Mike's Mailbag: Making Mid-Season Meets Matter


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Sometimes I’m emailed advice questions. I’m not a doctor or swim coach, but I’ve been an NCAA swimmer, coach, and writer for most my life. Please take my advice with a grain of salt. If you have questions, you can always email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Hi Mike,

Your advice articles are really interesting and I'm looking for advice on in-season meets. I never swim well until championships, and although I know some of that is physical, my times are so off and I'm usually not tired at the end of the race so I think it's mainly mental. I tend to swim well in high school meets when it's a tough meet and I know I need to do it for the team, but during club (in season) meets, I just don't have the motivation. As much as I want to swim well, I have the mindset that the in-season times really don't matter. To be honest, I'm really laid back at the meets and just don't care even though I try to get myself to. Any advice on how to swim better in season?

Careless Swimmer

Hi Careless Swimmer,

Thanks for your note. I know the feeling. It’s the middle of the season. You’re tired. It’s Saturday morning prelims. You’re staring down the pool for a 400 IM and you’re wondering, “Do I really have to make myself borderline pass out in pain and agony when the only meet that really matters is the final championships, when I’m shaved and tapered?”

It’s true that you’ll (probably) swim faster when you’re rested, shaved, and tapered. But treating mid-season meets like they aren’t important compared to the final meet is sort of like treating mid-season practices like they aren’t as important as taper practices. The entire season matters. Each meet, each practice, and each main set is a building block that, by the end of the season, adds up to a best time. But I’m sure you know this. I don’t need to harp on these kinds of clichés you already know by now. It sounds like the problem is simply getting motivated for mid-season meets.

So here are a few tricks you can try:

1. Videotape your races.
Have a teammate or a coach grab a cell phone and record your races. Typically, the reason why swimmers don’t care as much about mid-season meets is because, deep down, many swimmers think that we can’t approach end-of-season times. What’s the point? However, when you videotape races, you can see what you’re doing in these mid-season meets. You can see your turns, starts, stroke technique, stroke count, pacing, and your racing strategy. From there, I think you’ll be able to pick things to work on—stroke count, for example--regardless of times.

(Side Note: Have you ever watched a video of you swimming in practice? It’s weird. Try it once. You’ll see so many things that you should fix that you never realized before.)

2. Compare mid-season times to mid-season times a season ago.
Sure, in mid-October, you might not achieve a personal best time. But you could achieve a personal best October time. When I swam, I rarely approached best times mid-season. I was too broken down, too tired, too overworked. Instead of comparing mid-season times to best times, I compared current mid-season times to mid-season times a season ago. Am I faster than last October? How much faster? Or, why am I slower? Older veterans refer to “best in-season times” like a consolation victory, because it is. If you see that you’re faster at a specific point compared to the same point last season, then, technically, you’re improving. Instead of best times, aim for your “best October time.”

3. Limit your events.
Some coaches might disagree. But I advocate that it’s better to learn to swim one or two events and swim those events fast—with 100% effort—than it is to swim five or six events slowly. If you struggle motivating yourself for a meet, limit events to one or two a day. Then concentrate on going after those few races. You’ll invest more energy into a few races just like you would at a shave and taper meet. It’s good practice for Championship Season.

4. Let go of fear of failure.
Sometimes, we don’t “try” because we are worried that if we do try, we might fail. So we convince ourselves it’s better not to try. But swimming slow mid-season is OK, as long as you have a good attitude and you’re giving effort. Don’t be scared to race and lose. It’s part of the learning process. The more you learn about your races, your body, and the way you approach a meet, the better you’ll be when it really matters. If, deep down, you’re scared about having bad times, don’t be. Every race is an opportunity to learn something. Don’t waste them because you’re scared of swimming slow.

5. Race!
Racing should be fun. It’s the one time you get to stand up, dive off the blocks, and race the person next to you. It sounds like you’re not having fun racing. Many swimmers fall into becoming “practice swimmers”—a mentality where they’re never really tested outside of the comforts of practice. Swim practice is our own little world where we race teammates, and times don’t matter because they’re not official. Some swimmers try harder in practice than in meets. Try to shift focus and look forward to racing. Racing is what makes swimming fun. For example, take Ryan Lochte: He rarely swims well mid-season because he’s so broken down. But time and time again in post-race, mid-season interviews, Lochte says, “I love to race.” If it’s not fun racing other swimmers, step back, smile, breathe, and tell yourself, “Racing is fun.” Because it is.

Careless Swimmer, I don’t think being “laid back” during mid-season meets is a bad thing, as long as you’re applying that laid-back attitude in certain ways. It’s obvious you don’t get freaked out by slow performances, which is good. Some swimmers tend to over-analyze themselves throughout the season. You understand that your best racing will come when pressure is applied, when the season’s on the line, when you’re fully rested.

But try to frame these mid-season races and meets differently. Compare yourself to where you were one year ago, one season ago, or even one week ago. Then try to beat those times. Or try to beat the person next to you, purely for the art of racing.

Imagine that you’re back to being a little kid in the 25 freestyle. There’s no pressure to swim fast. No pressure to win. No pressure to do a personal best time. (Does anyone even remember old 25 freestyle times??)

Instead, it’s just you and two people next to you.

Smile, laugh, dive in. And race.

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