Mike's Mailbag: Dealing with Extreme Anxiety


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes swimmers email me questions for advice. I’m not a doctor or swim coach, so take this advice with a grain of salt, but I’ve been around the sport my entire life as an NCAA swimmer, coach and writer. If you have questions please send them to swimmingstories@gmail.com.  

Hi Mike,

So I was wondering if I could have your advice on something. I have been swimming since I was 7 for a YMCA team. I always had fun with it and loved it, until a few years ago. When I was in 7th grade, my coach mentioned that I was close to making it to nationals in the 100 back and I suddenly started putting pressure on myself. I came less than a second away from the cut by the end of the season and was disappointed. The next season, I started off with confidence and suddenly hit a plateau. My 8th grade season, I didn’t improve my backstroke, but I improved my butterfly drastically, and before I knew it, I was a half second from nationals. That’s when I started being my own worst enemy. Every time I swam the 100 fly, I thought about how close I was. Even tapered, I didn’t drop time. My freshmen year, it got worse. I only dropped a few tenths and still missed the cut. At YMCA states, I worried so much that I felt physically sick before going up to the blocks. I was miserable. I debated returning to the team next season. After convincing from my mom and coach, I decided to pursue swimming and not give up on my goals. I recently learned I have an anxiety disorder. Do you know ways I can focus on technique instead of my time?
Thank you so much.
-- Anxious Swimmer

Dear Anxious Swimmer:

I’m glad you asked me this question, because many swimmers experience this. You focus so much on one stroke, trying to drop time and achieve a goal, then all of a sudden, you experience a sudden time drop in a different stroke that you weren’t focusing on. So you start focusing on that stroke, and – wouldn’t you know it? – you stop dropping time. Again.

I was the same way. One season, I was a breaststroker. Then, when I stopped dropping time in breaststroke, the next season I became a backstroker. Then, after my backstroke hit a plateau, I became a distance freestyler. Then, after I stopped dropping freestyle, it was back to breaststroke…

This is one of the reasons why maintaining a balanced, all-around approach to swimming is necessary. I’ve never believed that it’s healthy for a swimmer as young as 8th grade to consider herself a “backstroker” or a “breaststroker.” Swimmers need to be trained and learn all the strokes and race all the distances for a great number of years. Growth, preferences, flexibility, technique improvements… these things all change as you get older.

Anxious, I’m glad you didn’t quit swimming, and I think you’ll be glad later in life, too. However, it’s not fun to be so nervous before a race that you feel yourself getting sick. We probably both know that the reason why you’re not dropping time in the event you’re training and focusing on is because you’re focusing too much on the race before it happens. You’re over-thinking, which can lead to nerves, which can lead to poor performance. Let me use an anecdote:

Imagine you’re taking a math test. Only, this isn’t just any math test. This is the math test that determines whether or not you will get into college. And not just college in general – but which college. And – oh yeah! – this is the math test that determines if you who your future best friends will be, and perhaps who your future spouse will be. You’ve thought about this math test non-stop for the last two years. And you only have one minute to complete this math test. And everyone’s watching you. And it’s really quiet. And it determines your entire life.

Nervous yet?

Of course you are! It’s because you’re putting way too much pressure on yourself. Let me ask you this: Let’s say you don’t qualify for YMCA Nationals. Would you be disappointed? Of course. Is it the end of the world? Absolutely not. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s not even close. Swimming is a sport – pure and simple as that. It’s not determining the rest of your life. It’s not determining where you go to college – only you can do that. It’s not determining who your future spouse will be – only you can do that. It’s not determining if you’re going to live or die. It’s not determining anything, except how fast between two walls you can go. That’s it. That’s all it’s measuring.

Everything else is up to you. If you want to experience swimming as a sport where you push yourself to the best of your ability, no time can accurately measure that. Only you can measure that. Only you can say, “I gave this 100%.” If you want to go through the sport of swimming and focus on small, little improvements here and there, only you can do that. No time can tell you, “You did not do your best backstroke turns last Friday afternoon practice.”

Let me reiterate this, because, Anxious, I think it’s really, really important to understand this: Times will not determine if you had a meaningful experience in swimming. Only you can determine that.

I know, of course, that it’s disappointing when you don’t achieve a best time. And it can be frustrating. You may even think to yourself, “Why am I doing this if I’m not dropping time?” But swimming is about so much more than times. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but looking back on my own career, I don’t remember swimming times. I only remember teammates, trips, and the fun times I had with the people involved with the sport. It’s rare when I look back and ponder the times I did or didn’t go my freshman year in high school. Swimming is about so much more than that.

In the beginning of this response, I told you that I was just like you. It’s true. When I was your age, I was a “heady swimmer.” I was very much into my own races, so much so that I would throw up before races because I was nervous. Sometimes before races, I’d have so much saliva building that I’d have to spit it into the warm-up pool or else I’d throw up. It wasn’t pretty. And I definitely didn’t swim fast when I experienced that.

But my trick was this: Whenever I began to feel nervous, I just imagined that I was about to partake in a scooter race. You know: Those scooter races where you lie down on a flat board (it looks like a bigger skateboard) and push yourself across the ground – usually you do this in kindergarten gym class. I imagined that everyone else had a scooter and we were all about to partake in a scooter race across the gym floor. Only, it was in the water and simply pushing ourselves between two walls.

The scooter race trick always calmed me. You know why? Because suddenly it was just a sport again. The race didn’t seem like this gigantic, all-important life-determining event. It wasn’t this race that would determine where I went to college, who was my future best man, or what career I would have.

It was just a scooter race. And it was fun.

Our problem – we of the anxious realm – is that we spend so much time in swim practice inside our own heads that we never get out of them. We need to take a step back. We need to get perspective outside our chlorinated brains. Swimming and scooter races are no different. They are merely pushing your bodies between two points of distance.

The next time you step up to the blocks, just imagine that you’re back in kindergarten again, and you’re about to partake in a scooter race. Or imagine something else. Find your own trick. Do whatever you can to take yourself away from gigantic expectations you’re placing upon yourself. Because no swim race determines anything except for a time. It does not determine if you had fun that day, or if you get along with your teammates, or if you have worked your turns perfectly last Friday afternoon. We need to get away from this perspective that swimming times determine enjoyment in the sport.

And once we do that, we’ll realize that swimming is a lot like a scooter race.

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