It's the final meet of the season. You never missed a swim practice. You’re wearing your lucky goggles. You did your last-minute stretching routine and stared down the length of the pool. There couldn’t possibly be anything you forgot to do.
Did you prepare your mind to handle what is about to happen in the big race? Sure, a lot of training takes place in the pool, but the mind is the biggest muscle you might be neglecting in your body. Those who dedicate time for visualization and mind relaxation have a better chance of achieving the success they desire, and often are able to enjoy the process as well.
“It’s a really useful skill,” says Dr. Alan Goldberg, who has worked with many swimmers on positive mental preparation. “An athlete who has anxiety before a race can remove that stress with some positive mental imagery.”
Anxiety is often the common reason why many athletes are unable to swim well in their championship meet, Goldberg says. Visualization is a key element in removing that obstacle, often through creating a simulation of the ideal swim race in your mind.
Arizona State University sophomore Grant House says he dealt with a lot of anxiety before major races when he was in high school. But, when his coach at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati began organizing team visualization sessions, House began to feel more mentally confident about performing to his expectations.
“It allowed myself to relax and unwind when race day arrived,” House says. “I was confident that I could do the race that I trained for mentally and physically.”
House continues to use visualization techniques at Arizona State, though he usually does his mental training in a solitary environment now. When he performs mental imagery of the ideal 200 freestyle race, he says he often visualizes any imperfect situations that might occur on race day, so he can be prepared for such moments.
He says that work was a large part of the reason he “was the most confident and prepared that I had ever been in my life” at the 2018 Phillips 66 National Championships. He placed ninth in the 200 free, earning a place on the 2019 World University Games team.
Don’t wait until the big meet
House begins his work on visualization at or near the beginning of each season, something Goldberg notes is an ideal way to make sure you give your brain enough time to understand and perfect the process.
“It’s important that athletes start the practice of producing imagery far enough away from the championship meet that they don’t feel anxious or stressed about doing it,” Goldberg says.
Cody Miller, the bronze medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 Olympic Games, began this practice six months before the Olympic Trials, and says his mental preparation was one of the top reasons why he was able to reach his goal and qualify for his first Olympic team.
“I started visualizing more than I ever had before,” Miller says. “I wanted to do everything I possibly could to position myself to make the Olympic team.”
Miller used the common method of visualizing the perfect race, which involves starting with dedicated relaxation exercises in a quiet area. This can include breathing techniques or visualizing a serene location. Once his mind and body are at ease, Miller says he begins to create the atmosphere where he will swim his season-ending race. That includes seeing the venue, the spectators and teammates in his mind as he prepares to step on the blocks to swim.
While holding a running stopwatch in his hand, Miller plays out the perfect race in real time in his mind.
“I had 59.0 as a goal (for 100 meters breaststroke) in 2016,” Miller says. “Knowing that, I took bits and pieces of the best race I ever had and put those elements together to edit together into a perfect race.”
Miller says it took many visualization sessions before he could feel like he had a grasp on the process and could replicate his perfect race multiple times without fail.
“Your brain is programming your body to do something, and if you work long enough and hard enough at that programming, the body will respond how you want,” Miller says. “Because when you step up on the block, it’s no longer physical.”
The coach as Zen Master
Visualization is not only for elite athletes such as House and Miller. Every athlete who has a goal can use mental imagery to achieve it. However, the time on the scoreboard should not be the primary focus of any visualization practice.
“A goal should maybe focus on your turns during a race and executing them well,” Goldberg says. “If you are always anxious before a race, the goal should be to mentally practice being in control.”
Graham Bodner, the head age group coach at Ridgefield Aquatic Club in Connecticut, began leading his athletes through visualization exercises the week before last summer’s state championships. He was worried the group wouldn’t have enough time to feel confident about performing mental imagery, but many of his athletes told him they succeeded at the championship meet because they felt more mentally prepared.
“That’s pretty remarkable for a 12-year-old to be in the present moment, and to be so in tune with relaxation after just a week of doing it,” he says.
Bodner stumbled onto the practice of visualization while he was training to become a yoga instructor last summer. He had planned to implement yoga into his team’s dryland routine, but found the practice of being centered in your body through breathing was something he could use immediately.
“At the root of yoga is remaining present with your breath and centering yourself and being still,” Bodner says. “Anything physical beyond that is an added bonus.”
Coaches who want to run visualization sessions with their teams should understand that their responsibility is to not be too specific in the verbal cues during relaxation exercises. Goldberg says coaches “shouldn’t believe that everyone in the group processes imagery in the same way. It’s best to let them find their own places that help them focus and relax.”
Not always a positive result
While visualization is a great tool to help athletes gain a positive edge in their preparation for the big race, it can also be a swimmer’s downfall. After the success of the Rio Olympics, Miller found himself dealing with knee injuries in 2018 and trying to fight off the negative self-talk that came with the doubts surrounding performing at a top level with injuries.
“Subconsciously, I was a little worried, and that creates doubt and clouds any potential positivity that you have built up,” Miller says. “I have swum the 100 breast so many times that I should have gone 59-low again (at the 2018 summer nationals), but what tipped the scales and caused me to go 59.9 was what was happening in my brain.”
Miller says his mental training this fall has been a big help on the road to recovery from injury. With the aid of his regular visualization practices, he says he is able to stay on the right path to achieving his goal. Whether that goal is breaking the 1:00 barrier or executing six underwater dolphin kicks on the last turn of a 200 butterfly, the mind is a powerful tool to get the body to do what you want.
“You have a head start on your success if you get mental pictures of how the perfect race should look and feel,” House says. “If you don’t have a picture of how to achieve that goal, your body is never going to see or get exposure to it.”
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