One of my absolute favorite parts of championship meets are the warm-ups.
The atmosphere is thick with anticipation and excitement. Loud music rattles the backstroke flags.
These were the moments where I would get an electric charge of the good kind of butterflies. The stray hairs that I missed while shaving down would stand on end. My legs pumping, I could almost taste the adrenaline.
It was awesome.
As I stood at the end of the lane, waiting for a gap in swimmers to jump in, it was impossible not to feel fully fired up when Guns ‘n Roses Welcome to the Jungle is making dust fall from the rafters.
Moments like these, getting psyched up and swimming fast comes pretty easily.
But then there are the other moments, when you aren’t riding the lightning of adrenaline. The times where you need the pick-me up of energy and focus that comes from being properly and thoroughly psyched up:
- Your stroke is off, you feel kind of lousy in the water, and you need to get back into a positive and aggressive state of mind.
- Maybe it’s a sleepy morning session and they are playing easy contemporary slow jams during warm-up.
- You could be at a low pressure meet, where the things you need to do (qualify for nationals) are at odds with the level of your competition (making it to the other end of the pool).
- You are racing an off-event that has no implications for you and your career.
- Your relay team is so far behind that you may feel more inclined to mail in your effort.
- It’s the final day of a five day meet, and you are worn-out and sore.
Whatever the case, there are ways that you can turn up the intensity so that you can get yourself in a position to perform at the peak of your abilities.
Here are some proven ways that you can get yourself all sorts of psyched up when it matters:
Build a playlist to get you in the mood to throw down.
Having a rocking playlist has long been a standard motivational and psych-up technique of countless swimmers. It’s no surprise that a majority of swimmers behind the blocks before races are wearing headphones right up until the last possible moment.
Music does a lot of things, including distracting ourselves (when you are singing along to a track you are less distracted by thoughts of anxiety and pain), regulates the stress of competition by reducing cortisol, and can even boost mood and confidence.
One study found that listening to music caused perceived effort to go down by 12%  while endurance increased by 15%.
You know the songs that get you fired up, so put together a playlist to use before big practices and races. Leaning on a particular set of songs will help condition your brain and body for peak performance.
Use external self-talk to get psyched
The way you talk to yourself before and during big moments play a role in how you end up performing. If you walk out onto the pool deck telling yourself things like, “Well, I don’t think I will swim well, but I hope I do” it’s unlikely that you are going to randomly produce a fast swim.
Using vague, motivational self-talk in the moments where you need to unleash a max effort can help you get into the proper mindset. Caeleb Dressel, American sprint dynamo, uses external self-talk right before his races (“Let’s go!”) to lock in his focus and psych himself up.
Use a variation of this type of motivational self-talk every time you are about to do a high-intensity effort in practice so that when you use it in competition your body automagically gets primed for some high-performance swimming.
Remember, keep your motivational self-talk simple, vague, and positive: Let’s go! Go time! Let’s do this! You got this!
Get angry to take control and get focused
A little discussed way to get fired up and energized is to get angry. Yeah, I know—there is a big ugly side to unrestrained, unfocused anger. The kind that is petulant, messy and loud. But that’s not what we are talking about.
Tom Jager, one of the legends of the sport and the first man to break 22 seconds in the 50m freestyle, used to lather himself up into a rage before his races. He would pace like a lion behind the block, splash water all over the place, slap his face, and huff and puff loudly. He used anger to focus.
When Michael Phelps lost the “Race of the Century” at the Athens Olympics, he used placing third behind Ian Thorpe and Pieter Van Den Hoogenband as rage-fuel to swim harder and faster.
“I hate losing,” he said in an interview during the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “When I do lose in a race like that… it motivates me even more to try and swim faster.”
Anger, for all the negative attention it gets, can be used for good. It’s an empowering emotion (which can be excellent for getting a handle on out-of-control pre-race nerves) that gives you a surge of energy and focus.
Get angry! Get focused! Get fast!
Physically warm yourself up
Something funny happens at swim meets: swimmers will skim through their warm-up, sit on cold metal bleachers for a couple hours not moving, and then be surprised that they swim slow after only doing a couple quick arm swings.
Being mentally ready includes doing a proper and thorough warm-up. The physical warm-up isn’t separate from what is happening between your ears.
Notice how there are days at swim practice you are tired and a touch unmotivated, but after getting into the swing of things in the main set you start to feel a little more energized and motivated? Don’t underestimate the power of being warmed-up and in motion.
If you feel your intensity lagging, get moving!
For all of the importance that we place on breathing (both in the water and in, you know, living), we don’t think about it all that much. Although deep, measured breaths can be helpful when we are too wound up and need to relax, taking a few sharp exhales primes your body and brain for a higher level of intensity.
When watching Nathan Adrian behind the blocks, you always see him engaged in this kind of breathing in the moments before he stands up on the block. A couple quick sharp breaths right as he is about to race.
Intense breathing is the perfect compliment to your racing and training because it is something you can do anywhere, anytime, and gives your system an almost immediate shot of intensity. You don’t need to huff and puff for minutes on end to make it effective—just a couple quick blasts of air and off we go.
High-energy body language
Cesar Cielo, Brazilian sprint legend and world record holder in the 50 and 100m freestyles popularized an intensity booster that even age groupers use now: chest and muscle slapping.
What slapping the crap out of yourself achieves is not clear. Although it does increase blood flow (hence the pinkness of your skin), there is only anecdotal information for its effectiveness. Ultimately, it is part of your routine, and if you feel it works, then that is what matters more than how many double-blind, peer-reviewed studies there are on the topic of high-fiving your body before you get up on the block.
You don’t need to slap yourself silly to put this to use. Before high-intensity efforts I used to pound my chest with a closed fist once. More than doing anything in a purely physical sense, it served as a signal that it was smashy-smash time.
Use visualization to groove the performance you want
Another way to get fired up and improve performance is through the use of visualization.
One of my favorite studies on the topic took a group of track sprinters and had them do a series of all-out efforts under a few different conditions, including visualization (picturing how they wanted to run and themselves being successful), traditional psych-up talk, and a couple control conditions.
When the sprinters used psych-up talk they were faster than the control groups. But when they used imagery in the 30 seconds before they executed their sprints, they performed even better.
Visualization works wonders on a few different levels. When you mentally rehearse yourself being successful you are laying the ground tracks for success and giving yourself a sense of what it’s like to be successful. Because the brain has difficulty differentiating imagined and real experiences, you are giving yourself a taste of crushing it. Which, as you can guess, is going to get you psyched-up.
Intensity is a weapon—use accordingly.
Use these tips appropriately. If you get yourself worked up to level 10 before every single rep of every set of every workout, you are going to get mentally fried.
A lot of the research on psych-up techniques shows that length of time you are spending psyching yourself up doesn’t play too much of a role in final performance.
So for example, if you don’t race until 8pm, you might not want to be pacing around your hotel room at 5:30am blasting Guns n Roses Welcome to the Jungle, screaming at your mirror and slapping your pecs until they are a deep reddish hue.
Similarly, use intensity according to the situation. If you are about to start a long endurance workout, getting yourself fully wired up will typically see you crashing. Save the upper levels of your intensity for max efforts.
High-intensity effort (sprint and power activity): crank it up! Low intensity effort (recovery workout, endurance event): use a relaxed focus and intensity. Math!
Use your psych-up strategies tactically, learn what works best, and apply it to your training and racing environments moving forward. Doing so will give you a set of tools that you can use to dial up or dial down your intensity and performance on command.
More Stuff Like This:
Bring the Pain: Dealing with the Agony of Hard Swim Practices and Races.Stick getting overly worked up about how hard those sets and practices are going to be? Here are some more tips and strategies to navigate the discomfort.
How to Prepare for the Moments in the Pool When Things *Really* Hurt. We all experience it at one point or another in training and competition: the moment where our shoulders and legs lock up and we die. Here’s how to be mentally prepared to conquer that moment.
Image Credit: Chris Schmid Photography