You've put in hours and hours of training to prepare your body for a big competition. This only gets you partially ready though. You can be in the best physical shape but if your mental game is off. There are ways of being as mentally prepared as your physical body. In fact, there are five ways that used to help me during my swimming days and ones I recommend to all my swimmers.
This is a big one. Whether you are at a home meet or traveling to one, having extra caps, goggles and even swimsuits can help put your mind at ease. If you're traveling, make sure that you put all your equipment in your carry-on bag, not your suitcase. Even though the risk of losing a bag is extremely low these days, it still happens and you don't want to be stuck without anything at a meet. I've seen this happen. It can cause all sorts of unnecessary stress for an athlete.
As much as technology has changed, there are a few things they've never been able to fix – tears. Caps rip, straps snap and suits tear. I've seen each of these happen to swimmers all before one single race. Be prepared for anything.
Also, I recommend that you test all of your equipment prior to a race, especially goggles. You never know how if a dive could make your goggles fall off or leak. It's extremely hard to swim fast when your mind is frantically trying to figure out what's going on in front of you. This is also true for caps. When they rip right before a race or during a swim, it can be extremely upsetting, especially for female swimmers with long hair. This takes your mind off of your performance and race strategy. Learning to work around these situations and stay focused on your swim takes training through visualization.
I once heard a coach tell his anxious swimmer that she needed to forget everything else around her and to draw curtains down from the ceiling to the lane lines. That way it was just her and her lane. The idea here was that this particular swimmer had trained for this race day in and day out. She was ready and all she had to do was swim her race. She didn't need to focus on what the rest of her heat was doing. She only had to know what she was doing. The interesting thing was that after the coach mentioned this to this young athlete, a calm came across her entire body. She took a couple of deep relaxing breathes and just stared down her lane. She ended up breaking a provincial record in that race. Her mind convinced the rest of her that she could do it.
This idea of knowing your race can be a powerful thing. Since 90% of racing is mental and only 10% of it is your physical ability, you need to learn to train your mind as well as your body. A technique that my coaches used to have us do and one that I now use with my own swimmers is the idea of visualization. This is a form of meditation. You can do this before practice, before a race, in bed or just about anywhere. Just find a quiet space and close your eyes. Start by focusing on your breathing. Make sure you breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Nice deep, relaxed breaths. Once you've got a comfortable rhythm going, start to flex and relax each part of your body moving from your toes to your head. Hold each flexed body part for a count of 5 and then release. You should start to feel your body sink into the floor or wall a bit more. Be careful not to fall asleep. Next, picture a lightbulb in your mind. It can look however you want. There is no right or wrong answer here. Once you can see it firmly in your mind, try to turn it on and off.
After you've mastered this, start to build a larger picture in your mind of the pool and meet that you will be competing at. It helps if you've seen the pool before, but it's not a must. Add people, teams, officials and noise to this picture. Turn your picture into a movie. See yourself at the meet. Use this opportunity to go through everything you would do at the meet. What does your warmup look like? How does it feel? Do you stretch afterwards? Build your routine up all the way towards your race.
This is where the fun stuff happens. Now that you've gotten yourself to your race, use the strength of your mind to run through the entire race. See, hear and feel everything. If you don't like an outcome, start again. Want to see a 360 view of your dive, pause yourself in mid-air and rotate around. Your mind is a powerful device. You can control everything. See every turn, every breath and every stroke. Repeat this over in your head until you are comfortable with seeing every part of your race.
I always recommend that swimmers start working on this at least 2 - 3 weeks ahead of a big competition. They should do at least every night before going to sleep. Then before each race. Find a place on the pool deck, put your towel over your head and run through this. Visualization doesn't need to be a long thing. You can run through all of this in 5 minutes once you understand the process.
Have A Game Plan
It's hard to visualize a race if you don't have a game plan. Talk to you coach because I guarantee they've thought about this. Most athletes have set goals they want to accomplish. Review these goals with your coach to help devise a course of action. Knowing what you need to work on leading up to a big race and how to swim it to accomplish your goals will help alleviate some of the stress that competition can cause.
Every race and every swimmer is going to have a different strategy. Trying to do what your friends are doing for a race may not be a good idea. In fact, it could even hurt your results. This is especially true if your race plan isn't about taking off large amounts of time or winning placement in the field. Yup I said it. It's not always about time. Sometimes a race is about experience or warm up for a bigger race to follow. For example, in Freestyle, swimmers have the option to do any legal stroke they want and I've seen many coaches create game plans with their swimmers to opt out of doing front crawl and go for Butterfly instead. Sometimes this is usually to get a better time or reach a time standard that the athlete needs.
Knowing your game plan for every race will help improve your training, visualization and comfort level with all your races. So if you don't know what you need to do for each race, go speak to your coach right now and find out. Figure out these game plans long before a meet is approaching. This gives you the opportunity to work on that strategy and be comfortable with it, ask questions of your coach if something isn't clear. This also gives you and your coach a chance to revise the game plan that works for you.
Hydration before practice, meets or after races is vital to your performance. It is critical to your nerve and muscle functions. Did you know that your performance can suffer tenfold when you are dehydrated by as little as 2%?
That's not a lot of dehydration, but it can have a massive impact on your racing performance. As an athlete, you need to become aware of how your body feels as this dehydration comes on. Many swimmers forget that they still sweat during workouts and races even though they can't feel it in the water. This sweat is part of the dehydration process and needs to be reabsorbed into your system.
Staying hydrated in general should be something swimmers do on a regular basis. It is not uncommon to see athletes walking around with water bottles constantly even when they aren't working out.
You should also have a water bottle with you during all training sessions as well. Taking sips from it every 20 minutes or so. Depending on the intensity of your workouts, you should consume more water, more frequently. Without rehydrating, your muscles quickly weaken and contraction occurs. This is definitely not something you want to happen during a race.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugars a minimum of two days prior to competition as they are natural diuretics.
Find Your Jam
The last tip I have for you is find a playlist that pumps you up. It doesn't matter if it's pop, death metal, rap or 80's dance, finding the music that gets your heart beating a little faster and your adrenaline going can help you get into the right mindset for a race. If you have the luxury of training with music, I highly recommend it. You will find that your overall training will be better. You'll be in a better head space and your muscles won't feel like they are fatiguing as fast.
There is a lot of positive energy in music that you can translate into a positive performance. Using sensory reinforcement through music can be a powerful tool that can help athletes stay on task in the short-term and reshape habits for the long-term.
Having your jam ready for post-races can actually help your recovery as well. A 2012 study by Eliakim found that listening to music directly after high intensity activity while doing unstructured cooldown helped increase volitional activity, reduce RPE and helped clear lactate from the muscles at a faster rate than athletes without muscle.
Music is a fantastic tool to aid in teaching discipline, performance, and habituation so don't ignore the opportunity to have your fix before a big race.
These are just a handful of techniques I've used with swimmers over the years to help them prepare for competitions. This doesn't mean that these are the only things that work or that you have to do any of the things mentioned above. In fact, I would love to hear how you get ready for competitions. Share your routine below. It may help inspire others to break through to the next level.