Mike's Mailbag: Finding Auto-Pilot


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

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

Hi Mike,

I just read your last article on over-thinking at meets. It raised the question, how do I mentally and emotionally prepare myself for a meet, where I am going for times that I physically know I am capable of swimming, but my mind continually second-guesses me and leads me to believe I cannot swim those times?

-Swimmer from New Jersey
Hey Swimmer from New Jersey,

Routine. Routine is everything.

Routine typically helps athletes perform better. You know how athletes typically perform much better at “home” games versus “away” games? Sure, the home crowd helps. But mostly, home competitions are all about the routine: Sleeping in the same bed. Having the same breakfast. Seeing the same streets en route to the stadium. Familiarity breeds confidence. Confidence breeds success.

But when you’re a swimmer, most of your meets will be away. You’ll likely have to travel to another pool in another county or state for your big championship meet. You’ll have a new routine, new bed, new hotel, new breakfast. Sometimes you’ll even have to travel to another time zone, or – in some cases – another country with another language.

It’s important to find little things that give you a routine, because routines will bring your body back to that “practice performance” mentality. Routines will familiarize your body with itself, just like in practice.

The thing is, Swimmer From New Jersey, you’re worried you aren’t swimming the times you know you’re capable of. I hear you. Many times, I had that same problem. You train great, you have awesome practice times, and then you get to the big meet, and performances just aren’t where they should be. You swim slower than you expected, and you’re left wondering, “Why?”

A lot of people talk about “practice swimmers” versus “meet swimmers” and I’m not sure there’s a huge distinction between the two. I think certain swimmers know how they need to approach a meet – they know their championship meet routines. Practice swimmers get into a zone in practice, they push their bodies, and they often place huge importance on the everyday. But meet swimmers have the confidence that they’re going to do great at a meet, even if they have bad practices. Meet swimmers often thrive in big meets because that’s where their focus is, and are much more comfortable with the routine of a big meet.

To me, it all comes down to routine for championship-level meets. Whether you’re a “practice swimmer” or a “meet swimmer” you need to figure out what routine works for you. If you’re swimming great in practice, then you should mimic your practice routine when you go away for a swim meet. If you wake and eat an apple before practice, eat an apple before the big meet. If you swim 4,000 yards before you begin to feel in “the zone” in practice, consider swimming a long warm-up for a meet.

I once talked to Gary Hall, Jr. about his approach for championship meets, and he said he would warm up until he felt prepared. That definitely would vary, and the yards might be different before each race, but his routine was to swim until he felt ready.

That, in itself, is a routine.

Practice Swimmers often tend to mix up their routine and try to be something they’re not for championship-level meets. They spend an entire season training 7,000 yards a practice, then think their body will be ready after 200 yards and a start or two. Not everyone is a Gary Hall Jr. Some people need to do long warm ups, or know exact yardage it takes to get back into that zone, and they need certain breakfasts and bedtimes and a familiar routine in order to give their body the confidence it needs. You might be one of these swimmers.

Let me ask you this: When you’re in the zone at practice, and you’re fighting it out, and you’re hitting the last repeat of the last set, and your coach gives you a time to achieve on the last part of practice, do you let your mind wander and second-guess yourself? Do you stop on the wall 3 seconds before you have to leave and say, “I don’t think I can do that time!” No. You just push off the wall and go try to do it. You’re not thinking.

Absence of thought can be a good thing for athletes. Over-thinking, as I wrote about last week, comes from passion. And when passion is applied, that can be a good thing, but too much passion can lead to too much thinking, which can snuff out the fire before it starts.

Routine, I believe, can help practice swimmers get back into “the mental zone” for big meets. Because you’re less worried about all those X-Factors that an away meet provides. You’re not thinking about what breakfast to have, about warm-ups, about which sports drink to consume. When you keep as many constants as possible in transition from practice to a meet, you can just let your body do what it knows it can do.

It sounds like that you second-guess yourself before meets. But try approaching meets the same way you approach practice. Find a routine. Go through the routine for an entire month before your championship meet. Do the same warm-up, eat the same foods, sleep at the same time of night. Let your body get used to the routine.

You don’t second-guess yourself in practice. So don’t second-guess yourself before a big meet. The beauty of swimming is, even though at big meets the facilities, time zones, and breakfasts may be different than your practice pool, the water is the same. The water didn’t change – it didn’t get thicker, or colder, or different in any inherent, elemental way. The only thing that is different is your approach. Keep your approach the same every day, day in and day out, and soon, your body will take over, your mind will shut itself down, and you’ll be on auto-pilot… just like you are in practice.

Hope this helps.

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