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Race anxiety: It's normal to be nervous

Training tactics and competition in swim meets can lead to more confidence, less race anxiety.

The following was adapted from "Swimming Past 50" by Mel Goldstein and Dave Tanner, (Human Kinetics, 1999). Tanner is a research associate in Indiana University Bloomington's Department of Kinesiology, a swim coach and a competitive swimmer.

It's normal to be nervous before a competition. Even elite athletes experience pre-race anxiety, but for the first-time competitor the fear can so strong that competitions are avoided altogether. The novice swimmer might be embarrassed to stand up alone on the starting block in front of everyone, afraid of being mocked for swimming poorly and coming in last. The antidote for race anxiety is confidence, which can be gained through practices and competition.

Although they may not want to admit it, many swimmers are afraid of two things: failure and pain. Fear of failure can take many forms. It may be fear of losing, performing poorly or failing to meet a goal time. Fear of pain is a normal reaction to the anticipation of an unpleasant situation. To do well you must leave your comfort zone. Let's face it, all-out efforts hurt. In longer events, fear of failure and fear of pain go hand-in-hand. A failure to concentrate can lead to poor pacing that results in a very painful experience at the end of the race.

  • Shorter segments: One of the best ways to learn an effective race strategy, especially for a race you've never swum before, is to break it into shorter segments in practice. During the brief rest period, you can mentally prepare yourself for the next segment. Suppose your goal is to go 3 minutes for a 200 (meters or yards, depending on your skill). That's an average of 1:30 per 100, :45 per 50, or :22.5 per 25. Every time you do race pace or goal set training for 25s, 50s or 100s in practice, try to hit these goal times. If you can do it with long rests one week, try maintaining the same times with less rest the next week. Keep decreasing the rest from week to week while maintaining your goal times and eventually you'll be able to do the entire 200 straight with no rest at all in under 3:00.
  • Broken swims: Another method for simulating a race in practice is to do broken swims. A 200, for example, can be broken into 2 X 100, 4 X 50, or 8 X 25. If you take 10 seconds rest between each repeat you'll be able to swim faster than you could if you swam the 200 straight with no rest. Coaches say that the time you can do on a broken 200 swim with 10 seconds rest after each 50 is roughly equivalent to what you can do in a meet. It's a real ego booster and confidence builder to achieve your meet goal time in practice, even if the distance was broken into four parts.

Many adult swimmers don't compete often enough to learn how to overcome their fears. It's hard to learn to swim a race correctly if it's done in a meet only once or twice a year. Competition teaches you how to mentally focus on what you're doing in the water. The shorter events are over so quickly that you don't have time to think. You need to know exactly what you're going to do before the event starts by mentally rehearsing each segment of the race. Swimming in a meet also teaches you how to swim your own race, how to pace yourself based on your best strategy, not the strategy of the person in the next lane. The more often you swim in a meet, the more opportunities you'll have to succeed. Each meet lets you know what you'll need to work on before the next meet. So, swim in meets -- the more you race, the more you'll learn and the less you'll fear. As Winston Churchill once said, "Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts."