Back to the Future Parts 1 & 2: Mental Conditioning for Tomorrow’s Champions by David Fletcher (2006)


[This article is the original script for a presentation given at the American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic, Washington DC, USA on the 8th September 2006.]

“David Fletcher is a leading European sport psychologist who regularly works with world and Olympic swimmers. Since working as a Sport Scientist on British Swimming’s World Class Performance Plan he has consulted with the British Olympic Association and British Swimming in support of their respective Olympic management and coaching teams. More recently, he was seconded at the IMG Academies in Florida to provide mental conditioning support to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, David Leadbetter Golf Academy, IMG Soccer Academy, and the International Performance Institute. In addition to his role as a sport psychologist, he also works as a swimming coach with a select group of international triathletes. David has an MSc in Sports Science with Distinction (Loughborough University, UK) and regularly publishes in and reviews for international peer-reviewed journals. During his swimming career he competed at a high level, including meets such as the World Cup and Olympic Trials” Jennifer Gibson, Vice-President of the American Swimming Coaches Association

Thank you Jennifer. Good afternoon everyone. As Jennifer mentioned, I’m based in Europe so it was particularly exciting for me when John invited me to speak here in Washington DC. I actually thought this was my first visit to your capital city, but according to my mother – and believe me she should know about this matter – this is strictly speaking my second time in Washington DC because I was conceived here! I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear though that John didn’t invite me to speak on this topic – rather the psychology of swimming excellence.

In this presentation, I’m going to look back at the past to try and understand what it will take mentally to be successful in the future of our sport. The idea for the theme actually came to me when I was chatting with an experienced British coach who remarked, “if only I knew twenty years ago what I know now!” Which got me thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if I could know what was happening in world of swimming in twenty years time and use that knowledge to help today’s swimmers?” Obviously, it’s all pure fantasy. But just like I think the clues were out there in the 1980’s about what we would be doing today, I also believe that the clues are out there now about what we’ll be doing in the 2020’s. So hopefully in this presentation I’ll be able to give you an insight into what it’ll take mentally for your swimmers to be successful in the future.

As Jennifer also mentioned in her introduction, I’ve been fortunate to spent time working at the IMG Academies in Florida providing mental conditioning support to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, David Leadbetter Golf Academy, IMG Soccer Academy, and the International Performance Institute. I want to share with you a bit about the set-up they have down there because I believe it offers an indication about what the future might hold for competitive swimming. Obviously we’re talking about different sports here, but I think it’s fair to say that the directors of the IMG Academies are way ahead of their time and we can learn from them for our sport. The Academies is spread out over nearly 200 acres and is arguably the most advanced multi-sport training and educational facility ever created for athletes. Every year, it delivers world-class sports training experiences to over 11,000 professional, senior, collegiate and junior athletes. Participants in the programmes receive instruction from over 100 expert coaches and have daily access to the world-class facilities and amenities. Many of the world’s top athletes have trained at the Academies including tennis players Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, Monica Seles, and Anna Kournikova, and golfers Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Julieta Granda, and Casey Wittenberg. Based on campus is the Mental Conditioning Department which consists of five full-time members of staff. I don’t know of many swimming programmes that have five-full time coaches – let alone any full-time sport psychologists! Anyway, these members of staff work in many areas including: individual consultation with athletes; group workshops on mental conditioning topics; coach education and development; programme design and diagnostics; marketing the support services; assessment, monitoring and evaluation of interventions; and reflective practice and supervisory debrief. Complimenting the services offered by the Mental Conditioning Department is “Game On”, a unique communication and media consulting company that works with athletes of all ages and standards. Developed by film and television actor, Steve Shenbaum, it teaches athletes through interaction and keeps them constantly involved by engaging rather than lecturing to them. This is accomplished through an entertaining and fun learning atmosphere where communication is a product of a wide range of imagination and improvisation exercises. The reason I’m telling you all this is because hopefully it’s opening up your minds to how mental conditioning can – and is – making a difference in the world’s most successful sports programmes… a big difference.

So let’s get back to our sport and take a look at what some well-respected coaches have said about the importance of psychology in world and Olympic level swimming. Let’s start with British Swimming’s National Performance Director, Bill Sweetenham: “A coach has to have an open mind and sound technical knowledge. But psychology is the hidden X factor. It’s how you develop strong athletes”. This is obviously a quote I like because it emphasizes the significance of psychology in competitive swimming, but I also find it interesting because of a number of other points it raises. First, whilst I totally agree that coaches should keep an open mind, it’s worth remembering that there is such a thing as being so opened minded that your brains fall out! Don’t make the mistake of interpreting the “X factor” to be some secret knowledge that only a privileged few have access to, or to refer to motivational speaking, mystic astrology, fortune telling, faith healing, or pseudo spiritualism! Another important aspect of swimming psychology that Bill touches upon is its “hidden” nature – something I’ll discuss in more detail in a minute. Interestingly, it was James ‘Doc’ Counsilman, arguably the most successful swimming coach in history, who first used the term “X factor” in the context of developing coaching excellence. In his seminal ASCA presentation in 1971, he used it to refer to a coach’s ability to recognise the important things in swimming coaching, to work on them, and to minimise the unimportant. In other words, the ability to think critically. As Bill recognises, in order to develop the X factor a coach must understand psychology and be able to apply it to develop mentally tough swimmers. Indeed, the following quote by Doc suggests that he would probably have agreed: “Most swimmers at the elite level are very equal from a physiological standpoint, so the swimmer who has it together mentally in the big meets is going to outperform the other competitors”. As was so often Doc’s way, his sentiments provide another essential insight into coaching excellence. This can be summed up by the wisdom in the Latin phrase, ceteris paribus, which translated means “all else (or other things) being equal”. Doc is not saying that physiological factors are not important or that psychological issues are the only variables in elite swimming. Rather he is claiming that if all else is equal, as is often the case in elite swimming, then swimmers’ mental states will often determine who will be most successful. There are, of course, many technical, physical, physiological, mental, nutritional, social, organisational and financial factors that can affect swimming performance. The coach’s job is to enhance and optimise each of these factors to help the swimmer realise his or her potential. Let’s just take a look at this from another perspective. When a parent tells his or her child not to smoke to avoid heart disease, what they really mean is that if all else is equal (such as other risk factors like genetics, diet, activity, etc) then your chances of getting heart disease are higher if you smoke than someone who doesn’t smoke. My message for you about swimming psychology is similar. I’m not saying that you’ll coach Olympic champions if you incorporate sport psychology principles into your training programmes, but what I am saying is that if all else is equal (such as your training programmes, organisational structures, etc) then your chances of coaching an Olympic champion are definitely greater if you’re able to apply sport psychology knowledge. One of Britain’s most successful coaches, Ian Armiger, Director of Swimming at Loughborough University, is often heard telling his swimmers, “swimming fast is not that complicated: All you have to do is the right things, at the right time, more often than everyone else”. He may or may not realise it, but he is actually displaying a rather deft appreciation for the certeris paribus phrase. This is, however, in contrast to how some less successful coaches think. Always be sceptical of people who have their pet coaching beliefs and say things like “swimmers must rack up their mileage until they reach breaking point”, “technique and swimming like a fish is all you need”, or “the power of the mind will overcome everything”. If a swimmer actually believes any of these statements then it is unlikely that they will go on to fulfil their true potential. The phrase ‘you’re only a strong as your weakest link’ is particularly apt here. A swimmer may, for example, get a certain amount of success by pounding up and down the pool with little regard for technical and mental factors, but they will reach a point in competition when other swimmers with equal fitness, but better technical and mental skills, will beat them. Why? Quite simply because all else (i.e., technical and mental skills) is no longer equal. Rather than thinking about an Olympic final as a contest of who is the best swimmer in the world, another way of viewing it is as a kind of experiment to see who has the least number of faults in his or her preparation. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that there are some (genetic) factors that are beyond coaches’ control and will always limit a swimmer’s potential. It is this fact that led the renowned sports scientist, Per-Olof Åstrand, to coin the maxim, “to be an Olympic champion, choose your parents wisely!” Talking of genetic factors, here’s a quote from Ian Thorpe, Olympic champion, which helps reinforce what I’m trying to say here: “A coach has probably changed from being the person who holds the stopwatch to someone who has to be a psychologist, has to be a relationship consultant, has to be a friend, has to be a scientist, has to know how to do biomechanics. I guess a great coach is prepared to listen as well. There are coaches who will still have those dogmatic approaches that they own that athlete – they own their eating rights, they own their training rights, they own even their way of thinking. They’re dictators. I don’t see that it’s a successful way of coaching”. Despite all these observations, it’s only in the past decade or so that the top swimming nations have begun to incorporate systematic and structured psychological support into their training programmes.

Sport psychology is actually not that different to other areas of coaching science. No one would question that Leisel Jones is biomechanically more efficient than your average club swimmer, or that Brendan Hansen is physiologically stronger than when he was younger. Even the layperson can easily see that Olympic swimmers have done – and are indeed doing – something different to the rest of us. Hence, we logically conclude that to improve swimming performance we need to understand and work on aspects of stroke technique and physical fitness. But when it comes to the psychological characteristics of elite performance, we often make a clanging exception. Although most would acknowledge that Gary Hall Jr. and Pieter Van Den Hoogenband must be mentally tough to do what it took to win their Olympic titles, how many approach psychological preparation with the same care and attention as technical and fitness aspects? It seems to me that, as simple it may sound, one of the reasons is because of its “hidden” nature and that we can’t easily see the end result. It’s not difficult to see and admire the fluency of Jones’s stroke or the power of Hansen’s physique but, unfortunately, we can’t directly see into the minds of Hall Jr. and Van Den Hoogenband. This makes life a bit more difficult because, (a) it’s often not that obvious that Olympic medallists think and behave in different ways to their peers, and (b) it’s natural to be more inclined to work on other factors which are more easily observerable and, therefore, appear somehow more credible. The problem is that psychology’s a bit like gravity: you can’t see it but whether you consider it “real” or not it will always impact on your swimmers’ preparations and performances.

“Psychologist” is such a label, perhaps even something of a cliché… For those of you who haven’t worked with a sport psychologist, the word might conjure up images of the psychiatrist’s couch, men in white coats, and psychoanalysis. Maybe you’re thinking about certain “problem” athletes that you coach, obsessive behaviour and childhood experiences, or hypnosis, meditation and psych-up techniques. You may even be sitting there questioning the need for a “swim shrink” and why I’ve been invited to present today. There are some people who feel uncomfortable with the idea that psychologists evaluate weaknesses or problems in mental functioning. But, again, this type of approach is adopted throughout coaching science with technical and fitness flaws being continually monitored. And besides, this is only part of a psychologist’s work, most of which is proactive rather than reactive anyway. In just the same way that swimmers who work with a coach to get fitter don’t have to be physically unhealthy, athletes who work with a psychologist to develop useful skills are not necessarily mentally unstable. Something I often remind swimmers and coaches when I start working with them is that ‘you don’t need to be sick to get better’. In fact, the majority of my clients are often well-adjusted and -balanced individuals who are simply seeking to enhance their performance and gain the competitive edge. For Mark Tewkesbury, Olympic champion, it came down to this: “As you sit in the ready room alone with your thoughts before your race, whether that be the local swim meet or before your Olympic event, let them be the right ones!” All too often a swimmer and coach put in years – maybe even decades – of hard work only for “Olympic phobia” to strike and ensure that performances fail to reach their potential.

To win World and Olympic titles in the 21st century swimmers must train their mind as thoroughly as they train their bodies. Indeed, the top swimming nations have been quick to catch onto this. For example, in 1992, Clark Perry was appointed the Sport Psychologist for the Australian National Swimming Team and, in 1997, Suzanne Tuffey Riewald was appointed Director of Sport Psychology for USA Swimming. Their remits were to develop and manage psychological support, with a particular focus on what it takes to win medals at the elite level. Clark is probably best known for, but certainly not limited to, his team building and race preparation strategies, and Suzie for her work on how to motivate and develop youth swimmers. Here’s what Sarah Ryan, Olympic champion, said about Clark’s impact on her performance: “I saw Clark today and he put a different spin on things. He helped settle me down and it worked. He’s a gem”.

Since 1999, a great deal of my consultancy work with elite swimmers and coaches has been driven by the model shown in Figure 1. The Optimum Swimming Performance Model has been particularly helpful in facilitating high performance coaches’ understanding of elite swimming psychology. It has a strong intuitive appeal but is based on sound theory and research findings. The basic premise being that it’s critical to know the demands of the Olympic environment in order to appreciate the resources or mental toughness required by a swimmer. The world of elite sport imposes many environmental demands upon swimmers. These demands are only met when the swimmer has the personal resources to manage and cope with them. The interface between demands and resources will cause the swimmer to respond in different ways to training and competition. If the swimmer has the resources to deal with the demands, then their technical, physical, nutritional and tactical skills will be executed more effectively. If the swimmer lacks the resources then their responses will cause negative short and long term effects on performance. Ultimately, it is this psychological process that will determine how successful international swimmers are in winning Olympic medals.

Figure 1. The Optimum Swimming Performance Model (Copyright © 1999 by David Fletcher).

So what are the environmental demands encountered by elite swimmers and when do these demands occur? To identify the demands, one must first analyse the nature and characteristics of the sport. It is particularly important to focus on lifestyle, training, pre-competition, during competition, and post-competition settings. Unfortunately, time constraints preclude a detailed sport analysis of competitive swimming, but perhaps Bill Sweetenham summarised the demands of the Olympic environment best:

“The facts are: the biggest event in the world is an unrelenting, unforgiving environment where any flaws in your preparation are exposed in the spotlight of the Olympic flame like never in any other event. If you haven’t prepared for that second day in the village, when all the doubts come pounding down around your head and throat, if you haven’t been invincible in your preparation, if it hasn’t been above what you’re prepared to do in the Olympic race, failure is guaranteed. It’s not like any other event. It is not a stepping-stone. It is the end of the line. It is the only competition in the world. Everything else is a pretender. There is no other area where moral, physical or mental weakness will be exposed like they are in the Olympic environment”

Turning to the personal resources, these are more often collectively referred to as “mental toughness”. Mental toughness can be thought of as a swimmer’s propensity to manage the environmental demands, ranging from an absolute resilience to extreme vulnerability. It is made up of many different psychological traits, characteristics and skills, but some of the most commonly mentioned by elite swimmers include: relaxation, imagery, goal-setting and self-talk. Here’s what one the greatest swimmers in history said about the important of relaxation:

“The greatest secret of swimming fast is relaxation at top speed” Peter John “Johnny” Weissmuller, Olympic champion

So why is the ability to relax so important for successful swimming? Well, there are many reasons, but the bottom line is that a tense swimmer will not be as efficient or effective in the water. Let’s just have a quick anatomy lesson to illustrate what I mean. When I bend my elbow, the bicep muscle contracts and the tricep muscle relaxes. Then, when I straighten my arm, the opposite happens; the tricep muscle contracts and the bicep muscle relaxes. This is actually how we move all our limbs with our muscles working in pairs; with one contracting and one relaxing to create movement. What happens when we get tense? We contract lots of our muscles and not just the ones we want or need to contract. Our whole body tightens up from our facial muscles to our toes. Now consider for a moment the muscles required to generate propulsion in the freestyle armstroke. In the final stage of the pull, as the hand pushes backward and the arm straightens, it is the tricep which contracts and the bicep which relaxes. Then, as the hand exits the water, the bicep contracts and the tricep relaxes. It is the ability to “switch the energy on and off” that characterises many of the world’s best swimmers. Smart coaches intuitively understand this and can often be heard advising their swimmers, “don’t fight the water”. It’s also the reason why swimmers can quite easily end up “trying too hard”, whilst others exclaim “that felt easy!” after swimming a personal best. One of the best ways to relax is to focus on your breathing. After all, it’s worth paying attention to because it’s the first and last thing you’ll ever do in your life! Another powerful mental skill used by the world’s best swimmers is visualisation:

“My visualisation has been refined more and more as the years go on. That is what really got me the world record and Olympic medals. I see myself swimming the race before the race really happens, and I try to be on the splits. I concentrate on attaining the splits I have set out to do. About 15 minutes before the race I always visualise the race in my mind and “see” how it will go. You are really swimming the race. You are visualising it from behind the block. In my mind, I go up and down the pool, rehearsing all parts of the race, visualising how I actually feel in the water” Alex Bauman, Olympic champion

Most people think they don’t use imagery or are unable to picture images in their mind. But this is very often not the case. We’ll do a quick exercise just to show you how easy it is to visualise things. Get yourself into a comfortable position and relax. Close your eyes. Now imagine that you’re in San Francisco and you’re stood next to the Golden Gate Bridge. Look over toward the bridge and try to picture it clearly in your mind. Now, without opening your eyes, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. First, raise your arm if you think the bridge is yellow. Okay, put your hand down if you’ve got it raised. Now raise your arm if you think the bridge is red. Okay, put your hands down and open your eyes. Well, most of you got it right! The bridge is, of course, red and the only way you could have know that is if you had pictured it, at least to some extent, in your mind. In fact, everyday we all create images in our minds. When you make the drive to practice in the morning you imagine the route in your mind to help you make decisions about which roads to go down. The key point I’m trying to make here is that imagery is, a) something that we all do to some extent, b) something that Olympic champion swimmers not only do, but actually consciously use to help them improve their swimming performance, and c) is, therefore, a mental skill that can be practised and developed like any physical or technical skill. Let’s move onto another technique called goal-setting that can be used to help enhance swimming performance:

“In 1972 Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, breaking seven world records. I was at home watching him on my living room floor. And I said to myself at that time, “wouldn’t it be nice to be able to win a gold medal, to be able to be a world champion in Olympic competition”. So right then I had this dream of being an Olympic champion. But right about then it became a goal. That dream to goal transition is the biggest thing I learned prior to Olympic competition – how important it is to set a goal. Certainly, motivation is important. A lot of kids have motivation. “Gee, I’d love to be great…”. My personal best time in the 100 back was 59.5. Roland Matthes, winning the same event for the second consecutive Olympics (1972), went 56.3. I extrapolated this, you know, three Olympic performances and I figured in 1976, 55.5 would have been the order of the day. That’s what I figured I would have to do. So I’m four seconds off the shortest backstroke event on the Olympic program. It’s the equivalent of dropping four seconds in the 440 yard dash. It’s a substantial chunk. But because it’s a goal, now I can decisively figure out how I can attack that. I have four years to do it in. I’m watching TV in 1972. I’ve got four years to train. So it’s only one second a year. That’s still a substantial junk. Swimmers train ten or eleven months a year so it’s about a tenth of a second a month, giving time off for missed workouts. And you figure we train six days a week so it’s only about 1/300th of a second a day. We train from six to eight in the morning and four to six at night so it’s really only about 1/1200th of a second every hour. Do you know how short a 1200th of a second is? Look at my hand and blink when I snap, would you please? Okay, from the time when your eyelids started to close to the time they touched, five 1200th of a second elapsed. For me to stand on the pool deck and say, “during the next 60 minutes I’m going to improve that much,” that’s a believable dream. I can believe in myself. I can’t believe that I’m going to drop four seconds by the next Olympics. But I can believe I can get that much faster. Couldn’t you? Sure. So all of a sudden I’m moving” John Naber, Olympic champion

Great quote isn’t it? For a lot of the swimmers and coaches I work with this quote really brings home just how setting goals is a skill that we can develop to help us achieve the things we want in our lives. Just like with imagery, we all set goals in our lives. When we set the alarm clock for the next morning we are setting a goal to wake up at a certain time. But Olympic champion swimmers have really thought about how they can specifically develop this skill to help them improve their performance. A goal-setting exercise I use with swimmers of all levels is called the “road map” exercise. In it, I ask the swimmer to write at the top of a big piece of paper the current year, the level they are currently swimming at, and the times they’re swimming in their best events. I then ask the swimmer to write at the bottom of the sheet their ultimate goal in the sport and the year they want to achieve it (e.g., win an Olympic title in a world record time in 2012). We then spend time filling in a “road map” of how to get there. This involves outlining both long-term and short-term goals, together with race positions, event times, and key areas to focus on in training. Perhaps the single best thing about this exercise is that it gets swimmers thinking about how to achieve their dreams. Nearly every swimmer I work with has dreams, but the vast majority don’t have a smart plan of how they’re going to go about achieving that dream. The power of goal-setting was well illustrated in a commonly cited study conducted at Yale University. In 1953 the graduates of the university were interviewed and asked if they had a clear, specific set of goals written down together with a plan for achieving those goals. Only 3 percent had such written goals. Twenty years later, in 1973, the researchers went back and interviewed the surviving members of the 1953 graduating class. They discovered that the 3 percent with written specific goals were worth more in financial terms than other 97 percent put together. Obviously, this study measures only people’s financial development. However, the interviewers also discovered that the less measurable or more subjective measures, such as the level of happiness and joy that the graduates felt, also seemed to be superior in the 3 percent with written goals. This is the power of goal setting. So far, we’ve briefly looked at relaxation, visualisation, and goal-setting as three basic psychological skills which go along way to making up a swimmer’s mental toughness. Whilst the development of mental toughness is far more complex then I’ve done justice to here, there’s one more basic psychological skill I’d like to briefly discuss:

“You have to believe that it’s going to happen. You can’t doubt your abilities by saying, “oh, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and I’m going to feel totally bad, since I felt bad today and yesterday”. You can’t go about it like that. You have to say, “okay, tomorrow I’m going to feel good. I didn’t feel good today. That’s that. We will see what happens tomorrow”” Janel Jorgensen, Olympic silver medallist

Perhaps not as an “exciting” quote as the others, but don’t let that make you think that this skill is any less powerful. Just like the other skills, everybody talks to themselves in their head. However, Olympic champion swimmers tend to think differently to the rest of us. To help illustrate the power of what psychologists’ call “self-talk” I want to tell you a few stories. The first shows how our beliefs effect what we think and do, which will ultimately determine what happens to us. Psychologist Dr. Dudley Calvert tells the story of a railway employee in Russia who accidentally locked himself in a refrigerator car. He was unable to escape and couldn’t attract the attention of those outside, so he resigned himself to his fate. As he felt his body becoming numb, he recorded the story of his approaching death in sentences scribbled on the wall of the car, “I’m becoming colder,” he wrote, “still colder, now. Nothing to do but wait… I am slowly freezing to death… Half asleep now, I can hardly write…” And finally, “these may be my last words”. And they were, for when the car was opened they found him dead. Yet the temperature of the car was only 56 degrees! The freezing apparatus had been out of order. There was no physical reason for his death. There was plenty of air – he hadn’t suffocated. He was the victim of his own illusion. Now I’m not sure if this really is a true story – it’s pretty incredible if it is – but I wanted to tell it anyway because I’ve always been fond of its underlying message. And besides, even if it is an urban legend, we know that individuals who are induced into a deep state of hypnosis are highly susceptible to suggestion, to the point of blistering and burning when told that the bottle they are holding is a red-hot poker. This leads me onto another anecdote which illustrates the power of the labels we place on ourselves and others. Children often separate into gangs as a result of distinguishing labels. In certain districts of Los Angeles, a young person innocently sporting the wrong brand of trainers is in danger of being shot. Experiments have been done in which children, with no particular reason to sort themselves into gangs, are provided with, say, green or blue labels. In short order, enmities spring up between the greens and the blues: fierce loyalties to one’s own colour, vendettas against the other. These can become surprisingly vicious. Although these are clearly extreme examples, they do show just how powerful our perceptions of ourselves and others really are. If you’re still not convinced consider the following story about the great tight-rope aerialist, Karl Wallenda. Shortly after he fell to his death in 1978 traversing a 75-foot-high tight-rope in downtown San Juan, Puerto Rico, his wife, also an aerialist, discussed the fateful walk. She recalled, “All Karl though about for three straight months prior to it was falling. It was the first time he’d ever thought about that, and it seemed to me that he put all his energy into not falling, not into walking the tight-rope”. Mrs. Wallenda went on to say that her husband even went so far as to personally supervise the installation of the tight-rope, making certain that the guy-wires were secure, “something he had never thought of before”. The fear of failure is common problem among swimmers, even the world’s best. One of the best ways of dealing with this is to employ re-framing techniques to help turn negative self-talk into more positive self-talk. Again, let’s use a simple example to illustrate what I’m getting at here. Consider the sound of a footstep. If I asked you, “what does a footstep mean?” you would probably answer, “it doesn’t mean anything to me”. Well, let’s think about that. It you’re walking along a busy street, there are so many footsteps you don’t even hear them. In that situation, they don’t have any effective meaning. But what if you’re sitting at home alone late at night, and you hear footsteps downstairs? A moment later, you hear the steps moving towards you. Do the footsteps have meaning them? They sure do. That same signal (the sound of footsteps) will have many different meanings depending upon what it has meant to you in similar situations in the past. Your past experience may provide you with a context for that signal and thus determine whether it relaxes or frightens you. For example, you may classify the sound as that of your spouse coming home early. People who have experienced a burglary may think it means an intruder. Thus, the meaning of any experience in life depends upon the frame we put around it. If you change the frame, the context, the meaning changes instantly. One of the most effective tools for helping swimmer’s prepare for performance is learning how to put the best frames on any experience. This process is called reframing and is critical for successful self-talk and achieving Olympic success.

Now it’s important for both swimmers and coaches to remember that these skills are only a means to an ends. In just the same way that coaches should never lose sight of the fact that training should be designed to swim faster in races, the outcome of mental toughness and skills training should be the same. Coaches don’t want swimmers with beautiful technique but slow times, nor do they want swimmers who practice mental skills but aren’t ready to compete in pressurised situations. A swimmer should never just practice the aforementioned skills just for the sack of it or because someone tells them to. The bottom line always has to be to improve how they react to the elite sport environment, through changing their psychological, physiological and behavioural responses. How swimmers respond will determine whether they find themselves in a positive or negative psychological state. This state will affect technical, physical, nutritional and tactical preparedness for competition. This will in turn have a positive or negative effect on performance. For those swimmers who regularly practice mental skills, the following quotes illustrate the desired impact on their motivation, self-confidence and ability to cope with adversity:

“The biggest confidence I have is in my will power, my ability to race. I haven’t met anybody who wants to race more than I do. One competitor and team-mate of mine, one the best compliments he ever gave me was during this one workout. I was just dead tired and he knew it, so he was trying to take advantage of it and we just killed each other. It was at the end of the sets and we were racing. He gets done and he can’t believe I’m doing this, and he said, “man, you are the best damn competitor I’ve ever seen”” Mike Barrowman, Olympic champion

“I have come to realise talent and a high work ethic will get you only so far. There are other people with a similar amount of talent who probably train just as hard producing comparable training times. Yet when I race them I know now I can beat them. It comes back to self-belief. The best way to gain self-belief is to be the best prepared that you possibly can, which will give you more confidence” Susie O’Neil, Olympic champion.

“I coped with stress by playing cards, getting totally involved in a book, or retreating to a quiet place on my own” Shane Gould, Olympic champion

“It’s not the end of the world. My dog will still lick my face whether I win or lose” Matt Biondi, Olympic champion

So what does all this mean for swimming coaches working at the elite level? Well, put simply, they must ensure that their swimmers have the resources or mental toughness to the met the demands of the Olympic environment. Here’s what Bill Sweetenham was reported as saying after the Athens Olympic Games: “National Performance Director, Bill Sweetenham, claimed Britain’s swimmers had ‘Olympic phobia’ after they ended the Games with just two medals. But while Sweetenham insisted the swimmers were as well prepared as possible, he conceded they had failed to cope with the mental demands of an Olympics. “The team was physically as well prepared as any other team but we had Olympic phobia constantly present in our preparations”, said the Australian”. Let’s use some simple examples to illustrate. The environmental demands of an Olympic race mean that most swimmers prefer to wear goggles when competing. To do so, they must have the mental skill to remember to take a pair of goggles to the starting block. No problems so far I hope… But if the goggle strap snaps as they’re putting them on, this imposes yet further demands the swimmer. Does this individual have the presence of mind to carry a spare pair of goggles to the race? If not, their lack of even the simplest psychological skills will undo years of hard work. Turning to another example, everyone knows about the rigorous physical demands of elite swimming and the importance of correct nutrition and hydration. Consequently, many coaches rightly encourage their swimmers to consume carbohydrate and electrolyte drinks to supplement their diets. But consider the swimmer who does not have the necessary skills in terms of consistently putting aside the time to makeup the drinks, choosing a flavour that they like, carrying the drink with them, and remembering to actually consume the drink. These are all the simplest of mental skills but without just one of them swimmers will fall dramatically short in terms of their nutritional preparation. One of the most demanding situations that Olympic swimmers face is the “ready room”. In order to prepare swimmers for this experience swimming organizations should ensure that all national level meets employ the use of a ready room. This room should be as threatening as possible with intimidating marshals, video cameras (real or dummy), cramped conditions, seating arranged so that swimmers have to face each other, and a loud speaker projecting the announcer’s voice. The demands imposed on the swimmers should be as specific as possible to those encountered in World and Olympic competition. But, arguably more importantly, coaches and swimmers need to have, or acquire, the resources to manage and cope with these demands. Personally, I see it a bit like a “good cop/bad cop routine” with performance directors and administrators creating a highly demanding environment, and coaches and psychologists helping swimmers develop the necessary psychological skills to excel in it.

Well, that just about wraps up this half of the presentation; I hope you’ve found it interesting and informative. In the second half, I’m going to consider six main areas that I feel will be important in the future of competitive swimming: Elite Coaching Psychology; Smart Track Psych; Organisational Issues and Politics; Mental Toughness Training Programmes; Butterflies Flying in Formation; and Anchor and Trigger Techniques. Hopefully I’ll see you again after the break.


Hello again everyone and welcome back to my presentation on the psychology of swimming excellence. In the first half I introduced the topic of mental conditioning and how it can help swimmers achieve at the highest levels in the sport. In this half, I’m going to consider six main areas that I feel will be important in the future of competitive swimming: Elite Coaching Psychology; Smart Track Psych; Organisational Issues and Politics; Mental Toughness Training Programmes; Butterflies Flying in Formation; and Anchor and Trigger Techniques.

Elite Coaching Psychology. I believe that for most swimming nations one of the biggest areas of opportunity lies in elite coach education and development. The psychologist should generally seek to work through coaches first and directly with the swimmers second. The reason for this is because it empowers coaches while maintaining and enhancing their special bond with the swimmers. I’ve been fortunate to work across Europe and it seems clear to me that elite level coaches respond best to interactive workshops that occur within their specialist high performance and coach education centres. These sessions are highly practical involving case study and problem solving discussions, combined with contingency planning and “what if?” scenarios. I try to facilitate these sessions not only with my knowledge of human behaviour, but also other skills from areas such as information technology, speed reading, memory retention, voice projection, visual scanning, emotional intelligence, lifestyle management, reflective practice, assertiveness and communication, and intuitive and critical thinking. To maximise effectiveness, I also attempt to adapt knowledge gleaned from business managers, performing artists, public speakers, and emergency and armed service personnel. Another strategy I’ve found useful with some coaches is the development of a bibliographic database listing swimming psychology-related publications, ranging from text books to biographical accounts, and research papers to magazine articles. Such a resource allows coaches to further develop their understanding at their own pace and in areas identified as most urgent. Also, consider the findings of scientific research papers such as “Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions”. Interactive workshops help ensure that high performance coaches understand the practical value of this type of work.

Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Worksheet One: Elite Coaching Psychology

This worksheet is based on scientific research which involved interviewing twenty-one British high achievers and coaches of high achievers from business and sports. The aims of the interviews were to identity: 1) common characteristics of high achievers that are important to take into account when coaching them; 2) coaching needs of high achievers; and 3) key implications for the practice of coaching high achievers. In the chart below, the findings in terms of the characteristics and needs of high achievers are provided. Can you identify what the implications are for coaching high achievers?

Characteristics of high achievers Implications for coaching high achievers
Totally committed
Continually striving for improvement
A sponge for information
(Sometimes) isolated and lonely
Needs of high achievers
Ultimate trust in the coaching relationship
A coach with credibility
A coach confident in his own ability
A lack of ego in the coach
To feel continually at the cutting edge
Rapid results
Coaching high achievers
Do not try to be his/her friend
Find out how you can add value – quickly
Find the right pace
Be flexible
Be challenging

The findings of the research are provided overleaf.
Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Findings for Worksheet One: Elite Coaching Psychology

Characteristics of high achievers Implications for coaching high achievers
Self-focused Ensure that the high achiever’s personal performance and development in the primary focus of the coaching
Goal-driven Ensure that the high achiever’s goals are a clear and central focus of the coaching process
Totally committed Have a thorough knowledge of the process of setting and achieving goals
Demanding Understand the world of high achievement, and what it takes to become a high achiever
Continually striving for improvement Expect to be challenged
A sponge for information Help them to identify the different possibilities and options for improvement
Confident Be self-assured in the presence of high achievers
(Sometimes) isolated and lonely Establish the nature of the coaching relationship in terms of the frequency and method of contact outside formal coaching sessions
Needs of high achievers
Ultimate trust in the coaching relationship Continually emphasize the confidential nature of the coaching relationship
A coach with credibility The coach does not necessarily have to have achieved what the high achiever has achieved, but a detailed and informed knowledge of the empathy for the high achiever’s situation is essential
A coach confident in his own ability Have genuine confidence in your own ability
A lack of ego in the coach Explore own motives for coaching high achievers
Feedback Be ready to provide (developmental) feedback at all times
Confidence-boosting Remember that the coach is a valuable source of positive reinforcement. Provide positive (motivational) feedback as appropriate
To feel continually at the cutting edge Keep up-to-date with relevant theories, literature, methods, etc.
Rapid results Have a continual focus on helping the high achiever to identify specific actions that will deliver short-term, as well as longer-term, results
Coaching high achievers
Do not try to be his/her friend Work hard at maintaining a professional relationship
Find out how you can add value – quickly Establish a ‘contract’ as soon as possible
Find the right pace Recognise when to dwell on something and when to move on quickly
Be flexible Expect the coaching agenda to change and respond accordingly
Be challenging Ensure that the coach provides a level of stretch that challenges the high achiever’s current thoughts and behaviours

Some of the best psychological support work is done during informal conversations that occur at camps and competitions. “Coffee room seminars” have the advantage of providing a greater insight into coaches’ backgrounds, philosophies, outlooks, and interactions with swimmers. It is in this setting that I can individualise and tailor my advice to meet the coach’s specific needs. It may be, for example, that issues arise in the course of a discussion that a coach does not have the time or expertise to address in detail. In this instance, I can spend time designing a specific intervention strategy and compiling a brief information pack from the database. Another part of my work involves travelling to home programmes to assist in regional-level mental preparation, team building, maintaining communications lines, and enhancing social support. This is particularly important in a country like Britain where the climate puts it at a disadvantage compared to the likes of America and Australia, whilst its geographical size is one area which can be exploited by using travelling specialists. Finally, I also try to act as a non-threatening soundboard for a coach, partly through using my knowledge of the biomechanical and physiological aspects of swimming. Other work I have been involved in has been to teach other support staff (e.g., physiologists, masseurs, physiotherapists) the basics of performance psychology to help them more effectively communicate with swimmers. Counselling techniques and rational emotive therapy appear to be useful skills for personnel working in these positions.

Smart Track Psych. If nations are to improve their Olympic medal tallies it is critical that they identify and educate talent during their most formative years. In order to compete with the most popular sports, we need to seriously re-evaluate how we are “selling the dream” to swimmers just starting out in the sport. We can learn a great deal from marketing, advertising, public relations, film production, and trend creation specialists to help attract and retain swimmers. Club noticeboards and newsletters need to clearly spell out the benefits of swimming to parents and keep the positive aspects of our sport in the forefront of swimmers’ minds. Developmental clubs should also consider investing in a mini library of swimming-related books, covering basic introductions to swimming psychology for children and parents, and the biographies and autobiographies of elite swimmers. Collectively, these strategies will allow youth swimmers to model the actions and behaviours of Olympic medallists, thus fast tracking them in many areas of psychological development. It’s also worth mentioning that “Doc” Counsilman was well-known for his use of ritual, ceremony and tradition to foster devotion and team spirit among his training group. The psychological power of cognitive-behavioural indoctrination is clearly evident in its application by extreme pious groups. In our sport, the healthy and acceptable application of that same power can be harnessed by informed coaches to help keep their swimmers focused on competitive goals.

The bulk of psychological support for youth swimmers should focus on those with the potential to compete for places at the next Olympic Games. While it is clearly important to provide support at senior camps and competitions, nations cannot afford to focus their entire attention on last minute mental preparation. Such an approach is tantamount to leaving all the water-based training sessions to the taper period, and essentially leaves the psychologist “fire-fighting” by trying to resolve deep-seated issues. Indeed, the long-term periodisation of mental training remains arguably the biggest priority for any nation serious about achieving long-term Olympic success. Planning should compliment other aspects of the programme, with quadrennial, annual and seasonal cycles being systematically implemented. The real strength of these techniques lies in a multidisciplinary approach, where biomechanists and physiologists assist in identifying the key areas that need to be worked on. To illustrate, during the early stages of the season I tend to tailor imagery to helping improve technical aspects of the sport. For example, swish techniques involve the swimmer sitting in front of two large television screens and watching footage of him or herself swimming on one of the screens. Then, on the other screen, the swimmer watches footage of an appropriate role model demonstrating the desired technical outcome. The performer then tries to watch both videos at the same time. This process is then repeated but rather than watching the screens, the swimmer uses imagery to mentally rehearse, firstly, his or her stroke and, secondly, the role model’s technique. Finally, the two images are “swished” in the mind with the aim of the swimmer eventually having a clear image of their desired stroke technique. As the season progresses, the emphasis tends to shift to using video footage of the competition venue to help practice more race specific techniques. Swimmers proficient in imagery skills are encouraged to feel the different sensations of movement patterns and racing strategies, and then combine this with stroke counting and physically recording their splits for each “race”. As the competitive event approaches, the imagery techniques become more focused on the correct execution of key mental and technical stages of the race. Incidentally, just as a brief aside, in my experience individual medley swimmers appear to particularly benefit from these techniques, possibly because of the kinaesthetic and pacing benefits they get from mentally practicing changing strokes.

Coaches also need to pay careful attention to the type of goals their swimmers are setting. Swimmers who continually compare their performance to others and are only interested in winning races, are at an extremely high risk of motivational difficulties. Everything’s fine if they keep beating the opposition but the moment they begin getting touched out problems occur. These swimmers should be encouraged to focus more on improving their own personal performance and gaining enjoyment from other aspects of the sport. This is not to say that being highly competitive is a bad thing – clearly, you won’t win an Olympic gold medal if you don’t want to beat people! – only that it’s dangerous if that’s all swimmers are focused on. When a swimmer demonstrates that they have a healthy balance between improving their performance and beating others, the coach should then encourage him or her to switch this focus depending on the situation. For example, Olympic medallists tend to think about their opponents to help motivate them get out of bed for early morning training, but prior to racing they focus their attention on the organisational, technical and tactical factors which they can control and will affect their performance. A lot of goal-setting advice can be summed up by the difference between the notorious misquotation, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, and Vince Lombardi’s actual words, “Winning isn’t everything, but making the effort to win is”. On a slightly different but related note, coaches should encourage youth swimmers to take responsibility for their success and failure. Interestingly, when elite swimmers don’t perform as well as they hoped, they tend to put it down to poor pacing or feel for the water (things that fluctuate quite easily). However, when they perform well, they tend to attribute it to their superior ability and skill level (things that don’t fluctuate as easily). It’s thought that this bias is self-serving in that it helps elite swimmers protect their self-esteem and motivation to compete. In addition to these motivational considerations, it’s also important that youth swimmers maintain their concentration and focus during training and competition. Thinking about past poor performances or future race opposition is not going to help what they’re actually doing in the present or, as one colleague of mine likes to put it, “athletes all to often have one leg in the past, one leg in the future, and they’re peeing over the present”! It can, however, be difficult to get the balance right here. Swimmers can make the mistake of confusing concentration for over analysis and end up suffering from “paralysis by analysis”. This problem is nicely illustrated by what happened to the centipede when he was asked how he coordinated the movement between all his legs; he stopped, thought about it, and promptly fell over! If we are to foster these positive attributes and skills in youth swimmers, then coaches, parents and role models must carefully monitor the performance climate that they create through their language and behaviour. Finally, for those wishing to gain a greater insight into the psychology of youth swimming they would be well-advised to consult material by leading swimming psychologists, Keith Bell and John Hogg. To help support clubs and coaches, national governing bodies of swimming should incorporate systematic and long-term psychological services throughout their youth development programmes.

Organisational Issues and Politics. Clearly, a swimming psychologist needs a good awareness of the organisational issues and politics associated with elite sport. A major part of his or her role is to identify and reduce coaches’ unwanted distractions so they can spend more productive time on pool deck. Research from business has shown that in any individual’s eight hour working day, less than four hours is spent doing productive activities that will be of any tangible benefit. Indeed, USA Swimming recently commissioned a number of research studies which showed that stress and burnout are significant issues facing swimming coaches and that psychologists can help prevent exhaustion and maintain coaching engagement. A psychologist can also advise performance directors and administrators on how and when to impose organisational demands on swimmers. An important consideration here is to ensure that such demands are imposed in a progressive and specific manner. There is no point in making the swimmers’ environment as demanding as possible if, (a) these demands are not relevant or appropriate to world and Olympic competition, and (b) the coaches and swimmers are not taught to mange and cope with these demands. Another possible area of support is assisting in media training for both coaches and swimmers. Olympic medallists are generally very capable of handling the world’s media and often display a rather deft appreciation of psychology during their interviews. They tend to stay focused on their agenda rather than being swayed into the hype that may surround them. This is often demonstrated by deflecting leading questions that, from a psychological perspective, may otherwise be a distraction and cause unwanted pressure. This is particularly evident when they are being interviewed about the reasons why they swim (i.e. achievement motivation) and how they cope with stress (i.e. anxiety management).

Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Worksheet Two: Organizational Issues and Politics

This worksheet is based on scientific research which involved interviewing American Olympic performers and coaches. The aim of the interviews was to identity the positive and negative factors that influence Olympic performance. In the chart below, the findings in terms of the factors influencing Olympic performance are provided. Can you identify which were positive and which were negative?

Factors influencing Olympic performance Positive or negative effect?
Resident program
Planning problems
Crowd support
Team cohesion concerns
Family/friend support
Lack of experience
Mental preparation
Travel problems
Focus and commitment
Coach issues
Focus and commitment
Psychological skills
Departure from normal routine
Support services and support facilitation
Media distractions
Physical preparation
Coach issues
Multifaceted preparation
Performance and training routines
Team selection
Olympic housing
Olympic excitement
Team issues
Team unity
Lack of support
Jet lag/travel

The findings of the research are provided overleaf.
Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Findings for Worksheet Two: Organizational Issues and Politics

Factors influencing Olympic performance Positive or negative effect?
Resident program Positive
Planning problems Negative
Crowd support Positive
Team cohesion concerns Negative
Family/friend support Positive
Lack of experience Negative
Mental preparation Positive
Travel problems Negative
Focus and commitment Positive
Coach issues Negative
Focus and commitment Negative
Psychological skills Positive
Departure from normal routine Negative
Support services and support facilitation Positive
Media distractions Negative
Physical preparation Positive
Coach issues Negative
Coaching Positive
Overtraining Negative
Multifaceted preparation Positive
Injury Negative
Performance and training routines Positive
Team selection Negative
Olympic housing Positive
Housing/village Negative
Olympic excitement Positive
Team issues Negative
Team unity Positive
Training Negative
Lack of support Negative
Jobs/money Negative
Jet lag/travel Negative

Mental Toughness Training Programmes. One of the most common areas I am requested to work in is developing mental toughness in elite swimmers. Bill Sweetenham has been reported as saying that enhancing the mental toughness of British swimmers is the most important factor in improving British Olympic prospects:

“The tough-talking coach has made nine recommendations to help the British squad improve before the next Olympics in Beijing in 2008. The most important area for the team to work on is what Sweetenham calls “big meet psychology development”. It was that lack of mental toughness which most hindered the British team Athens. “This is the biggest area of improvement for British swimming. We need complete technical knowledge. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it””

For elite swimmers, I focus on a mental toughness training programme specifically geared toward the period between a major meet trial and championship. This programme is a shorter-term periodisation of advanced mental skills and tailored to address the specific needs of the swimmer. The programme incorporates many different techniques, including aspects of hardiness training, pain tolerance techniques, meet simulation training, sport intelligence development, and confidence protection mechanisms. Hardiness training is employed to ensure that the swimmer is committed to the challenge of stepping up a performance level and “controlling the controllables” within their daily lives. Pain tolerance techniques involve the use of relaxation strategies, such as rhythmical mantras and breathing, to induce a trance-like state. This approach has already been used with some success by psychologists and is actually a more civilized version of a natural survival technique. To elaborate, prey often fall into a cataleptic state when they are caught, but not killed, by a predator. It is not uncommon for wildebeest to keel over motionless with glazed eyes as a pride of lions proceed to devour it. The main reason they fall into this state is because theta brain rhythms dominate and the animal suffers less pain. Indeed, from a human perspective, it has long been recognised that Hindus, Fakirs, Yogis, and others can induce themselves into altered states of consciousness by using mesmeric techniques to eliminate pain and perform unusual physical feats.

Simulation training is employed to recreate as many aspects of the competitive environment as possible. This strategy normally takes two forms: (a) using time trials and race pace/lactate tolerance sets to simulate the competition demands and schedule, and (b) using imagery to mentally rehearse the actual meet and races. Here’s what Michael Phelps, Olympic champion, had to say about such techniques:

“Well before the Olympic trials I was doing a lot of relaxing exercises and visualization. And I think that helped me to get a feel of what it was gonna be like when I got their. I knew that I had done everything that I could to get ready for the meet, both physically and mentally”

Developing sporting intelligence involves teaching swimmers the difference between what’s important in their preparation for competition and what’s not. A major part of this development is ensuring that swimmers know when to do key things and when to step away from the sport. A good strategy for developing sporting intelligence is to encourage swimmers to “be their own mental conditioning coach” and ask themselves the question, “What advice would you give if you were coaching yourself?” Confidence protection mechanisms are used to help swimmers manage and cope with the demands of actually competing. Sport psychologists like to debate which comes first, confidence or success? But the reality is, most coaches don’t care which comes first, what matters to them is that a swimmer can retain their confidence when they’re not successful. Since we know that most of the world’s best swimmers get anxious before they race, the focus here is on using their self-belief to combat and tackle these nerves. The emphasis is on reminding the swimmer about previous performance accomplishments they’ve had during both training and competition. Video footage, audio tapes, and training diary entries are all used here. This is further reinforced by teaching swimmers to adopt specific postures and breathing patterns that help create a confident mind-set. For example, standing up straight, pulling back the shoulders, breathing in fresh air, and looking directly forward. Speaking in a positive tone of voice and surrounding oneself with positive people are also important here. Finally, inspirational quotes or sound bites, such as “confidence is feeling like a winner even if you’re not”, “fake it ’till you make it”, and “trust what you’ve got and if you’ve only got 50% – trust that”, are all very effective for helping to maintain a swimmer’s self-belief under pressure.

Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Worksheet Three: Mental Toughness Training Programs

This worksheet is based on scientific research which involved interviewing British Olympic performers and coaches. The aim of the interviews was to identity the key attributes of the mental toughness and how they are developed and maintained in elite performers. In the chart below, the findings in terms of the key attributes of mental toughness are provided. Can you identify how these attributes are developed and maintained?

Mental toughness attributes Development and maintenance
Having an unshakeable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals
Having an unshakeable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents
Having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed
Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed
Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress (in training and competition)
Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it
Thriving on the pressure of competition
Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events (competition-specific)
Switching a sport focus on and off as required
Remaining fully-focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions
Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances
Remaining fully-focused in the face of personal life distractions

The findings of the research are provided overleaf.
Mental Conditioning Worksheets for High Performance Coaches

Findings for Worksheet Three: Mental Toughness Training Programs

Mental toughness attributes Development and maintenance
Having an unshakeable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals Coaches’ leadership; Competitive experience; Mental preparation; Physical preparation; Reflection; Social support; Vicarious experience
Having an unshakeable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents Demonstration of ability; Mastery
Having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed Coaches’ leadership; Competitive rivalry; Critical incidents; Demonstration of ability; Enjoyment; Goal setting; Mastery; Parents’ focus; Reflection; Self-talk; Social support; Sibling rivalry; Vicarious experience
Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed Competitive rivalry; Insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed; Reflection; Self-talk; Social support
Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress (in training and competition) Coaches’ leadership; Competitive anxiety; Enjoyment; Insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed; Simulation training; Social support
Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it Competitive experience; Mental preparation; Physical preparation; Social support
Thriving on the pressure of competition Competitive experience; Mental preparation; Physical preparation; Social support
Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events (competition-specific) Mental imagery; Preperformance routine; Process goals; Social support
Switching a sport focus on and off as required Hobbies; Mental imagery; Preperformance routine; Process goals; Social support
Remaining fully-focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions Mental imagery; Preperformance routine; Process goals
Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances Mental imagery; Preperformance routine; Process goals
Remaining fully-focused in the face of personal life distractions Competitive rivalry; Demonstration of ability; Enjoyment; Insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed; Mental imagery; Preperformance routine; Process goals; Social support

Butterflies Flying in Formation. Before an important race, most swimmers’ natural instinct is to perceive any mental worries or physical nerves as negative and detrimental to performance. Many coaches’ immediate reaction to this is to advise them to “try not to worry about it” and “stay relaxed”. However, rather than just relaxing, most Olympic medallists have learnt that anxiety can actually have a positive and beneficial effect on performance. Olympic basketball coach, Jack Donohoe, perhaps summed it up best when he said: “It’s not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, it’s a question of getting them to fly in formation”. Indeed, consider for a moment a rather extreme illustration of how anxiety can positively affect human performance: Many cases have been reported involving panic-stricken mothers who have performed incredible physical feats in order to save their baby’s endangered life. Returning to the swimming environment, Rowdy Gaines, Olympic champion, has described what it felt like to have the butterflies flying in formation before his final:

“I went into the race more excited than nervous, which was the feeling I’d had the first three or four years of my career. During those years, I’d felt excited. But for the two years prior to the Olympics, I’d felt more nervous. I’d think, “I can’t wait to get this over with”. At the Olympics, I still had that feeling but I also thought, “This is really neat. This is great. There are 18,000 people here, and they’re all cheering for us – for the Americans”. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from competing in an Olympics in your country”

Hence, the whole idea is not necessarily to reduce or eliminate anxiety but to handle pre-race pressure and turn it into something positive. Olympic medallists often don’t even realise they’re doing it, but they commonly use a combination of the psychological skills I mentioned in the first half of this presentation (i.e., relaxation, imagery, goal-setting and self-talk) to help them control their thoughts and feelings. Not surprisingly, teaching swimmers how to do this is a major part of a psychologist’s work:

“My work includes helping the athletes effectively deal with stress by using pressure or anxiety in a positive way. That is, as a way of exciting or energising as opposed to allowing it to bring you down or interfere with a performance. We work to turn the pressure of a major competition into something positive. As such, anxiety or arousal control is very important” Clark Perry

In view of these comments, it’s probably no coincidence that Ian Thorpe, Olympic champion, often speaks in media interviews about the importance of turning negatives into positives. When asked about the weight of his nation’s expectations at the Sydney Olympic Games, and then world expectations at the Athens Olympic Games, Ian repeatedly responded by saying that he perceives any attention on him as positive support rather than negative pressure.

Now, you may be sat there thinking that a lot of this is obvious or common sense. And, to some extent, I’d agree with you. However, it’s not easy to put this into practice, especially under the very real pressures of elite level sport. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what your reputation is – as with many things in life most of us know what we should be doing but how many of us actually do it? Just last week news broke of how Luo Xuejuan, Olympic champion over 100 metre breaststroke, has been dropped from the Chinese national team and sent home to recover from “injury and severe mental stress”. Shang Xiutang, Deputy Director of Swimming at China’s Sports Ministry, was quoted as saying, “It’s just a holiday we provided for her. There are currently two years left before the Beijing Games, which is long enough for such a good athlete to come back. She’s been bothered by some physical problems. In addition, she’s been under severe mental stress, which has obstructed her recovery from sickness. Leisel Jones has broken the world record again and the Chinese youngsters are progressing very quickly”. Perhaps the most well-known case of collapse due to stress and pressure in swimming, certainly in recent years, was Katie Hoff at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. Consider for a moment what she said after winning the 400 metre individual medley at the US Olympic Trials, “It felt like all the pressure and the weight on my shoulders had melted off me. That day I had been dreading swimming, but it was such a relief to finally make the [Olympic] team” (6th August 2004). Such comments should really have been an alarm call for the actual Olympics later that year, but as we all know Katie entered with the fastest 400 metre individual medley time in the world and, sadly, finished well down in 17th position. It took her nearly two years to publicly talk about the experience and when she did this is what she said: “I don’t do a lot of training work mentally… I was like a wide-eyed little kid in Athens not knowing what to do… I don’t think I was ready for the kind of pressure put on me at the Olympics. It blew my mind” (18th August 2006). In my opinion the sentiments expressed in this quote are almost as sad as the event itself because Katie seems to realise why it happened but not that there was a lot she could have done to try to prevent it. I’m not sure her coaches realise either: “We’re always a little concerned when someone makes the Olympics with no international experience. What happened to her [Katie] in Athens was almost to be expected… I haven’t seen her struggle that way since the Olympics. I don’t view what happened in Athens as a problem. I think it was a process” (Mark Schubert, USA Head Coach and General Manager) and “The Olympic experience was viewed by everyone at the time as a shocker. For us, it was just part of the game we’re playing… She’s a natural champion. She just needs to do her thing” (Paul Yetter, Coach to Katie Hoff). I’m not sure anyone is a “natural” champion – Katie certainly wasn’t in Athens – nor that “doing her thing” is perhaps the best advice for her when preparing for an Olympic Games. And whilst Katie may not have struggled since the Olympics she hasn’t actually been to another Olympics since then. The point I made in the first half of this presentation is that swimmers need to be mentally trained to meet the demands of environment. If they’re not, then their performance will suffer. Now, experience and the process of going to high level competitions can help swimmers acquire these mental skills but if we’re talking about going to the Olympics they’ve only got a handful of chances to get it right at best. Why leave it to chance when you can seriously swing the odds in your favour by doing mental training? No coach would ever ignore technical training on turns and leave that to chance, nor should they leave stress management training aside and then say that performance catastrophes were “to be expected”.

Anchor and Trigger Techniques. What I’ve just described is a thinking (i.e., cognitive) approach to handling stress and anxiety. But an alternative, or complementary, strategy is to attempt to bypass mental processing and simply resort to a stimulus-response (i.e., behavioural) approach. Remember Dr. Pavlov who demonstrated that a ringing bell repeatedly anchored with food will eventually trigger salivation in dogs, even if presented without food? A great deal of human behaviour consists of unconscious programmed reactions which are based on a simple stimulus-response mechanism. For example, when many people get angry or anxious they immediately reach for a cigarette. They may not want to but they don’t even think about it because the pattern is so deeply ingrained. At a more sinister level, Adolf Hitler had a genius for anchoring. At the height of his power, he linked specific states of mind to the swastika, matching troops, and mass rallies. He put people in intense states and while he had them there he anchored their emotions to verbal and physical triggers, namely “Hail Hitler!” combined with the Nazi salute. However, not all anchors are negative, many are pleasant. Take, for example, when you hear a song which takes you back years to a wonderful summer. Or the stars and stripes pin badges that American politicians attach to their lapel in an attempt to associate themselves with the patriotic emotions linked with the national flag. The implication for coaches and swimmers is that they should become conscious of this process and use anchors and triggers to automatically engage powerful and resourceful states.

This approach has proved popular with a number of American swimmers for accessing their ideal performance states. For example, Michael O’Brien, Olympic champion, reported using anchor and trigger techniques to great effect for his final. As part of his mental preparation, he linked the emotions he felt when he was most successful to several automatic triggers, namely the sound of the starting gun and the sight of black line on the bottom of the pool. This was combined with listening to a particular song before the race which was associated with his most positive psychological state. Don’t confuse this with the common practice of using music to energise or psych-up a performer. What we are talking about here is using a very deliberate anchor to engage a specific state of mind. Gary Hall Jr., Olympic champion, uses an anchor and trigger that involves him pressing his forefinger and thumb together whilst simultaneously pressing his tongue against his bottom lip. In my experience, these techniques are most effective if a swimmer anchors when they are totally immersed in their most powerful and resourceful emotions. To enhance the stimulus-response bond, it’s best to anchor to unique stimuli perceived via different senses (e.g., visual, auditory, kinaesthetic). In addition, when attempting to access the positive state, it’s important that the trigger is an exact replication of the specific anchor. If the anchor-trigger link a strong enough, then swimmers are more likely to experience a “flow” state resulting in a peak performance.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with the following thoughts. Swimming psychology is not a quick-fix solution to all your coaching problems. In just the same way that modifications to the training programme rarely result in overnight performance changes, the adoption of sport psychology techniques will not provide you with an instant “magic pill” to solve everything. It takes years of hard work within a systematic and structured psychological support programme to reap the rewards. This programme needs to be implemented over a minimum of a four year Olympic cycle and occur not only at camps and competitions, but throughout nations’ youth development programmes. What’s more, if you’re personally passionate and serious about achieving Olympic success you cannot afford to delay change or worry about failing. Nor can you worry about what others think. Sometimes you’ll try things and they won’t work first time. But remember, resisting change is like holding your breathe – you’ll die in the end! Embrace coaching challenges. Remember that knowledge isn’t power – action is. Just like knowing the laws of motion governing a bike isn’t the same as knowing how to ride one, you need to go beyond understanding sport psychology – you need to be able to apply this knowledge effectively. Finally, remember that the clues are out there about what we’ll be doing in twenty years time. You want to be able to look back on today and know you did everything possible to help your swimmers reach their potential.

Thank you to John for inviting me and Jennifer for introducing me. And thanks everyone for listening and best of luck in your work. I’ll hopefully see you and your swimmers at London 2012…

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