Swimming with Confidence, Dealing With Doubt

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, November 23. NOT every swimmer struggles with self-doubt and nerves, but a great many do. Even if you are one of the fortunate ones who can handle pressure well, this article might have some ideas that will work well for you.

Anxiety is a great example of the interaction between body and mind. When your body shrinks in on itself and your heart rate increases, your mind can interpret it as fear. When thoughts of fear invade your mind, your body responds with fight or flight.

Choosing flight would mean to withdraw from the swim. Thus most swimmers choose to fight. And, we all know that fighting with water rarely works well. Fighting is the opposite of fluidity and flow. Fighting is what happens when you really care about a race and what to make the best time happen. It is trying too hard.

In fight mode, your muscles tense up, your breath gets faster and shallower, and your heart races. You may feel sick to your stomach. You may even throw up.

Most swimmers have a visceral reaction to huge challenges. Rather than tightening up for a fight and rather than fueling anxiety and fear, learn to view it as your body's way of getting ready.
Some nervousness can be good for you because it provides the needed energy and muscle stimulation. The key is to learn to manage your energy level.

Re-label the sensations.
Whether you are nervous or excited, the physiological response is the same. Instead of interpreting your body's signals as "bad" nerves, use it as a signal that you are ready. Call it excitement or energy rather than nerves. After all, you need more oxygen to perform your best, and you get that from waking up and increasing your heart rate and breath. Swimming sleepy is swimming slow. Tell yourself, "I am ready."

Breathe to center.
One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to learn how to breathe. Correct breathing can slow your heart rate, get the proper oxygen to the muscles, and relax your body. In addition, it can help calm and clear your mind in order to focus your energy.

The idea of breathing to center is to breathe to a central location in the body and to center, or balance, the mind. The center of the body is the diaphragm. That is the large muscle just under the bottom of your rib cage that aids the movement of the lungs for breathing. As you take a breath, breathe to this area, filling your lungs from the bottom to the top, expanding like a balloon, and then letting it go, emptying out. One breath should take 6 full seconds. You can use a score board or a pace clock to time it.

As you breathe, let your shoulders drop. Your shoulders likely tend to creep up toward your ears as you get tense. Imagine your shoulders sliding away from your neck. It's a good idea to incorporate this into your routine just before racing. You might try breathing to center and relaxing your shoulders and then shaking your arms, as if the relaxation travels down from your neck to your fingers. Many swimmers shake their arms as part of their routine already. Adding at least two deep, slow breaths and then shoulder relaxation is an easy way to keep the nerves in check.

Use self-talk.
During the deep breathing, you can repeat to yourself affirmations, such as "I am strong and prepared." Or you can shorten it to a two-word phrase or mantra, such as "strong and prepared, strong and prepared" over and over in a controlled rhythm. Focused thoughts are better than a racing mind. Keeping the thoughts slow and rhythmic can help you slow your heart beat and breathing rate. By repeating affirmations, you reign in your mind and counter the doubts, not giving them a chance.

If your thoughts seem to be everywhere or out of control, you might try repeatedly confirming what you are about to do. Say to yourself "quick start, down and back, down and back" or "just 4 x 50." This helps keep your mind on the task rather than all the possible outcomes. Task-oriented or instructional thoughts are neutral, and it is better to be neutral than negative or doubting.

Sometimes positive thinking when you are full of doubt can increase the doubt because it just doesn't feel true, or it perpetuates follow-up thoughts such as "what if [what I'm thinking is not true?]" Even so, you might be great at arguing with yourself. Dispute the self-doubt by answering back, "So what?" and then by reminding yourself of how you have succeeded in the past or some other rationalization (see Practice Self-Talk and Perform Self-Talk). End with a command to go after it or have fun.

Take the pressure off.
When we perceive upcoming events are bigger than they are, the challenge becomes overwhelming. When we focus on how we cannot control the outcome, we sense helplessness or doubt. It is natural to fear the unknown.

Put it in perspective. What is the worst that can happen? Even losing a place on a relay, a scholarship to college, or a chance to compete at the next highest level is survivable. And worrying about it, rather than making these goals more likely, makes them less likely. Think about how "it's just another meet," "just another race," "just swimming."

Rationalize to lower the pressure. Tell yourself something like, "I've done this hundreds of times before, and I wouldn't be here if I wasn't good at it. So let's just do it!"

You can also break down the task to make it seem more manageable. If a 100 fly seems overwhelming, you might focus on the parts, such as, "All I have to do is swim 12 strokes, then turn, four kicks, 12 strokes, then turn, and then just race a 50!"

Focus on what you do know and what you can do. And focus on what you enjoy about the sport. .
Distract yourself.

If you are someone who gets especially anxious before a race, it might help to be more distracted. Play some calming or funky music. Tell jokes with your friends. Dance around. Keep it fun! Then just before the start of the race, cue in, remind yourself of the task (distance and stroke and coach's instructions), and go.

Use imagery.
If you feel the nerves in your belly, you can imagine the queasiness as butterflies and then mentally have them fly away. If you feel tightness in your muscles, imagine a knot loosening. Re-label the nerves as energy and then imagine yourself as a caged tiger, pacing and ready to pounce.

You can also visualize past success, especially other races when you felt nervous and then succeeded, can re-affirm your ability to do it now. As part of your routine before your race, you could also visualize the upcoming race. Just don't use this technique if the doubt creates images of failure rather than success.

Act as if you are confident.
If self-doubt continues in spite of efforts to ignore it or counter it, just pretend to be confident. Act as if you are, and the amazing thing is that you will likely feel more confident. Studies show the simple act of smiling can lighten our moods. It's the same trick when you act confident. Your body sends the message to your brain that you actually are confident. Because this message is contending with our thoughts about how unsure you are, you may not feel entirely confident, but it sure can help. And eventually the message from your behaviors, poise, and facial expression may just conquer the doubt.

Imagine the most confident swimmer you can think of and mimic the way he or she acts. Stand tall with your chest up and shoulders back. Look straight ahead rather than down. Shake your arms and legs and jump up and down with big, sure movements. Step up like you are excited and just can't wait to race.

By acting as if you've got it, by having fun and reducing the pressure, by affirming your ability and countering the doubt, by breathing to center, and by interpreting the anxious feelings as a sign you are ready, you can defeat the nerves, worry, and fear you feel before a race. You can work with the water rather than fighting it. You can stretch and glide through the water with "easy speed." You can go from looking confident on the outside to feeling confident on the inside. All you need to do is learn to use the nerves to help you swim fast.

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.