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 shocking 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 the 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 than 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 you're 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 not have 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 than 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 you're 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 you're 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 Advantage. Dr. 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.