ESC Blog

Anxiety within our Swimmers

Graham Begley (ESC Head Coach) 21st October, 2021

What an incredible sport swimming is. What an incredible athlete every swimmers is. I think this on many occasions when I nervously watch every swimmer compete; I think the swimmers do not realise how brave and courageous they are. They have learnt and are developing great skills to rise to new challenges, take risks and perform skills they have learnt in front of everyone they know as well as strangers. I know the feelings every swimmer needs to embrace building up to an event, stepping up on the block, entering the water and the mental strength needed during each swim.

Anxiety in sport is everywhere; amateur level, professional level, at training, pre-training, at a competition, before a competition. I remember (and I still do it now to a degree) visualising races for weeks before I swam them. Thinking through turns, underwater work, how I may feel at different points of the race.

Hopefully this document will help our swimmers identify that they are not the only one having these feelings and it is completely normal (Swim England, no date). The feelings they have can ultimately be used positively and create the foundations to becoming a resilient and strong character, not just in a swimming environment. Hopefully this document will also highlight strategies to help everyone overcome the anxiety feelings that they experience and use them in a positive way. Some may call it their nerves. Swim England (no date) express;

 “Anxiety is a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension of a perceived threat. The threat will differ according to the situation and the individual.

First of all, MySwimPro (no date) highlights that there are many benefits of swimming; It improves coordination, it is joint friendly, burns major calories, improves breathing efficiency, it’s optimal for cross training, it makes you smarter, it lengthens muscles but ultimately it improves your ability to stay calm making swimming a great sport to assist with anxiety.

“Swimming is meditative. Swimming boosts endorphins that increase feelings of wellbeing. Plus the rhythmic strokes and sound of water make swimming much more relaxing. It’s been shown that swimming produces the same relaxation responses as yoga, and the stretching and contracting of muscles can heighten this experience.”

That being said, we all know that being a competitive swimmer can create added pressures and can become the catalyst for anxiety.

There is no doubt that swimming is one of the world’s most mentally challenging sports. Swimmers are put into a single lane, day in and day out, to swim countless amounts of laps, only to be put into a race to drop a few tenths of a second. Even if you are a swimmer that is not at an Olympic level, the pressure of performing in a swim set, or meet, can be daunting. Swimmers are constantly battling the pressures of time, approval from coaches, self-approval, so it is no wonder that many swimmers struggle with anxiety (Padington, T. 2016).

Padington further explains that swimmers can face negative anxieties or positive anxieties. Negative anxieties will be caused from swimmers being unprepared, not ready, are uncertain or feel incapable. On the flip side a swimmer may develop positive anxieties because they have an excitement and anticipation to engage in a training session or race. They are fully prepared. I take this back to how I recall visualising a race situation. If my thoughts are about how good my turn is going to be and how I’m going to really kick hard on my underwater work and finish the race fast I will develop an eagerness to show this off and will be prepared for the race. It’s a bit like going into an exam and knowing you have revised really well and want to prove you know lots about the subject. On the flip side, if through my visualisation, I think about what I’ll do if my goggles come off or if I swallow some water or if I miss the wall on my turn I’m going to go into the race feeling negative and unprepared.

“Use imagery to help guide you where you want to go. Before even jumping into the pool, or starting a race, visualize what you want to happen. If you are visualizing a race, imagine the pool: the sounds that you will hear, and the way your body will feel in the water. The same goes for a practice: imagine the times you want to be hitting on your pace. Using visualization only needs to take a few minutes, but it can be extremely effective since you are taking your body and mind through the motions that it is about to go through. A key component to visualizing is making sure that all the imagery you are creating is positive, that way your mind is more at ease come practice or race day.”

There needs to be a bit of a balance to help prepare for changing situations but we also need to see how vital the positive thoughts are for our anxiety levels becoming positive for our performance. Furthermore, Swim England (no date) recognise it is very important for swimmers to focus on the positives that they can do and not what their competitors can do. Just by standing tall before an event, smiling and being encouraged to enjoy the swim will give a swimmer greater confidence going into a race. Adding pressure of swimming a certain time or winning will only ignite further anxiety. Swimmers should avoid making these targets the ‘be all’ of everything and parents should avoid placing that pressure on swimmers.

Poirier-Leroy (no date) also refers to trying to suppress anxiety will only ignite it further and becomes impossible to reduce anxiety levels. Through such things as breathing exercises we can calm our heart rate but unlikely to remove anxiety. Poirier-Leroy also expresses that turning anxiety into exited anxiety is the best answer.

“Excitement makes sense to us, whereas anxiety is confusing as heck….Going from stressed to excited is easier than trying to go from stressed to calmed”

As coaches we incorporate activities during sessions to help swimmers build their mental strength and will talk about strategies to get through a set mentally which can be applied during races. On a personal level I can excite levels of anxiety within myself when I swim. If I have an event coming up and I’m doing a hard set in training, thinking about the event is not the right time during the set. My anxiety intensifies. I can recognise this and I purposely bring myself back to focusing on the set. These are management systems that I have needed to develop on my own. In a time of stress it makes the anxiety implode. A lot of anxiety can occur during training sessions. As coaches we are here to help nurture the swimmers and help them to deal with the anxieties they experience in the pool. When I swim in a training session I certainly experience anxiety through a set, especially if I’m swimming with others who are pushing me hard. I certainly question, ‘How am I going to do more of these reps?’ We talk a lot about focussing on the swim in hand, if you talk yourself out of the session before you’ve started you will never succeed.

After the event a lot can be learnt or added to future anxiety. If swimmers are given time to evaluate their own performance and discuss what went well and things that didn’t go so well it can give them ownership and give them positive insight for future performances. Affection from parents/carers after a performance is vital to ensure that they do not become fearful of performing badly in the future.

A previous paper ‘Supporting Our Swimmers through Competition: A Parents’ Guide’ touched on the anxieties that can manifest from the worries and anxieties of the parent. Kohli, S (2015) expresses that there are two forms of outcomes that an anxious household can manifest. Firstly, children will replicate anxieties.

”Children might observe their parents’ fear or worries in their actions or overhearing words, and then adopt those same worries.”

Furthermore, Kohli, S (2015) additionally suggests,

“Another cause could be what the study calls ‘negative parenting behaviours’ – unnecessarily shielding a child from something that a parent fears. Or on the flip side, parents might perpetuate the problem by allowing a child’s existing anxieties, like fear of heights or pain at the dentist, to dictate their parenting choices and allow their child to avoid those experiences”

When avoidance happens, Young, K (no date) suggests this will become the default actions in responding to the world. It teaches children to steer away from difficult situations and become less willing to give things a go or overcome past failures. Giving children the opportunities to embrace challenges and ultimately learning to cope with new situations will be supporting our children to reduce the anxieties that they experience.

Young, K (no date) further explains how providing reassurance to a child to support them through an anxious situation must be carefully managed. Providing too much support and reassurances can ultimately make the anxiety heighten.

Excessive reassurance can unintentionally undermine the capacity for children to grow their own confidence and self-support. If you are the one who always provides the scaffold between an anxious thought and a brave response, it will be even more difficult for an anxious child to find their own.

To conclude I think it is really important to remember that anxiety is evident in everyone throughout life. We are not looking to remove anxiety completely. If managed effectively we can use anxiety to positively approach new challenges and focus our minds on positivity. By supporting the child and not the anxiety we can begin to allow our swimmers to embrace new challenges and learn their own personal skills to combat and manage their anxieties effectively. We can feed them the independence and they will grow resilient. I will return to my earlier observations; what incredible athletes every swimmer is to stand on the block to compete, to dedicate their passion and skills to hours of training in the pool.

 Don’t let numbers get in the way of your love of the sport. If, mentally, swimming ever makes you think negatively of yourself, re-evaluate…… If I had just swam because I loved it instead of swimming for a time, I would have been not only happier, but faster…. Everyday I try to acknowledge the fact that I am a dedicated athlete and that is something, in itself, I should be immensely proud of. (Cielo, 2015).

References:

Cielo, B. (2015). Conquering anxiety in swimming. [online] SwimSwam. Available at: Conquering Anxiety In Swimming (swimswam.com) [Accessed 9th October 2021]

Kohli, S. (2015). Study: Kids who grow up with anxious parents take on their anxiety. [online] Quartz. Available at: Study: Kids who grow up with anxious parents take on their anxiety — Quartz (qz.com) [Accessed 13th October 2021].

MySwimPro. (no date). 8 Benefits of swimming you probably didn’t know. [online] MySwimPro. Available at:  8 Benefits of Swimming You Probably Didn’t Know – MySwimPro [Accessed 7th October 2021].

Padington, T. (2016). Swimming with axiety: 3 helpful coping mechanisms. [online] Swimming World. Available at: Swimming With Anxiety: 3 Helpful Coping Mechanisms – Swimming World News (swimmingworldmagazine.com) [Accessed 7th October 2021].

Poirier-Leroy, O. (no date). This one trick can make anxiety work for you in the pool for a change. [online] yourswimlog.com. Available at: This One Trick Can Make Anxiety Work for You in the Pool for a Change (yourswimlog.com) [Accessed 8th October 2021].

Swim England. (no date). Tips for dealing with anxiety in young competitive swimmers. [online] Swim England Swimming. Available at: Dealing with anxiety | Tips for parents to help young swimmers (swimming.org) [Accessed 11th October 2021].

Young, K. (no date). The things loving parents do that might unintentionally feed anxiety in children – and what to do instead. [online] Hey Sigmund. Available at: https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-children-parents/ [accessed 13th October 2021].

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