Avoiding Psych-Outs and Intimidation


By Alan Goldberg//competitivedge.com

Are there certain opponents who regularly “push your emotional buttons?”
You know what I mean… Other swimmers who somehow know exactly what to do to get inside your head before your race, distract your focus, sabotage your confidence and drive your level of nervousness through the roof? It may start the night before the meet, when you first begin to think about them. Or maybe you begin “losing it” after a comment they make or look that they give you when you're behind the blocks. Then you can't stop thinking about them, and those out-of-control nerves run away with your chances of having a good race.

The cause of psych-outs and intimidation is very simple and has to do with you making a basic concentration mistake: You allow your pre-race focus of concentration to drift from YOU and what YOU are doing, to SOMEONE ELSE and what THEY are doing, or what you THINK they are doing. It's this “other” focus that is always the main culprit in psych-outs, killing your confidence and making you far too nervous and physically tight to swim to your potential.

Diane was a distance swimmer I once worked with who felt tormented by another swimmer on her team. Let's call her Sue. Sue used to regularly come up to Diane before races and tell her that she had one goal in this race, and it was to “kick your butt!” While this comment may have fired up another swimmer to race faster and shut Sue up, it only served to shut Diane down. Why? Because both before and during her race, Diane couldn't stop thinking about Sue, how annoyed she was at her for playing her stupid head games, and how she really needed to beat Sue. This “other” focus and over-thinking about the outcome, (needing to beat Sue), distracted Diane from paying attention to what SHE was doing, her pre-race ritual and staying calm behind the blocks and then focusing on the feel of her race, which was what would help her go fast.

Here's the good news about psych-outs and intimidation: No other swimmer has control over you! No other swimmer can psych you out or intimidate you unless you inadvertently do things which will allow this to happen! That is, in order to get intimidated, you have to “make a choice,” like Diane, to pay attention to that particular swimmer. You have to allow your focus of concentration to drift to someone else and then fail to bring your focus back to what you are doing. This is how you give someone “psych-out power” over you.


There are two things that you must get good at doing in order to neutralize another swimmer's power over you, two things that will make you immune to getting psyched out:

  1. Stay aware of your focus of concentration before and during your races – In order to correct any mistake, you must first become aware that you're making one. The first step in “psych-out proofing” yourself is you have to immediately become aware the moment that your concentration has drifted to someone else, either before or during your race. This awareness puts you in a position to neutralize that mental mistake by doing No. 2, below
  2. Quickly and gently return your focus to what YOU are doing – Losing your focus and letting it drift to another swimmer by itself won't hurt you. What will hurt you and fuel your feelings of intimidation is not immediately bringing your concentration back to what YOU are doing. It's a break in concentration that you don't catch that will undermine your self-confidence and stress you out. It's only when you allow your thoughts and focus to “hang out” with another swimmer that you'll start to feel intimidated by them. 

Keep in mind that mental skills are just like physical ones: The more you practice them, the better you'll get! Even if you've been an easy target for psych-outs in the past, you can systematically train yourself to be mentally tough for the future. Here's how:

  • Arrange specific things that you can systematically focus on before your race. These would be all of the steps of your pre-race ritual. (i.e. listening to music, stretching, jumping up and down, slowing and deepening your breathing, mentally reviewing your race strategy, etc.). Your job is to use these specific steps as a way to distract you from the intimidation-causing distractions from the other swimmer. That is, if you put all of your concentration on the steps of your pre-race ritual, there will be no “mental room” to focus on the stress-inducing thoughts about this other racer. For example, Diane, got behind the blocks, turned her music up loudly on her iPod, focused on stretching her legs out first, then her arms, all the while keeping her eyes locked on a spot behind the blocks. The trick is always to get more interested in what YOU are doing than what you think someone else is doing.
  • Be sure to concentrate mentally on what YOU are doing while you're doing it physically. Your pre-race ritual will only help you avoid getting psyched out if, while you’re doing it physically, you're concentrating mentally on each step of that ritual. So when Diane stretched the left side of her body before the right, she made sure that she only thought about and focused on the feel of what she was doing, rather than on her thoughts about Sue.
  • Every time you get to race in practice from a start, you want to practice going through this very same ritual, focusing ONLY on what YOU are doing. Look for opportunities in practice, and even during dry land where you can practice keeping your concentration on what YOU are doing and on no one else. Those times that you find your thoughts and focus going to another swimmer, be sure to immediately return your focus back to what YOU are doing. 

Remember, no one can psych you out unless you allow it. Start right now to close the door on psych-outs and intimidation!

Dr. Alan Goldberg CDsAs a sports psychology consultant, Dr. Alan Goldberg works with swimmers at every level. A presenter at the Olympic Training Center, swim coaches clinics and clubs around the country, Dr. G specializes in helping swimmers struggling with performance problems, get unstuck and swim fast when it counts the most. He works over Skype, providing one-on-one consultation with swimmers and other athletes around the world. Dr. G has written over 35 mental toughness training programs and books. In addition, he is a regular contributor to Splash Magazine.

For more FREE mental toughness tips and swim articles, go to Dr. Goldberg's website, www.competitivedge.com and click on “choose your sport” and then “swimming.” You can also visit him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and sign up for his free, monthly mental toughness newsletter.

Want to get a head start on your mental toughness training? Dr. Goldberg's
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Questions? I hope you'll feel free to contact Dr. Goldberg at
Goldberg@competitivedge.com or call directly (413) 549-1085.


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