“Just turn your brain off and go!” my coach used to tell me.
“Sounds great!” I would say, usually with a grandiose thumbs up and a shaky smile.
As anyone who overthinks on the regular knows, the problem with being told to stop overthinking is just that it made me overthink why I was overthinking, sending me into this endless downward overthinking spiral that left me a shattered mess behind the block.
(Our brains can be cruelly ironic, can’t they? The more you tell it not to do something the more it says, “Nah, I think I’ll just do it some more now.”)
If you are frustrated with not getting the most of yourself on race day, and you simply want to heed my coach’s advice about turning off your brain and swimming like a monster overthink-free, here’s what you need to know.
Overthinking happens when we focus on the outcome versus the process.
We start worrying about what might happen waaay down the road at the big meet: I had a bad practice today, so my goals are down the tube!
The not-so-awesome reality of focusing on the swimmer you want to be a year from now is that it discourages you from doing the things you need to do today to improve.
Overthinking and obsessing over what may or may not happen causes needless anxiety and stress.
You know the Practice Swimmer? The swimmer who works their tail off day in and day out but can never make it happen on race day? Maybe you’ve been this swimmer at some point, maybe you still are, but we can all relate to this struggle. Overthinking means we are thinking about the future, and not the present. Because we can’t control the future, it causes us to feel nervous and stressed out.
Now, I’m not saying that looking ahead isn’t a valuable thing to do from time to time, but if you are spending your time, energy and focus trying to see what is around the corner you are going to miss the opportunities at your feet.
Overthinking is a major cause of choking.
Instead of stepping up onto the block with a clear mind and just letting our body do what it’s done a million times in practice, overthinking causes us to start second-guessing and trying to beat back anxiety by thinking really, really hard.
If I just think super hard about how bad I want to swim fast with perfect technique, then I’ll do it!
Again, with the irony of our brains: the more we try to think through a practiced and largely perfected movement the harder it is to execute it at a high level.
The Next Step
Okay, sweet—you probably already knew (or at least, have experienced) these things at some point.
Here’s how to chill out the overthinking:
Have daily, measurable things to work on in practice. Big goals are key. We all have them and need them. But fixating solely on those ambitious goals draws attention away from the things we need to be accomplishing today. When you hit the pool deck today, do so with a short list of things you want to achieve: I am going to do four dolphin kicks off every wall. I am going to breathe bilaterally for the warm-up and warm-down. These may not seem earth-shattering, but your big goals are only achievable with the accumulation of a mountain of these little wins.
Be present in your thoughts. When we get swept away overthinking, it’s typically in the manner of a time traveler: Our thoughts go to the past (where we swam our PB and it felt so “easy”) or to the future (where uncertainty lives). When you hop into the mental DeLorean (Google: Back to the Future) step out and focus on what you are trying to do right now in the water.
Use performance cues. Hands down one of the most effective mental training “hacks” swimmers can use is to use performance cues in training and competition. My favorite? “Hulk smash.” For real—when doing high intensity reps in the pool, and the piano is starting to fall on my head, and the thoughts of panic and doubt begin to circle, I box out those moments of overthinking and uncertainty by leaning on that particular performance cue. Performance cues by their very nature encourage you to be present.
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.