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Staying in “Good Nervous” before your Races

by ZwemZa on December 12th, 2018

One of the main reasons races are won and lost before the start is because of how physiologically activated a swimmer gets. That is, how excited/nervous you allow yourself to get the night before, morning of, or right behind the blocks before your race. If you get too activated, or what I call “bad” nervous, then you will physically tighten up, lose your confidence and unknowingly sabotage all of your hard work with a disappointing swim. However, if you can manage to keep yourself in “good” nervous, then you will stay loose and confident and race to your potential.

So what’s the difference between “good” and “bad” nervous?

“Good” nervous pre-race is necessary for you to have a great swim. Your mind and body need to be “up” for the race. Good nervous is usually accompanied by butterflies in your stomach, a bit of adrenaline flowing through your system, an increased heart rate and faster, shallower breathing. You have a feeling of excitement as your race approaches and you look forward to the race.

However, in “bad” nervous, your excitement has turned into over-activation. Suddenly your butterflies have developed fangs! You may feel sick to your stomach, your muscles may be very tight and you may notice a feeling of heaviness in your legs. Some swimmers talk about this as “dead legs.” Your heart rate is through the roof and you have trouble getting a full breath when you’re in “bad” nervous. One of the hallmarks of bad nervous is a sense of dread as the race approaches and you may notice an impulse to flee or avoid the race. Also there is frequently a feeling of “I can’t wait until this is over!”

When “bad” nervous becomes extreme, the swimmer totally shuts down, looking and acting “calm” before their race. They might even claim that they don’t really care about the race or its outcome. However, don’t be fooled by this artificial state of calm. There is nothing calm about it.

So how do you get yourself into “good” nervous and avoid becoming over-activated and slipping into “bad nervous?”

  1. Keep your focus of concentration on YOU and YOUR race and away from your opponents or teammates. Stay away from “studying” the heat sheet and how fast others are. By focusing on YOUR pre-race ritual before, and executing YOUR race plan during your swim, you will enable yourself to stay calm and in a good place mentally.
  2. Leave your goals at home. Don’t bring your time or place goals to the meet with you. Outcome goals like these will make your race too important and generate “bad” nervous. Instead, try to keep your focus in the “now,” both before and during your race.
  3. If teammates or anyone around you is making you nervous with their behaviors or conversations, immediately excuse yourself and find someone else to hang out with whose behaviors don’t trigger you and whose conversations are lighter.
  4. Have fun. Smile. Cheer for friends. Laugh and enjoy yourself. Fun will always keep you in “good” nervous.
  5. If it works for you, listen to music. The right kind of music can help you chill out. Avoid pump-up music.
  6. Avoid spending time alone if it leads to you overthinking about your race, other swimmers and what could happen if you don’t swim fast. Stay by yourself ONLY if this helps you remain calm.
  7. Breathe. If you find yourself getting too nervous pre-race, switch your focus of concentration to your breathing and just simply follow your breath in and out. Close your eyes and allow your focus to gently rest on your breathing. In two – three minutes, you will notice that your breathing will get slower and deeper as you begin to calm down!

Remember, if you get too nervous pre-race, you will waste valuable energy and undermine your self-confidence. Stay aware of your level of pre-meet and pre-race nervousness and use these strategies should you find yourself heading towards “bad” nervous. In January, I will help you develop some other mental tools to keep yourself calm under the pressure of big  meets.

Dr. Alan Goldberg |

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