Mike's Mailbag: Your Next Shot


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

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


Dear Mike,

My taper meet is coming up next week and I want to try and do something different for it. The last two taper meets have ended up a disaster, so I realized I needed to change up the way that I emotionally, mentally, and physically prepare for my taper meet. I'm just kind of clueless as to what I should do. How do I mentally prepare myself to go to times that I've always wanted? And how do I deal with the anxiety that I'll face before my race? I work really hard at practice, but I always feel like I didn't do enough. How can I prevent myself from second-guessing my training?
Nervous Swimmer

Hi Nervous Swimmer,

The first thing you need to do: Stop thinking about your previous two tapers. Flush it. They’re over, done, gone, and in the past. Don’t think about them anymore. Those tapers and those championship meets are over and done with. They don’t affect what’s ahead. Imagine you’re playing basketball: If you miss the first free throw, does that mean you’ll miss the second? No. Every free throw is a new chance, a new opportunity to make a basket. And every taper is a new swim meet, a new season, and a new opportunity.

Of course, putting bad seasons behind you is easier said than done. 

While I appreciate that you want to do everything different and revamp yourself emotionally, mentally, and physically, to be honest, this seems extreme. You have trained hard. You have practiced hard. You woke up in the mornings and did the workouts. Now you need to trust your body and live in the moment. 

Honestly, I understand you want to do things differently – it’s a nice thought to be a different person, especially when you didn’t get results you had expected. But re-inventing your entire persona also seems daunting. You’ve learned about yourself, and you’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way – not just from this previous swimming season, but seasons from the past. 

You don’t have to re-invent yourself. Instead, ask yourself: What did I learn from bad tapers? What did I experience that I’d like to change? Athletes learn more in defeat than in victory. Rather than fixating on bad tapers, use them to your advantage. Learn from them. You don’t have to be a new person. 

While we don’t know each other, judging from your email, I’d guess that you get nervous before races. We all do. How can you use that nervous energy to your advantage? 

First, instead of letting nerves build inside you hours, days, and weeks before your race, ask yourself: How can I pace this nervous energy? Using your nervousness to your advantage is like swimming: You don’t sprint the first 50 of a 500, and you don’t want to start getting nervous for a race a week before the race starts. Your body will get too tired by the time the meet comes around. If you can “pace” your nervousness so those nerves unleash at the exact moment of the race itself—and thus not waste energy before the race -- then you will be able to use your nervousness to your advantage. Figure out how you can stay more relaxed in the hours and days and weeks before a big meet. How do you like to relax? Listening to music? Joking with friends? Finding a quiet spot on the deck to close your eyes and relax? Only you can answer this, and yes, sometimes, it’s a process to discover. But the key part of this is, use the energy. Use the nervousness. Anxiety can control you. Nervousness can be harnessed and utilized. 

Have you ever heard the cliché story of the mother pumped up with adrenaline lifting up a car to save her kids after an accident? Adrenaline can be very powerful in sports, too. Rather than re-invent yourself and become a new person, simply ask yourself: How can I use my body’s adrenaline to help me during races? 

When I was a swimmer, I literally imagined myself harnessing that adrenaline. I imagined that my nerves and those butterflies inside of me were like some sort of superhero magic, like a sports bottle inside of me, and I would use it during my race. Imagining my nerves like this helped give me the impression like I was in control. That, two seconds before my race started, I could just unscrew the cap of adrenaline, gulp it down, and unleash.

The scary thing about big championship swim meets is that, oftentimes, we athletes feel out of control. The meet moves fast. The heats move fast. Everything happens so quickly, we get nervous as though we feel spinning and flying out of control. 

Take control. Some athletes visualize future situations to give themselves more “experience” of actually “being there” and thus feeling like they are the ones in control. For me, visualization always made me more nervous, so I would embrace every single moment as I went. If I was eating breakfast, my one task right then and there was to eat breakfast. If I was warming up, my one task then and there was to warm up my body. If I was sitting, then I sat. And if I raced, then I raced. 

You have trained hard. Anyone who has gone through a swimming season has trained hard and worked hard and put in the effort. You can’t tell me that you haven’t swam enough yards throughout this season to race a 100, or a 200, or a 500, or a 50. You could step up right now and sprint a 200 backstroke. You have the physical ability to do this. You have done the training. You have done the hard part.

Now use your nervousness for good. Let it help you. 

Nervous Swimmer, don’t re-invent yourself. Instead, analyze those previous tapers, learn something from them, put them behind you, and take your next free throw. Just because you missed before doesn’t mean you won’t hit your next swish. 

Hope this helps.