The swimmers in the heat before you turn towards home. As they swim towards the wall, you’re behind the block, stretching, checking goggle suction, adjusting your swim cap. You glance around: Your competitors in the lanes over do the same thing. And, briefly, you walk over to the nearest one.
This is, of course, good sportsmanship. Simple. Polite. Direct.
And yet, throughout my swimming career, I’ve encountered competitors who have used that pre-race time to play mind games. Swimmers have stared me down. Swimmers have pointed at me. Swimmers have told me I was “going to lose.”
Once, even an opposing high school swim coach instructed his swimmer to talk to me throughout the entire meet. “You’re going down.” “I’m going to beat you.” “I’ve been resting for this one race.” Then, just before the race began, the coach pulled the swimmer and laughed. I couldn’t believe it — not only because I didn’t care at all, but also because it gave me that much more motivation to swim fast.
“Good luck” is the easiest, best thing (and perhaps only thing) you should say to a competitor before a race.
Here are five things not to say:
1. “You’re going to lose.”
Never say something like this. Ever. But let’s assume you think saying something like this is okay: Let’s flash-forward to the unlikely scenario where you can foretell the future. If you are a fortune teller, why waste your time swimming? You should be playing the stock market. You should be in Las Vegas. You should be a billionaire living on a private island off the coast of South America. Because if you say, “You’re going to lose,” you better be able to 100% make it happen. If you don’t, you not only lost the race, but you lost respect — something not easily gained back.
2. “Are you any good in this race?”
Admittedly, I once asked this of a very fast Olympic gold medalist. I was fourteen years-old. I thought I was being funny. In actuality, I was probably being very annoying. I lost, very, very badly. Do not play games with someone who will most definitely beat you.
3. “This is going to hurt, amiright?”
This may sound to you like you’re just trying to bond with another swimmer — “aren’t we in for a hard 400 IM?” — but really, comments like this just bring the mood down. “I just hope I don’t die in this race.” “I can’t wait for this to be over.” Don’t bring your world of negativity into that precious pre-race thought zone. If you’re going to interrupt another swimmer’s happy place, make sure it’s with happy words.
4. A wordless stare-down.
I get it: Sometimes, staring someone down is how you motivate yourself. But honestly, does it ever really work? The jury is out, but it seems to me that staring someone down gets the person who is stared-down way, way, way more fired up. Staring someone down motivates your competitor that much more. So why do it?
5. [Anything other than a polite, “Good luck.”]
Moral of the story is: “Good luck” is all you need to say. Or, really, you don’t have to say anything. You could just say, after the race is over, “Nice job.” But if you want to do a little pre-race handshake, “Good luck,” go for it.
Then, let your racing do the rest of the talking.