You might recognize some of the things that happen in those moments before you step up on the blocks before a big race:
- Legs and arms pumping and swinging at 300bpm.
- Rush to get behind the blocks, wait for an hour.
- Thirsty dry mouth.
- Tummy feels like it is doing the Indy 500.
- Check your suit strings 185 times.
- “What heat is this?”
- Suction and re-suction your goggles into your face over and over.
- Fixate on that one practice, three weeks ago, where you bombed the main set.
And of course…
- That nearly constant urge to pee.
Ever been so nervous you’ve peed yourself before a race?
Summer Sanders has.
At the 1990 Goodwill Games, Sanders was going to be racing the dominant distance swimmer of the time, 3-time Olympic champion Janet Evans.
The 400m individual medley.
An event Evans had crushed the world two years earlier at the Olympics.
For Sanders, the pre-race nerves were off-the-charts.
“Every five minutes I had to rush off and pee,” said Sanders.
Marching out of the ready room, Sanders, Evans and the rest of the finalists made their way behind their respective starting blocks.
The pre-race nerves for Sanders were at full-throttle.
The introductions began, each swimmer’s name, nationality, and brief history were read out.
That sudden, almost overwhelming urge to pee once again struck Sanders.
With no time to dart off and find a bathroom, she made an executive decision: She would let out just a little bit into the gutter beside the starting block.
She knelt down and started splashing herself like crazy to cover up what she was doing.
“I thought I’d let out just a little. But I didn’t have that kind of control; I couldn’t stop,” Sanders wrote in her auto-biography, Champions are Made, Not Born (Amazon).
Now, you can imagine the panic and horror of a moment like this.
There are thousands of people in the stands.
A televised audience of millions.
And you are about to race your idol.
But as Sanders, uh, finished up, the whole moment seemed a little… comical.
“I’d been so stressed about competing against Janet Evans that relaxing my control like that was a grounding moment,” she said.
Nerves don’t mean anything until you give them meaning.
The lesson here maybe isn’t that you should pee in the gutter in the moments before your races.
But that pre-race nerves are something that happen to everyone, including future Olympic champions.
(Sanders would win four medals at the Barcelona Olympics two years later, including gold in the 200m butterfly and bronze in the 400m individual medley.)
Pre-race nerves, while they can make us feel like we are not in control, can make us feel like we are going to hurl our guts out and pee our tech suit, are actually there to help you out.
Pre-race nerves are a sign that big things are about to happen.
This was something that Sanders learned.
How you interpret pre-race nerves are the difference between you using them to swim fast and tensing up and choking.
“Nerves are not a sign of anything until you give them meaning,” said Sanders. “I never interpreted my trembling or constant need to pee as a sign of unreadiness; that wouldn’t have made sense, because I was ready. I’d gone to every practice, pushed myself to the max at every opportunity, put myself to challenges outside the pool as well as in it.”
Putting a positive spin on pre-race nerves
Here are some quick things you can do to ride the lightning of pre-race nerves to faster swimming.
- Adopt a challenge-based mindset. “I wonder what I can do here” vs. “What will happen if I fail?” Framing performance anxiety with a challenge-based mindset has been shown to boost performance.
- Remind yourself that pre-race nerves are part of the deal. Suppressing pre-race nerves usually results in tightening up and choking. Stop resisting them and remind yourself that the shakes and the peeing are a normal biological function.
- Use affirmations in the days and weeks leading up to competition. Write out some simple phrases and self-affirmations on an index card and read them to yourself each day: “Pre-race nerves mean I am ready to swim fast!”, “I enjoy competing and the adrenaline that comes with it!”, etc.
Try these out before your next swim meet, and let me know how it goes!
More Stuff Like This:
The Swimmer’s Guide to Performance Anxiety and Pre-Race Butterflies. Here’s what swimmers need to know about what kind of mindset they should use when dealing with performance anxiety and pre-race nerves.
How to Build a Killer Pre-Race Routine to Dominate Race Day. Ready to smash some PB’s? Here’s how to build a legendary pre-race routine so that you are locked in on race day.