How a Performance Mindset Hurts You in Training and Competition

Every morning after dropping my daughter off at school I go to work out. Whether I'm in the water or the gym, it's a place for me to charge my battery for the coming day. I've found that while I struggle to meditate lying down in a dark room, my mind is often clear and present with a set of barbells in my hands.

It wasn't always this way. As a swimmer, the compulsion to train was engrained in me. But I didn't always get a mental boost from my daily workout. In fact, quite the reverse. There were times when exercise brought shame, anxiety and a depressed mood. The problem was my mindset for training.

The source of many negative emotions around sport is a performance mindset. What seems like it should be an essential part of sport is in fact hurting many athletes. Athletes who come to a practice or competition placing an expectation on how they will perform will be less likely to do well, and a vicious cycle of poor performance and performance anxiety can result.

I once asked my team of teenage athletes to give a self-rating on how they were doing at practice on a scale of 1-5. None of them gave themselves a five, perhaps because they feared I would think them overconfident. What was more telling was how many rated themselves two or three. I put out a challenge to them: what if I told them they could get a five every day?

The swimmers were confused. Their performance mindset told them that in order to rate a five, they had to perform perfectly. Of course, that was impossible. 

The secret to getting to five is not performing perfectly, but to adjust your mindset to tangible items that are within your control, and make the most of them. Think: what do I have to do in order to have an awesome practice? What should I eat for breakfast/lunch and dinner? When should I go to bed? What should I do with the ten minutes I have before practice starts? What is the best way to approach the sets the coach gives me?

Finally, what is my intention for practice today? Why am I here? Did I meet that intention? These are all the questions that are far more important than "did I swim a faster pace today?". These are the actual questions that lead to swimming a faster pace in practice tomorrow, or the next day.

The secret to breaking a performance mindset that is so harmful in competition is to first break it in practice. Put down your stop watch (do this anyway) and turn off the pace clocks if you have to. Engage swimmers on how to actually approach practice, rather than the result of that approach.

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