you are going to spend your time. Too many responsibilities can feel like trying to float with weights on your back. You start to drown with the weight of responsibility. Do you have so much going on that when it comes to swim practice you are simply trying to make it through?

Much can be said about time-management, but to get started, take a look at your priorities. The amount of time that you spend on certain activities should line up with your priorities. For example, if swimming is more of a priority than socializing, then social activities might need to be cut back to spend the time needed on swimming and get enough rest. Sometimes nothing needs to be cut, and it is a matter of better using time and not wasting it. For example, if family is more a of a priority than swimming, then family time might need to be better built into the day, perhaps by spending the trip to and from the pool engaged in conversation with Mom or Dad.

Floating is a prerequisite to success in swimming. Staying afloat with responsibilities away from the pool allows the physical and mental rest necessary to swim well. Struggling to survive the day leads to mental and physical fatigue that is hard to recover enough from for optimum performance.

Breathing is automatic, but one of the toughest skills to learn as a swimmer. Once breathing becomes part of the rhythm of the stroke, it is again automatic and easy. Somehow, though, when people get stressed or nervous, breathing becomes shallow and ineffective. Learning to breathe deeply can help reduce stress and nerves, and help the body get into the relaxed and ready state needed for optimum performance.

You can start practicing breathing today. Simply relax your shoulders, neck, and mouth. Inhale deeply, through your nose or mouth, filling your lungs from the bottom to the top. Exhale through your mouth. Stay relaxed during the exhale, allowing your shoulders to fall down away from your neck, and empty your lungs completely. Try this while driving, while sitting in your desk at school, just before you start swim practice, and whenever you feel overwhelmed. You might be surprised by how much it relaxes not only your body, but also your busy mind.

Streamline and Reach.
These are together because reaching as far as you can on each stroke helps you streamline. The more you reach from fingers to toes, the more streamlined you can become.

The first thing you do when you push off the wall is streamline. Streamlining allows you to move through the water with the least resistance. In that sense, striving to streamline is necessary all of the time. If your movements serve to move you forward while preventing drag, then you are successfully streamlining. Streamlining is important in all you do. Streamline your life. Cut out what is unimportant or holding you back from your goals.

And reach. As a beginning swimmer, you were taught to reach, reach, reach. If you did not reach, you were treading in place. Without reaching, your paddling is merely for keeping your head above water rather than moving forward. To move forward in life, you now need to reach inside yourself. Dig inside for that little more.

Ask the question, "Is what I am doing or thinking going to help me improve?" Do only what helps and not what hinders. Physically, this means lengthening your body and squeezing your arms and legs off the wall. It means shrugging your shoulders on a breaststroke pullout and keeping your shoulders relaxed on all strokes. It means holding your breath off the walls, keeping your head down into turns, and reaching for the finish. Practically, this means cutting out what is unimportant, what is causing resistance, or holding you back from your goals. Mentally, this means learning the best way to direct your mind to help you succeed.

In the coming articles, there will be specific tips on how to start effective mental training. Keep in mind that just like physical training, it takes dedication to instill good mental habits and get into peak mental form. If you feel a little lost mentally, go back to the basics: blow some bubbles and remember why you swim, consider your priorities, take a few deep breaths to relax, streamline and reach.

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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