Image Courtesy of Dinah Mistilis

One of the keys to successful swimming – in pool, open water or racing environments is mental strength. How you manage your emotions has a direct impact on your ability to think, retrieve skills and manage energy usage.

Learning how to maximize your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a skill that can benefit any athlete regardless of ability. No one is immune to the potential fluctuations in emotions that can arise from being in the water….. Or open water…….Or during a triathlon.

Let’s have a look at some examples of low EQ and how it had an impact on performance.


Andrea grew up in California in and around the ocean. Her early triathlons were ocean swims which she handled with ease.

Moving to the East Coast of the USA she tried a pool swim triathlon. The swim took place in the 17 feet dive well, and seeing the depth of the water as she started to freestyle was a trigger for anxiety.

She ended up completing the swim entirely in breaststroke.


The morning of her first triathlon Amber woke feeling very anxious and nervous. She had not swam much at all in open water and was doing this race with her friend.

At the swim start her friend swam off leaving her at the back of the pack. She became very anxious and felt like she was going nowhere. After some time with the lifeguard she continued and doesn’t recall much of the race at all, other than the swim taking an eternity.


Liz was shocked to experience a panic attack during her seventh season as a triathlete. The race began with no problems but shortly into the swim her wetsuit felt too tight around her chest and she had problems breathing. She felt extremely anxious and was finding it hard to get air. She had to find a support boat to catch her breath, calm down and adjust her wetsuit.


Her first experience at Kona World Championships did not go smoothly. It was the first time beginning the swim in a large mass start and her usual swim strategy did not work.

Finding herself in the middle of a group of aggressive age group males, she was kicked, punched, swam over and her goggles were knocked off. She felt anxious and contemplated dropping out of the race.

What are the consequences of these athletes experiencing stress or anxiety?

The human brain is a clever organ. It is equipped to identify any stress trigger and determine if that trigger is a threat to its survival. This survival mechanism is there to protect us. However during swimming, especially open water and even more so during a triathlon there many potential stress triggers that the brain interprets as a threat, and begins to activate the survival mechanism throughout the body.  From the examples above we can identify the stress triggers as deep water, claustrophobia from a wetsuit, not being able to keep up with the pack and being left behind, and being mauled in a swim start and having equipment fail.

There are so many more potential stress triggers and it is important to realize that for any one athlete the triggers may be different with each swim and unfortunately can be more than one trigger at a time.

“This is why having a strategy to manage your emotions is the key to successful swimming.”

When the body detects a threat the survival mechanism begins in the brain, and a cascade of events occur throughout the body. The end result is release of stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones result in a breakdown of energy stores to supply our large muscles with glucose – energy needed in the flight or fight response.

Along with this are several other effects of the stress hormones such as inability to focus, shallow rapid breathing, increased heart rate and tense muscles to name a few.

These physiological changes do not mix well with water and swimming and most certainly are using up valuable energy stores that athletes need later on during a triathlon.

The first step in raising your SwimEQ is to learn how to assess your mental state.

Begin by paying attention to your body. In the SwimEQ program we assess EQ by colors and it is called your EQ temperature – the best place to be is with complete mental clarity and calm which is Green. 

If you are having an all out panic attack and in the throes of an active survival mechanism you would be Red

If you are hovering in between (like many athletes on race day morning) you would be Yellow. 

Pay attention and take your EQ temperature often. Practice this in daily life situations and more often leading up to a situation you predict will cause stress or anxiety.

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