A common problem that a lot of swimmers struggle with is finding themselves getting psyched out or intimidated by the competition. You know the drill – you have to race against Larry Lightening Fast or Linda Lifetime Bests and you get yourself totally freaked out by them. Your heart starts pounding, your breathing gets faster and shallower, your muscles tighten and before you know it, you don't want to race against them. You just want to get their autograph. They are sooo good! How can you possibly stay with them? What if they lap you? How embarrassing will that be?
Here's the interesting thing about psych-outs: No one can psych you out or intimidate you! I repeat, NO ONE! How good an opponent is, or how strong, fast or tall they are can't intimidate you. The times that they've achieved can't intimidate you. The only way you can get intimidated is if you allow it to happen.
What do I really mean by this?
Swimmers who get psyched out by the competition do so because of where they put their focus of concentration both before and during their races. When you concentrate on who you're swimming against and how fast they are, then you will start to get nervous, physically tighten up and, as a result, swim poorly. Intimidation can only happen if you allow your focus to leave “your lane” and what you're doing and go to your opponent's. When you waste your precious energy thinking about who you're racing and how great they are, then your nervous system will jack up into the red zone and you'll shut down performance-wise.
However, if you stay focused on your race plan, your pre-race ritual and the feel of your swim, then you will find it much easier to stay calm, composed and confident before and during your races. And when you do, you'll swim the way you're capable of swimming.
The good news here is that NO ONE can psych you out unless you make the mental mistake of concentrating on them either before or during your race. The rule of thumb is always to stay aware of where you put your focus, and the instant it starts to drift to another racer, quickly bring your concentration back to what you are doing. If this happens when you're behind the blocks, then bring your focus back to your pre-race ritual, whatever it is. Focus on your stretching, jumping up and down, slapping yourself, etc. If it happens during your race, then immediately return your focus to this stroke or this wall and the feel of what you are doing in your lane.
With a little awareness and some practice, you can strengthen your concentration muscles to the point where you can swim against anyone without letting them get to you. Remember, YOU are in control here!