There is an experience that is universal to swimmers regardless of event, stroke or distance.
You know it. I know it. It’s the moment where the proverbial piano falls on our shoulders. When our legs turn to cement, dragging along the tiled pool floor behind us. When our stroke disintegrates like an old foam kickboard.
When we swim headfirst into a wall of pain and “die.”
Usually it happens towards the end of our races, but we are just as prone to experience it in practice during a particularly challenging set.
That moment hurts. And there isn’t really any getting around the experience if we want to see what we are capable of in the water.
Olympic champion Garret Weber-Gale, who swam the second leg of the 4x100 free relay in Beijing that pulled off an upset for the ages, relied on visualization to help condition him for those exact moments in the water where hope and technique abandon us at a freefall rate.
Here’s how he did it.
How to Prepare for the Ouchies
Ever tried using visualization with your swimming?
Even if you haven’t tried organized visualization, you are already using it in some form. Daydreaming about that big competition? Picturing yourself on the blocks on race day? Picturing your competition in the next lane at practice?
This is visualization.
But instead of allowing your visualizations and imagery to run wild, use it to help steel you for moments when things get tough in the pool.
Weber-Gale, NCAA champion in the 100 freestyle and Olympic gold medalist, used visualization as a tool to prepare him for the inevitable moments when his body was giving up on him in the water:
“I do visualize that moment – the moment when my arms feel like sandbags, when my legs are burning and my back feels like it’s tightening up like a rubber band. I get myself to the point where I am completely prepared for the pain. After imagining this point for a long time, I know I am able to endure the emotional stress and physical pain. I look forward to this point because I know I will conquer it.”
Why this little trick is so handy
This visualization trick is so powerful because pain feels worse when it blindsides us. When we don’t expect it, or when it catches us by surprise, pain can feel overwhelming. You likely know this intuitively: when a swimmer that shouldn’t be beating you suddenly blasts by it makes the struggle far more struggley.
By visualizing the piano falling on your shoulders, and yourself pushing through, you get to experience yourself overcoming the pain and adversity of the moment. Because your brain has difficulty navigating between real and imagined experiences, the visualizations give you a sense of “been there, conquered that” when the pain hits.
Tonight before you hit the pool, spend a couple minutes imagining the adversity and pain to come at practice, and then yourself overcoming it.
Visualize the pain, imagine yourself overcoming it, and become one with the piano on your shoulders.
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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