Don't Visualize With Anxious Athletes

When I bring up the topic of mental skills with swim coaches, I hear one word more than any other: visualization. It sends chills down my spine. While visualization (a sort of mental dress rehearsal for actual competition) has value in certain situations, it can actually do more harm than good, especially when dealing with athletes that are anxious in competitive situations.

Visualization as a technique has existed for a long time, long enough that I remember doing it in the mid 90s as an age group swimmer. For a long time in my career, I dismissed it. When I did give it a try, it was my most anxious swimmer that convinced me that it was the wrong solution.

You see, if someone is anxious about an upcoming event, asking them to imagine themselves in that event is far from helpful. Anxiety plays tricks on your mind, and intrudes on your rationalizing of what will come in the future with horrible, unlikely outcomes.

If you don't address the underlying anxiety an athlete is facing, asking them to visualize is like forcing them to have a nightmare. The visualization will then have the opposite effect you intended as a coach, as it will make the "unlikely" poor outcome more likely, and only reinforce their paranoia.

I'm convinced that one reason visualization is so popular is that it is a "one off" type of exercise, something coaches can pull out at random interval and declare that they did what they could to mentally prepare athletes.

That is not to say that visualization is totally useless. For athletes that are especially visually oriented, (think artists or designers), it can be very effective in augmenting their performance. Just be careful that those athletes aren't also fearful in race situations, as the negative effect will be even greater.

To address the underlying anxiety athletes are feeling about competition, the solution is much more about a long, sustained effort, just like teaching any other technique. As I have discussed in a previous post, there are concrete steps you can take as a coach to address this situation. 

There are a lot better ways to improve the mental skills of your athletes than visualization, with many research backed techniques out there that can make a huge difference. Want to add them to your team or personal practice? Write me for a free consultation. 


Four Swimmers that Show Why NC State Is Killing It

NC State can win a men's NCAA title in a couple weeks. That will be a remarkable achievement in a sport where just moving into the top ten is a monumental achievement. One thing that often gets lost when evaluating coaches of any teams is that we focus on the fastest swimmers of the team. 

When I look at what the NC State coaching staff has done, I'm more interested in the swimmers that, given average college coaching, were not likely to develop as much they have in Raleigh. Here are four swimmers who have showed incredible improvement for the Wolfpack:

Adam Linker- Linker was a decent power conference distance prospect coming into NC State. He recorded a 15:32 in the 1650, 4:32 in the 500 and 3:58 in the 400 IM.

All those times suggested he could grow into a solid scorer at the ACC conference level. Instead, in four years Linker has made the leap to an NCAA scoring level. His times from the most recent ACC Championships: (4:13.9 in the 500, 14:44 in the 1650) would have put him in top eight scoring position in all three of those races at last year's NCAA Championships.

Derek Hren- An early weakness of NC State's surge was breaststroke. Their breaststroke leg on medley relays stopped them from being truly competitive at the national level. 

While the Wolfpack still haven't gotten a true breaststroke prospect on campus, in the meantime Hren has had a development nearly as impressive as Linker. Again, his high school times (55.5 in the 100 breaststroke) suggested he would be an ACC scorer. 

Hren has improved three years in a row, and is likely to make that four years at the NCAA Championship. With a personal best of 52.2, he has a good chance of scoring at the meet. His relay performances are consistently good and with three other top notch legs, NC State can compete in medley relays.

Alexia Zevnik- I know I said I wouldn't focus on stars, but Zevnik's progression is too good to ignore. While she definitely had some solid backstroke swims in SCM her final year in Canada (1:00/2:13), those are not the typical incoming times of someone who will contend for an NCAA title their senior year.

Like the two swimmers already mentioned, Zevnik has made a big push forward every year. Rough conversions of those SCM times indicate around a 54/2:00 backstroker coming into college. Where is she now? 50.8 and 1:49.6. How many swimmers do you think enter college at above 2:00 in the 200 backstroke and finish with a performance under 1:50?

Natalie LaBonge- You may be tired of hearing it, but once again here is an example of an NC State swimmer who with average coaching might not have even scored at ACCs. Labonge's incoming times, 23.5 in the 50 and 51.1 in the 100, would have been well outside of scoring at the 2017 meet.

She could have even shown some progression and still missed being a conference scorer. It took 22.8 and 49.5 to score at the ACC meet this year. But LaBonge had more than "some" progression. She swam 22.0 and 48.6 in her senior year, and that progression has paved the way for Wolfpack coaches to get better sprint recruits in classes that came after hers.

I know it's becoming fashionable to hate NC State as they turn the corner from lovable underdogs to hate-able frontrunners. I simply can't find any hate for the awesome coaching and development taking place in Raleigh. 

Advanced Team Building: Going Beyond Activities

I cringe whenever someone uses the phrase "team building activities". Not because there isn't some value to setting aside a specific time and place for working on being a team. In fact, far from it. I cringe because team building is an everyday, every practice activity. 

Coaches talk a lot about creating an "environment" for success. When you are a leader on a team, the bulk of team building is what kind of environment you create for others. You need to create an environment where a diverse set of personalities come together for a unified cause.

Sounds easy right? But many teams struggle with building a cohesive unit. One area that frequently causes conflict is the athletes perception of team values.

Let me give an example. "Work hard" is one of the most obvious values a team can have. But what does it mean? Unless the coach communicates and leads the way, athletes will fill the space with their own interpretation of hard work.

I once had two swimmers in my group that didn't get along. Both thought the other wasn't "working hard".

One swimmer was consistent- never late, always the first in the water, always repeating times like a metronome through pace sets. He attended morning practices (doubles) no matter what. He was always serious at practice- like an adult showing up to work. Let's call him Mr. Consistency.

The other was a wild card. He got into the water last- but then finished warmup before half his teammates. When it was time to give a "max" effort, no one was better. He laid everything on the line, and often paid for it later in practice. He could never gauge his own effort- his paces were inconsistent. If something was off, he was sick or something hurt, he took a more cautious approach and sometimes missed training. Let's call him Mr. Wild

As a coach, I knew that both swimmers were working hard. They both fit into what I valued as a coach. Were they perfect? Of course not. I wished Mr. Consistency would take a day off once in a while- he often concealed when he was sick knowing that I would send him away from training. I wish that Mr. Wild would learn to pace himself a bit better so he wasn't so useless for parts of training.

One of the things I would say to bring these two swimmers together was to remind them of something that swim coaches often say to each other but forget on their own teams. "There are many ways up the mountain". Coaches can get trapped by their own "philosophy" about "how things should be done" and fail to include athletes who are actually embodying their values, just using a somewhat different looking process. 

Instead of valuing "hard work", we valued self-improvement. Were the swimmers doing what they needed to do to get better? In this case, both were, so much so that both would go on to be NCAA Division 1 Championship qualifiers. Eventually they learned that even though they could poke holes in each others approach, they both had a lot to learn from one another.

This is just one example, there are many more situations where you can be inclusive with your values as a leader without compromising high standards. If you do so, you will create an environment where a diverse group of personalities can co-exist and thrive, making you look very good as a leader. 


Project Under Update: Slowed But Not Stopped

"I think I'm getting closer, but the scenery's the same. Am I a disappointment? "


The past few weeks have had frustratingly slow progress. I've been sleeping poorly, nothing new in my life unfortunately. There has been one day in February where I have slept uninterrupted for more than six hours.

The lack of quality sleep has hampered my recovery, and in turn my training has been stuck in a holding pattern. I spent two weeks going to the pool and either having to take a step back or struggle to replicate my previous best performance. 

Did I Do a Good Job?

Over my life, one of the things I've struggled with most is knowing when to admit to myself I've done a good job. I've always been followed by a restlessness, uncomfortable lingering around any "success".

These days, many people complain about a culture where every kid gets a trophy, but the opposite is even more worse. I grew up feeling that my mom, my most important relationship in my young life, was almost always disappointed in me. I didn't know when I was doing well, but I certainly knew when I had made a mistake, which seemed often. I knew I was a burden and a hindrance to her living the life she wanted. i knew that the sooner I figured out to do things for myself, the less disappointing I would be.

In Swimming, Hope

I've written often about how swimming changed my life. That's not an understatement. Although good coaches were few and far between, the best ones filled a hole that I desperately needed. Every hard set that I pushed myself through, a simple "good job" from coach healed me a little bit. 

The clock told its own story- as time flew off and I improved rapidly, I had more evidence. I was doing a good job, the hard work was paying off. 

Begging for rest

Just as I started to really get where with swimming, my sleep problems started. Looking back, it was hard for me to understand. I simply found myself laying in bed, my body exhausted but my mind racing.

Older has more perspective. The stress of life only builds through its first half- but I had no safe space, nowhere I could turn for help with the thoughts and feelings that were stressing me. I tried, like everything else, to go it alone. And I failed.

The lack of sleep was one factor on in stopping my progress in swimming for a while, which only led to vicious cycle, where I felt more and more stressed about how I was not "doing well". At one point I started forcing myself to swim bruising workouts on Sundays, especially at night after a disappointing meet, as a punishment for my poor performance. It didn't help.

Better, Than Worse Again

I was lucky to have two exceptional high school swim coaches, both of whom are still my friends today. By the end of high school I gave up club swimming, and through their nurturing and support, managed to move forward in swimming and feel more restful. I spent too much time at the pool, often showing up more than an hour early to practice. It felt a lot safer than home.

All that reverted terribly when I went to college. I found myself with a coach who saw my insecurity and how it could drive me to train harder. He saw that if he withheld any praise I would dig in harder, hoping against hope that he would see me. I spent two years training harder than I ever had, and getting slower.

In four years of college swimming, I was never late, never missed a practice. When I got sick, I would come in and train on my own so as to not get other's sick. It was at this time that I started to sleep truly terribly. I became a true insomniac- having some nights where didn't sleep at all.

A bandaid is better than just bleeding

I went to my doctor, and told them what was going on. At least, that I wasn't sleeping. I was prescribed medication to help me go to sleep. It worked, mostly, at least enough that I slept like a normal person, good some nights and bad others.

I don't blame my doctor for not digging deeper as to why I wasn't sleeping. I didn't give any indication that anything else was wrong. I presented as an otherwise healthy person who for some strange reason couldn't sleep at night. But all the things that kept me up at night where still there- my mind still raced when it needed to rest.

Getting to the bottom (of it)

I spent most of my adult life managing along in this way. I never dealt with the reasons why I didn't sleep, but I slept ok because I had a medication strong enough to overwhelm all of that and get me to rest.

At around the same time I started to even conceive this project, I knew that I would have to start working on the underlying issues for my restlessness sooner rather than later. And while I am still obviously struggling, here is what I have learned so far:

  1. It is important to recognize when you have done well. This goes both for mundane, continuous stuff, but also small one time things. One of the things that has always kept me up at night is the immense pressure I felt to be my best the following day. Everyone has bad days, but when you can't acknowledge your own good ones you're trapped.
  2. "Other people matter" The famous simple words of Chris Petersen. But in this context, it means that no one can just handle all their emotions, their stresses and anxieties. You need to have people to share them with that will help you to deal with them.
  3. Revisit areas of learned helplessness. At many points along this process, I have decided that I could never get better, that I was just a "poor sleeper", and that was that. That mindset is a block to ever getting better, and while redirecting it is a blog post of it's own, you should always evaluate what areas you have closed off for future improvement.

Baby Steps

Last week I took a vacation with my wife. No kid. I swam every day but without pressure, without a pace clock. I just felt the water and did what felt good. 

We did almost nothing. For the first time in my life I sat still by the pool and took some deep breaths. Although I was still awoken at night, I quickly fell back asleep. There was nothing pressing for me to do a good job on the following day.

Upon my return, I went back to the pool. Can you guess what happened?

I did 30x25 breaststroke, all of them on :15 seconds pace, for the first time ever.