Let's Get Mental!

By Maurice Culley – September 5, 2012

That doesn’t sound like a very catchy song title, does it? In 1981, Olivia Newton-John came out with a hit song called (Let’s Get) Physical, but she never got around to our version. How come? The original song was designed to motivate people to get fit and work on their self-image while becoming healthier adults. A lot has happened since 1981, and people are not getting fit just for health reasons. They are getting fit in order to become more competitive, more successful athletes, and they want to improve their fitness while also participating in timed events. Adults are often too busy and lacking in motivation to attend classes offered at a gym, and so they require a challenge. The health craze that started back in the ’80s has transformed into serious training for performance gains as folks are looking more and more at how they perform in these events, while letting improved fitness become the side effect and not the main focus.

The number of individuals signing up for triathlon events has gone up as much as 25 percent every year for the last ten years. Athletes are keeping more regimented training schedules, getting more sophisticated equipment, and paying for coaching programs. Most triathletes handle the running and cycling training pretty well on their own, but I meet many who are frustrated with the swimming side of things. Part of this is due to lack of skill in the sport but another part is lack in athletic background with experience that then feeds the mental side of the sport. An adult who was a swimmer for multiple seasons in high school or college will have experienced the peaks, valleys, and plateaus that come with this sometimes-frustrating sport.

Why can swimming be so frustrating anyway? I tend to see a lot of the mental symptoms that cause people to shy away from the training. People often experience one or more of the following: worry, doubt, lack of concentration, images of failure, and decreased confidence and mental acuity. What causes these? Well…let me start by pointing out a few things that make the sport of swimming unique. First, there is the issue of getting into water that may be colder than we might like…a balmy 90 degrees is more my style! How about being caged into a 25-meter-long by six-feet-wide lane, staring at a line on the bottom of the pool as the only visual to keep things exciting? The social aspect is also minimal, as people can only chat between swimming sets (I personally like to be able to say something sarcastic at least every minute or so during training). Swimmers can find it hard to know whether they are even doing things correctly while trying to get enough oxygen to avoid passing out. The swimming sets don’t really get very interesting as they are usually a bunch of repeats of 100, 200, 300 and up. How creative can someone get with that? Driving all the way to a facility and then having limited swim time can get really old. Consistency can be very erratic from workout to workout. Some may even experience the feeling of starting from scratch if they’ve missed a week or two due to travel or busy schedules.

Maybe you have experienced all of these frustrations at some point or another. Experience and time will help you deal with these issues but I’m going to give you some quick and simple tips to help you work on the mental side of things along the way. Why? Most adults give up on swim training within about two to three months, and most of those lose their motivation due to lack of the mental preparation needed to keep things going. Only 15 percent of triathletes train in swimming for the entire year. If performance is your goal, then this needs to change.

Work on goal setting with themes. 

You might say, “No kidding; goal setting is what I do in all the stuff I train for!” True, but the kind of goals you set are more important than just completing them by a certain date. You might have to break them down so that you can achieve smaller goals to keep yourself motivated on a daily or weekly basis. I also recommend that you work on a different theme every week of the month or training cycle. If you use a month as your training cycle, then you’ll have four different themes. If you use a different training cycle, you might have to switch it up accordingly. A theme may be as simple as just defining what you are going to work on. The following themes yield proven results: technique work (bio-mechanics), distance per stroke (efficiency), body balance awareness (fundamentals), and pacing/effort maintenance (heart rate control). Whether you are getting coached or following some sort of plan, you should have the challenge of doing these themes on top of the workout you are completing. For an entire week, you’ll keep that theme in mind, no matter what the workouts might be. Having these goals in the background will help you focus on what you are trying to achieve rather than on the mental issues that keep you from going.

Strengthen your self-image. 

The nature of athletics also involves the mental side of self-image. It is natural to sometimes have the feeling of failing instead of conquering. You might notice it as negative thoughts on the drive to practice or training. This is okay as long as you don’t let the negative thoughts start taking over. Confronting those thoughts head-on is important if performance gains are your focus. As mentioned earlier, swimming comes with a lot of inconsistencies (peaks, valleys, and plateaus). When training becomes scarce and performance goes down, we tend to become unhappy with the sport and to shy away from it for fear of failing. Change your outlook and lower your expectations when you are going through this phase. The types of sets that you do or how you handle a practice are very important when you have not been consistent. Be sure to set realistic expectations when you are getting back into things. If you have fallen off, give yourself sets where you know you will have success. Conquer these realistic sets first—don’t let yourself fail during times when you are having a low spell in your training. Get that confidence back up and don’t let the downward spiral continue. If you are in a training program, talk to your coach so that he/she knows you are going through this phase. Your coach will help you with these expectations and get you back on track with realistic goals to make sure you start conquering sets again. Those of you with high-performance goals will experience training getting much more difficult. While training should get harder, it should not be impossible. Remember: some workouts are designed to make you fail but this should not last for longer than two or three weeks at a time. If you design your own training, be sure your schedule is flexible and make changes when you recognize this change in attitude. Success and failure are part of the competitive process, and those folks who have never experienced this may need more work or simply more time in the sport.

Develop focus and concentration. 

Training is tough enough when we challenge ourselves with the desire to improve. If you don’t have focus and concentration when showing up to a swim training session, you are going to have more of these inconsistent days. I mentioned the line at the bottom of the pool earlier. Making sure you are focused will keep what you are supposed to do firmly in front of you. I find that some athletes show up to swim practice with a lot on their minds, and they lose focus on the sets at hand or become distracted by some theme imposed prior to showing up. This becomes very apparent if the training doesn’t seem to go your way or if the sets don’t seem like they make much sense. Be sure to keep your concentration and focus by leaving any thoughts or distractions out in the car when you walk into a swim training session. Most adult swimmers or triathletes don’t come from a competitive swimming background, and all attention and focus is needed to have a successful practice.

You hear the cliché that swimming is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical thrown out there…but don’t read too much into it. Some sound training advice that I’d like to give everyone is to find a good balance in life and make sure you don’t get too caught up in the training. Even if your dreams of becoming a professional athlete are behind you, staying on the physical side is very important if you want to improve your performance. Paying more attention to the mental side of things will help you stay in it. These days, I see more fit adults transform into athletes by signing up for triathlons or racing events. I hope learning a bit more about dealing with the mental aspect of that process makes things easier. Balancing your lifestyle of working and playing is always a chore but having more insight into the connection between the physical and mental side of training will help you perform better. I’ve given you some goal setting tips and a few ideas on how to stay more focused so your emotions don’t get the best of you in such a complicated sport. I’d like to see more of you swimming on a year-round basis, experiencing the peaks and valleys more frequently, and working on the mental edge. It will help you with your swimming and it will also help you with your racing and overall performance.
“Let’s get Mental!”

Maurice Culley is the owner and director of Austin T3—Team Triathlon Training, one of the largest triathlon training programs in the country, serving athletes in all three sports and at all levels. Culley has an extensive swimming background; he was a member of the University of Texas Longhorns from 1992-1996, which included membership on a National Championship team (1996). Culley went on to coach and took Austin ISD’s Bowie High School’s varsity team to a state championship and won a National Championship with the Circle C swim team. As a triathlete, Culley was a qualifier for the World Championships in 2007 (IM70.3) and 2009 (ITU) in the half Ironman distance. In 2009, he was also a member of Team USA (35-39) at the World Championships in Perth, Australia.


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