By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The first time my coach said, “You’re swimming the 50 yard butterfly,” I cried. I don’t know why. As a kid, I was irrationally scared of the entire prospect of swimming butterfly in a swim meet. I had done it in practice, but never against anyone. Never in a meet. As soon as my coach told me, my head began to swirl: What if my arms stopped working? What if I did so poorly I wasn’t allowed to swim anymore? What if they saw my horrible butterfly stroke and said, “Never let this kid swim butterfly EVER AGAIN.”
Of course, this fear was irrational. I remember talking with my parents about the upcoming race, and them using very gentle tones with me. Eventually, they built my confidence up to being OK swimming the 50 yard butterfly. I cried a little bit more. Then I swam.
I won the race.
Swimming can be a scary sport for many irrational reasons. Realistically, nothing “bad” usually happens in a pool race during a meet, except for swallowed water or a disqualification. Over the years, both as an age group swimmer and later as an NCAA swimmer, I learned some tricks to help overcome various fears I had about swimming. Most of my fears dealt with personal failure, or not performing how I thought I should, or internal pressure. So, I learned some tricks to deal with those fears. My tricks are in no way scientific, but they have proven well for me. I figured that Halloween is the most appropriate day to share my 5 Tricks for Overcoming Fear….
1. Imagine you’re in a scooter board race.
Before every big meet, I’d get so worked up, my stomach would be in knots. I’d throw up. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I’d look at myself in the mirror and say, “Why are you getting so worked up about this meet? Isn’t swimming supposed to be fun?” Sometimes, we get so worked up inside our heads, we lose perspective about the sport. So, whenever I began to feel nervous before a really big meet, I imagined my race as a “scooter board race.” You know, the game you play as a kid where you lie on your stomach and push yourself across a board that has four wheels attached. In elementary gym class, I loved this game. I got so fired up about it. And isn’t this what swimming is? Simply pushing yourself across the water? Before races, I imagined myself in a fun scooter board race against seven others. It actually worked. It calmed my nerves, and I’d swim faster.
2. If you can do it in practice, you can do it in a meet.
Before that first 50 yard butterfly, my parents said, “Have you done a 50 yard butterfly in practice before?” I nodded. “Then you can do it in a meet. It’s no different. They don’t make the water thicker for swim meets. It’s the same water.” For some reason, that helped. Knowing that I had already accomplished the feat in practice gave me a little boost in my step before my first 50 yard butterfly. Of course, the first-time meet experience was scary. But you can always try out a 50, 100, or 200 butterfly, or a 400 IM, or a 1650, in practice beforehand, to build up to it in your mind.
3. Set realistic goals.
Somewhere along the line in my career, I realized I was not going to be an Olympic gold medalist. It just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes at meets, I’d approach a swim meet with very unrealistic goals, like I’d win the Big Ten Championship. I was not going to win the Big Ten Championship. When I’d hop into the water, and all of a sudden, Peter Vanderkaay was beating me by five body lengths, I’d start to mentally freak out inside my head. Then my muscles would hurt more. Then I’d swim slower. So, I began to have more realistic goals for myself. Instead of winning Big Tens, how about just scoring one point? Instead of breaking world records, how about just breaking personal bests? As soon as I transitioned to more approachable goals, my in-race mentality was better. I wouldn’t mentally freak out if someone beat me in the backstroke of my IMs.
4. Get the best sleep TWO nights before your big race.
Before every big meet, I couldn’t sleep. I’d toss and turn and stare at my alarm clock all night. Eventually, around 3am, I’d begin to mentally freak out that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. You know the drill: You can’t sleep because you’re nervous, and you’re nervous because you can’t sleep. So, I began to pre-plan that I wouldn’t get any sleep the night before my big race. Instead, I’d make sure to get a great night’s rest TWO nights before my big race. Two nights before, I was not nervous. I could always sleep two nights before my big race. Sometimes swimmers (I don’t know why) think it’s the night before that makes all the difference. Actually, you’ll get your best rest two nights before. Then, you won’t be so nervous heading into that Big Race Eve.
5. Force yourself to smile.
Happy swimmers are fast swimmers. Swimming is a tricky sport. You can’t force fast swimming. The fastest swimming comes naturally, almost easily. So if you catch yourself behind the blocks frowning, tightening up, almost scared stiff… then something’s wrong. Just the act of smiling will brighten up your mood and rewire your brain to make you happier.
I’ll never forget the last race of my swimming career:
In the prelims of the 200 yard breaststroke at the Big Ten Championships, I was one place out from making a “night” swim. I was devastated. I was a senior, and I knew I probably wasn’t going to make finals in that race anyway, but coming that close – one place away – was devastating. My career was over before I knew it was going to be over. I remember sitting in the shower, completely floored, depressed and sad my swimming career was done. I remember thinking, “I wish I had one more race just to know during my swim that it was my last race ever.” Thirty minutes later, my coach walked up to me and said, “Someone scratched. You’re swimming tonight.”
It was like the swimming gods had given me a freebie swim. Suddenly, there was no pressure. I was smiling. I was happy. I was bouncing off the walls. I cheered for teammates. I warmed up and played around. I smiled behind the blocks. Before I dove in, I imagined that scooter board race. I had a realistic goal: Just swim your last race knowing it is the last race. And when I finished that 200 yard breaststroke, I had dropped nearly two seconds from my lifetime best time, and almost won the race from Lane Eight.
I wish I could do my career over again with more smiles, more scooter board imaginations, and more realistic goals. Hopefully, one of these techniques helps you, because they helped me. It just took me an entire career to learn how to overcome my own fears.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and “Splash Magazine.” You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.