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The Swimmer’s Guide to Performance Anxiety and Pre-Race Butterflies

It’s Friday morning, you kick the sheets off your freshly shaved-down legs, and you jump out of bed. Take a deep pull of air and exhale. Today is gonna be a good day.

On these special mornings, the mornings you wake up knowing that later in the day you are going to swim faster than you ever have, things just feel different.

There’s something in the air that smells of possibility, a lightness in your feet, and a surge in your mojo that comes from being rested and sharpened for battle after being bludgeoned over months of hard training.

Today is the day that you step up on the block and let all that hard work rip.

The very thought of racing causes your heart rate to pick up, the butterflies begin flapping a little harder, and flashes of crushing your PB’s and the competition explode across your mind.

As the countdown to your race marches on, the intensity of the performance anxiety increases.

The physical symptoms include shallow breathing, increased heart rate, a slight tremble in your hands, lips and knees, sweaty palms, and maybe even a touch of nausea (maybe crushing those 7-11 burritos last night wasn’t such a bright idea…).

Mentally, you try your best to be calm, but you’d be lying if there wasn’t some doubt sprinkled in there. Fear of being perceived poorly by teammates, coaches, maybe even your parents. Your focus narrows. And while you try to stay locked in on doing the things you need to do, there is a strong pull to rushing through the moment as quickly as possible.

Pre-race nerves affect us each a little differently and they vary in intensity depending on the circumstances surrounding the performance. Your pre-race nerves at a mid-season meet, racing an off event, won’t be the same as when you are racing for gold at a championship meet.

Swimmers tend to have a muddied take on pre-race nerves.

That it’s something to be quashed, overcome, and that it’s generally a bad thing.

The “problem” with pre-race nerves isn’t that you are experiencing them, it’s the mental and emotional way you deal with them.

The trick to swimming fast when you are nervous isn’t eliminating anxiety, it’s using it.

Riding the anxiety lightning

Swimmers will often get advice like, “Hey, don’t freak out, man. Just relax!” which doesn’t help or work. It tells the athlete that anxiety and stress can be eliminated. That what they are experiencing is wrong, dysfunctional, and needs to be suppressed.

But stress and anxiety are primary warning signals that our brain will continue to give priority attention.

No matter how hard you try to rationalize them away or shoo them out of your brain, they will over-ride everything. It’s like that error message that your computer keeps honking at you, no matter how many times you click “OK” or close the message window.

The frustrating reality of stress and anxiety is that the harder you try to suppress the anxiety, the more you end up focusing on it. This causes a downward spiral where we feel the anxiety, interpret it as something bad, try with limited success to eliminate it, and then feel powerless when it gets worse.

The frustration and powerlessness translates into behaviors that end up causing our performance to crater:

  • We obsess over what other swimmers are doing.
  • We bypass our pre-race routine to speed things up.
  • We rush through our preparation, wanting to get it over with.

These understandable responses to the stress of performance anxiety are typical, but ultimately not helpful in using those pre-race nerves for good and swimming our best.

So if trying to squash performance nerves is only going to backfire on us, but the physical symptoms help us swim faster, what in the chlorinated name of backstroke flags are we supposed to do?

What’s the right mindset for managing butterflies?

A lot of the advice around dealing with pre-race nerves revolves around finding a place of calm and relaxation. Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness training, journaling, visualization, and so on.

For the athlete that is way too wound up, these things can be profoundly helpful. But believe it or not, complete calmness and suppression of the physical effects of performance anxiety should not be your goal before competition.

The anxiety, butterflies and arousal all serve a purpose—they are priming you for battle. Pre-race nerves and butterflies help you swim faster.

Just like your paddles or fins, performance anxiety comes in a few different sizes and shapes. There are three that you should know about, and if you have spent any time competing at all, I bet you will recognize each of them in your swimming history.

#1: Challenge mindset

The first state we are going to look at is the optimal one. It’s the challenge mindset. Essentially, a challenge mindset means you view the upcoming competition/race-super-impossible-set as a challenge. An opportunity to prove yourself.

When you are realistically and seriously confident about how you are going to swim, those nerves seem to be automagically interpreted correctly. They are “good” nerves. We feel aggressive with our effort and take on the difficulty of the moment as a challenge.

#2: Threat mindset

We all know and loathe this one. You know, when the nerves get the best of you. When you get swept away by them and feel powerless to rein them in.

You find yourself mesmerized by what the competition is doing, all the people in the stands, and the do-or-die expectations that you place on yourself that makes the nerves feel more threatening than performance-boosting.

A threat mindset means we start thinking defensively. We are more prone to choking in this mindset.

#3: Overly calm

Even though the other two mindsets seem particularly familiar, there is a third response to performance anxiety. It’s when you have a minimal amount of butterflies or physical response to competition.

Maybe it’s an in-season meet and you are exhausted from a hard block of training and you have no speed, the pool is a little rec center with starting blocks that don’t have wedges, and your competition are kids who are still learning to swim.

Whatever the case, you are so calm, possibly to the point of not caring, that you miss out on a lot of the physical awesomeness that comes from having more optimal levels of anxiety and nerves, like added blood flow, non-essential systems shutting down, heightened focus, and so on.

You aren’t all that nervous or excited. You’re kind of, just, whatever.

How do the mindsets perform?

Did you recognize moments in your racing history where you dipped your toes into each one of these mindsets?

Now, these three anxiety states might just all wash together in your eyes. Does it really matter? Does it make a difference on performance how anxious you feel?

As you can guess, some research on the topic shows that yes, it can have a very real effect on performance.

A recent study [1] took a group of elite soccer players and measured cardiovascular output before a big soccer match. The players listened to a recording detailing the importance of the match, how demanding the match would be, and how critical the game would be to the player’s career.

As the players sat there, they were wired up to see what kind of physical response they were having before the game. By measuring cardiovascular output as it related to total peripheral resistance researchers could see if the soccer players were having a challenge or threat response prior to the match.

Once the match wrapped up, each player provided an evaluation of their performance on a scale of 1-100, with their coach also scoring the athlete’s performance.

As you can probably guess, when players had a “challenge” mindset before the game, they scored highest. Coming in second were the players who had a more “threat” response to competition.

And pulling up the rear were those who were the most calm. The players who had a limited physical response (aka lowest amount of butterflies) actually scored the poorest.

The Takeaways for Swimmers

Pre-race nerves and butterflies are not to be feared. They aren’t to be squashed or eliminated. (We know how that ends up.)

They are performance enhancers, something to use to help you swim faster than you ever have before.

Yes, they can feel unpleasant, weird and like you are on the brink of hurling your lunch across the pool deck, but they are there to help!

The key is to redirect your mindset towards a challenge footing.

Here are some ways you can do this:


Image credit: J.C. Mouton

Cheers to Dr. Noa Kageyama at Bulletproof Musician for the inspiration and research for this post.

" Olivier Poirier-Leroy : Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer and the author of the books YourSwimBook and Conquer the Pool. He writes all things high-performance swimming, and his articles were read over 3 million times last year. His work has appeared on USA Swimming, SwimSwam, STACK, NBC Universal, and more. He's also kinda tall and can be found on Twitter.."