Appropriate Mental Preparation for Age Group Athletes by Megan Neyer, Ph.D. (1997)


MN: It is a pleasure to be back amongst my aquatic colleagues. I have a great relationship with many of the swimmers I used to spend many hours with as I was growing up in the aquatic world; specifically Mission Viejo and the University of Florida.

Being back in this environment, amongst very tall individuals, does remind me of exactly how short I am.

One of the things I would like to ask you is, what brings you here today? What questions do you want answered during this hour? I could certainly fill up this time very easily with any tangent I wanted to go on. Therefore, what I feel is relevant, is that I am asking you, what topics would you like, to be addressed during this hour? What would you like to know about training your young athletes?

The audience stated the following issues they would like to hear Megan Neyer cover during this hour. They are as follows:

Each appropriate, systematic way of teaching 8 and under and on up.

How young children are to take this type of training seriously, as in mental training.

Incorporating mental training into workouts.

Methods to accompany the fear of competition. L Dealing with parents.

How mental training will apply towards the rest of their lives.

The difference between Success and Failure.

What the characteristics are of each one.

MN: Posing some very interesting questions such as: systematically and developmentally, at what age to you start introducing ideas, how does one deal with parents, how does one apply mental training as they progress in life.

There are several reasons for which children are drawn to competitive sport. There are social reasons, friends might have joined the sport, recognition, they heard it was fun, just to name a few. The primary six (6) reasons why children join competitive sport, or sport for that matter are: Continuance, New Skills, Affiliation, Team Identification, Belonging to Something, Health and Fitness.

So why do children drop out of their chosen sport? Several reasons: The sport no longer is looked at as being fun, the enjoyment is no longer there, peer pressure, friends quitting, rebellion against parents and involvement in other activities. For young adults the pressures of reality start to take precedence. One of the main reasons for children quitting their chosen sport, is the involvement of a BAD COACH.

You now, know WHY, children affiliate or dis-affiliate with their chosen sport. With this in mind, let’s talk about what we CAN DO from a mental perspective in concordance with physical training to enhance their enjoyment of sport.

When is the best time to start mental training with sports? In reality, the minute these children arrive on your pool deck or doorstep, you have already started the mental training process. You are already mentally training them as well as physically.

How do we instruct our children to take this type of training seriously? There are no specific instructions. Some techniques will feel uncomfortable to children. Children will giggle, laugh or play around when asked to do something, which to them is not in their comfort zone. This is a nervous reaction. But because children are nervous or uncomfortable with a technique, feelings such as those should not be taken as reasons for not pushing them through the techniques. The more we teach, coach mental skills early on, the less awkward it seems later in their lives.

The more we teach, incorporation will occur early on. Tiger Woods is a great example of attaining mental skills and the incorporation of mental skills from a very early age.

Although the sport of golf is definitely not my love in life, Tiger Woods has definitely given that impression to the masses. Stemming from eastern philosophies, the technique known as centering and working with positive energy, has certainly influenced his life early on. Along with these techniques, was the coaching from his parents. Therefore, as he achieved the higher rankings in his chosen sport of golf, these techniques were common to him. They became second nature. Second nature as in stroke technique, foot turns and all other things which make one a great athlete.

Self Talk is something you commonly hear being associated with a mental technique. Once perceived as a symptom of mental instability, this is no longer the case. We talk to ourselves, mentally all the time. A good tool to observe this type of mental technique is the movie Animal House. A specific scene deals with a decision which needs to be made. The individual involved is discussing the possible answers with two (2) other individuals. Naturally, there is no one physically there present with him. Should you know of an example off hand, which would better demonstrate the Self Talk technique, I recommend you use it as an important tool. This tool is not for everyone of course. Being that children between the ages of 5 and 8 are more physically oriented, it would not behoove one to presume that these children have the ability to self reflect. Children/young adults, between the ages of 9 and 12 are much more cognitively oriented enabling this technique to be used realistically.

In relation to Self Talk is Imagery. Imagery is to be able to effectively image or visualize something. To do this, we must be in a state of relaxation, see what we are doing in our minds (either correctly or at least in part) and use all of our senses.

The following is an exercise I use with Imagery. Remember the breathing technique we did a bit ago? Start off by doing that, this will bring you into a state of relaxation. While doing this, close your eyes. Now, in your minds pick up a lemon. Feel the skin of the lemon. It feels smooth yet bumpy, a bit on the cool side. I want you to smell the lemon. Smell the tangy scent? Next, cut into the lemon, hearing the skin separating. Cut a slice of the lemon, a wedge. Feel the juices running onto your hands. Maybe you have a tiny cut on your hand and the juice finds its way there, stinging. Take the lemon wedge and place it in your mouth, biting down on it. What does that taste like? Have your athletes tell you about what their experience is with this exercise.

Visualization, does not only pertain to laying down. It can be done while standing and even involving some type of movement. Remember to use all your senses.

There are many different ways in using imagery. Mental rehearsal, preparing for competition stress, picturing the outcome, handling adversity, planning strategy, self regulation, motivation, skill acquisition and injury rehabilitation, are many ways to use imagery.

Children tend to lose interest because they do not understand what it is you’re teaching them or why you’re teaching them. Teach them in all adulates. Teach them to hear you, to see you and they in turn will feel what it is your trying to teach them, it helps them to understand the example better. Make sure you provide feedback, positive feedback. Keep sayings positive, like the old adage, “the glass is half full”, rather than “the glass is half empty.” Children tend to concentrate more on the negative. This is primarily due to the negative feedback constantly given in the real world. Children zone in on the ‘don’t do that’ aspect, which we all tend to do. Don’t tell them what not to do, but what you want them to do.

Another important issue when teaching children is to find the balance between mastery and challenge. If the challenge is perceived as great, children tend to lose motivation. If the challenge is perceived as easy, they get bored. Therefore, it is very important to find the balance in keeping children motivated. Be very specific in your feedback as well as being concrete in what you’re saying.

The Arousal & Performance model is a primary model we tend to use when basing our decisions on what we will be teaching our athletes in terms of mental skills. On the model you have a ‘Low to High’ performance as well as a ‘Low to High’ arousal. To put this in layman’s terms, suppose you have an athlete which is not a morning person. He/she hardly says a word, is not very friendly and is just in a plain bad mood. Here we could easily say that the arousal is very low, therefore the performance would match. On the other hand, let’s say the athlete drinks 8 cups of non-decaffeinated coffee. The outcome would most likely be a wipe-out; energy levels are too high and there would be a lack of fine motor movement. Therefore, to maximize performance, it is very important to understand how one will achieve it.

Some say, butterflies in one’s stomach is not good. On the contrary, they are good. Too much nervousness is not. On the high end of the continuum, excessive nervousness, is what I would call anxiety. When one’s levels of anxiety are too high, their motor movement skills are affected. Cognitively one might be bouncing all over the place. This might be evident of children false starting. Find out if your young athletes are sematic, meaning ‘are they bodily overloading?’ Some signs are sweaty hands and shallow breathing. Or, are they cognitively overloading, which tends to happen to young adults between the ages of 12 to 17. Your decision on what you will and will not be teaching should be based on which way the athletes are overloading.

Let’s assume that the athletes are sematic. Meaning the breathing is shallow, sweaty hands, agitated, etc. One thing which is taught very early on and is taught almost daily is breathing. Focus your athletes attention to their breathing, not just every 3 to 5 strokes, but before competition, before they get up on that block. Have them use the technique of breathing to them in the “Zone.” A good example of a 228 breathing technique, is Syphermatic Breathing.

A simple way of teaching Syphermatic Breathing is to follow the example below.

Lay on the ground, face up. Place your hand on your stomach. Pay attention to the way your stomach expands itself when inhaling and decreases in size when exhaling. Inhale to the count of 4 (try inhaling through your nose). Exhale to the count of 4. Do this a couple of times, concentrating on the vision of your stomach expanding and decreasing.

We have often been told to ‘take a deep breath’ in order to decrease our anxiety level. What we tend not to realize, is that when we coach our athletes to do this, they take quick breaths, tucking the lungs. This does not enable full oxidation to the body. In order for ‘take a deep breath’ to actually work, one must take a DEEP breath, releasing normally. Teach your athletes to breath properly, making sure that when they breath their stomachs are expanding when inhaling and decreasing when exhaling. Teach them to do this effectively.

We have been discussing methods which help all involved, but primarily concentrate on young children. At this time I would like to turn the discussion over to young adults.

Professor Lunquist came up with what is called a Brain Stapling Technique. Basically this has to do with the balance between thinking too much and not thinking enough.

Young adults can be very present oriented, but they focus on things which are out of their control, past performances, future consequences and outcomes. Basically there is not outcome. The bottom line: outcomes are what come out of a process. The only thing one has is the process. Get the young adults to concentrate on the process. Instill in them that they cannot control the winning or losing, but they do have control over their performance.

Self -Talk

What is it?

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that goes on within us all of the time. It is not a matter of if we do it, but more a matter of what kind. Positive self-talk is usually energy producing, whereas negative self-talk is energy consuming and anxiety provoking.

Gaining Awareness

The first step in any self-talk program is to become aware of your thinking style. It is impossible to make a change in your thinking style if you are not aware of what you are thinking. Thoughts are not always verbal, they can also be images that will pop into our heads. A good way to make yourself aware of your self-talk is to monitor it and write it down as you begin to hear yourself say something to yourself, or see an image. WRITE IT DOWN!

Some Common Types of Negative or Self-Defeating Thoughts

  • Fear of failure, and thinking of the possible consequences of performing poorly:

It would be terrible if I lost this tournament

Everyone will be so disappointed in me if I lose I just know I’m going to screw up


Feelings of inadequacy and putting yourself down:

  • I’m not ready for this game I’m not good enough to compete at this level

3) Focusing on things out of your personal control: The wind and rain are going to wreck my game, I play terrible in these conditions The officials are terrible and they’re against us

4) Worrying about past performance rather than concentrating on the-present: I’ve never played well here before My practices have been going poorly, so I am going to play bad. I always choke at big games

5) Worrying about future consequences instead of focusing on the present: I have to play well to make/stay on the team How am I going to explain it if I play poorly

6) Focusing on the outcome It doesn’t matter how I play as long as I win I have to win this game

What Can I Do to Change My Self-Talk?

Develop a repertoire of positive and realistic thoughts. That does not mean look at everything with global optimism. It means focus on the present, be realistic about what you can expect from yourself, focus on your performance, not the outcome, and focus on factors that are within your control.

1) Focus on Performance – Keep thinking about the present; what can I do right now? – “Park” the past, you can revisit it later – Let go of outcome oriented thinking – Let go of what others might think

2) Focus on Things That Are Within Your Control – I cannot control the other player (s) , but I can control myself. – Learn to appreciate adverse conditions (love the wind or the officiating).

3) Focus on Your Strengths – I’m in excellent shape for this competition – My form is feeling very good – I am mentally tough and prepared for this competition

4) Focus on Realistic Expectations – I will do the best I can out there today – I have set realistic goals for myself

5) Coping with Arousal Self-Statements – Breathe deep and say “calm” to yourself – I will approach this competition as if it were practice – Some tension is good, and I will use it to my advantage

6) Use Positive Affirmations – I am relaxed and confident – I am a champion – I have a great deal of positive energy – I am in control of my mind and body 230 – I have trained well for this event – I love the challenges in this sport – I enjoy myself when I am competing


Imagery is an experience similar to a sensory experience but arising in the absence of the usual external stimuli.

Uses of Imagery

  1. MENTAL REHEARSAL Mental practice can be carried out virtually any time, any -.there. And it works! It can be especially important during the LEARNING of a new skill, or in maintaining a well learned skill. It can also be used to analyze and correct errors. See and feel yourself make an error then go back and see and feel yourself do it correctly. Imagery serves a blueprint to guide future performance and helps automate the skill.
  2. PREPARING FOR COMPETITION STRESS You can go to a competition before the actual event- in your mind. Then you can FEEL the excitement build, and practice seeing yourself perform as you want to. You can also see and feel yourself in the internal mental state that leads to peak Performance for you.
  3. PICTURE THE OUTCOME YOU DESIRE See yourself performing in the way you want to. Then go and do it. The POSITIVE mental image you have exerts a powerful force of confidence on the body. 4. SEE YOURSELF OVERCOME ADVERSITY Athletes many times lose their poise in competition when “unexpected surprises” occur. These surprises can be reduced through imagery. Imagine the surprises and overcoming them successfully. In that way nothing will surprise you in competition.
  4. MAKING YOUR PLAN Plan your strategy. Create your plan. What’s your mental and physical plan for this competition. A good idea is to also to make plans for what you will do if things is go wrong. Then you will be less likely to choke if things go wrong.
  5. SELF REGULATION If athlete’s experience too much tension and pressure, a quick way to calm down is to imagine a favorite scene that they associate with relaxation- a sunny day at the beach, a mountain lake, a sunset. Imagine being at this relaxing place and feel yourself mentally calm. Through imagery you can learn to control your emotions such as anger and anxiety.
  6. MOTIVATION Picture your goals and see yourself attaining them

IMAGERY CAN BE USED IN CONJUNCTION WITH ANY MENTAL AND PHYSICAL SKILL YOU ARE WORKING ON Imagery has an effect on the brain and nervous system that may be almost identical to the actual experience.


  1. Imagery can be used most any time: at home, before, during and after practice and competition. Especially in the learning phases imagery is easier to do in a quiet nondistracting environment.
  2. Imagery is most effective when the mind is calm and the body relaxed.
  3. Just let distracting thoughts and feelings float through as you refocus on the image
  4. Use all the senses, especially, sight, feel, and emotions
  5. Create the image as vividly as possible.
  6. Start with easy images, such as skill you have already mastered.
  7. As imagery skill increases, imagine more difficult skills and incorporate them into practice then competitive situations.


Sensory and Emotional awareness: The first Step is to gain sensory awareness before doing imagery. For example, it is hard to see and feel something in imagery if you do not know what it feel and looks like prior to imagining it. With strong sensory awareness you will be able to produce better images. Become more aware of your sensual and emotional experiences involved in your sport.

Vivid: See the image in detail. Use all your senses, especially sight and kinesthetic feel. Also, imagine how your body would respond to what you are imagining.

Control: Learn to control the image. If your image starts to go out of control, stop and restart. Another option would be to see yourself overcome the mistake and perform the way you want following the mistake rather than starting over.

Internal or External Perspective. Both perspectives are useful. Some athletes prefer to use internal in some situations and external in others. For example, some athletes prefer the external perspective in analyzing their performance and seeing errors. While other athletes report that it -is easier to feel themselves perform from the internal perspective. Some also like to use slow motion imagery to analyze performance. Others like to use videotape-augmented imagery. Finally, remember that imagery is a skill that can be improved through practice. Devote 5-15 minutes working on your imagery skills. Remember that imagery is more than daydreaming—it has a purpose. Before your imagery session ask yourself, “What is my purpose or what am I trying to accomplish through imagery today”.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Sponsorship & Partnerships

Official Sponsors and Partners of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Join Our Mailing List

Subscribe and get the latest Swimming Coach news