Do’s and Dont’s for Pre-Meet Psyching by Dr. Alan Goldberg (1994)


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Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally known expert in the field of applied sports psychology. He is the director of Competitive Advantage, an Amherst, Massachusetts based consulting firm that works with coaches, athletes and teams at every performance level. Dr. Goldberg has worked extensively with swimmers of all ages and abilities, from age-groupers to world class. As a “head coach”, Alan specializes in teaching swimmers how to overcome blocks and get the most out of their physical potential both in training and competition. A former ASCA clinician, Dr. Goldberg is an entertaining and sought after speaker at clinics around the country because of his ability to take sport psychology concepts and present them ill a practical and easy to understand manner.

 

Alan earned his doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Goldberg writes extensively on the psychology of peak performance for as number of National publications including American Swimming, On Deck, The Diver, Rip, Archer, etc. He is the author of “Smoke On The Water”, a mental toughness guide for swimmers and “Swimming Out of Your Mind”, a 6·tape audio cassette mental training program. His latest book, “Slump Busting” will be published early next year.

 

You know they’re physically ready.  You’ve  trained them yourself. They’ve done everything they need to up until this point to maximize their chances of  going fast. They’ve trained hard, busted, sacrificed and even listened to you a wee bit along the way, (which  is  always a bonus). And now the BIG meet is here and they’re starting to come apart right before your eyes.

 

If you could only hear what’s going on in their head it would make you cringe: The self-doubts,  negative  focus, nostalgic trip down memory lane to review all their worst races, the second guessing of all the training they’ve and all YOUR coaching. Was it a good enough taper? .Did I really work hard enough? How can I compete with (checking out the swimmer in the next lane)?

 

They’re  talking  to you  about a slow  pool.   About how

lousy they feel in the water. God they’re SOOOoooo tired. What can you do for them besides reassure them that they’re ready. How can you get them to relax and focus on what they’re supposed to instead of all this garbage? You can throttle them or have a temper tantrum.

 

Every coach at one time or another has seen a swimmer fall apart when it counts the most. You may even be  able to think about some choice examples while you listen to me. Swimmers who had it all but just didn’t use it when it counted the most. Why? Was it them? Was it you? Was it something you said to them at the wrong time. Was it something you ate?

 

This talk is geared towards helping you as a coach better work with your swimmers on those days leading up to the big meets so that they maximize their physical abilities, training and your good coaching to have a decent performance. I want to provide you with a concrete understanding of pre-meet psyching so that you leave here with specific strategies and ideas that you can immediately put to use.

 

Many of you have listened to me before or heard my tapes for swimmers. To insure that you are able to get the most out of this talk, I want to challenge you not to leave this talk without at least one new idea or strategy that you can use. You may hear me say something that you already know in a little different way. One that gets you thinking about things and being creative. Take one piece from this talk and use it and I guarantee you that you’ll have more effective swimmers at crunch time.

 

If we talk about pre-meet psyching and developing the right head set for performance, an important understanding is that you can’t wait for the big meet to do this. If you wait until “crunch time” before you start focusing your athletes and yourself on the proper headset it’s too late. It just won’t work. The techniques and strategies that I’ll be addressing with you need to be started on day 1 of practice. In other words mental training should not be a crisis intervention thing. You don’t want to wait until someone’s freaking out before you introduce stress


management techniques. Developing mental toughness should be an integral part of training. What I’ll discuss about pre-meet psyching will be usable both at the beginning of the season as well as right before big meets.

 

I want to start with concentration because peak performance in the pool is all about having the proper focus. As a coach, if you inadvertently give your athletes the wrong things to concentrate on you can unknowingly set them up for failure. If you can help them narrow their focus when it counts, they’ll swim well. Any swimmer I’ve ever worked with that’s had repetitive performance problems, or even just one bad race when it counted, did so because that athlete was paying attention to the wrong things at the wrong time.

 

If it’s race time and you’re concentrating on the fact that you haven’t had a good time in over a year, aren’t as good as the swimmers in your heat, was disqualified the last time you competed in this meet, or how this is your worst event, then chances are pretty good that you’ll have a lousy race. Your swimmers’ focus is THE KEY to how well they’re able to take their physical training and translate it into race time under pressure.

 

So what is this concentration thing. Very simply, the ability to FOCUS IN ON WHAT’S IMPORTANT AND BLOCK OUT EVERYTHING ELSE.   When you  perform well this is EXACTLY what you do without thinking about it. You’re paying attention to what you need to in order to do well and have NO attention for distractions, even though you may be aware of them.

 

Knowing what concentration is may help you take a test which asks you for this definition, but it won’t help you to concentrate, so I’d like to briefly review HOW you concentrate. This is the skill that you must teach your athletes so that they get the most out of practice and so that they are able to come through in the clutch.

 

Many of you have probably noticed by now that as I speak, periodically you find yourself drifting away from my words to a land far far away. Now if I say something and you go internal and think about how that relates to you or specifically to one of your athletes… For example, I tell you the story from the 92 Olympics of Ahmann-Leighton in the 100 fly, looking over at the 50 meter mark to see a Chinese swimmer two lanes away keeping up with her. That Ahmann-Leighton continued to be distracted by this swimmer, tightened up, and consequently lost the race by .12 seconds… and maybe you’d begin to think of a specific swimmer you’re working with where something like that has happened, or maybe you think of a time it happened to you. When you drift in this manner in this setting it is exceptionally important and constructive, and in a sense you are still concentrating on the task at hand, i.e. to make sense of my words for YOU. However, some of you as I speak are going to a different place. You’ve had thoughts about dinner, and what kind of intense partying you’ll be doing today, and so you went internal to”La La Land”. This focus is exceptionally unimportant and will not help you coach better or get your swimmers going faster.

 

So the trick with concentration is a paradox. To concentrate, you must first catch yourself when you are not concentrating, when you are in “La La Land”, and second, you must quickly and gently bring yourself back to the proper focus. Without an awareness of having a destructive or negative focus, a swimmer will continue to self-destruct in the pool, regardless of their physical training.

 

Your concentration is so critical because of the mind/body connection. That is, what you think about, imagine or say to yourself goes directly into your body and changes your physiology. If you tell yourself you’re exhausted before a race and have a lousy feel for the water, and you keep repeating this to yourself, your body will respond by getting tenser and seemingly more tired. A swimmer’s pre-race thoughts changes the rate and depth of their breathing, muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure, and blood flow to the extremities, all of which will significantly affect their feel of the water, endurance, power and fluidity of stroke mechanics.

 

So periodically throughout your practices it would be useful for you to have your swimmers working on concentration. Find ways to help them RECOGNIZE when they are drifting from a proper focus, so they can quickly BRING THEMSELVES BACK. It’s this one skill alone that will make all the difference pre-race for your swimmers. Show me a swimmer who consistently swims below their potential or in other ways struggles under pressure, and I’ll show you someone who does NOT recognize when they drift to “La La Land”, (the wrong focus) and therefore cannot do anything about it.

 

Now let’s talk about our goals pre-meet/pre-race. Peak performance in the pool is all about being on automatic mentally and physically. It’s about trusting yourself, coach and training and letting the performance happen. I’m sure that you can relate to what I’m saying if you’ve ever had a great performance before. Sooner or later when you think back to that performance, you can recognize what I’m saying.  “Effortless effort” is the mark of a peak performance. You may have been working  your butt off, but the experience you can remember is one of everything flowing easily.

 

What I’m talking about here involves a certain way of thinking, or NOT THINKING to be exact.  That  is,  when you swim your best you are not usually doing a lot of thinking about what you’re doing. Instead, you are almost totally involved in the experience. Your conscious mind is not yapping at you the way it does when you struggle. If you’ve heard me talk about this before I’m referring to two different ways of thinking, the PRACTICE mentality and the MEET mentality. These correspond to the two different hemispheres in your  brain, the left and right respectively.

 

When you’re in a PRACTICE mentality, you’re conscious mind is active. You are processing information using words and logic. You analyze, evaluate, criticize and worry. This is a fine way of thinking if you’re learning something new or trying to correct bad habits. However, if you try to compete in this PRACTICE mentality you’ll go nowhere fast.  Race time is time to shift  to a MEET mentality, to the non-dominant part of your brain, your unconscious.

 

When you process information through the right or monodominant hemisphere, you are literally ·not thinking, you’re unconscious. Now I don’t mean literally that you’re out cold. You’ve just suspended normal conscious functioning. Instead you process information without words and logic. You use images, pictures, and kinesthetic, (muscle) feelings. Further, you take the whole into consideration. That is, there is no analyzing. An important part of the MEET mentality is that processing is INSTANTANEOUS. In a PRACTICE mentality, it takes a fair amount of time for your conscious mind to process things.

 

What’s all this mumbo jumbo got to do with going fast and pre-meet psyching? Well, the last thing you want your swimmers doing at big meets is thinking too much. Your job as a coach is to help them get into trusting themselves and their training and putting themselves on automatic. Worries about a good start, executing turns properly, a needed time, an opponent they have to beat, last year’s results, etc. consciously clutter up the swimmer’s head so that they can’t go fast.  Can  you  think about that swimmer that REALLY wanted that time, just HAD TO GET IT? Usually  that  conscious  wanting leads to muscling of the strokes and a lousy race.

 

Don Sonia used to coach at the Philly Aquatic club years ago and three days before a big meet he told his swimmers that they were going to do 25’s for time. His instructions were that they go all out on the first 25. He wanted their absolute best time, 110%. In essence, by putting special emphasis on the importance of the race and time he was helping them shift into a conscious, trying too hard mentality. Their times were 11.5. Without providing them any feedback he then said, “O.K., take it down on this one. I only want you going 75% of your speed. You can relax”. Their times? 11.5. Again without providing them their times he said, “One final time, only this time I want you to go 50% of your speed, no faster”. This time they all were in the range of 11.3.  Their “l/2 speed” times were even faster than their “full speed” times!

 

Trying too hard is a losing game for a swimmer because it comes from that conscious part of you. You train muscle memory in the pool with your athletes daily and you want them to be able to rely on that when it’s crunch time. Thinking messes the whole process up! So one goal for pre-meet psyching is to be sure that you help that swimmer NOT think. That you help distract their conscious mind from the race when it’s time to go.

 

I’ve had swimmers that consistently choke under pressure because pre-race they go off by themselves and “concentrate”. That is, they obsess about  how  much they want to do well, why they doubt themselves, how strong the opposition is, and why their having a bad hair day. Status of conscious mind: OVERLOAD. A simple intervention is to get this type of swimmer back in touch with why they are swimming, i.e. FUN, and to get them up, talking with friends, cheering for teammates, listening to music, etc. All of which is designed to DISTRACT the conscious mind from its’ role as saboteur.

 

What this means for you is that the less you get your swimmers to focus on pre-race, the better. If you have athletes that tend to get too analytical and lean towards a PRACTICE mentality, figure out creative ways that you can distract them. Use humor. Give them ridiculous assignments or tasks that they have to do before they race, i.e. count all the colors on the suits at the meet, find the one suit that has more color, etc.

 

I’d like to continue this discussion by shifting over to a brief discussion of stress and where it comes from. Most of the performance difficulties out there can be traced to situations where the swimmer is too stressed to perform their best. However, the important understanding here is where does this performance inhibiting stress come from? Concentration. The swimmer’s focus. The two main causes of pre-race stress for a swimmer are:


l – How that athlete explains the competitive situation to themselves. What they say about the race, their competition, how they feel, etc. This internal  dialogue either gets the swimmer ready to perform their best or shuts them down.

 

2 – Focusing on or trying to control the UNCONTROLLABLES within the performance arena. But it’s the second area, the UNCONTROLLABLES that I’d like to focus in on. Swimmers who choke under pressure pay attention to the things that they can’t control pre-race. They worry about beating another swimmer, qualifying, pool conditions, whether they got enough sleep last night, whether their taper was good enough, what people might say if…and what happened in the past in this race or over the course of the season. Three distinct things happen when you focus on uncontrollables:

l – Your anxiety level goes up.

2  – Your self-confidence goes down.

1 & 2 insure that your swim will

 

For pre-race psyching you need to make your athletes aware of their uncontrollables, the things that they tend  to focus on that are completely out of their control. It’s this awareness that will form the basis. of them getting back into control. If you know you’re focusing on an uncontrollable, then you can do something about  it before your stress level goes off  the charts. This takes  us back to that first concentration skill that I mentioned: Recognize you’re drifting and then bring yourself back. The swimmer must become aware of when his/her focus drifts to uncontrollables so that  he/she may  quickly bring that focus back to a neutral or performance enhancing one.

 

Three major uncontrollables that need to be emphasized have to do with something that I call the “HERE AND NOW RULE FOR PEAK  PERFORMANCE”.   Let  me explain  it as follows:  Concentration  has two dimensions: a dimension of time, and one of place. That is, when you concentrate, you have to be in one of three time zones: PAST, NOW, FUTURE. You could think about the last big meet you either coached or competed in, and if I can get you to think about that now, your concentration  is  in  the PAST.   Or I could  ask  you   to think about how you’re going to get home after the conference, or to think of one situation coming up this season where you may want to use this material. In either case, if you allow yourself to focus in this way  you  are now  in  the  FUTURE.  Or I could just  say  to you,  listen to  my   words   and  I’ll   provide  you   with   the  winning megabucks combination to Massachusetts’ Lottery drawing tonight. It’s only a paltry 5 million but you might find yourself focusing in on these numbers.

 

Of these 3 dimensions of time,  2  are  uncontrollable: The PAST and FUTURE.  If  you get a lousy start, blow a turn, or mess up in a previous race, you can’t get this back. It’s in the past and gone forever. However, if you obsess about that failure, and come to this year’s championships worrying about what happened last  year, you’ve got a good chance of taking that past focus and poisoning your present one. Similarly, if you’re on the blocks ready to swim the 200 and worrying about your splits for the last 50, which right NOW you have absolutely NO control over, you’ll stress yourself out.

 

For the most part, when it’s race time, you have to keep yourself in the NOW.  This  is  the  only  time  zone  that you have control over and power in. To the second dimension of concentration, place. When  you  race,  you can either be in the HERE, the right mental place focus ing on what YOU are doing and WHERE you are doing it, or you can be ANYWHERE else. I always talk about this issue in relation to a swimmer needing to stay in their own lane mentally  before  and during  the race.  For the most part, when you mentally leave  your  lane  and start worrying about where another swimmer is, how they’re doing or whether they’re going to catch you, you’re mentally in the wrong place and  asking  for trouble, performance wise.

 

In other words, you only have control over what happens in your lane. This is basic, but missed by most swimmers, especially those that get themselves stressed out. When swimmers leave the “here” of the performance they add both muscle tension and precious seconds to their race.

 

So one of the hearts of pre-meet psyching  is  to  teach your athletes how to recognize and deal with the uncontrollables. This entails  teaching  them  an  awareness  of the “here and now” rule and HOW to get themselves back when they are in the PAST of FUTURE in a destructive way. I say destructive here because a past focus can be productive if you review past peak performances, races where you felt great about yourself and had “winning feelings”. Developing a peak performance cue is all about that. Similarly, a future focus is invaluable when you  mentally  rehearse  what  you  want  to have happen.

 

One concrete way of working with both the uncontrollables and the here and now is  by  teaching  your athletes to  CONTROL  THEIR  EYES  AND  EARS  in meet/race situations. That is, the athlete is encouraged to  only focus on those things visually that keep them calm, composed and confident. If looking at a competitor does this for the athlete, then its fine to continue checking out the opposition.

 

However, most swimmers get uptight and psyched out when they think about who they have to go against, their size or speed. In these situations they should be encouraged to have other things to deliberately focus their prerace attention on. Looking at a spot on the blocks, in the pool, on the deck or on your person will help keep the swimmer’s eyes from wandering to more anxiety provoking sources.

 

You know what I’m talking about here as the pre-performance or pre-race ritual. Every good swimmer has a set pre-race ritual that they engage in which functions  to keep them calm and focused. Having preset things that you do and LOOK at within the ritual helps keep you away from focusing on the uncontrollables. This could mean that at meets the swimmer sticks their head in a book, or gets involved in teammates races to distract themselves visually from all the other distractions.

 

Controlling your ears similarly means that you should only focus on and listen to those things that keep you calm and confident. This means that if you start thinking positive things that you can focus on auditory. Swimmers who listen to Walkman’s before meets/races are controlling their ears. They’re distracting themselves constructively from all other distractions, whether these may come from within or without.    bad thoughts, you don’t simply tell yourself, “don’t think about THAT”. Instead, you find other more neutral or obviously even with YOUR creativity there are limits on what you can prepare your swimmers for so…have them use imagery as homework to prepare/practice ETU. Have them anticipate those normally upsetting things that might happen, but just as they start to happen, have them imagine successfully coping with the stressor. Even imagery practice in this manner will help desensitize the swimmer to the anxiety so that their response will not knock them off center.

 

This is far from an exhaustive list of pre-meet strategies. I just wanted to give you some general guidelines and a few techniques that you can use to help your athletes better focus when the chips are on the line. Remember, pre-meet psyching is mainly about keeping the proper concentration prerace.

 A final aspect of pre-race psyching that I want to discuss with you is the concept of E.T.U. That is, you want to train your swimmers to EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED at big meets. It’s the unexpected events that can so easily knock a swimmer off center and send their performance down the proverbial tubes. The car breaks down on the way to the big meet, you feel miserable  after warm ups, your goggles break at the last minute, your worst nightmare unexpectedly takes the  blocks  right next to you,. etc.

 

If you train your athletes to mentally anticipate all the unexpected things that could happen, and how they might constructively deal with them, when and  if  they do happen in reality, the athlete is then able to stay centered when the proverbial poop hits  the fan.  The way you teach ETU is to use your creativity and try to provide the swimmer with the kinds of experiences in practice or at smaller meets that would “push their buttons” and cause them to panic. Strategize with them appropriate ways of handling the situation, i.e. refocus, change self-talk, slow and deepen breathing, go talk  with friends, etc.

If you have questions about any of this material or have an athlete that is having repetitive performance problems, please feel free to call me (413) 549-1085.

 

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