Swimming Psychology

This blog article, “Swimming Psychology” is a 20 minute read by provisional psychologist Madalyn Incognito on the mental aspects of competitive swimming. Please enjoy and, as always, share responsibly.

Swimming Psychology can be the difference between good and great.

Swimming Psychology 101: Every Millisecond Counts

If there is one sport where every millisecond counts, it’s swimming. Often the difference between qualifying for a final, placing top 3 in an event, or being selected for an international team can come down to just milliseconds. This is especially true at the elite level. Because of this swimming is now at a point where taping into the mental aspects of performance has become widely accepted. Mental Toughness is an essential part of success, as a few milliseconds could mean the difference between achieving one’s dreams or missing out on them completely.

Despite this most competitive swimmers love the fact that their sport is objective in nature. First place is awarded to whoever touches the wall in the fastest time. There are no judges and no point system (such as with gymnastics or figure skating). If you are the fastest on the day, no one can take that away from you. However, this is also the hardest aspect of swimming too. Because success in the sport is so largely determined by results, swimmers often fall into the trap of focusing too much on outcomes. Where they’ll place in a heat or final or how close they are to making that national-open qualifying time are often front of mind. The consequence of this is that they forget about all the smaller processes required to improve and succeed. Swimming psychology being ones of these groups of processes.

Reflections of My Own Swimming Psychology

I myself was a competitive swimmer for many years. I remember being midway through a race once only to give up when I saw that I was falling behind the other swimmers. Looking back on this now, I realise that rather than focusing on the other swimmers and what they were doing, I should’ve been focusing on my race plan and sticking to this just the way I had practised in training in the lead up to the event. It’s challenging not to become caught up in where we’re ranked compared to the swimmers in the other lanes. But we need to have an understanding of what we have control or influence over, so that we can shift our focus from what we have minimal influence over (i.e. the other swimmers) back to what we have maximum influence over (i.e. my race plan). 

Swimming Psychology and “The Performance Funnel”

The sport psychologists and performance psychologists at Condor Performance have always been at the forefront of developing the most effective mental skills for performance enhancement since 2005. This year I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a subcommittee on the development of something that we hope will become mainstream in the coming years. It’s called The Performance Funnel.

The Performance Funnel is a concept that some of us use to assist our clients in understanding how crucial it is to separate processes from preferences (aka goals). When we talk about processes, we’re talking about the intentional actions and efforts we engage in. For example, in swimming, one’s race plan. We use the term preferences rather than goals as this accounts for the fact that engaging in all the correct processes will never guarantee the successes we want, rather it only increases the likelihood of them occurring.

Why Is This So Important For Better Swimming Psychology?

While we are more emotionally invested in our preferences or the outcome of a race, our level of influence over this is only small. We can’t hop out of the pool, run over to our timekeeper and hit stop on the clock so that we record the fastest time. What we can do however is employ the actions and processes we practise every day at training and execute them to the best of our ability. This is why during your mental training with one of the Condor Performance Psychologists only a small amount of time will be spent discussing past or future potential results. Most of the discussion will be focused on formulating ways to improve your execution of swimming-specific processes on race day. And one way that we can enhance our ability to be able to do this is through formulating and practising a race plan.

Sticking To A Race Plan

Whilst results are important indicators of improvement and where our performance is currently at compared to others, having a race plan encourages us to align our focus, set our expectations and base our confidence on the things we do in training every day. A race plan accounts for all the smaller processes that go into the race. For example, executing an efficient start, turn and finish, sticking to a pre-planned breathing pattern, and planning points at which to increase the speed of your kick and stroke rate and when to back off.

With a significant commitment to practice, many of these above actions can become second nature, therefore, minimising on day decision making.

As performance psychologists what we want to try and understand is what allows a swimmer to look back on their performance and confidently say that they gave it 100%? If their answer is predominately outcome-focused, for example, “I didn’t give it 100% because I didn’t win”, this is an issue. So, reframing their idea of a good performance so that it aligns with actions and effort becomes very useful. If their answer is “I know I gave it 100% because I swam the fastest I could”, well that’s great, but what processes allow you to do this? Was it because you executed the start, turn and finish with speed and accuracy? Was it because you stuck to your breathing pattern? Did an increase in your stroke rate at the correct times have something to do with it? 

What Do Process Driven Race Plans Look like?

For swimmers who do not already have a race plan, creating an action-based checklist is a great way to empower them both in preparation for a race and on race day. A race plan for 100m freestyle might look something like this:

  1. 8 x strong dolphins kicks off the start
  2. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  3. 4-6 breathing pattern on the first lap
  4. Speed up kick + increase stroke rate 10m out from the turn
  5. Head down 5m out from the turn 
  6. Turn with speed, 5 x dolphin kicks off the turn 
  7. Transition into fast flutter kick as you edge towards the surface allowing for smooth transition from underwater work to first stroke 
  8. Increase speed of kick at the beginning of the second lap, maintaining 4-6 breathing pattern
  9. Increase stroke rate to maximum at the 75m mark 
  10. Last breath at 15m out from the wall and head down for the finish
  11. Finish on a full stroke

Having the swimmer evaluate their performance in terms of what aspects of their race plan they did and did not adhere to provides them with an opportunity for genuine improvement. They either acknowledge that although they may not have achieved the outcome they’d hoped for they understand there’s nothing more they could have done. Or they recognise which aspects of the race plan they didn’t stick to, how this impacted their performance and make arrangements to correct this for next time. Having them focus on these processes before and during the race essentially gets their head out of the way. It allows their body to do what it knows how to do and encourages them to take ownership of their performance and come up with ways to improve it.

Using Visualisation to Practice your Race Plan

Many people outside of swimming don’t realise the level of strategic planning that goes into a race, particularly among the shorter distances (e.g. 50m, 100m, 200m) as the room for error is very minimal. The same way a dancer would rehearse their choreography, or a diver would practice their competition dives, swimmers practice their race plan at training to increase the likelihood that on race day they can stick to it. However, what separates swimmers from many other types of athletic performers is that they don’t always have access to the setting where their performance takes place – the pool. One way around this is through the mental rehearsal of their race plan, aka visualisation.

There’s a whole range of reasons why an athlete might engage in visualisation. The most common is for the practice effects it has on performance. Visualisation can take place from the 1st or 3rd person and is a mental process whereby the athlete uses imagery to rehearse the aspects of their performance “in their mind’s eye”. For a swimmer, this type of rehearsal would mirror their race plan and include when to take breaths, increase their stroke rate, change their stroke style and other processes which go into a race.

Did You Watch The Movie Cool Runnings?

Those of you who have seen the 1990’s movie classic Cool Runnings will know what visualisation looks like when you think about the scene in the bathtub. (If you haven’t seen it go and watch it and look out for the scene in the bathtub).

However, a swimmer who only visualises the ideal parts of their performance is setting themselves up for a hard time on race day. There are more physiological variables at play for the longer races. These include muscular fatigue and lactic acid build-up. It’s really important to incorporate these physiological barriers into a visualisation routine so that we know how to respond to them if they occur on race day. Visualising possible barriers to performance, when they’re likely to occur and how you will respond to them will increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to overcome these barriers to performance on race day, as they will have been part of your rehearsed race plan.

In Swimming, You Always Race How You Train

What makes race plan rehearsal so important, whether it’s in the pool or through visualisation, is that with fatigue our attention, concentration and focus deteriorates. When this happens our chances of sticking to our race plan also deteriorate as doing this requires mental effort, leaving us with only physical strength and stamina to rely on to get us to the finish line. But who would want to limit themselves to utilising only the physical aspects of performance when we have the opportunity to use this in conjunction with mental toughness?

In swimming, you will race how you train. If you practice your race plan during and away from training, it becomes muscle memory just like any other skill. Over time, the processes become more automated and require less mental resources to execute, and in the last 25m, this will make all the difference. 

If you are a competitive swimmer or swim coach and would like to expand on these ideas and improve your Swimming Psychology then Madalyn is available for private coaching either in person in Sydney (NSW, Australia) or via Webcam for those physically located elsewhere. The best way to start the process is by filling in this short enquiry form and mentioning your preference to work with “Madalyn Incognito” due to her background in swimming.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn spent most of her teenage years training and competing at the national level in swimming. After committing to the sport at the age of 12, she spent the next few years competing all around the country in her main events, which included 50m/100m/200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m/200m butterfly. She has also been heavily involved in the Martial Arts sphere from a young age, training, competing and teaching various styles including Karate and Han Mu Do, as well as Muay Thai which she currently practises. Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.