Mike's Mailbag: Championship Meet Fear


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, I’ll try to answer at swimmingstories@gmail.com. Please be patient with my response time.

Hey Mike,
I'm about to enter taper at the end of my first short course season ever. I'm excited and everything for the championship meet, but I feel this incredible fear at the same time. I can't put it into words, it just feels like a huge shadow of fear is looming over me as the meet date creeps closer and my throat tightens up a bit every time I think about it, especially because I’ve never swam in a meet of this magnitude before. How can I drop this fear and focus on preparing for the upcoming races?
Anxious Swimmer


Hey Anxious Swimmer,

I hear you. I know what it’s like to have that pre-race crippling fear. I used to throw up before my races. Actually, I knew a teammate (or two) who threw up before every race. Every meet.

This fear means you care about your performances, which is a good thing. But you should be excited, not scared. You should be ready and anxious for the race to arrive. You shouldn’t dread Race Day.

Now, I’d usually give some advice like, “Look at this last meet objectively.” Then I’d tell you to mentally review your training – the thousands upon thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of yards you’ve done this past season. Go over those painful hundreds of thousands of yards. Those difficult Saturday afternoons. Those morning practices. Remember them. Remember the amount of fortitude it took to overcome them. To swim through them. Those afternoon test sets. Those final repeats where you swam harder than anyone else in your lane, on your team.

Remember those sets.

Objectively speaking, this final last few races are the easiest thing you’ll do this year. You will be in peak physical condition. You will be more powerful than ever, and you will be more technically sound than ever. You don’t have another 100x100s set. You don’t have a 5,000-yard swim for time. You don’t have 10x200s butterfly. All you have left is one meet, a few races, and that’s it.

This meet, in terms of physicality, is actually easier than anything you’ve done this year.

Of course, I know that swimming is not necessarily that objective. We all understand that these end-of-season races have the most meaning because there is the most opportunity. There is the most potential. The phrase, “It all comes down to this” gets thrown out a lot.

Anxious Swimmer, you are ready for this.

This is the easiest thing you’re going to do this year, physically speaking. So why let your head get in the way? Let your body do the work. Be excited to show yourself that you’re stronger than you were last year. Because you are stronger. You’ve learned more, you’ve trained more, and you’ve experienced more.

Generally, swimmers are scared about this last, final meet because they don’t want to “fail.” There’s a fear of failure.

But the beauty of swimming is that failing is, when you look at it a certain way, impossible. Failing is not determined by a personal best. I know – we want a personal best time, and we measure swimming by time, so we should want to drop time – but anyone who has gone through this journey multiple times knows that swimming is about the journey, not the destination. How can I say that failing in swimming is impossible?

Because you can’t fail if you’ve already succeeded. And that’s what you’ve done this season, Anxious Swimmer. You’ve done the training. You’ve done more difficult physical tasks and overcome more challenges than 90% of athletes in the world. Swimming is, in my opinion, the toughest sport in the world. And it’s not tough because of Race Day. Many sports “come down to one moment.” Just watch any basketball game during March Madness.

Swimming is the toughest sport in the world because the road to that final day is filled with more forks, more peaks and valleys, more challenges, more time commitment, and more brutal training tasks than any other sport. The training is just plain difficult. The time commitment is overwhelming.

And yet, you’ve made it here. The end of the season.

You just can’t fail when you’ve made it this far. Honestly. I’m not trying to pump you full of cliché pump-up sunshine. I am being as honest as I can. Because you will one day look back at this training and your everyday experience in the sport with just as much awe and appreciation as you will when you look back at your final race.

Look: You may not go a best time this year. It happens. But what does that mean? Honestly? Does it mean you didn’t learn things about yourself?

Does it mean you didn’t train hard?

Does it mean that you didn’t accomplish the slings and arrows of a swim season?

That you didn’t learn about the mental strength it takes to swim through an 8,000 yard practice?

Because not many people in this world can make it through an 8,000 yard practice. Trust me.

I know you are scared about not going a personal best time. But when this fear creeps up your throat, when you feel your fingertips begin to flinch; take breath, relax, and remember what you’ve already done. You’ve already battled the hardest physical battles you’ll face this year. All that’s left are a few hundreds, a 50, maybe a 500, a few warm-ups and warm-downs, and you’re done.

Don’t be scared. You’ve already done the work.

Imagine that this final meet is just the last repeat of the last hard set you’ll do all season. You remember that give-it-all feeling you have on that last repeat of practice, at the end of the day, when you’re tired and exhausted and your coach says, “Alright guys, one last 100!”? When you just say, “Heck with it” and push your body to the max and go faster than you’ve gone the entire practice?

Do that.

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