Mental Training: Creating The Conditions For Success by Chris Conlon (2002)


As we were just talking I was informed that he is also a middle school teacher. So even though he is working at the college level, he is bringing the information with the understanding of working with children. I believe, as we all know, the mental training – no matter what we ever do in trying to train our swimmers physically – it is the mind that makes the whole difference. We are going to be given the privilege today to learn. I know that we are not a very large group so you are going to have an advantage over everybody else out there.


We have a little gift from Colorado Timing and I hope if you are still going back to see all the exhibits in the exhibit hall that you will stop by and look at what they have to offer. This gift is to thank you and I want to thank you personally for stopping in.


Good morning and thank you very much for the opportunity to be here to speak with you today. Like Mr. Klein said, I am a collegiate coach at Johns Hopkins University, but my background has taken me from developmental summer league programs through high school coaching, USS – both age group and senior level, Masters and then finally I will be entering my 5th year with Johns Hopkins this season. I am real excited about the opportunity to share this information with you today. I don’t necessarily think that I am going to present too many ideas that are sort of revolutionary or coming out of left field. But I look forward to sharing the information with you like all the coaches here have been so great about sharing their information. I will share with you how we implement it at Johns Hopkins and how that it benefited our swimmers. Hopefully you might be able to take some of that back home to your programs to share with your swimmers and help them to achieve peak performance which is really what we are all after anyhow.


I started thinking about the development of my ASCA Fellowship Program just by reflecting back over the years on some of the swimmers whom I have had the opportunity to coach. One male swimmer I was coaching back in high school was the high school’s only swimmer. Going into his senior year at our conference championship meet he swam a 52 high in the 100 butterfly. This was a really good swim for him and the great thing was he was totally unshaved and totally untapered. We were thinking hey, when we go up to our Eastern meet – which is a big regional meet out in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – that he was really going to have some outstanding swims. All of his training was fantastic and his taper mode was fantastic going into Easterns. We showed up at this meet, which for him was on a very large scale, and during prelims he swam a 54.7, despite the fact that he was shaved and he was tapered. That night at finals he did squeeze into the B final. He swam a 52.1. He was outdistancing his heat and actually had the third fastest swim of the meet, yet he only ended up in 7th place.


Another swimmer who gave me some fits this past season at her first NCAA meet again had been training outstandingly throughout the entire season. All the indicators we had in terms of splits, relays, and things that were going on as we approached the meet indicated she was going to have a breakthrough performance. Well, she spent the first two days of the meet literally shaking in her boots, and had performances that were sub-par compared to what she had accomplished even in mid-season. Finally, by the third day of the meet, she was able to achieve some success in the relays when she had settled down and had some more confidence in herself. The most startling that happened at that National meet occurred as the coaches and I were giving a talk about relaxing, kind of getting into the groove, and giving her the feeling of team work. She was so tense that while that conversation was going she actually ripped her goggles apart and broke her goggles. So we decided that we need to do some things to help these swimmers have more confidence and belief in themselves when they approach a championship setting.


A good friend of mine, her name is Holly Kenney, is an Ironman triathlete. As she was preparing for her first Ironman triathlon and she was training with a woman named Lynn Brooks who is a 20 time Ironman finisher and obviously knows a great deal about the sport of triathlon and what it takes to excel on the world stage in that sport. While they were training together Holly related a story about her training partner and coach Lynn Brooks. Lynn said “you know Holly, if you have an outstanding race you might go you know, 15 or 16 hours. You know, if you really nail it, you will go 15 or 16 hours.” Holly was like okay and she was pretty comfortable with that going into it and felt confident that she was going to be able to complete the challenge. She went to the Ironman triathlon and actually finished in a time of, not 15 or 16 hours, but 12 hours and 54 minutes. She was very excited and she got up to that world stage and she was performing at very, very high levels.


The most interesting part of that story happened when she got home. She realized that she had a postcard on her refrigerator of a previous ironman race and on that postcard was a man running across the finish line. He had his hands up and was very exuberant that he had finished the ironman. The time on that card was 12 hours and 54 minutes. So I started to wonder what is the connection between that card that she saw five, six, seven times a day – every time she went into the refrigerator – 12 hours and 54 minutes. Was there a relationship between what your mind is being told and your actual performance at the end of the day.


So, for all of these reasons I developed this ASCA fellowship program to try and help my swimmers have a little bit more confidence, a little bit more belief in themselves and be able to achieve peak performance in our championship setting. As a coach, I looked at it as a great opportunity to help do what I call creating the conditions for success. Because, like all of you out there, I am sure you go through all of your training throughout the year to make sure that the swimmers are properly prepared and ready to hit it when they need to. This is just another tool in our tool box to do that.


Mental training is a program of goal setting, visualization, affirmation statements and positive self-talk. As I go through my talk today I would like to highlight how we use this in a yearlong program with our swimmers at Johns Hopkins. We offer this as a tool for success for the swimmer just like you might consider doing double practices as a tool that are going to help benefit your swimmers throughout the season. Perhaps weightlifting or medicine balls are going to help benefit your swimmers. This is another tool that will help lead them to success at the end of the season.


Mental training of course is not a panacea, but there are some pluses and minuses to it as well. As you can see, and I am sure you know, some athletes are unwilling to really work on training their minds. It is just like you might have trouble convincing some athletes that a track start is faster than a grab start. Some athletes are not ready to buy into the mental training program. Other athletes were saying hey, mental training, peak performance. That means I don’t have to work as hard. That is not true as well because mental training cannot replace any of the physical training, the yardage, the sprint work, the power work that you do. It certainly cannot replace any of the technical training that you do in the drill work, the turns, starts and also it cannot really increase your potential to excel.


I didn’t want my swimmers to go into the season with a 50 and 100 freestyler believing that they were going to win the 200 breaststroke at NCAAs. That wasn’t my goal for the program. However, mental training does offer many benefits for swimmers. We find that the swimmers are more controlled under pressure, that they had more confidence and they have a consistently high level of performance. Their consistency is increased not only in meet settings, but also in-practice settings. Of course they perform a higher level in practice and meets and the most exciting part we found about mental training and visualization that it really helped our swimmers to obtain new skills and techniques more quickly. When we are working on new turns or we are adding a new drill in a program the whole visualization process really benefited swimmers in terms of how quickly they mastered that technique. They were able to incorporate that into their racing stroke.


Prior to the season last year George Kennedy, the coach at Johns Hopkins University, set out some rather lofty goals for me. He encouraged me as I was taking over the sprint program, that we were going to revamp the sprint program and try to establish it as one of the stronger programs in the Nation. He set out some lofty goals in terms of saying that we want to have all our sprint relays in the top 8 at NCAAs, So I though whew – that’s pretty fast. He said that for the past three years in the men’s side we have been 21st, 5th, and 3rd and we want something that is going to help take us over the top and maybe help us get into the top -first or second at Nationals. Of course on the women’s side we want to improve on our 5th place finish of last year.


Mental preparation seemed like a great match for us at the time and it proved to be a great match because we were trying to set some goals that had never been accomplished at Johns Hopkins University. We were trying to overtake one of the most powerful swimming teams in Division III and we needed some tools that were going to help us to get there. We felt we needed an edge, and mental training was definitely that edge.


In preparing the mental training program, and the sprint program as well, I decided it would be worthwhile to make some calls to people who had some success in coaching. So one of my first calls made was to David Marsh who is the coach down at Auburn. I said “David you know, we are trying to get our sprint program going. What are some of the things that you have done to get your kids going fast. How can we get our kids to go fast.” The first thing that he said was “well you could recruit faster swimmers” So I am thinking, okay that is a good start, but then he had some other points which I found really valid. He described how his training program was broken down into different kinds of things that they did with their sprinters. One of the points that he really highlighted was the fact if there is anything that you really find very valuable and is really worth doing and you really believe it is an important part of your program, you’ve got to do it at least two times a week. You’ve got to do it two times a week. For example, if you really believe in power work or hypoxic training you’ve got to find a way to get that in at least two times a week and that is the only way that it is going to be significant to your swimmers. So, in thinking about that, I decided that mental training can’t just be something that we just do coming up to Nationals or a conference meet and all of a sudden we say hey, let’s do some relaxation. some visualization. It’s got to be a program that is consistently implemented throughout the yea,r and its got to be something that the kids are consistently exposed to that they could practice with throughout the year. So we had to find a way to make it two times per week in our practice schedule.


This is a general sketch of what our practice schedule looks like. You can see as we go through the week that you know, depending on whether we are doing kick or leg lifts, arm lifts or hypoxic work, each of those things happen twice a week. We decided to take our mental training program which is our classroom work and put it in on Tuesday. This is our quality day for the sprinters at Hopkins. To a sprinter at Johns Hopkins what quality means is all-out intense swimming with the understanding that intense fast swimming in practice leads to fast swimming in meets and the only way we are going to get faster is by swimming fast. The one thing that we do with quality swims is a lot of active rest. Generally the sets are very short and very intense. So we had a nice window of opportunity to squeeze a time in when the mental training wouldn’t necessarily cause us to carry over in our time schedule. We are pretty crunched in terms of getting the kids to the pool so they can manage their daily lives. It also meshed up well because during our quality swims we did a lot of different test sets and it would give the swimmers an opportunity to do some visualization activities to prepare themselves for those test sets, to help them be more successful at that.


One other thing I would like to add about our practice schedule that we felt was really important. During the first six weeks of the season we did general training for the entire program. We didn’t differentiate between sprinters, middle distance or distance swimmers and we also did not start the mental training program. We felt that we wanted to give the kids an opportunity to get a base level of fitness going. We wanted to have an opportunity to evaluate those swimmers and we wanted the swimmers to take some time to think about some of their goals for the season and to realize what some of their strengths and weaknesses might be because we wanted to use that mental training to help aid the swimmers in overcoming their weaknesses to help improve their performance at the end of the season.


Yes sir – when we are doing our weight training we divide into four different sessions. For example Monday morning we only have the kids for about an hour or an hour and a half so we try to get in – we can’t do like a full scale full body lift on those days so we just divide up and we do arms and upper body on one day and then we do legs on another day and so we just alternate them so we don’t totally blast them on one given day. You can see how we do two arm lifts and two leg lifts spread out through the week and of course, if there are more questions about any of those sort of things I would be happy to take them at any time.


Basically, once we get into our program in mid-October, about six weeks into the season, we broke down into a six week program where the kids met for 30 minutes a session in our sort of classroom setting. What I always had the kids do was go down on the pool deck, they got their bathing suits on and got ready to go. They would just come to me in shorts and a t-shirt and had gotten one of the rooms on campus to go to. We began the whole process of learning about what is mental training and we moved basically from very easy skills and topics, things they could easily imagine. For example our first visualization was imagine you are peeling an orange and all the different sensations that you might experience while peeling an orange. Maybe we took a tour around campus in our heads.


Then as the season progressed we taught them more skills about how they could use that visualization to not only picture very specific things, (great turns or a super butterfly technique) but to go through the entire visualization process from the gitgo. Starting with entering the building the night of finals for the 100 meter butterfly, then visualizing the entire process – preparation process – getting up onto the blocks and then actually the execution of the race. So we started out with very simple topics and moved into topics that were much harder. We also started focusing on immediate goals in the beginning of the season. For example, I really need to get my breaststroke turns down, or I am having a lot of trouble maintaining good race pacing in my freestyle. Then, different types of visualization that were more long-term, for example – trying to see what the peak performance at championships might be many months away.

So we went from easy to the hard.


I am going to go through each of the six weeks of our program. The basic structure was an introduction much like I am giving you today. I had to explain to the swimmers what mental training was, what the benefits to them were going to be because, of course, they want to know what is going to help them out the most. Then we took our second week – we looked at imagery and how it would help us in a training setting and then imagery that could help us in a competitive setting. We talked about affirmation statements which are trigger tools that benefit us in making our imagery. Then we would talk about how we can make those affirmations really stick and have an effective impact on their mind. Then finally, what I think was the most important topic and I am definitely going to stress it more highly with them this year – is positive self-talk during the competitive season. The wonderful thing about the swimmers that I work with at Johns Hopkins is that they are very cerebral. They really are thinkers and they like to know like why are we doing this and how is this going to help me. But, they also tend to be a little bit cynical. I feel like this year it would be important to stress that positive self talk because they are wonderful at helping other swimmers who have had a bad swim. They say “hey you are going to be fine”, but they have a very difficult time doing that for themselves. I think that is an important skill that when they don’t have a great swim, whether they got beaten by somebody they thought they shouldn’t have, they need to be able to rebound and have a good swim in their future swims.


As I said, the first week is just an overview of mental skills and as I go through the program I close out the first week with a worksheet called “what will it take”. It is actually very provocative, and if you ask the swimmers, probably a little bit too lengthy questionnaire that they answer for me. What that questionnaire does is let me know where they are coming from. As you can imagine, the kids on your team you have a very broad makeup of swimmers with different personalities, different lifestyles, different family backgrounds. They are all probably doing what they do and doing what they love for very different reasons. So if I am going to be able to help them as a coach and as a mental training coach as well, I need to know what motivates them, what gets them excited about swimming, and what they want to achieve. Where do they want to be. Are they happy being a conference level swimmer or do they have goals to be up at the National level. So it really gives me a good perspective of where they are coming from. So I was able to use that as I go throughout the year to work with the individual kids and tailor our talks to their personalities. I found that very helpful. A couple of points we highlight on that first week about mental skills – (1) they can be learned and (2) they will ultimately lead to your personal peak performance.


Mental skills are not an easy tool to learn. You’ve got to work at it. You are going to have times when you fail and you are not successful at creating the image that you want and you are not successful at positively affecting your mind and it is something that has to be practiced consistently. I found my swimmers as energetic and enthusiastic as they are about being successful, they are also a little bit lazy sometimes and they don’t to necessarily work that hard unless they have a belief that this is really going to benefit them in the end. I really wanted to stress the point to them that, you’ve to work at this. This is going to be hard for you.


During our second week we are trying to improve their ability to visualize. We are going from those basic – peeling the orange as I described and the tour around campus, visualization to – visualizations where we are trying to correct specific technical flaws that they may have. Perhaps a butterflyer who never maintains her breathing pattern on her fourth 25 or an IMer who still does a really slow open turn going from backstroke to breaststroke or to somebody who we want to get faster in their flip turns. So during the second week we try to take some individual skills – some individual aspects of their swimming and have them do that visualization.


In my next couple of slides, I am going to go through the ten steps that I feel are really important to preparing yourself for visualization and really having some beneficial visualization during practice.


When you are doing visualization you need to be calm, comfortable and relaxed. You and I think we could probably get relaxed, but you can imagine that for college level swimmers, that means lying down on the floor with your eyes closed and that is okay. I think I had a big fear in the beginning of the season that gosh – my swimmer is going to sleep through my talk and I am used to that with my middle school students, but with the swimmers I am thinking wow, I want this to be really effective. I found they did a great job with it and we lost a few over the course of the season, but that was okay.


When you are doing the visualization you want to view it from different perspectives. The two perspectives that I talk about are the internal perspective and the external perspective and I encourage the swimmers to use whatever is best for them. The internal perspective would be visualizing and experience exactly as you would experience it in the water. Imagine yourself and you can see out of your goggles, you can see your hands entering the water, you can feel the water rushing past your body just as you might experience it as you are swimming – that is the internal. The external perspective is visualizing yourself swimming, but from the perspective of a television camera. Maybe that television camera is under the water, maybe its your coach filming you from the side or there is an overhead shot like you see on ESPN. I encourage the swimmers to use the perspective that works best for them.


When visualizing you don’t want to just see yourself swimming through the water. It is really important that you pay attention to other sensory details. What does it smell like. What does it feel like as the water rushes past your body. What level of excitement do you have as you are accelerating down the pool and blasting into your first turn. So pay attention to all of those details to help make that imagery more realistic. The image has to be played as you want it to be seen.


I talked earlier about the cynicism of my swimmers at some times and often found out early in the season that they were visualizing with the end in mind. They would visualize themselves, for example, the women would go 24 flat in a 50 freestyle. They would start with that end in mind and could see it happening and they could see themselves doing it; but, as they would get to the end of the race something would go wrong. Their goggles would leak, their suits would fall off, or they would look up and say “holy cow!, I just went 27.” So it is really important that they practice visualizing it as they want it to be seen. Some kids have a hard time doing that because they have that self-image that no, they cannot achieve at that level. The mental training is all about changing that self-image to help them become more successful. Allow no negative images to come to mind during your visualizing. It is kind of the one time in your day when everything turns out exactly the way you want it to be. Yes sir – not necessarily.


What I really want during their visualization is for the swimmers to not compare themselves to somebody else or to worry about things they can’t control. Okay, lets get to the real race situation and they are next to that swimmer. All of a sudden that swimmer is ahead of them and they think “oh no! – there I go again” and all that work is lost. So when they do their visualization it is really important that that they stay focused on themselves and the things that they personally can control.


Now one of the great images – images I guess is a good word – ways to help them understand about how you don’t let negative images come to mind. Anytime you are doing your visualization, if that negative image does come to mind, stop what you are doing. I tell the kids to imagine that they have a computer disk or a CD burner where they are recording these images for playback at a later date. Take that CD out, pitch it, put a new one in and start all over again. I want them to continue doing that process until they have successfully visualized what they want. Then once they have that image recorded as they like it. they will be able to play it over and over again and the image will be repetitive and perfect and be beneficial to them, instead of always seeing that negative outcome.


As I described earlier, begin with short easy images. We don’t want the kids trying to picture everything that is going to happen in the race. Start with very basic things. As the swimmers get more proficient at it I want them to introduce movement. We will use this a lot with our backstrokers as we are teaching them to dolphin kick under water. We try to use that to their benefit in competition. Imagine during their visualization that they might have their eyes closed, holding a streamline position, actually feeling that action happening, and then taking their first couple of strokes in the air as if they were actually performing in a meet.


Yes – I don’t do music, but some other people have done that.


Before I do the visualizations I have a mental relaxation routine that I take them through and I use the same routine every week so that they can hopefully use that routine and use it on their own. just so they get used to the repetitive nature of it, but I don’t use music or anything like that. I just try to have the lights dimmed in a quiet room and go through the relaxation technique and then do the visualization. We encourage the swimmers to practice visualizing on their own. Like I say, anything that is important you have got to do at least two times a week. The more that they do it the more beneficial it will be for them.


This is where I come in line and I have to figure out opportunities to integrate that mental training into practice setting. If you think back to our practice outline that I highlighted on the screen a few minutes ago, there was only one mental training session built into our weekly calendar. What we do for the other mental training session is we do it during a practice setting and it could happen in a variety of ways. It could be, okay we are going to take the next five or ten minutes to visualize what is going to happen in our test set. Or it could be a one-on-one sort of conversation between the swimmers and me saying okay, you know what are some of the things you are going to work on. Describe to me what your visualization is like. Lets talk about where we are now and what we need to do to get where you are picturing and # 10 is just do it, do it, do it. You’ve got to visualize and the more you do it the more effective it is going to be, the more confidence the kids will have that this will be beneficial to their swimming performance.


During our third week we try to move on to imagery in a competitive setting. What is it going to be like when you get to the big show. We try to help set them up so we can improve their belief in self and their confidence once they show up at a meet, and they are not going to be surprised by any of the situations that they might encounter. During this section we focus on the role of the subconscious mind in creating the self-image that the swimmers have. I like to compare the subconscious mind to a TV camera because you can imagine the TV camera is rolling on the nightly news and that TV camera is going to record whatever happens, no matter what. The thing about the subconscious mind is that it doesn’t really differentiate between whether you are up on stage acting out something or you are actually experiencing it. So the subconscious mind is going to record all of those images and it doesn’t differentiate between whether those images were something that you have imagined, or created in your mind, or you have actually experienced it. The subconscious mind doesn’t know if you just broke through that barrier and set a new personal best – whether that is actually happening or something you are visualizing. The subconscious mind collect that information and is where the belief in self is created, in your self-image. We want to improve that self-image. It gives them more confidence, leading to more success, and again, of course the subconscious mind records all of those images as if we have actually experienced it.


During our pre-competitive visualization – this is just a good analogy here which highlights the importance of incorporating the sensory details into your visualization. You take your imagination and you multiply that by the vividness of your imagery. This would include how it feels, how it smells, how excited you were, and what were people going to say after you have completed that lifetime best swim – that makes it more realistic to the swimmer. The more that you can get them focused on the things they might experience in the competitive setting the more effective that is going to be in altering your self-image and altering the picture the way they picture how their performance might be at the end of the year. Our imagery for competition is something that needs to be positive. We don’t need to reinforce any of those negative issues as I talked about earlier. It needs to be personal. It’s got to be about what the swimmer wants – what they want to accomplish and what they believe they can do.


It is not my job as a swim coach or a mental training coach to say hey, you know what, you really need to start picturing yourself going 48.5 in a hundred backstroke this year. I really think you need to start thinking about that because, if the swimmer doesn’t have any belief in that, it is not going to be effective for them. I want it to be effective and the visualization also needs to be present tense. When the swimmers are doing their visualization they need to act – excuse me, they need to visualize as if they are already there and they don’t want to be like well it would be really cool if I could do this. They need to do the visualization as if they have experienced it because that is the only way they are going to breakthrough those barriers.


Affirmations I have found to be perhaps the most powerful tool that came out of this program this past winter. Affirmations are very brief statements that help elicit an image, help bring it to mind and help clarify it. The way that they help elicit that image it and clarify it is by being very specific and using very directive action words. Iif we can use the right words, which is the affirmation, it will automatically lead to the right image in the mind. This will lead to the right emotions which will bring back that vividness that we talked about earlier. Affirmations are the trigger tool for us. I’ll give you a little example of how to write some affirmations and what some good and bad affirmations might be so you can compare and contrast the differences. You will notice some themes are reappearing here.


When they are writing an affirmation and I have them do it on a 3 x 5 note card that some of the kids carry around with them. Some of the kids just leave it on their night stand or maybe tape it to the mirror where they brush their teeth in the morning, and some of them put affirmations in their lockers. I encourage the swimmers to do whatever is going to work for them. Their affirmations need to be personal and about what they are interested in accomplishing. They need to be positive and notice the theme, and they need to be there as if it has already happened. When they are writing affirmations you don’t want them to compare themselves to another swimmer. “Gosh it would be great, if I beat Mary in the 50 backstroke at sectionals this year.” That is not what we are trying to do because we don’t have any control over what Mary does.


Yes, right – well you know some of your visualization could be centered around you know if you are seeded second or third you are going to be not in lane 4 so maybe some of the visualization is about when you spend time visualizing yourself lane 3 or lane 5 and how you might execute your swim from there. All we are trying to do is to get a consistent level of performance, so you could visualize even from end lanes and see if that might be effective for your swimmer. I would take it from that angle okay. Also with not comparing – it is okay for them to admire qualities in other swimmers. I love going to senior level meets and just watching the best swimmers swim. You look at them and like wow – look at those – you know he really gets in and out of his walls fas,t or look at that stroke technique. That is amazing; or, he held his breathing pattern through the entire length of that 200 fly. It is okay to admire those qualities but you need to picture those qualities within yourself and not within someone else.


When you write your affirmations you need to use action words – explosive, smooth, confidently, fast, powerfully. Your affirmations need to be very specific. I actually encourage my athletes to write several different affirmations, and I encourage them to write if they are really focused on their start and turn – separate affirmations for each aspect, Don’t say “I had really good starts and turns.” Use terms like “I am explosive off the blocks” and “I enter the water smoothly and carry my speed off the wall.” Your affirmations need to create powerful emotions. It is exciting to swim fast. It is exciting to do well and nail your swims. We want to elicit those emotions. Your affirmations need to have balance. What that means is that as I go throughout this entire program with the kids one of the things I remind them of is that all this mental training, all the different skills that we are learning are not just about swimming. What I don’t want to do is create an environment where the kids come to morning practice and they think about swimming. They go home during the day. They visualize swimming, visualize swimming, visualize swimming and they come back to do practice and they visualize swimming before they go to bed and they do it when they wake up in the morning. Now we do not want to create that necessarily. So I encourage them when they are doing affirmations to write some affirmations about some other things in their life that they may want to change and to see that these techniques could be beneficial in other areas, other than just swimming.


Your affirmations need to be realistic. Now that I am a former swimmer, I am very realistic about my potential for success and the things that I could accomplish. So visualizing myself jumping into the water and doing a really fast 200 IM right now would not be very realistic and would not be very believable. Your affirmations need to be private. I do encourage some of the swimmers, when they are ready, to share their affirmations with me only because I can help them better. If I know they are doing affirmations about their butterfly to backstroke transitions we are going to be working on that and we can share feedback with them that is going to be beneficial to them.


Also, as I talked about having balance and doing some affirmations for other things in your life. If there are affirmations that kids are working on that are personal, maybe about a relationship, how their academics are going, how their studying is going, you know they don’t want to be advertising this sort of thing they need to be personal, and they need to be private. The final thing about affirmations is that you don’t want to write any “have-to” goals. Mental training is not about setting an ultimatum like if I don’t do my best I am a failure. If I don’t win national championship then I am no good. That is not what this is all about. We don’t want to have it be a “have-to”.


I would like to give you examples of some affirmations that are pretty good. I always try to share a little bit about myself with the swimmers, kind of what is going on in my life. It helps them understand that this something real and infective. Last year I was training for the Baltimore marathon, so my affirmations I shared with them were – I am a strong runner and can maintain 7:30 miles with a relaxed and comfortable pace. Very specific and very directed. This is one I am still working on. I am an excellent golfer who drives the ball straight into the middle of the fairway off the T.

Other affirmations that I like to encourage the swimmers to consider are – “I am a strong leader and motivate my teammates in practice and meets.” Each of these trigger tools bring to mind a very specific picture and once we get that picture in place the emotions are going to come along with it as well. “I have a super fast dolphin kick and explode to the surface with brilliant speed.” – those are action words.


Here are some bad ones. I wonder if I could have a little bit of audience participation here – maybe you can help me figure out what is wrong with these affirmations. “I am improving in my turns” Why is that a bad affirmation statement for the kids to write down? Yes ma’am, excellent – excellent. “I am faster than Sally in the 50 freestyle.” – that would be comparison – very good. “Breaking records is nice.” Yes, very good. and “I will take down Tom Dolan in the 400 IM this season” – besides being comparison – for the kids that I was working with, which were sprinters – was not very realistic. Another poor, one which is a little bit too big is “I have good starts” –maybe they believe that they have good starts but that is not the image that we are trying to create. We are trying to create environment in which they are going to excel.


Okay now the trick is taking all this work, taking the visualization, taking the affirmation statements and making them stick. When they write their affirmations I encourage them to step two months ahead to picture where they are going to be. Yes mam, I will move the microphone for you as well to see if that will help – is that any better? A little bit – I will work on it for you.


With preparing their goals I want them to step ahead two months and picture where they are so that they will be most effective. I have a son who is 1 ½, or a little bit more than 1 ½ now, and I thought this was kind of interesting. When he was 1 year old we always taught him all these different party tricks, like the cool things he could say to kind of show off a little bit for the in-laws. We always to ask him, “Joshua how old are you” and he would say “one”. Now all of a sudden one day he started saying “two” and he would say “I am two.” I thought – wait a minute – you are not one, but we needed to change his image. So I said “Joshua, you know you are only one, you are not two”. You know he wasn’t buying that one, so instead we said “hey, lets teach him to say that he is 20 months old.” So now every time he says how old he is, instead of saying two, he says 20 months. We effectively changed the image that he had in his mind of himself and where he is. So soon, he will actually be two and he was just looking ahead. As most of us do when we are young, but as we get older we like to look back a little bit more.


On the 3 x 5 card we talked about describing where you want to be. I think one of the most important things about doing our affirmations and making them stick is not to force your affirmations to happen. Don’t sit there and once you write the affirmation say “I’ve got to be a great starter so if I don’t have a great start then I am a failure. I am no good.” You have got to just go through it, keep that picture in your mind, continue to work on achieving that goal, whatever it is on your affirmation card and let the process happen naturally. You cannot force that to happen. When you have that 3 x 5 card, whether it is in your locker, on your mirror, or on your bedside, you have got to read the words and hopefully that trigger tool is going to cause you to think about, picture in your mind the image or the visualization that you want to have and you need to feel the emotions. What is it going to feel like when you touch that wall and you have that explosive finish into the wall where you don’t breathe for the last ten yards in freestyle. What is it going to feel like when all your buddies come up to you and say hey you know that’s a great job. Congratulations – thanks for helping the team out. What is that going to feel like and you have got to repeat it, you have to do it over and over and over again on a daily basis.


A couple of affirmations help bring it home in terms of the feeling, the picturing of how it will feel. Hopefully, none of my swimmers have a problem with this but I thought it would be a good one to share here. I enjoy being a non-smoker as an affirmation. So, if that was somebody’s affirmation, I would encourage them to picture themselves in a setting – maybe at a party, maybe at a work break or something where they would normally be smoking and if you have them picture themselves in that setting without a cigarettes. How good does that feel? That’s where that balance comes in. For swimmers they may say “I am an explosive backstroke starter and carry my speed easily to my breakout at 15 meters?” How is it going to feel as you slice through the water and you are exploding off the blocks? As I mentioned, this is one of the topics that I found the kids struggled with the most. Although some did benefit, we are going to work on this during the upcoming season.


I think it was kind of interesting that I replaced a nutrition talk today because I think there are a lot of parallels between the food that you put in your body as a fuel and the food that you put in your mind as fuel that creates your self-image. If you have constant negative self-image or constant images that are negative coming to mind, you are going to create a bad product. It is not going to be a positive outcome. So if you want a positive outcome you’ve got to put positive images consistently into your mind even though the conditions might be contrary to it. You need to not dwell upon your weaknesses. Don’t get up and say “oh I know, its February and it is cold outside and when it is cold outside I get really tight, when I am tight I cant go fast.” You don’t want to dwell on that. You need to dwell on all of the positive aspects of your swimming. You want to focus on what you can control personally, and you want to focus on your performance and the art of racing. When you get to a meet and you do not want to be worried about all of the things that are going on around you. That is why we use the process to picture what might be happening ahead of time. Picture what it is going to sound like. What are the noises going to be like coming from your parents in the stands. What is it going to smell like when you step out on the deck at finals at night for your first event?


If you do have negative thoughts at a meet, there are three simple things to do: you need to notice the negative thoughts. Recognition is an important thing. If you are kind of down, the kids might go up to a friend and say, “I just always choke on the last 50 of the 200 backstroke, it kills me.” Your friend says you have been training so hard, you are doing a great job and you are going to be okay. But it is up to the swimmers at that level of meets to be able to do that for themselves. They need to notice the fact that they are having those negative thoughts and they need to try to eliminate them. They need to erase those messages. Take that CD writer out of there, pitch it, put a new disk in and then replace those negative thoughts with positive thoughts. We are working all year on our visualization. It is a great opportunity to again, picture the outcome exactly as you want it to happen and focus on the affirmations. The affirmations are there so that when there are times of stress, when the kids are having some self-doubt, perhaps those affirmations will trigger the positive emotions. “I am an explosive backstroke start and I get off the wall fast. At this time I do a few things to wrap up with at the end.”.


Are there any questions that I can answer about the training program? Yes sir – I think you handled it excellently you know where you always want to point out the positives in what they did, in addition to the negatives. Because if you don’t ever point out the negatives they are not going to learn. What I try to do with swimmers of all levels is have them explain to me what they did incorrectly and then what have we been working on in practice? You know what you did ten times yesterday, last night at practice. It’s getting them to talk about it and they start to develop that picture in their minds again of what it looks like. So it is just really exposing them again, not hiding them from the fact – “yeah you know you blew it there.” You know that kind of stuff, but it gives them an opportunity to think about – yeah coach you said I should really work on not breathing my last three strokes and my first three strokes out and I really blew it on that one. That’s the way I would do it. I would definitely not hide the truth. But lets say it is a trials finals situation, a wonderful opportunity to help them do some visualization. Why don’t you go down in the warm-down pool and while you are swimming down practice a few turns the way you want to do it. Get what it is going to feel like and then as you are relaxing this afternoon spend some time thinking about that and doing your visualization and maybe write some new affirmations, that’s the way I would do it. Yes sir, Wonderful question.


That was my closing so I will get to it now. What we found, especially and obviously with the swimmers who bought into it more was more positive benefits. I will speak basically of our men’s team because that was where the biggest challenge laid in terms of developing the sprinters and trying to build a team concept. We found that the team, having gone through the process, the sprinters, really had an opportunity to bond and make a connection. and if they went into the meet, the NCAA meet and we actually had a couple of freshmen who it was really their first national level competition. We found that we performed at very high levels, and not only did they stay positive for themselves, but they were really great for the other guys. So it had a lot of positives for us. My next step as I go through the program next year is going to be to quantify. Everybody says “well prove to me it works” It is kind of like “prove to me that doing 10 reps instead of 12 reps and weight lifting was what made your swimmer go faster than mine.” That is going to be the trick, to figure out how do we quantify results. How do we say this works for us, and this will work for you too. We actually, you know we had been third the year before. In terms of, I told you they set the lofty goal of having all our sprint relays make what we call the big 8 or the top 8, and actually all five of the relays qualified first in prelims and set school records in every relay. We were rocking – we had a good meet, so it was fun. You know it was one of those meets where everything comes together and I do believe that mental training played a part. You know aside from all the training and the hard work the kids had put into it, that they were confident going into the meet and they had a clear picture of where they wanted to be. Now the interesting thing is that they had pictured themselves coming in second because that was a far reaching goal. I wish they had pictured themselves coming in first. That’s always for next year I guess.


Any other questions? Yes, – in the back – Right. Well I also coach summer league which is age-groupish and you know what I find works best for me in that setting is a more of a 1 on 1 kind of thing. I find kids that are ready for it and sort of looking to take the next step. You know that it is a good tool to help 1 on 1 to start talking about and lets you know picture of where you want to go. Tell me about where you want to go and then teach them some of the skills of visualization and affirmations. I guess we could ask that question at any of the talks that are given here this week. I think that knowledge is power and it probably would be worth your time to have either a general meeting with the parents or one on one meeting with some of the parents and explain the things you are trying to do. And yes I think it is effective and yes this is going to help your kid so maybe you could support me by asking them about their visualizations and helping them write affirmation statements.


Yes – Great question.

Each of the classroom sessions are about a half hour and they included teaching them the new skills we talked about. We would do some visualization. We would work on that technique and kind of talk about how this could be helpful to us. We started the program in mid to early October and we carry this really through about Thanksgiving which is our first taper shave meet, which was the first of December. Then what we did after that was we had regular mental rehearsal sessions where we would do our relaxation like maybe once a week or once every other week depending on the schedule. So they stayed with it and I would also just make regular efforts to talk to the kids about their affirmations – what are you working on so I can have that connection with them. It helps to know what they are trying to get better at so I can help them get better at those things. After six weeks it was just kind of a maintenance program from there on out. We went swimming but actually we would use that. I said we would do the mental rehearsal, we would use 15-20 minutes before practice to do that and do some visualization and hop in the pool.


Yes sir

You know it is almost hard to forget what you can’t forget, but the whole idea is to have the kids go into a meet and don’t have them be surprised – in terms of not comparing themselves to anybody else or what happens if somebody gets in there and are blowing your doors off? You might still be having a personal best swim and you might be achieving your goals. So in terms of the visualization, lets try to just get them focusing on the things they can control and know that they are going to be able to do what they want to do regardless of what is happening around them – regardless of whether the lights go out at finals or whatever. But I don’t really say okay think of something bad and then picture how you would handle that situation. I have not applied that in that way.


Any further questions?

So to go back to addressing the question of did it work? In terms of giving up that half an hour of time, this is something that we, and especially our head coach, were concerned about. You’ve only got a certain amount of time where the kids are yours and you know you don’t want to waste any of that time. We found that it was very effective and no negative effects in terms of their training. Like I said earlier, we had increased confidence and they were really relaxed at whatever their championship setting was, whether it was nationals or conference. They were going in and were very focused on their swims. It actually made coaching at those meets a lot easier because they had already thought through what it was going to be like, what their pacing strategy was going to be, and were they going to go out fast in the first 25. We had an excellent team bonding experience, a great connection for all the kids, and we had faster times for everybody which was cool. I found that even the seniors who had accomplished at very high levels and went through program with us still performed at very high levels and improved their best times.


Here are some things that I would do differently or I talk about doing differently in the upcoming season. This season we are not going to just focus on the sprinters, we are going to try to incorporate the program with all of our Johns Hopkins swimmers, all sprint, middle distance and distance. We are going to develop a quantifiable means of saying “yeah this really works, this is worth it.” This is good for us and we are going to focus more on self-talk and really try to emphasize that point so that will be of more benefit to our swimmers.


I want to just say one final thank you to Mr. John Leonard and Mr. Tim Welsh who work with ASCA and sponsor the ASCA Fellowship program, Mr. Murray Stevens of North Baltimore and George Kennedy at Johns Hopkins University and I appreciate all of you taking your time with me. If you have any other questions I would be happy to answer those. Thank you.




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