By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, June 13, 2018
The swimmers in the heat before you are coming home. They’re swimming fast. Their teammates are cheering. Their coaches are rooting them on. You stand there, behind the blocks, and adjust your goggles. Your race is next. Your turn. And your stomach is about to projectile your lunch all over the starting blocks.
Every swimmer gets nervous before races. Well, maybe not every swimmer, but in a very unscientific estimate, I’d say about 97% of swimmers get nervous before big championship end-of-season races. It’s natural to feel your stomach twist and turn and contort.
Often, it’s the hardest part of championship racing: Just calming those nerves. Settling your stomach. Breathing before the big race. I remember feeling so nervous that I’d have to walk around behind the pool deck just to settle myself. And over the years, though I continued to be nervous throughout my swimming career, I learned a few tricks and tips to help calm those pre-race jitters. Here are a few of them:
1. Listen to music.
Music can help tune out all those natatorium sounds, coaches, parents, teammates, and swimmers. Music can help calm your nerves. I often vacillated between listening to “pump-up” music (high energy, quick tempo) and calming music (strings, piano). Just depends on your mood, really. There is no correct option. The only thing you want your pre-music playlist to do is to calm those nerves.
2. Talk it out.
Talking to teammates can really help. Consider it to be like pre-race therapy. Talk about the race, if you want. Or talk about anything. Just talking can help calm those nerves.
3. Find a quiet place on the pool deck.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I spent an hour just staring at other swimmers competing, it always made me nervous. I think the worst thing in the world for nervous swimmers is to sit behind the blocks for thirty minutes before your race. Instead, find a quiet place. Go to a corner of the natatorium or a stairwell or a break room or even just the locker room. Go there and just sit and breathe. Sit for ten minutes. Get away from the noise.
4. Focus on your breathing.
If you need to focus on something other than your twisting, churning stomach, focus on your breathing. Don’t hyperventilate. What I mean by “focus on your breathing” is to just count your breaths. Imagine the air coming into your body and leaving your body. Every exhale, count. When you get to ten, start over again. Over time, your mind will focus on your breath instead of your nervousness.
5. Imagine the upcoming race as something completely different.
I’m a big fan of the imagination: If you’re nervous about an upcoming swim race, imagine it as something other than a swimming race. For example, I always imagined championship swim races as just scooter races — those races you did as a kid in elementary class, scooting on a board across the gym floor. Or imagine it’s a dual meet.
6. Find the pre-race routine that works for you.
Some people tell you that you should visualize your success. For me, whenever I visualized success, I was always nervous when that plan began to deviate. So, just find whatever pre-race mentality works for you. Don’t subscribe to a pre-race routine because someone told you that’s what you “should do.” Everyone is different. Don’t do something that makes you nervous. Follow your instinct. If you like laughing and telling jokes, then laugh and tell jokes. If you’re more introspective and need to find some quiet time before your race, then go find quiet time before your race. There is no perfect way to calm your nervous before a race. You learn through trial and error, keeping an open mind, and being yourself.