Mindfulness training is one of the best ways that swimmers can sharpen their mindset, reduce pressure, get in the zone, and have more fun while toiling away in the pool.
(Or dryland, as is more likely the case right now.)
That’s a pretty nice collection of perks from spending a few minutes a day focusing on your breathing!
If you are unsure of how powerful mindfulness can be, or you aren’t sure where to start, or feel like maybe it’s a bunch of “soft woo woo,” George Mumford’s book, “The Mindful Athlete,” is a great resource for swimmers who are on the fence with meditation and mindfulness.
The Mindful Athlete is one of my favorite all-time books for athletes, and is basically required reading for anyone who wants a clearer mindset. (And the faster swimming that comes along with it.)
Here are just some of the thing swimmers will take away from the book.
Where to Buy The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance
The power of visualization.
Swimmers visualize all sorts of stuff. We imagine our races, picture ourselves being successful (or not), imagine all sorts of scenarios and outcomes. The difference between elite swimmers and others is how organized and intentioned the visualization is performed.
Are you using visualization to increase confidence, or are you using it in a way that reinforces the lamest things you think about yourself and your swimming?
Olympic swimmers rely on visualization as part of their preparation. Michael Phelps used to visualize all possible outcomes so that he would be prepared for anything on race day. The stuff works.
When we visualize our performances, both the ones to come and the ones from the past, we are living them out. Our brains can’t tell the difference between an imagined or authentic experience.
Think about that for a moment.
Dwelling on a bad race means you are subjecting yourself to the same lousy emotions and thoughts over and over again. Focusing on a positive outcome, or visualizing a moment where you completely donkey-kicked a main set in the face, means you are rewiring your brain with the feelings that come with success, steadily building confidence and self-efficacy.
- “The brain doesn’t know the difference between what we think and what we experience. So if we imagine or think about something related to the past or the future, on some level we will experience that event—including all the emotions it provokes.”
- “When you get very still and focused on the present moment, and you recreate in your mind an experience that you want to recreate outside yourself (or outcome expectation)—you’re doing two things: you’re mentally rehearsing those things, and you’re also learning these things in your body. This is a very different kind of learning from the fitful, fretful focus on winning.”
Train your mindset like it’s a skill or muscle.
Mental training is usually treated like a band-aid or an overnight fix. Or like something to be used because you are “broken.” But working that mindset of yours is an integral part of your preparation and training, and not something to quickly address in moments of panic (like the night before a huge meet).
Make time each day work on the mental skills you want to improve. The mental is not separate from the physical. Make the time.
- “The mind is a muscle. You need to take care of it through daily practice. It’s that simple and that profound.”
Mindset stuff is harder to measure.
When you go to practice and competition, measuring improvement is fairly straight-forward.
Stroke rates. Stroke tempos. Volume. Resistance levels. Placings. Intervals. And of course, the time on the clock when you crash into the touch-pad on a wave of awesome.
But measuring your mindset is not clear. There is not really a clear benchmark to hold up and say with a clear voice, I am getting better. No A+’s, or PB’s, or gold medals.
- “One of the problems with practicing meditation and cultivating mindfulness and concentration is that you can’t see or measure them. People often say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work, I don’t see immediate results’ or ‘This is internal soft woo-woo stuff.’ But it’s like planting seeds. You don’t actually see them growing. When they first sprout, they are under the surface, invisible to the naked eye, but you know that with time and the proper attention and care, they will grow and bear fruit.”
Mindfulness teaches you the power of breathing.
How and when we breathe in the pool matters. Breathing patterns, not breathing during sprint events, hypoxic sets, and so on. Gulping down chlorinated air adequately should be a primary focus. And yet, it’s likely not something we probably think that much about, instead focusing on technique, strength, conditioning, “wanting it,” and so on.
Which is too bad, because breathing properly is the foundation of swimming well. Mumford notes that we have become a society of shallow breathers. And shallow breathing does not benefit us. Breathing properly also keeps you centered on yourself instead of getting distracted by what’s happening around you.
- “When we’re stressed, our breathing becomes even shallower, which makes us even more prone to stress.”
- “Concentration on the breath in the context of athletics helps you keep focused on what’s in front of you—ball, bat, oar, water, racquet—instead of on peripheral distractions.”
Epic stuff happens when we slow things down.
When you think back to all of your epic performances, whether it was a time you hammered a main set or dropped more time than expected in competition, did you notice that in the moment everything slowed down?
You didn’t feel panicked, rushed, frenzied. You were in the moment, in control.
Mindfulness training helps you find that sweet spot of control and calm, the eye of the hurricane, where you can ride the pre-race nerves and not get taken away by them. You get this superhuman ability to be aware of what is happening without getting carried away by the pressure, emotion, and expectations.
You’ve experienced it before, that weird, slow-motion state where you were crushing it without having to try super hard.
- “It is almost as if you step away from yourself and observe yourself in the moment… You stay with the experience of the emotion in the present moment by being aware of it rather than reacting to it and getting swept away by it.”
When you are in the zone, you are focused on the process and not the result, time slows down, you are fully engaged in the present moment, “the experience transcended the physical and the mental,” your performance goes up, and you feel a sense of how things are going to unfold without judging it.
Mindfulness keeps you present
How you practice matters. Seems like an obvious thing to say, but how quality can you say your training is?
Is every set, every lap, every stroke cycle done to the best of your ability? If your practices went from 7/10’s to 9/10’s, how much improvement do you think you would see on the old clock at the end of the season?
Mindfulness keeps you present, focused, and engaged in deliberate practice more regularly. Which means a whole bunch more 9’s in your training logbook. And a whole bunch more confidence and kick-buttedness on race day.
- “Mindfulness helps us stay in the present moment, focused on our purpose. When distractions or self-talk get in the way…mindfulness helps you look at those feelings with nonattachment, release them, and return your focus to the present moment and your deliberate practice.”
Where to Buy “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford
More Stuff Like This
Mindfulness for Swimmers: How to Stay Calm & Focused When It Matters Most. Here is a breakdown of how effective mindful practice can be for you in the water, including some tips for getting started.
How Swimmers Can Be More Present in the Pool. Being calm, focused, and present helps you swim faster. It’s as simple as that. Here’s how.