CLICK HERE TO READ DINAH’S PREVIOUS TIPS ON BASIC EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AND SWIM PERFORMANCE.
The ability to find mental strength is the key to successful swimming in open water. The reason is simple – when the brain is calm it can access the cortex. The cortex is used to store our skills we have practiced in training and is the area of the brain used to think clearly and rationally for good decision making.
If the brain is busy activating our survival center due to anxiety or stress, the cortex is less accessible and often the outcome is swimming that becomes a struggle.
The open water environment presents several stress or anxiety triggers – some are internal and some are external. Here are some examples:
INTERNAL STRESS TRIGGERS
- I don’t know if I can make the distance
- I don’t want to be the last
- I want to beat a time goal
- I may fail
- What if I swim off course
- I don’t want to be passed by anyone
EXTERNAL STRESS TRIGGERS
- Loss of visibility
- Deep water, can’t touch the bottom
- Rough choppy water
- Motion sickness
- Crowds and being hit by other athletes
- Wetsuit too tight, feeling claustrophobic
- Leaking goggles
Unfortunately in the open water environment there are many more stress triggers than those listed here. Stress triggers may come up without warning and may be several in one
race, and not the same with each swim you complete. When the brain detects a stress or threat, survival mode takes over. Clear thinking and retrieval of skills is not priority anymore. Survival is. We then experience a decline in swim ability, increases in heart rate, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and energy usage increases.
Having a plan to predict and address as many stress triggers as possible is crucial to staying one step ahead of your emotions during your open water swim. This will allow you to find mental clarity and maximize your performance outcomes. Here are some ways to plan ahead and find yourself with great mental strength for your next open water swim. You will begin with skills in everyday life, extend them to the pool and open water practices, and then add some skills leading up to race day.
- Be aware of your emotional state, assess yourself frequently.
- If you feel anxious or stressed, or even panicky, find relaxed calm breathing.
- Choose a happy thought to bring you back to calm – for example the time and place you have been the happiest in your life – wedding, vacation, achievement, birth of baby etc. Rehearse and practice this happy thought often so in times of need you can access the thought easily.
IN TRAINING – POOL AND OPEN WATER.
- Assess your emotional state before you get in for your practice and often throughout.
- If you are ever anxious, calm your breathing and make exhalation gentle and continuous.
- Recall your happy thought while you are swimming and during rest intervals.
- Practice your go-to-stroke. This is any stroke other than freestyle that is easier for you to breathe, or allows you to make adjustments to goggles or wetsuit. It can also allow you to easily check navigation. It could be breaststroke or sidestroke. Some athletes will roll over onto their back.
- Practice sighting.
- Practice the race distance and ingrain a sense of your sustainable swim pace.
- Simulate race day with crowds, and if possible on the race course itself.
- If you identify any stress triggers, make a note of them and how you can manage your emotions differently in your next swim.
“When the brain detects a stress or threat, survival mode takes over. Clear thinking and retrieval of skills is not priority anymore. Survival is.”
- Always know your body of water – entry and exit options, depth, temperature, quality, movement.
- Draw a map of the swim. Identify any possible stress triggers and make notes of how you will manage your emotions. Include as many details as possible. See below for a great example.
- Assess your emotional state often, calm your breathing and recall your happy
- Warm up – on land or in water. Get your heart rate and gas exchange going before the race begins.
- Make note of resting mats or safety support.
- At the start be sure not to swim faster than your trained sustainable pace, and make sure you don’t hold your breath.
- Sight often to make sure you are swimming directly.
- Have 1-3 specific swim skills in mind to focus on.
- Use your go-to-stroke when needed.