By Olivier Poirier-Leroy//Contributor | Monday, March 18, 2019
We all got them.
And usually when we think about them, it’s in terms of our technique or lifestyle.
We breathe to the same side when we are tired. Our streamline loosens when we are unfocused. We coast into the walls instead of finishing on a full and fast stroke with our heads down. We eat the same comfort foods when we are having a bad day. (Burritos with a side of pizza. Anyone else?)
Many of those habits operate in the background, kind of like the apps on your phone you thought you closed but are still chewing up battery power, humming away, doing stuff back there without you really thinking about them.
Bad habits populate our mindset, too.
After all, some of the classic mental hang-ups are habits:
- Do you quit when things get tough? That’s a habit.
- Do you get overwhelmed with frustration and anger when you screw up? That’s a form of habit.
- Does your focus wander when you should be concentrating on your technique? That’s a habit, too.
If there is one thing that can be said about habits, good and bad, it’s that they are amazingly consistent.
We experience the same ones over and over again. They happen so much that they become part of our identity. Something we cannot change. Something that defines us. (“I quit when things get tough, so I’m a quitter.”)
It doesn’t have to be this way, though.
You can forge better mental habits that will help you swim faster than ever in the water.
Here’s how to get started.
Figure out what that one mental hang-up is.
Let’s get all Stone Age-y and grab a piece of paper and a pen. In full detail we are gonna write out what that gnarly mental hang-up is.
Writing it down takes it out of the dark and puts a face on it. Know your enemy. “That’s just the way it is” or “It’s who I am, I can’t help it” doesn’t fly.
Sit down and reflect on what it is. If you are serious about improving and you are fed up with the deleterious effects of this nasty mental habit than detail what it is, when it happens and why you are experiencing it.
Becoming more self-aware of your mental hang-up helps you see that perhaps it’s not as valid as you think it is. Writing it out reveals its weaknesses—soon as you see it on paper your mind will race to find ways to counteract it.
Put together a blueprint for working through it.
Taking the next step, what are two or three things you can do each day in training to fight back against this mental hang-up?
You can’t hope that it will go away on its on or wish it away. Instead, take control. Take the reins of your mindset.
Here are some examples:
I give up too much in training…
- Find one thing to do today that is “impossible” and try it.
- Write out a mantra I will use for that moment where I usually give up.
I collapse under pressure at the big meet…
- Spend five minutes rehearsing the adversity I might face on race day…and myself calmly persevering.
- Choose one opportunity to raise the stakes in training: A timed effort at the end of practice.
- Prepare for practice today the same way I will for competition.
I get too caught up with what other swimmers are doing…
- Write out a set of performance cues to keep myself engaged during practice.
- Every time I start thinking about what other swimmers are doing, remind myself that every athlete’s journey is different.
And so on.
Writing out this stuff is key.
Like I mentioned earlier, ignoring or hoping that the bad mental hang-up that’s been holding you back will go away on its own is easy, but not gonna actually help anything improve.
Here are some other fun facts about building better mental habits in the water:
Positive habits crush negative habits.
Creating new, good habits is easier than trying to fix bad, broken ones. There’s not a lot of joy in trying to fix bad habits when there is nothing there to replace them.
Instead of fixating on how badly you want to fix a habit that is causing you problems, focus on replacing them with good ones. If, for example, you want to stop eating unhealthy dinners, work on meal prepping a healthy dinner. Focus on building something new instead of focusing all your energy on stopping something else.
Pepper your environment with things that help your new habit.
Write out motivational slogans on your water bottle. Find a quote that supports your new habit and write it out in your training journal after each practice.
One of the simplest things I did to encourage better eating habits in my own life was to print out a piece of paper that had, “Eat like a champion today” in 300-px size font and slapped it across the door of the fridge.
Say your new habit out loud.
This one might get you some looks, but saying the thing you want to do out loud has a weird effect on us. Verbalized self-talk is something you see often: Caeleb Dressel exclaiming, “Let’s do this!” before his races (to himself) is a great example.
Do the same thing when your mental hang-up rears its dragon-face: “I am not going to give up today” or “I am excited to swim fast.”
Habits require time and consistency.
Your bad habit didn’t start overnight, and neither will your new shiny one. It will take time, practice and patience. I know—patience and consistency aren’t trending these days on Goo-Face-Tweet-Chat.
The rapid and instant flow of information and status updates gives us an expectation that everything should happen right now. We carry this expectation over to our training and habits.
But habits require time. There is no short-cutting them. A general rule of thumb: The harder and more complex they are, the more time they will require.
Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and contributor to USA Swimming.
He’s the author of Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, a 300-page workbook that gives swimmers the tools and knowledge necessary to bulletproof their performances in the pool.
He also writes a weekly mental training tips newsletter for swimmers and coaches that you can subscribe to for free here.
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