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Building your Mental Toughness Toolbox: Mastering disappointment and failures

by ZwemZa on April 4th, 2019

Michael Andrew (USA Swimming)

The long course season is wrapping up and many swimmers are in the process of or have just finished their big taper meets. While short course training may be just around the corner, there is still a lot of frustration, disappointment and self-directed anger in the air for many athletes. Perhaps your season didn’t end quite the way you wanted it to. Maybe you didn’t drop as much time as you had hoped, or worse yet, you added in your best events! You might even be still feeling really down about your results and struggling because you fell far short of your expectations. If you are, keep this in mind:

How you choose to handle your disappointment, frustration and feelings of failure might be the one thing that is stopping you from reaching your dreams as a swimmer!

Far too many swimmers fail to reach their expectations at the taper meet and use their disappointment and negative self-evaluations to declare that the entire season was a “waste.” In some of these cases, the swimmers actually dropped a good amount of time, but failed to  achieve the cuts they wanted! As a result, they interpret what their coaches or parents applaud as success, as a big failure! They then approach the long course season feeling deflated, with low self-confidence and even lower motivation. After all, how do you get up for a new season when you still feel so down about this last one?

When you run into setbacks, disappointment and adversity on your swim “quest,” and everyone does, you actually do have a choice as to how you will respond. In fact, you have two choices: You can look at the upsetting meet as clear evidence that you’re just not good enough. In the process, you can compare yourself to who you believe are your more successful teammates and wrongly come to the conclusion that you “suck” and they’re better. If you choose this option, you will end up using your inability to meet your expectations at this meet as a stick to emotionally beat yourself up, and, as a result, your self-confidence will take a major hit!

OR, you can do what champions do! They hold two things simultaneously. First, they acknowledge the disappointment, frustration and sadness, and allow themselves to feel it! Of course you may be upset after a disappointing meet! You should be! After all, you’ve invested a lot of time, hard work and emotional and physical energy into getting better. You have a commitment to excellence and don’t like to fall short! These feelings simply reflect how very much you care! Second, they use their failures constructively! Champions understand that eventual success is always built on a solid foundation of failure! Champions may not like failure, but they view it as feedback! After a disappointing race or meet, they will ask themselves, “What did I do that didn’t work and what do I need to do differently next time?”

If you can temporarily set aside all of the emotions attached to failure and get curious about your meet, specifically what you may have done wrong and what you could’ve done differently, then you are left with a direction to go in that will eventually lead you to success!

There are three general areas that you want to get curious about where you may find the explanation for your less than stellar swims:

#1) How was your mental execution, both before and during your race?

To me, at taper time, this is by far THE MOST IMPORTANT area to explore! For example, did you allow yourself to get too nervous pre-race? Were you focusing on times, opponents or carrying any other expectations pre-race? Where was your during-race focus? Were you paying attention to the feel of what you were doing or were you thinking too much about other swimmers, your times or evaluating how badly you were doing or feeling during the race?

#2) How well did you execute your race strategy?

Did you even have a race strategy or were you just swimming? Did you go out too slow or too fast? Were you paying attention to what you needed to do pace-wise at various points in your race?

#3) How well did you execute the mechanics of your swim

How was your breathing pattern during the race? Did you breathe into your walls? How were your under-waters? Did you attack your walls or just glide into them?

When you choose to look for these specific areas that you need to improve upon, and you do this without emotion and without beating up on yourself, then you will feel much more motivated to keep on keeping on!

However, when you get angry and upset with yourself for failing, and you tenaciously hang onto the “fact” that you “failed,” and you continuously tell yourself that this means that you “just don’t have it,” then you will be left feeling down, have no positive direction to head in and this will result in taking the wind out of your sails, motivation-wise! When we get emotional about our failures and hang onto the self-directed anger and bummed out feelings, it blinds us as to what we need to do differently to change and improve!

Remember, failure is feedback and feedback is the breakfast of champions! Don’t use your disappointing swims as evidence that you aren’t good. Instead, use them as very specific, constructive feedback for what you need to do in order to get better and get closer to your dreams!

Dr. Alan Goldberg | USA Swimming Contributor 

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