I recently swam in the British masters swimming championships and thought I’d share my reflections, from a psychological perspective.
First up, it was a very successful meet for me. Competing in the 40-44 year old age group for the first time, I won gold in the 50, 100 and 200m breaststroke, and broke the British Record in the 200 (2.26.19).
My first reflection is on the nature of success. Of course, I was delighted and proud to have broken the British record. I’ve never achieved this before, and the record was a pretty tough one, having had 3 seconds taken off it last year (previously it stood for around 12 years).
However, medals and records are outcomes, and anyone who has had exposure to sport psychology will know that we can’t control outcomes. When all the excitement settles down, what really matters is performance. I was really happy with the way that I executed my 200m breast, which is what I was focused on entirely. I was well prepared – as fit as I’d been in a good few years and my taper had gone well. I’d resisted the temptation to join in a couple of good nights out with friends, and felt good. I never swim as fast in training, or untapered, as I swim at Nationals, so it’s hard to really gauge progress. However, I knew the stroke count and tempo that I wanted, and was prepared for the pain (I’ll come back to that), and I swam it as planned, despite a couple of potential distractions. One, was my draw in the outside lane. I wasn’t overly happy about that, but was determined not to let it be a factor. Two, the new rule that (inexplicably) does not allow your hands to be touching each other at the turn. I was concerned about that, but a quick ‘check in’ on the first couple of turns was enough to make sure that I was OK.
My 100 breast was a lifetime best (66.62). I quit swimming at 18, and while I was never quite an ‘elite’ or ‘world class’ swimmer, I was a national junior champion in Scotland and spent four years in national squads. So, to do a lifetime best at 40 made me incredibly proud. A message for youth swimmers is that part of the reason for this is that I never quite learned to execute the 100m as a youth. At 40 I executed it very well, though as this video will show (I’m in lane 5, red hat), my start left something to be desired. More ‘naturally’ suited to the 200m, I didn’t quite trust myself to swim my own way in the 100m, didn’t quite have the self-belief over the shorter distance, and rushed my stroke.
In the 50m, although not quite a PB, I was pleased to have been put under direct pressure by a competitor and to have held my stroke together to take the win.
So, three different races, with different challenges – and psychologically very different.
200m – Facing up to pain and dealing with anxiety
As a 40 year old who works and has a family, I don’t ever quite do ‘enough’ training for the 200m breast. As those breaststrokers among you will know, it is one of swimming’s more ‘horrible’ events. Over the years, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have fully committed to the 200, rather than undercooking it. I find at my age, I don’t have the ‘gears’ that I did as a youth, so if I start slow, I finish slow too.
My challenge over 200m is facing up to the pain. After 6 years of masters swimming, I think that I now do that pretty consistently. The fear of physical pain is one of many thinks that creates an anxiety response to physiological arousal. So, as a swimmer, you need to make a bit of a choice. Do I try to manage my thoughts so that I can keep my arousal levels where I need them to have a good swim, or do I manage my arousal levels downwards. The latter approach creates the risk of ‘not getting out there’ quickly enough. So, before my 200m, I kept active, and tried to stay focused on tempo and length, the key factors for my performance. I also shared a bit of a joke with some other swimmers – but you have to respect their preparation, and be prepared to leave them alone! A lot of coaches will frown upon ‘joking around’ before swims and expect you to be serious, but staying in a ‘playful’ state can be highly beneficial to performance – as long as you can focus on the right things at the right time.
What was really interesting to note, was that as we were waiting for our race, me and the guys that I was with kept forgetting which heat we were on and how many were left. This is a sign of anxiety – and the narrowing of attention that goes with it means that it can be difficult to hold even basic information!
50 and 100m – Trust and ‘letting go’
Here’s an ‘interesting’ fact about my two shorter swims. In the 50m, I swam 31.30 and took 10 & 12 strokes per length. In the 100m, my 50 split was 31.47 and I took 7 & 8 strokes.. I also started badly in the 100, as the video shows (which may also be true of the 50, but it is less obvious). I still try too hard over 50m. That might sound counterintuitive to some of you, but it’s true. I haven’t quite managed that level of trust and self-belief that I’ve managed to get into my 100m, so I ‘over-rev’. Just a little, but I’m sure any coaches would agree that an additional 50% effort (on the basis of stroke count) would otherwise provide more than a tiny gain in time.
In the 100m, although there’s some pain, it is very short-lived (versus the whole of the last 50m in the 200!). I was aware of my closest competitor’s time (as he was two heats before me), but I was unconcerned about the result. Of course I wanted to win, but I was only concerned with my own performance. I knew how I wanted to swim, and just had to trust the process. The ‘process’ meant not only how I would swim the race (mostly tempo and length), but my physical preparation too. Of course, I was on a bit of a high from breaking the record in the 200m the previous day, but that could also have been a distraction. Perhaps it also helped that I knew that the British record was probably a bit beyond me in the 100 (I was 0.9 off it in the end) and I was not thinking about that. I was confident, but rather than it coming from having a record or two gold medals at that point, it was from knowing that I was in good shape and was ready to swim well. There’s no substitute for preparation…
Well, that was a little longer than I’d planned it to be, but I hope that it’s useful – not only for other masters swimmers but for younger swimmers to. To recap, here are some key themes:
The performance is more important than the outcome
- Therefore, focus on the performance, and the key elements of the performance (known as ‘process’)
- Anxiety is normal – you can manage it by managing your thoughts, or by managing your arousal levels, but you need to be at the right level of ‘activation’ for your own swim
- Don’t forget to enjoy the experience, and sharing a joke can help – as long as you are not distracted or distracting anyone else
- Preparation builds confidence, and confidence (or self-belief) helps you to trust yourself and ‘let go’
- At 15, 18 or 25 you an still have a lot to learn about performing, and give yourself a break if it isn’t all going perfectly to plan when you are young and have time on your side!