As an athlete, you know that pre-competition nerves can make or break your performance. I feel like there are very few athletes who don’t get nervous before they compete, and once you learn how to control your emotions you can use those pre-competition jitters to your advantage instead of psyching yourself to ensure an optimal performance.
For me, the absolute worst part of a competition was waiting for the routine before mine to finish. Standing in the last call room I would start obsessing over warming up my muscles and preparing my body for a swim through. Personally, my mind typically didn’t wander to thoughts like “am I going to mess up,” but rather “am I going to be so tired in this swim that I can’t execute the routine well enough”. I kept trying to find the perfect balance of my muscles feeling warmed up but not too tired, and those thoughts would consume my mind up until we walked out on deck. Instead of being excited to perform, all I would be thinking about is whether my legs would “die” in the first 30 seconds of the routine (not an ideal mindset for a competition!).
For some reason at the 2015 FINA World Championships I was SO nervous before every single competition swim. Even though I look happy in these photos, in the moments before walking out on deck I was re-playing the worst possible scenarios that could happen during the swim. By the end of my career, I would still get nervous at competitions but I definitely learned how to control my thoughts better. Here are the three things that consistently helped me calm my nerves before a swim:
1) Visualize, visualize, visualize (the same tip as this Synkrolovers article!)
Visualization is one of the best tools I used to make sure I performed well when it mattered most. For about two weeks before the competition, I would go through my routines in my head as I was falling asleep. I imagined walking out on deck, hearing the music, diving into the water and starting the routine. To be honest, I usually never made it through the entire routine because I would fall asleep, but for me the most important part was to visualize the very beginning since that’s when I typically felt the most nervous. I remember being extremely anxious and “in my head” before Mary and I’s first swim at the London Olympics in 2012, but as soon as we walked out on deck I suddenly felt calm because I had already seen the bright lights, thousands of people in the stands, and the stage in my visualizations! It might sound crazy, but I actually felt like I had experienced that moment before so it didn’t seem so new and scary.
2) Yawn (yup, you read that right)
A few years ago, I read in an interview with Apolo Ohno that he yawns before all of his races because it helps slow his heart rate and get more oxygen to the brain, putting him in an ideal mental state before he competes. So I thought, if Apolo Ohno does it, I should try it too...and it worked! Before every swim through or competition I would yawn a few times and immediately felt more relaxed and less anxious. I got Anita addicted to it too and in Rio we were both yawning our heads off before walking out on deck. People must have thought we were insane but hey, if it works it works!
3) When in doubt, start counting
Nerves and anxiety can come up not only before the competition, but during the actual swim as well. If you make a mistake, or just start thinking about how you’re performing, your mind can spiral into oblivion if you don’t focus on something else. I discovered that the best way to re-direct my thoughts is to simply start counting the music! This breaks up the thought pattern and focuses your attention on the routine in a neutral way. It’s simple but it does work. AND it will help you stay on count so you’re killing two birds with one stone!