Mike's Mailbag: Overthinking During Races


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please send me a note at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Hey Mike,

I read some of your articles and they inspired me a lot. I have one problem too: I think too much. Every time I have a competition. This weekend I thought too much and swam a bad time. I know that I could swim faster, but it doesn't work when I'm thinking. If you could give me some advice about that problem, I would be very, very happy!

A reader from Berlin, Germany


Hello, Berlin!

“Overthinking” is every swimmer’s kryptonite. On the one hand, you want to think about technique and race strategy; on the other hand, too much thinking takes you out of “the moment” and into your head, where doubts and negativity linger. Swimmers often hear certain kinds of advice all the time:

“Be in the moment.”

“Let your body do the work.”

“Be in the zone.”

How do you get into the zone? That place of unconscious consciousness, when races seem easy and your body takes over?

The short answer is, it’s different for every swimmer. Some swimmers use music to relax or be in the moment, other swimmers stretch and breathe and find a quiet place, other swimmers find their best mental states around teammates, conversing, laughing, and joking.

Every swimmer finds “the zone” differently. I’ve written about this many times, but I actually imagine myself in a ‘scooter race’ instead of a swim race. For some reason, putting myself outside of the context of swimming made me less nervous: It’s just a race, between people, using arm and leg motions. Just like one of those scooter races when you lay flat on your stomach on a scooter board. (Though perhaps they don’t do this in Germany?)

What’s more important is asking yourself: Why are you over-thinking? Why are you thinking so much about this particular race that you actually swim poorly?

Overthinking, I believe, stems from passion. You want so badly to succeed that you ponder every detail. Swimmers, in particular, are prone to pondering. We spend literally years immersed in water, alone with thoughts, drowning in them. You think. You wonder. You plot, plan, and strategize. During practice, it’s tough to shut off your brain. During a race, though, you want to be on auto-drive. You want to let your body take over.

Passion is a good thing, but at the same time, so is perspective. There’s a fine balance between the two. For example, imagine that you had to take a test. A test you studied for not just for a week or a month, but 10 years. It’s a really big test, one that drives your passion. You studied upwards of four hours a day for this test. You thought about this test, dreamed about this test, imagined yourself taking the test, for 10 years. Now, on the morning of this test, how do you think you will feel? Anxious? Nervous to the point of paralysis?


Perspective can aid passion, like water helping a plant grow. Remember that swimming is not the most important thing in your life. If it is, perhaps it’s best to find some balance. Take some music classes, join a book club, get outside the pool and jog for dryland, take hikes, just get outside your own head. Cultivate passions other than swimming.

Going back to that test taking analogy, if you took this test knowing your entire life was going to be shaped by this test, how do you think you’ll do? Flip that around, and imagine yourself walking into the test knowing that, whatever happens, you’re still going to be okay and your life will still be fine even if you fail the test, and you’ll likely have less nerves, anxiety, and fear, and be free from worry. And when you’re free from worry, you can devote all your attention to the task at hand.

So if you find yourself overthinking during a race, stop thinking of the past and the future. Only think of the moment. The placement of a hand, the angle of an arm, the follow-through and finish.

My entire career, I was an over thinker. I thought about splits, flips, turns, starts. I analyzed videos. I imagined races. I scribbled goal times. Sometimes it helped, most the time, though, it made me very nervous. Only at meets when I truly had little expectation – at meets when there was nothing to lose and I could let myself fly – did I perform my best. The week after the big meet. A dual meet with little on the line.

The scooter race strategy helped me, and so did music, and Zen breathing. All of these things helped me concentrate exactly at the task at hand, instead of thinking about five seconds in the future.

Berlin, you can practice “being in the moment” by focusing on daily tasks. When you walk, walk. Look at the sidewalk and the trees and the sky and your steps. Be in the moment. And when you swim, swim. Notice your technique and your arm motions and your breathing. After a while, with practice and daily “in the moment” training, you’ll eventually get better at being in the moment, and less prone to overthinking.

Hope this helps.