When dealing with pre-race nerves, or stress before a big, brutal and certified not-awesome main set, the expectation most swimmers have is to rid themselves of the feelings of anxiety.
They put on a pair of boxing gloves and try to knock out the stress.
Whether it’s by breathing techniques (which can help a little), or telling themselves to toughen up (which usually makes things worse), swimmers work themselves into a frothy, anxious mess trying to feel less anxious.
Part of this is because they’ve been misled on anxiety and stress and its role in performance.
(“Stress is bad! Eliminate stress!”)
The truth is, the increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and the churning belly are normal.
It’s the way we have been framing that stress and anxiety is what has been causing us problems, not the stress and anxiety itself.
Here’s how some rational and non-delusional reframing can inspire much more productive responses to stressful situations, and allow us to get to work on swimming fast when it matters most.
Let’s dive right in!
The Whole “Stress is Bad” Thing
For a long time, our culture has demonized stress.
Everywhere you look there are solutions, books, and even courses to help you be less stressed out.
But taking something that is inevitable and normal and demonizing it means we have been approaching how to use the body’s physiological response to a stressful event in a completely backwards way.
By trying to rid ourselves of the symptoms that happen with pre-race nerves, we end up making things significantly worse than they would be otherwise.
I understand the temptation to try and eliminate stress and the uncomfortable feelings that come along with it.
But the response to stress actually gives us a lot of good stuff:
- Sharper focus. We zero in on the task at hand. More focus, less distractions!
- Increased heart rate. Blood flow starts moving faster, anticipating a physical challenge and priming our muscles.
- More blood to the brain. Nerves also send more blood to the brain, improving cognitive function, helping us be creative in solving problems.
- Faster breathing. We suck in more oxygen in preparation for a challenging moment.
And so on.
While extended, long-term stress is not good and can cause poor health outcomes, short-term stress responses are actually a resource and a pathway to improved performance.
Here’s some Science McScience on how to use stress like a champion for better racing performances and swimming better during those tough sets at practice.
The Research on Stress Appraisal
There is a growing body of research that shows just how powerful properly interpreting the stress response can be.
One study showed that a group of collegiate kids (over 330 in total) performed much better on math exams when they simply read a short paragraph on how stress and anxiety wasn’t something to worry about and that it could actually help them perform better.
Here was the paragraph:
People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance—people who feel anxious during a test actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that you arousal could be helping you do well.
Pretty innocuous, right?
The group who read the passage averaged a score of 770 on the math exam, while the control group, who were told to ignore the stress and anxiety they were feeling, averaged 706.
These improvements held up even months later1.
Further research looked to see if reappraisal affected the physiological response to stress.
A group of 50 participants2 were recruited and tasked with doing the Trier Social Stress Test (which is as stressful as it sounds—it includes a short oral presentation about their own strength and weaknesses followed immediately by an arithmetic test).
The participants were separated into two groups:
- The intervention group were told that arousal could be beneficial, wasn’t usually harmful, and could help them perform better.
- The control group were told to try and shut down any feelings or thoughts of anxiety.
While both groups had a lot of the earmarks of stress: racing heart and anxious feelings, the intervention group had a significantly better cardiovascular response.
Blood flow was more efficiently moving around the body (including the brain, which accounts for the increased cognitive performance in the math test study we just looked at).
The control group, on the other hand, felt constricted and tense.
If that sounds like the difference between performing and choking, you would be correct!
What Reframing Anxiety Is Not
Of all of the maxims I heard on the pool deck growing up and to this day, there are fewer that rankle my swim cap more than hearing a swimmer be told “Get over it” or “Toughen up” in the moments they are feeling pre-race nerves and their confidence is wobbly.
These pieces of advice, ostensibly from a good place, are unhelpful and completely miss the point when it comes to dealing with stress.
Elite performance, both on race day and in practice, happens when an athlete works with what they have instead of trying to fight what they are experiencing.
Trying to suppress stress and anxiety is like trying to stop an avalanche.
You can yell and stomp your feet at it, but it’s just going to bury you.
Instead, ride that thing all the way down the mountain.
You cannot out-fight or smother the body’s physiological and completely natural response to stress.
The harder you try and stop it, the more frustrated and hopeless you feel, and instead of being energized from the nerves and stress, you are left tense and wildly wound-up.
The research mentioned earlier found that students who were told to ignore stress and to block it out (engaging in something called “stress avoidance”) saw their performance continue to decline over time.
In other words, “getting over it” won’t help you swim faster, and if anything, will just make things worse.
Putting It Into (Swim) Practice
The goal with stress reappraisal isn’t to rid yourself of the feelings of stress and anxiety.
It’s to change your outlook and interpretation of anxiety.
And the good news is that you aren’t trying to trick or delude yourself.
Here are a couple ways that you can start putting this into practice for yourself:
Look back to moments where you crushed it in high-pressure situations.
Think back to the times where the pressure is on, and yet, you thrived.
What was your mindset like?
You were nervous, but you appreciated that the nerves were helping you focus and perform better.
The cool thing about interpreting stress in a healthy way is that you’ve already got the track record of having done it!
All you need to do is draw from those experiences for future performances.
Key in on the language you use when stress works for you.
Some research with students prior to a math test found that simply saying “I’m excited” versus “I’m anxious” showed that the simple twist in language yielded significant improvements in test scores.
Using smarter language allows you to take control of the narrative and puts you in the driver’s seat.
- “I’m excited.” vs “I’m anxious.”
- “I get to do this.” vs “I have to do this.”
- “This could be good for me.” vs “This is going to be bad for me.”
The language differences are subtle, but when your body is on red alert, emotions are running high, and that personal best time is on the line, a little bit of framing can go a long way.
The Bottom Line
Swimming fast isn’t all that complicated, when you break it down to its simplest parts.
Get to the other side of the pool and back as fast as you can.
But we tend to over-complicate things and even make things worse by using strategies that don’t work.
Properly framing stress and anxiety is something simple that you can start doing today to channel the energized state that comes with facing down a big challenge.
Use that energy, swim your little heart out, and tell those personal best times who is boss.
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