Coaching yourself after a bad race

You look up, see your time on the clock and even before the disappointment grabs hold of you, that little voice in your head starts revving up. At first it’s just mostly shock related, “Are you kidding me?!!!” “I thought for sure that I had gone so much faster!” However, once the reality of yet another slow swim sets in, your “inner coach” gets downright negative and nasty. “Once AGAIN you smell up the pool by swimming like total garbage. You are sooo bad and sooo slow. Wasn’t it like the Pleistocene Age when you last had a best time in this race? Maybe you should seriously consider changing to a more suitable sport for someone with your great talents, like underwater basket weaving!”

As the meet goes on and one bad race leads to yet another, that “helpful” little voice in your head continues to relentlessly beat up on you, sending your self-confidence and fun plummeting down the tubes. Before the meet is half over you’re bumming big time. Soon you’d like nothing more than to just put on Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and do a major disappearing act. Unfortunately, leaving the meet setting won’t get you away from your negative “inner coach.” Even three days later in practice the self-put downs are still flowing fast and furious.

Why are you always so hard on yourself after bad races? It sure kills the joy you once felt for a sport that you’re supposed to love. It makes you seriously question why you keep working hard. What’s the point of all the sacrifice and suffering if you’re going to continue to race poorly? You wonder why some of your teammates don’t seem as bothered as you are after their bad races. How are they able to quickly let go their bad swims and move on? If only you could learn to do that!

Whether you're aware of it or not, failure and disappointments in the pool are a necessary part of your success and you can’t really get better as a swimmer without failing enough. Every time you have a bad race, you’re presented with an opportunity to grow as a competitive swimmer. Failures and disappointments provide you with valuable feedback about what you did wrong and what you need to do differently next time. Instead of using your failures as a stick to beat yourself up, you must learn to use them to go faster next time.

Unfortunately, approaching your disappointments in this way is much easier said then done. All too often your “inner coach” punishes you for your bad swims to the point where you can’t get anything positive out of them. What then?

If you tend to be really hard on yourself after a bad race and hang onto it far too long, then your job is to learn to systematically retrain your inner coach. Remember your “inner coach” refers to the self-talk or thinking that usually plays in your head right before, during and after your races. A good “inner coach”, like the real thing on the deck is positive, patient, understanding and forgiving. He/she encourages you after a tough loss and reassures you that you’ll do better next time? A good coach doesn’t put you down or make you feel bad about yourself and instead, leaves you feeling motivated after a failure and wanting to work even harder to improve. A good “inner coach” sounds like this: “OK, so that was a terrible swim, but let’s figure out what you did wrong so we can change it for next time;” “Look, you’re a good swimmer. Today just wasn’t so good. No problem, learn from it and let it go.”

So how do you train this kind of positive inner coach?

STEP #1 - Your first step is AWARENESS. You must get to know your current “inner coach” before you can go about the job of retraining him/her. If your natural response to failure is to get down on yourself, then you must learn to be aware of exactly what you say to yourself after a bad race and how you say it. To do this, keep a journal where you write down what you tend to say to yourself after a bad race or meet. Do this for at least 5 or 6 of your bad races until you can begin to clearly recognize the voice and tone of your inner coach.

STEP #2 – Once you’ve taken the time to really get to know your inner coach then you’re ready to begin to retrain him/her. To do this, you must understand two, very important principles of positive inner coaching. These principles have to do with the words that you use in your head to explain your bad races to yourself. How you explain your failures to yourself will determine how quickly you are able to let these disappointments go and how motivated you get after failing.

The first principle is related to time and reflects how long you think the failure will stay with you. A negative inner coach explains a bad race by using permanent sounding language. “I always die on the last 50,” “I can never beat her,” and “Whenever I’m in a big meet I always fall apart” are all examples of permanent language. When you talk to yourself using words like “always,” “never,” and “whenever,” you are left feeling discouraged, as if there is nothing that you can do to turn things around.  

A positive inner coach uses temporary sounding language to explain setbacks and failures. “My fly was just awful today.” “This meet has been slow and disappointing.” “I didn’t feel fast tonight but I’ll do better tomorrow.” When you explain your failures using temporary language you’re left feeling that while things may have not worked out in this race or meet, there’s always another one for you to do better in. As a result, one bad swim or meet doesn’t have as much of a negative hold on you and you’re able to let it go quicker.

The second principle of positive inner coaching is related to how detailed your explanation of the failure is. A negative inner coach explains a bad race by using very general language. “I suck at swimming,” “I’m such a loser,” or “I can’t swim fast in important meets” are all general explanations for bad races. Explaining your failures in general terms does not help you learn from and correct your mistakes. Instead general explanations leave you feeling stuck and discouraged.

A positive inner coach explains a failure in very specific language which identifies exactly what went wrong. Rather then saying “My 200 fly sucked,” this kind of inner coach might say something like, “I had a great start and my first 100 was really good but then I got tired and started breathing into my turns.”  Rather than saying “I’m a choker,” a positive inner coach would say, “I got much too nervous before my 100 back because I was concentrating too much on beating the kid in the next lane.” Using specific language to explain your bad races will not only help you turn them around, but it will leave you feeling more motivated to work harder.            

STEP #3 – PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. If you are in the habit of using permanent and general language to put yourself down after bad races, then you need to practice being a better “inner coach.” With a little work you can retrain yourself to explain your bad races using temporary and specific language. Spend part of this upcoming meet season developing a positive inner coach. If you make an investment today to change the way that you talk to yourself after a bad race or meet, the payoff tomorrow might very well be in consistently fast times and a championship season.         



By Alan Goldberg of Competitive AdvantageDr. Goldberg was the sport psychology consultant to the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion University of Connecticut Huskies, and the 2000 men’s soccer NCAA champions. He specializes in helping athletes overcome fears & blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. His book, Sports Slump Busting (LLumina Press), is based on his extensive experience getting teams and individual athletes unstuck and back on track. 

Handling Failure & Adversity in the Pool and in Life

A young traveler meets a bearded old Guru at a rest stop along the road and asks him, “Oh WISE man, please tell me....which way to SUCCESS?” The wise man says not a word, but instead points off towards the north. The young man excitedly heads off in that same direction with visions of riches in his head. Five minutes pass and then the stillness of the day is shattered by a LOUD “SPLATT!!!” A number of minutes go by and then the young traveler staggers back, bruised, clothes disheveled and dazed. Thinking perhaps that somehow he had misheard the wise man, he asks once again, “Oh WISE man, please tell me....which way to SUCCESS?” Once again the bearded sage says NOT a word, but instead points off in that same northerly direction. This time, a little more cautiously, the young man follows his advice....Now 10 minutes pass and suddenly the calm and silence of the day is shattered by an even more deafening, ground shaking “SPLATT!!!!!”  Ten more minutes pass and the young man can be seen crawling back, his clothes nearly scorched off his back, he's bloodied and in a state of shock. As he approaches the wise man, he becomes more alert and his face is now red with fury as he screams, “Wise man! STOP THIS NONSENSE!!!” I ask you which way to success and both times you don't answer but silently point off yonder! When I do exactly as you say, all that happens to me is that I get SPLATTED! So enough with your silence! TELL ME IN WORDS! WHICH WAY TO SUCCESS?!” The wise man looks the young traveler straight in the eyes and calmly responds, “SUCCESS IS EXACTLY WHERE I POINTED, JUST A LITTLE BEYOND THE SPLATT!!!!

There is one CRITICAL thing that I have found over the years which separates the great swimmers from all the rest, one thing that successful performers both in and out of the pool do better than every one else.

So many people mistakenly believe that becoming a champion happens when you have exceptional talent. Others believe it all rests on tremendous coaching. Still others think that consistent, hard work is the crucial part of this success equation. While all of these help, there is something that is, in my humble opinion, FAR MORE IMPORTANT! The secret to your success is very simple and NOT WHAT YOU THINK! If you really want to become a champion in the pool, if you really want to go as far in swimming as possible, then you have to learn how to FAIL BETTER than everyone else!!! That's right, FAILURE IS THE BIGGEST SECRET to your success both in and out of the pool!!
 
Most athletes think that failure is a bad thing and something that should be avoided at all costs! Nothing could be further from the truth! FAILURE is a GOOD THING! It is your main transportation to success. As long as you have enough of failure, it will take you all the way to where you want to go. However, if you're afraid to fail and, because of this, you avoid opportunities where you could possibly fail, then you will ultimately fall short of your goals!          
Now don't misunderstand me here. There's no question that FAILURE SUCKS! It's no fun to lose, choke or otherwise come up with a subpar performance. The best swimmers in the world hate failing with a passion! However, they have learned over their careers that failing is very necessary to the success process. In fact, you can't really achieve lasting success without failing ENOUGH TIMES!

Whether you're aware of it or not, you intuitively know EXACTLY what I'm talking about here because you learned this experientially when you were a baby. You learned that failure was the ultimate success strategy. You may have forgotten it over the years, but when you first learned to walk, you instinctively used your failures to master this very difficult FIRST skill!   

How does a baby learn to walk? BY FALLING ENOUGH TIMES. The baby pulls himself up to standing on wobbly legs while he steadies himself on a coffee table. Then he lets go, and WHAM...he immediately fell down! This process is repeated over and over again! Sometimes when the baby falls, he gets up smiling....and other times, he gets up screaming in pain and frustration! However, each time the baby falls, his body learns valuable lessons on balance and what works and what doesn't.

When the baby finally is able to stand by himself without holding on, this same falling down process gets repeated over and over again as he begins to take his first steps.  And each time that baby falls, his body is learning what to do and what NOT to do, and all of this valuable learning could NEVER happen unless the baby keeps falling.

IN THIS VERY SAME WAY, YOU AS AN ATHLETE LEARN TO “WALK” BY FALLING ENOUGH. This is how you go from beginner to expert in your sport. This is how you go from an average swimmer to a really good one! In this way, our failures provide us with invaluable feedback on what we did that didn't work and what we need to do differently next time.

The problem far too many swimmers run into when they fall on their face, is they get really upset with themselves. Getting angry with yourself for failing is a terrific waste of time and worse, your emotions distract you from the valuable learnings that are always present within any failure. If you're too busy feeling embarrassed or angry with yourself, then you'll miss the important constructive feedback that ALWAYS comes out of these disappointing swims.

So when you fail, you want to GET CURIOUS, NOT FURIOUS!  You want to be curious about what you did that didn't work and what you need to change for the next time rather than angrily beating yourself up for your failure!
Failure and disappointments are nothing more than valuable feedback which, when used, will help you get where you want to go! Failure is NOT evidence that you suck or that you're inadequate! It is feedback and therefore, delayed success! So when you fall flat on your face during your swimming career, which you can expect will happen any number of times, the most important thing you can do is handle it the RIGHT way. It's part of the process to becoming successful, it NORMAL, and we all have to go through this stuff. There are no shortcuts around failure, loss and disappointment to get to your dreams. You must go through these painful experiences.

Remember, FAILURE IS FEEDBACK AND FEEDBACK IS THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS!!!!

By Alan Goldberg of Competitive AdvantageDr. Goldberg was the sport psychology consultant to the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion University of Connecticut Huskies, and the 2000 men’s soccer NCAA champions. He specializes in helping athletes overcome fears & blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. His book, Sports Slump Busting (LLumina Press), is based on his extensive experience getting teams and individual athletes unstuck and back on track. 

The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid it!

So how well do you stay calm and composed under the pressure of big meet competition? Your ability to stay relaxed under stress is absolutely critical for fast swims because THE SECRET to swimming fast when it counts the most is that you have to stay LOOSE! If you get too nervous, it becomes physiologically impossible for you to swim to your potential because runaway nerves leave your muscles tight and speed up and constrict your breathing. When these two changes happen, your stroke shortens, your endurance gets compromised and you'll swim way below your potential!

In this article, I'd like to identify the major cause of performance disrupting nervousness for you, the mental trap that so many swimmers fall into. If you know ahead of time what causes your nervousness to spike and wreck your performance, then you are in a position to be able to consistently avoid falling into that trap! Awareness of this trap is the absolute key to staying out of it!

So many swimmers ask me, “How come I get so nervous before all my important races?” or “Why do I tend to choke at my championship meets?” or “Why do I get so psyched out by certain other swimmers?” and the answers to these questions lie in a very simple concentration mistake that far too many swimmers make, both before and even during their races. When you make this FOCUSING mistake, it will ALWAYS result in excessive nervousness and disappointing swims!

The mistake has to do with allowing your pre-race or during race focus to go to a group of things that I call the UCs, which I will translate for you in just a few moments.
When you are getting ready for a race or meet, if either before or during your race you are concentrating on one of these UCs, then you will set into motion inside a series of performance-disrupting events.


First, your level of NERVOUSNESS will INCREASE. Second, when you get nervous, your MUSCLE TENSION will automatically INCREASE. Third, the amount of NEGATIVE THINKING and SELF-DOUBTS bopping around inside your cranium will increase. And Fourth, when you're flooded with negativity and doubts, your SELF-CONFIDENCE will DO A NOSE DIVE!!!! And finally, and a result of all of these above, your RACE PERFORMANCE will go down the proverbial tubes!!!!

So what are the UCs? The UCs stand for a group of things that I call the UNCONTROLLABLES. An uncontrollable is anything that you don't have DIRECT CONTROL OVER right now. DIRECT is the key word here. If you go into a race and either before or during that event you're focusing on things that you don't have direct control over, then you will start to get nervous, physically tighten up, lose your confidence and perform way below your potential!

I recently had a first session with a 16 year old swimmer who hasn't gone fast in her best event, in breaststroke for over 9 months. Her problem seemed to be related to overwhelming nervousness, the nights before and the day of the meet. By the time race time rolled around, this swimmer claimed that she was a “9.5” on the 0 – 10 scale of nervousness where 0 is your cool, calm and collected and 10 is you're so stressed out, you're having a complete melt down! Her pre-race focus of concentration the week of the meet and right up until the race's start was totally on UNCONTROLLABLES! She kept thinking of the Nationals she went to 9 months previous when she completely fell apart. She worried, “what if it happens again?!!” She focused on all of the other swimmers in her heat and how good and fast she thought they were. She thought about the extended consequences for having another bad meet,...that is, her coaches would be disappointed in her, her parents might be upset, her friends will think she's just not that good any more....She worried that unless she could break out of this prolonged slump, her chances of swimming at a decent college would be compromised!

So what UC's did this athlete get hung up on? The PAST and previous bad performances, (last Nationals); The FUTURE and what's going to happen next; Everything about the OTHER SWIMMERS, (i.e. size, strength, reputation, skill level; attitude, etc.); OTHER PEOPLE'S EXPECTATIONS, (i.e. disappointing coach, parents or friends); What COLLEGE COACHES might think and therefore her chances of getting a scholarship, (the future!)
What else is also out of your direct control? Everything about the pool, (water temperature, air quality, water temperature, depth, blocks, lighting, etc.), the weather, (outdoor meets), how big the race is, whether you make finals or not (future), how you feel that day, the starter and meet officials, who's in your heat, lane assignment, the unexpected happening, (i.e. you get called down from the blocks and have to wait 15 minutes for the touch pads to be fixed), etc.

Understand that the UNCONTROLLABLES ARE MENTAL TRAPS! They are lying in wait for you and every other swimmer at that meet. How do you avoid a trap? FIRST, you have to see it! You have to be able to identify it! You have to be aware! Without knowing what the traps are, without being aware of them, then you are much more vulnerable to falling into them, over and over again! So I would suggest that you sit down right now and list all of the UCs that in the past, have knocked you off track. Think back to a time when you choked, got intimidated or otherwise swam way below your potential and I can guarantee that what you were focusing on either before and/or during that event were UCs! Write them down on a piece of paper and then post that list in your room in a highly visible place! One of the very first steps in mastering the UCs is KNOWING exactly what they are!
So how should you handle the UCs? Whenever you find yourself thinking about or focusing on something that you have no control over, you want to quickly recognize that your focus is off, and then just as quickly, return your focus to something that you can control, (i.e. your pre-race ritual behind the blocks, stretching, talking to a friend, etc.). 

Remember while there are a lot of things you can't directly control at that big meet, the one thing that you can always LEARN to control is HOW YOU REACT to all of the UCs! The uncontrollables won't hurt you as long as you don't allow them extended air time in your head! The instant you become aware that you're “entertaining” a UC in your head, quickly bring yourself back!

By Alan Goldberg of Competitive AdvantageDr. Goldberg was the sport psychology consultant to the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion University of Connecticut Huskies, and the 2000 men’s soccer NCAA champions. He specializes in helping athletes overcome fears & blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. His book, Sports Slump Busting (LLumina Press), is based on his extensive experience getting teams and individual athletes unstuck and back on track. 

Mental Toughness Training Program

Mental Toughness Training Program
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  • Do wish you could stay calm and sleep the nights before BIG meets?
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