Stress is something that we all deal with on a daily basis. Whether it's driving in traffic while you're late for a meeting or taking a test for your most important class, it seems to never end. But knowing how stress impacts your swim performance and the ways to manage it can help you succeed in and out of the pool.
Symptoms of Stress
We've all seen it or done it: fidgeting behind the block, excessive stretching, goggle modifications, adjusting your swimsuit, or even more extreme, hyperventilating. Then there's also internal symptoms of stress like nausea, muscle spasms, or increased heart rate which aren't so visible to onlookers. And stress can occur at any time, no matter how many hours you've practiced or how prepared you feel. Physicians and health professionals generally agree that stress has an onset when the perceived situation and abilities seem out of proportion to the ability to handle this perceived situation, which could happen right up until you dive in the pool.
The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, has three subsystems: sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems. The two that most impact swimmers in pre-competition anxiety are the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.
This is the nervous system that most of us remember from a science class as the "fight or flight" system which corresponds with arousal and energy generation, and that feeling of being anxious. When you're stressed, the sympathetic system will raise and elevate your heart rate and it begins to divert blood flow from the digestive system. The most common physical reaction to stress that most swimmers and athletes experience is seen in a performers heart rate. Anytime before the race up until an athlete is behind the block, they become nervous and describe this feeling as their heart “racing” or “fluttering”.This can be dangerous because swimmers will be putting their bodies, and cardiovascular systems, through strenuous activity that will raise their heart rate even more in the upcoming moments of competition.
This system is also known as the "rest and digests" system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it increases blood flow to the digestive system and promotes calming by decreasing the heart rate. This increased blood flow might sometimes lead to indigestion and other stomach nerves like that feeling of butterflies in your stomach. This can be dangerous for swimmers who either ate too heavy before the race and didn't let their food digest, or for a swimmer who decided to compete on an empty stomach.
Good vs. Bad
Everyone is different and will handle stress differently. Some athletes are able to use stress to their advantage and it helps to motivate them to do better and push themselves to their limits. This is called "eustress", or good stress, by health professionals. Channeling this good stress can help you perform well and reach your goals.
Other athletes become overwhelmed by stress and this is the bad stress that can sabotage your swim performance. Bad stress comes from thinking about the consequences of failure, like an upset parent, coach, or teammate. Or it can come from a swimmer's personal identity being overtaken by their performance in the pool, and so any failure becomes a threat to the athlete's ego.
Relieving the Stress
While it's next to impossible to not feel any stress before a big race or competition, it is possible to relieve stress and use it to your advantage. Some tips for relieving stress and managing it are the best way to be prepared when you do feel those pre-race jitters coming on!
1. Muscle relaxation
This is a common and useful method of meditation used to decrease anxiety. Practice before bed and start by focusing on relaxing each part of your body. Do some deep breaths to allow your body to adjust to feeling relaxed and calm. By training your body how to relax, you can easily implement this same body relaxation technique prior to performance.
2. Focus on the positive
Instead of thinking about the possibility of failure, envision yourself winning. Think about the hard work you've put in at practice and focus on the positive fact that you have the opportunity to compete in this race! This small adjustment in your thinking will definitely show up positively in your performance. Read more about mental hacks for swimmers on race day to give it your best without succumbing to the stress.
3. Develop a pre-game ritual
The best athletes know that winning is more than just physical: your mind needs to be in the race, too! Do a pre-game ritual that will help your mind calm down and get in the zone to compete without focusing on everyone else.
4. Scheduling Breaks
Train your body to deal with stress just as you are training your mind! Studies show competitive swimmers who increased training intensity and reduced training volume for 12 weeks reduced general stress and increased general recovery levels. Talk to your coach about training plans that can help you adjust and be the best when it comes time for competition.
Whatever strategies you decide to use to manage stress, know that feeling a little nervous before a race is normal and that most athletes deal with it at some point. Just make sure to use it to your advantage and don't let it overcome you on the big day!
European Journal of Sports Science, http://europepmc.org "High intensity and reduced volume training attenuates stress and recovery levels in elite swimmers".