One of the more common problems that plagues swimmers is being flooded with last minute negative thinking and doubts. You know the story: You've been feeling relatively confident and relaxed going into the big meet, but after warm ups on day 1, when you get behind the blocks for your very first race, you're suddenly overwhelmed by waves of negativity and the “what -ifs!” You start getting nervous as a result, the doubts get stronger and before you know it, your confidence has done a disappearing act. You try to be positive and remind yourself how hard you've been training and how fast you've been going, but those negative voices just seem to get progressively louder, drowning out any attempts you may have made to stay positive.
So what do you do if these last minute negatives start dancing in between your ears?
First, understand that these kinds of pre-race negative thinking and doubts are perfectly NORMAL. Almost every swimmer has their own version of them leading up to that big race, including Olympic swimmers.
Second, know that these last-minute negatives do NOT predict the future. As powerful a case as they may be making in your head that you are going to fall apart, embarrass yourself, die the last 50 or lose, they are only thoughts. There is no straight-line relationship between negative thinking and swimming poorly. I've talked to far too many swimmers over the years who have had lifetime best times right after being flooded with these last minute negative thoughts and doubts.
Third, understand that the negative thinking and doubts are NOT the problem here. The REAL problem is how YOU react to this negative inner chatter. If you allow yourself to believe and dwell on these negatives, if you allow yourself to listen carefully to them and get nervous about them, then what you are most afraid will happen, will indeed happen!
Fourth, discipline yourself to allow the thoughts to pass by without engaging them, arguing with them or attempting to push them away. Do NOT invest any energy in trying to replace these negatives with positive thoughts! That usually doesn't work! Instead, immediately refocus your concentration on what you are doing at the moment. If you're warming up, focus on your stroke and the feel of the water. If you're behind the blocks stretching pre-race, then focus on the feel of your stretch or any other part of your pre-race ritual. If you're talking with teammates, then focus on that conversation. The more you get interested in what you're doing, at that moment, the softer and less powerful these thoughts will become!
Finally, understand that effectively managing last-minute negative thinking and doubts is a learned skill. You must work at it to really master it. Try not to get frustrated if, when you first try refocusing on what you're doing, the negatives increase in number and volume! Be patient with yourself and keep working at it! And no matter how many times the negative thinking pops up, your job is to immediately refocus your concentration away from them!