Competitive swimming rewards aggressiveness. An old coach once said "this ain't NASCAR, there's no lap money" and yet, the swimmer that "goes for it" is more often than not rewarded with a faster time and a better chance to win.
Now think about your typical swimming practice. Is aggressiveness rewarded? Well for one thing, if you have a training system built largely on large amounts of non-race pace training, it's almost impossible to reward aggressiveness. Your practice will reward endurance, the ability to survive something grueling.
Many coaches cite the mental benefits of this type of "survival" training. They believe that athletes emerge from it "mentally tough". While it's true that a select few survivors will justify this theory, the majority swimmers are not mentally better off from performing this type of training. They adapt to survive, and this proves to be a mental disadvantage when it comes to competition.
Swimmers who train to survive will often approach race day with anxiety. First, they do not have a strong sense of confidence in what they can do (self-efficacy). Their adaptation to survival means that they will often approach a race from a survival mindset- how can I make it through the race, instead of going for the big swim. They will go out to slow and perhaps still crumble at the end of a race.
Training at race pace presents its own mental challenge for swimmers. In the first place, most anyone will have to overcome years of swimming culture that teach you that short repetitions done at race pace are somehow easier. Anyone who actually executes race pace properly themselves will find out quickly how not true this is.
Training at race pace builds self-efficacy because swimmers see that the direct connection between what they do in training and what they can do in a competitive situation. It is essential for coaches doing race pace to frame the training from an abundance mindset.
Instead of focusing on the total volume of a practice, focusing on the amount of pace you can execute in a practice, building it up and then going for an even faster pace will give swimmers the confidence to push in a race. Every yard you swim at race pace is worth many more at a slower pace- pushing yourself to that extreme is rewarded. And rather than "gut it out" when you push too far, you take a break when your stroke, pace and body push over the edge.
There is a disconnect between what we value in swimming when it comes to racing and training. Coaches need to bridge that connect and make sure that the values of practice are actually what we are looking for on race day.
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