When I swam the last race of my college career, the thing I remember most is the horrible knot in my stomach. Afterwards, I stood in a shower with a teammate. "You're retired!" he shouted. "Good." I thought, "i'll never have to feel like that again".
Five years later, I would eclipse my best times at age 27. I did so training a few times a week, doing 1/10th the volume I had trained before. The best part? I had fun racing. The knot was gone, and without it, I was a completely different swimmer, a more "talented" version of myself.
Competition anxiety is so common in swimming that we barely even notice it. Part of that is because we have a lot of developmental systems that push athletes physically without considering their mental development.
That said, I've helped many swimmers overcome anxiety over competing, and it's never too late for them to do it. Here are four tools for overcoming competition anxiety:
1. Step into your athletes emotions with them: Anxiety can often sneak up on athletes before a race. In fact, some of the most effected athletes are the practice badasses that bring it fearlessly to training. Anxiety comes when a person is overwhelmed by the emotional stress of a situation.
One of the worst things you can do to an athlete is deny how they are feeling. Responses like "you're fine" or "there is nothing to worry about" or "get out of your head" are not helpful to an anxious athlete. Recognize that the athlete is emotionally stressed, and communicate that to them:
"I know this race is really important to you, and you want it to go well. I know that you are worried right now, and I am going to help you".
2. Bring them into a shared space by reminding them of your relationship: Now that you have recognized how your athlete is feeling, you can bring them into a shared space and allow them to release some of that emotional load. Remind them that regardless of how they perform, you will continue to care about them and help them, and that your relationship has nothing to do with how fast they swim.
These are both steps that are "at the meet". It's important to recognize that doing them won't necessarily erase competition anxiety. Stick with it until the athlete "learns" that they can rely on you to help them with their anxiety.
What about before the meet, in the weeks and months leading up to competition? What kind of preventative measures can you take?
3. Three Good Things: Many coaches encourage swimmers to journal about their daily practice. Journaling can help swimmers to evaluate and reflect on what they did.
Tell the swimmers to record three things they did well in every practice. This is reflection designed to build emotional toughness for the road ahead. A nice side-effect is that swimmers will be looking for things to do so that they can write them down after training. The collection of many "good things" can also come to the "big meet" and serve as a reminder of all the good preparation they made for the competition
4. Yoga: Yoga is like two steps in one for dealing with competition anxiety. First, it is a great place for learning guided meditation, which can be transitioned to "behind the blocks" meditation to help swimmers bring their tension levels down before the race.
Second, the diaphragmatic breathing techniques you learn in Yoga are very effective in reducing tension levels, especially when combined with meditation.
5. Get outside help: Some cases of competition anxiety are far bigger than you can tackle alone as a coach. Athletes could be dealing with abusive and/or mentally unstable family situations that leave them without basic coping skills for stress.
Use your judgment as a coach for when a swimmers anxiety comes down to more than just dealing with swimming competition. Consider having infrastructure on your team for helping athletes with mental challenges get specifically tailored help.
Competition anxiety is still far too unrecognized and mishandled in swimming. Swimmers can learn skills to overcome this issue, but only when they get the right communication and help from their coach.