I was recently approached by a male senior swimmer ‘G’ who wanted help preparing for competition, because he was experiencing issues with anxiety and confidence, and losing time from starting the race feeling tense. The senior Nationals were around 6 weeks away and he wanted some help preparing for the event and races beyond.
It became apparent that there were a number of different phases during the run-up to the race that were presenting different challenges, with the effect that by the time G stood on the blocks his mind was full of doubt. We talked through the thoughts and feelings that he experienced in these, slowing things down. Some of the literature relating to pre-competitive anxiety appears to imply quite a static pre-competitive state (or something that changes with time), a swim meet is a very dynamic environment with different challenges, as you will see.
As a sprinter, G needed to feel sharp and energised, while relaxed. With that in mind, it was important to change G’s mental state, rather than trying to reduce his energy levels to become less anxious.
These phases were:
- A positive phase, in which he enjoyed being with team-mates and, indeed, being in the heart of the team. This kept his mind off competing.
- Physical warm up, and last words with his coach. Again, G was happy with this stage and felt relaxed and confident.
- Getting changed and ready to report for his race. During this phase, G started to feel rushed and out of control, even though he recognised on a rational level that he had plenty of time.
- Being in the holding pen. During this phase, of about 20 minutes ‘waiting time’ before between reporting and being summoned to race, G’s feelings of being out of control increased. He described being ‘imposed upon’, feeling ‘penned in’ and ‘intimidated’ by the presence of other swimmers. He questioned his right to be there.
- Walking to the blocks. Upon being called to race, G again described feeling rushed but, paradoxically, described the ‘long walk’ to the other end of the pool (for a 50m race).
- Behind the blocks to starting the race. By this point G felt out of control, anxious and again rushed as he undressed to race. As he stood by his block, his loss of confidence was summed up by his description of looking up seeing a very long 50m ahead of him.
We worked together on a phased plan to put G back in control and to help him feel confident and ready to swim fast.
The intervention was built around the phases that G found challenging and included:
Phase 1: Changing
We addressed this last, and indeed the solution was suggested entirely by G. This was simply to slow down and take the fully allotted time that he had given himself to change, which was 10 minutes, whether he needed it or not.
Phase 2: Holding Pen
There were two aspects to this Phase. The first was to mark out his own space using a towel, that he could ‘own’. The aim of this was to reduce the sense of being ‘penned in’.
The next was to reduce G’s focus on the other swimmers and the race ahead. This involved doing some focusing exercises that he practiced in advance of the meet. These included focusing in on different parts of his body, ‘scanning’ and just being aware of how he felt physically; and focusing in on his breathing.
G felt that the breathing exercises worked slightly better than the body exercises. However, the practice of switching from one to the other meant that he was not trying to maintain one kind of focus for 20 minutes, which may been too challenging and led to his mind starting to wander to less helpful things!
Phase 3: Walk to Start
During the walk another simple strategy was used. This was to determine the pace that G wanted to walk at and stick to it. In this respect music was an aid, with G walking to the beat of the music rather than feeling rushed or dictated to. I presented the option of more obviously ‘rebellious’ strategies (breaking stride, even taking a slight detour) but it was important to G to respect the other competitors and the process.
Phase 4: Pre-race
After getting to the starting end and undressing, G used a short routing to focus his mind in the way that he wanted to. This included a short visualisation of his start and breakout, with the emphasis on how he wanted to feel, which was smooth; and the use of a verbal cue to remind himself of this – “smooth”.
We set this plan up with a couple of weeks to go before the meet and G practiced it in a race practice situation. He felt good about the choice of strategies, that they were the right choices and that he could execute the plan on race day. However, G was also clear that this was not the end of the process but the beginning. If all didn’t go to plan on the day, he was comfortable that he would learn from it and adapt it going forward.
At the meet, G achieved a best time in his event. More importantly he enjoyed the experience more than he had previously, and felt confident leading into the race.
G was what I’d describe as an easy client. He was mature, intelligent, self-aware, took ideas on board very quickly and took ownership of the strategies that we worked upon. We were, therefore, able to achieve a significant change in a short period of time.
The process of slowing down the pre-race period and appreciating the different dynamics involved in each phase helped to create an effective intervention. From a theoretical and practical perspective it is important to recognise that in a relatively short period of time, conditions and the athlete’s mindset can change significantly, and to build an intervention that recognises this.
Another aspect of working with G is that I’ve not yet met him! G was the first client that I had worked with exclusively by video (Skype, in this case), phone and email. I hope to have the chance in the future, but this, and subsequent experiences, have helped to reassure me that while it is always helpful to be in the same room with a client, it is possible to have good interactions and outcomes using online methods of delivery.