As swimmers, we all have that one event. The one we think about for weeks before our big meet. The one we stress about. The one that sometimes lets our nerves get the best of us. The one that keeps us up at night. The one that makes us physically sick to think about (either from an overload of excitement or anxiety). The one that is just so hard.
For me, that event was (is) the 200 freestyle. Now full disclosure, not once in my 16 year USA Swimming career did I ever swim the 200 fly or the mile, so maybe there was a harder one out there. But for years I struggled mentally with this event. Part of the struggle was that even though I was a sprinter and swam a lot of 50 and 100 freestyles in my day, I knew the 200 was my best event. I was good at shorter events, but when I hit this event right, it was killer.
As a sprinter, I actually hated sprint workouts. I much preferred to swim middle distance or distance practices. I loved the feeling I got in the middle of a long set when I finally got a second wind and finished out faster than I thought I could. I liked the way a longer set made my whole body ache after practice. Sprinting didn’t always give me this feeling. When I felt good in the 200, I got this same feeling right around the 3rd 50, and took off. When I didn’t feel good, I got the feeling I was going to be sick right around the 3rd 50, and gave up.
This event was so hit or miss for me. I either had a best time, or added 5+ seconds. There was rarely middle ground. Now that I’m a Masters swimmer, I understand that what I thought were physical limitations was just mental pressure I put on myself. I never found a good way to cope with race anxiety when it came to the 200, and that left me with inconsistent swims.
If you’ve been following me, you know that about 2 years ago I got back in the water, and last May participated in my first swim meet in over a decade. I stuck to the 50 and 100 free only – I was honestly still too afraid of the 200 to swim it. About a year later, I decided to try it at a short course meters meet. As a masters swimmer, I put absolutely no pressure on myself. I do it for fun. And guess what? All those years, turns out that’s what I was forgetting – to have fun. I didn’t swim the fastest time ever, but I loved it, and want to try again when this pandemic is all over.
I know no one is in the water right now (aside from some backyard pools and some very creative blow up pool situations), so why not use this time to think about that event that gives you the feelings I have about the 200 free? What is your hardest event? Why is it hard? Because you put pressure on yourself? Because you don’t prepare well in practice? Because you have negative self talk? Maybe it’s a combination. But use this time to gain some perspective you may not otherwise have time for during an intense swim season.
When I did the 200, I could dive in and instantly feel how it was going to go. If I dove in and felt the slightly tightness, or the girl next to me taking the first 50 out really fast, I put up a road block. I started thinking of excuses in my head why this race wasn’t going to be the best. I had a cold last week. I’m focused on a big test in school. I was tight in the water. I didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Notice that these are all negative things I said in my head to let myself off the hook if I touched the wall and saw a time I didn’t want to see.
The point is, I played a dangerous mental game with myself, and often lost. Imagine if I dove in and instead of thinking, “I feel tight” I thought, “I am prepared”. Swimming is such an incredibly mental sport, and often times how we feel in the water isn’t a realistic reflection of our physical and mental preparedness.
If you struggle with an event or events the way I did with the 200 freestyle, think of it this way: Is it more likely that you go through an entire season of [practices, meets, training, lifting, goal setting], months and months of hard work and dedication only to get to your championship meet in your best event and be held back by a little muscle tightness? No. You are ready, you are trained, you are rested, you’ve done everything physically you can do to succeed. So now the challenge is to believe in yourself and overcome that negative self talk. You CAN overcome it.
So when the times comes again for us to get back in the pool and tackle our hardest event – let’s all promise to put aside that negative self talk, believe in ourselves that we are prepared, and most importantly – have fun.