Which Pre-Race Mentality is Right for You?

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By Devin Javens, Swimming World College Intern. 

As swimmers get older, their mentality come race time significantly changes. Unlike when we were kids, we have race strategies, the competition, meet cuts, and other external and internal pressures that can often make or break our races. How you mentally prepare for a race can determine the outcome before you even dive into the water.

There are two distinct pre-race mentalities that swimmers adopt. Some athletes thrive off of complete and total internal focus, whereas others need to stay social and interactive in order to stay loose behind the blocks. However, it can be difficult to finding which mindset works best for you. The journey to finding the pre-race mentality that works best for you is a learning process built on trial and error and can sometimes take a long time to figure out. So how can you figure out which one is best suited for you? Read on to find out.

Extreme Focus


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Zoning in on the competition and blocking the rest of the world out works best to motivate certain swimmers when it’s time to race. For others, adopting this strategy can make them tighten up and psych themselves out of the race.  Those who thrive off the adrenaline that comes from nerves often perform best under these conditions. Stepping away from others and isolating themselves to get into race mode is most effective for these swimmers.

A big part of this pre-race mentality is music. Music serves as a way to block out any outside distractions and allows swimmers to focus on their own thoughts. Additionally, music is the best way to get yourself amped up before a race. Michael Phelps is probably the best known swimmer who has thrived under this mentality during his swimming career. In a 2005 interview with The GuardianPhelps recalls: “I have walked out to race with my headphones on throughout my whole career and listen to music until the last possible moment. It helps me to relax and get into my own little world.”

I’m sure every swimmer can recall the iconic moment during the 2016 Rio Olympics in the ready room of the 200 butterfly semi-finals where Chad le Clos was shadow boxing in front of a seemingly very angry Phelps. Only later did we find out that Phelps was so focused that he barely even noticed le Clos’ possible attempt to psych him out. TODAY got the scoop from Phelps about what was really going through his head during this iconic moment: “I just had music going on in my head. I had thoughts going on in my head – spitting water a little bit all over the place – so I was in my own zone,” Phelps recalls. “I was not intentionally mean-mugging him or giving him a dirty look.”

Phelps’ pre-race mentality allowed him to completely block out outside distractions, like le Clos, and focus in on the race ahead. The extreme focus mentality allows swimmers to only worry about what’s going inside their own heads rather than worrying about what’s happening around them, best preparing them for their race.

Loose and Relaxed

Ashley McGregor and Breeja Larson relax before their 100 breaststroke heats.

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

This extreme focus mentality only works for certain swimmers. Some may benefit from this type of mindset, but this could mentally cripple others, leaving them too nervous and potentially psyching themselves out of the race. For these swimmers, it’s best that they stay social and interactive behind the blocks. The best way to do this is to socialize.

Talking to others is the best way for these swimmers to stay loose. Unlike those who thrive off of extreme focus, these swimmers need to stay out of their own heads. This is where thoughts of doubt and worry can often distract them from the race themselves. These athletes worry about every possible thing that could go wrong during the race and often can worry about their own ability to perform well. Talking to others can distract them from their own worries and keep the atmosphere light and casual.

Laughing and goofing around is the best way for these swimmers to not take themselves and the race too seriously. A sense of nervousness and dread can often surround racing for these swimmers because of the immense pressure that comes with it. These swimmers can become suffocated by external expectations and the desire to perform well, eventually breaking them. These swimmers need to remember to have fun with the race and not take it so seriously.

Which swimmer are you?


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Finding out which mentality works best for you can be sometimes difficult to pin down. It’s easiest to examine your thoughts and feelings before a race to find which mindset you should adopt. Are you uncontrollably nervous, or do you need to be completely focused before you race? Every athlete has different needs come race time, so pay attention to how you feel.

No matter how hard you’ve trained leading up to your race, your mentality will determine whether or not your performance will be successful, and knowing what mindset works best for you can maximize your chances of having a successful outcome.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Lauren Miles Lee
5 years ago

Ashley Helton Smith gee I wonder… ?

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