Mike's Mailbag: Letting Go of Fear


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please send me a question or note or even an interesting swimming story idea at swimmingstories@gmail.com. 

Dear Mike,

I've been swimming for about 7 years now. And as weird as it sounds, I really do love going to practice every day! Unfortunately, sometimes during practice, I begin to do badly on a set (maybe miss an interval or something). Then my head begins to get very negative and I start to notice everything bad that's going on. I remember all of my technique difficulties and see all of my teammates passing me and doing better than me. I even start to worry about disappointing my coach. I know that on these days, my effort level is significantly worse and that also bothers me and makes me more upset. After this process starts to happen, there's no going back. I usually stay in this awfully negative state of mind for the rest of practice, and sometimes even for the rest of the day! This problem can even continue in meets. If I have one bad race, it will affect my head so much that it becomes very difficult for me to believe that I can have a good race. I've been working on this but most of the time I cannot pull myself out of the hole that I've fallen into. Any suggestions?

Mentally-Stuck Swimmer


Yesterday, I watched the Winter Olympics. During an interview, one snowboarder said she was learning to “let go of fear.” This bluntness struck me as unusual – Olympians get scared? She and fellow teammates read legendary NBA basketball coach Phil Jackson’s latest book. She said fear was the thing that holds people back from best performances.

Let go of fear.”

I thought about that.

Over the past months, this advice column has addressed swimmers’ fears. Swimmers of all ages have emailed questions ranging from “annoying teammates” to over-zealous parents to year-long plateaus to injuries. Last week, I told swimmers to find “Zen in Swimming” – to breathe, control emotion, and embrace the moment.

But you can’t embrace the moment when you’re filled with fear. When your hands shake and the fear of failure hangs like a black cloud. When you stand behind the blocks and think about missing a best time, a turn, or letting down a parent, teammate, or coach. Fear is what holds us back. Fear is a big, bucket-sized drag suit.

How do you let go of fear?

First, understand fear. Understand what scares you. Are you scared about swimming poorly? Letting someone down? Racing? Championship meets? Why? Why do you step to the blocks and get filled with fear?

Fear is widespread in swimming. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of letting down a coach. Fear of letting down relay members. Fear of missing a best time. Fear you’ll finish and realize your season is over. Fear you’ll get disqualified. Fear the race will hurt. Fear you’ll let yourself down.

Fear permeates our sport more than others because swimming can be an individualistic sport. When you race, not only are you alone, but you’re alone with your thoughts. You can’t scream. You can’t listen to a coach’s encouraging words. A teammate can’t give you a high-five at the 175-yard marker. Though teammates cheer, and people in the stands wave, and coaches whistle you onwards, you are alone in the water, a scoreboard ticks, and your thoughts run wild.

This is when fear kicks in.

Everyone – even Olympians -- get scared, nervous, or anxious. Understanding and acknowledging fear is Step One. Don’t fight fear. If you’re feeling afraid or you’re scared about not going a best time, don’t fight it. Let fear exist so you make it real in your head -- so you see and understand it.

Then, once you acknowledge fear, like a helium balloon in your hand, let it go.

I’ve read many ways how to let go of fear. One way is to find a quiet place, breathe, concentrate on your breath until breathing is the only thought in your head. Or imagine fear as something real and then imagine it floating away, burning up, being buried in the ground, or sent out to sea. Or write your fear on a piece of paper, crumple it up, and literally throw it away.

Fear is what holds us back. It’s the tether strapped around our waist, the bucket around our feet, the drag suit bogging us down. When you’re fixated on consequences of an action that hasn’t yet happened, you’re thinking ahead of the action. You’re thinking beyond the finish line, which means, even on a sub-conscious level, you’re thinking of something besides the race. And when you think of something besides the race, you’re taking energy away from the race itself.

Last week, I wrote about finding Zen in Swimming. Zen is about being in the moment -- it is also about letting go. Letting go of expectations, and detaching from fear.

Mentally Stuck Swimmer, I hear you. I know what it’s like to swim a bad race on Day One and assume that the rest of the meet will go badly. I’ve been there. When you have one bad race, you spiral downwards because you assume other bad races are ahead. Instead of focusing on the next race, you’re making predictions about future races based on past races.

Don’t do this.

When you have a bad race, let it go.

Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald often tells players if they have a bad play, “Flush it.” Meaning that if and when you fail, acknowledge that failure, realize it, understand it, and then let it go. It’s over. It’s done. Flush it.

Fear is drag. This championship season, let it go. Learn to swim without expectations. Don’t be afraid of swimming poorly. Don’t be afraid of swimming fast. Don’t be afraid of anything.

Just swim.

ArenaBMWMarriottMyrtha PoolsOmegaPhillips 66SpeedoTYR