Mental Toughness Toolbox: Do You Swim Faster in Practice than in Meets?

Mental Toughness Toolbox: Do You Swim Faster in Practice than in Meets?

By Dr. Alan Goldberg//  | Tuesday, September 17, 2019

One of the more frustrating and maddening performance problems that I regularly hear swimmers complaining about is, “How come I always go faster in training than I do when it counts, in my events? I just don't get it! My practice times are great, and I consistently hit the splits I need to in order to get my cuts. However, when I'm in a meet situation, I don't know what happens to me. I try to go fast and yet my times are so much slower than the ones I put up in training!” 

So what causes a swimmer to go slower than they do in training?

On the surface, you can blame it on the pressure that comes with racing. There's nothing at stake in practice and who cares if you don't swim fast. Therefore, it's easy to stay loose and relaxed! However, when you're swimming in your best events, and it really counts, then there's a lot more on the line and this pressure can be said to cause the slower times!

However, this surface explanation doesn't really help you. It doesn't help you understand what you might be doing wrong mentally in these races to cause your slower swimming, and it doesn't tell you how to go about correcting these mental mistakes.

To me, both the cause of this problem and its solution are pretty basic!

If you go faster in your off-events than your best ones, or faster in practice than meets, then chances are really good that you are making some very common concentration mistakes both before and during your events. The real culprit causing all of this frustration for you is your focus and not simply the pressure of big races!

Specifically, if you allow your pre-race and during race focus to go to the outcome, (that is, to the times you want or expect to get, or to your opponents and how fast they're swimming and whether they'll beat you or not) then you will get nervous, physically tighten up, lose your confidence and, as a result, swim slowly!

Having an outcome focus like this either before and/or during your race will always set you up for failure, frustration and disappointment.

Those swimmers who tell me that they always go faster in training, tend to have a completely different focus of concentration when they practice than when they race. Typically their focus in practice is almost always on what they are doing in the moment, on the feel of their stroke, kick, turns or movement. They are not thinking about what's at stake. They are not distracted by the other swimmers around them. And they are certainly not pressuring themselves to get a certain time!

When you swim and focus mainly on the feel of your movement (how much water you're pulling, keeping your hips high in the water, staying long, your tempo or under-waters, etc.), you will stay loose, composed and go the speed that you're capable of. To eliminate this problem once and for all, your mental task is to leave your goals and expectations at home! You don't ever want to bring your outcome goals with you when it counts.

When you focus on and think about your goals when you're behind the blocks, you'll distract yourself from what you need to focus on (the feel of your pre-race ritual) and jack up your level of nervousness, which will then lead to tighter muscles and faster shallower breathing. When this happens, you'll drain your energy before the race has even started. Furthermore, when you continue this outcome focus during your race, you'll be distracting yourself from the feel of what you're doing, tighten up even more and, as a result, you'll swim slowly.

So if you want to more consistently race the way you train, then you need to get in the habit of leaving your goals about time and place at home, where they belong and instead, focus on the feel of what you are doing, both before and during your swims! 


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