Athletes have learned that preparation isn’t solely focused on physical efforts, but also mental. Half of what an athlete works towards has to do with mentality and the ability to make mental adjustments in order to set yourself up for success. In the same ways that you taper or rest before a big meet to help prepare your body, there is also a need for mental preparation. With summer meets approaching, these next few months are crucial for physical and mental preparation.
I had a bad habit of getting in my own way when it came to my mentality, especially at big meets. I could feel ready to go in the water but didn’t fully trust that I could overpower my mentality. I lacked the confidence that everyone else had in me and couldn’t figure out how to get out of my head and trust in myself. Swimming is such a mental sport and isn’t always about how hard you train or prepare physically. Of course, your body needs intentional rest in and out of the water, but to prepare your mind is another battle in itself. It took me years to even begin to find confidence within myself and believe that I had control over my mentality. I am here to tell you that mental preparation can and should be just as much of an enjoyable process as physical preparation. It’s a time where you get to give your mind and body the rest that it deserves after days, weeks, months of exhaustive training.
Everybody knows about taper and for some swimmers, it’s the best time out of the year. Our bodies get rest, we have more time to ourselves, and we get to look forward to an opportunity to go after our goals. When I was in college I would look forward to taper but I felt incredibly anxious leading up to big meets. I would question every little thing that I had done in practice and would wonder if it was enough… would I achieve my goals or would I fail. Having that fear-based anxiety did me no good; it only got in the way of what I knew I was capable of. You have to know that the work you put in during practice and how you take care of yourself is done and the only thing left to do is race. I’ve had conversations with my teammates and coaches on how to prepare mentally when you feel that anxiety creeping up before a meet. Some of the best advice I was given was from Gregg Troy (my former UF and professional coach). He said that “everything you do leading up to a meet or performance is like putting money in the bank.” You invest in your training and prepare yourself for the goals you want to achieve when the time comes.
My older brother Caeleb has also dealt with mental preparation and what it means to be under pressure and put so much expectation on yourself. He gave advice on preparation for meets and how to manage emotions leading up to competition: “One of the hardest times for a swimmer is leading up to the meet itself. You go through taper blues, your body is going through a transition phase that can be very frustrating.”
Caeleb has great awareness when it comes to how he feels in and out of the water. One of the things that makes him an exceptional athlete is his attention to detail and the little things he does to help him stay focused on his goals and the task at hand. He has kept a logbook for as long as I can remember and he mentioned to me that keeping track of your training and what you go through is a way to physically see improvement over the years. Going through logbooks during taper can be reassuring in the sense that your body goes through similar changes each year. Caeleb would note if he “felt like trash” in a practice and look back on those notes during taper as a reminder that he is on the right track just in an awkward phase of taper. If you have something to fall back on and remind you that this is part of the process it can give you the confidence you need going into a meet.
Taper can be stressful because you want to feel perfect and feel that you’re ready to go but the reality is, you’re not always going to physically feel 100%. Caeleb knows this better than most and reminded me that once the work is done there’s not much more you can do to change the outcome. He said that “99% of what swimmers do is train and the other 1% is racing. Training is what prepares you for the 1% out of the year that you get to race. It should be an exciting time so take every moment as it comes and never take it for granted.”
Caeleb is one of the most appreciative people in and out of the sport of swimming and never lets a moment pass without acknowledging the beauty of an opportunity. He has always made the most of every situation and understands that racing is enjoyable regardless of the outcome. He reminded me that happy swimmers are fast swimmers and you should take the time to appreciate the gift of swimming and all of the excitement/ opportunity that comes along with it.
To make it more simple Caeleb left me with three pieces of advice to share with everyone:
Check in on logbooks and refresh yourself every year on the work you’ve put in and how far you’ve come
Know that you have put in the work and done everything you can to prepare yourself for this moment
Take advantage of the good time you’re going to have racing and don’t be afraid to race.
With Covid still being persistent in the world, it is also important to mention that sickness can interfere with the process of preparation. In the same way that you can’t control every little detail of your swimming, you can’t always control or predict when you’re going to get sick. However, there are ways to best help your body prepare and recover from Covid/sickness.
Prioritizing sleep is one of the best ways to keep your body healthy and prepared to fight off sickness. Sleep is an essential function of the body and impacts every system from our cognitive function to immune health. Quality sleep can help us reset, recover and recharge. It’s absolutely vital to brain function, concentration, immune health, and metabolism. Here are some tips to help you optimize sleep:
Minimize screen time before bed; try to incorporate a relaxing activity such as ready, stretching, or a relaxing bath.
Some swimmers need caffeine before finals / a race which can make it difficult to sleep. Try using melatonin or ID sleep strips to help fall asleep and feel rested when you wake up.
Hydration is another key component to staying healthy and flushing out our bodies. Dehydration upsets the body’s natural balance and can affect our physical, mental, and emotional health. Not keeping up with constant water replenishment throughout the day can leave you feeling tired, fatigued, or unable to think clearly. This change occurs because dehydration slows circulation and sends less oxygen to the brain, further inhibiting the ability to enjoy activities or find basic motivation. Here are ways to stay hydrating prior to a meet and during:
Keep a water bottle on you throughout the day and be sure to fill it regularly as you drink
Incorporate water-dense foods such as oranges, watermelon, and tomatoes
Use NUUN hydration drinks/ packets to replenish electrolytes
Mindfulness can help reduce stress and how your body responds to stressful situations. Stress suppresses the immune system, which makes it easier for you to get sick and harder to fight off bugs. No one is fully relaxed at a swim meet and can feel stress in different ways. To help manage nervousness/ stress prior to a meet try incorporating mindful techniques into your daily routine.
Meditopia App is great for mediation, anxiety, sleep, and mindfulness. There are short clips ranging from 5 to 20 minutes for mental and emotional support.
Stretching can also be a mindful activity that helps your body and mind relax. Stretching for at least 5 minutes a day can get your blood flowing and help your body feel more prepared.
Breathing exercises are a great way to reduce stress and unconsciously bring your mind back to the present moment. A lot of times we stress over circumstances that haven’t happened and forget to be mindful of what is happening here and now. I would use breathing techniques to help me relax when I felt nervous or thought about the outcome of my race before it even happened. I focused on deep breaths and the movement of my heartbeat. It is a simple yet effective technique
Trust in yourself and the training/ work you’ve put in to prepare yourself. Have fun doing what you love and remind yourself that success isn’t possible without failure and falling short of your goals doesn’t mean you have failed. There is so much to learn from through good and bad swims as long as you don’t let one solely define you. I wish you all the best of luck with your preparation and competition in the upcoming weeks/months!