Once you’ve established an optimal level of arousal for what you need to do, you need to do what you need to do. You need to focus on what’s important. Too much or too little arousal is going to prevent you from performing effectively as you’ll be too distracted by either anxiety or indifference. The fundamental performance skill is that of focusing on what you need to do, when you need to do it.
There are many distractions that rise up before and during any type of performance, whether in training or competition. It could be other people, it could be unwanted thoughts, it could be unexpected events before or during the performance, or it could be the performance unfolding in unexpected directions, whether positive or negative. Regardless of what happens, you need to retain the ability to focus on doing what you need to do.
One of the fundamental aspects of being about to focus and execute effectively is that of trust. As you’ll see below, the ability to trust yourself manifests in several different ways. The only way to learn to trust is to practice. The more you practice, the more effective you’ll become and the more confident you’ll become. More than anything, confidence improves your ability to trust, because you KNOW success is possible.
What do I have to do? In training and competition, more than anything else, you need to be able to focus on what you need to do to be successful. This could be a simple technical reminder, it could be a simple reminder about how to execute your skills, or simply a sensation you want to feel. The key is to identify one critical skill or sensation that improves your performance. Understand that this critical focus will likely shift over time. However, if you’re paying attention to what you’re doing as described in other sections of the book, you’ll be aware of what is working for you at the moment. Go with what works. The more clarity you have about what you need to do, the more likely you’ll be able to effectively place focus where it needs to be.
Let it happen. Swimmers often try to make it happen rather than let it happen. They force it. This leads to extra effort and slower performance. In the context of performance, while you may be focusing on the simple tasks you need to do, it is a light focus rather than a rigid focus. It’s sort of like holding an egg. You want to hold it firmly enough to ensure you don’t lose control of it, yet loosely enough that you don’t crush it.
Any attempt to micro-manage your performance by hyper-focusing on what you’re trying to do is going to be met with disappointment. Letting it happen requires trust. You have to let go of the need to pay attention to and control every aspect of your swimming. You also need to accept that simply trying harder and harder does not ensure you’ll swim any faster. Extra effort does not usually lead to faster swimming. You need to trust that you’re giving enough effort and that more will be counterproductive.
Accept the outcome. This is probably one of the most difficult performance tasks to accomplish. As a performer, the outcome is a central and likely THE central component of what you do. You want to perform at a really high level. You want to win, however you define winning. Unfortunately, the more you want something, the more likely it is that you won’t get it. You’ll try to make it happen, and as we discussed above, making it happen is a wonderful way to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
The solution is to accept the outcome prior to competition. Accept that you can’t control the outcome and that there is a possibility you won’t achieve what you want. And you have to be okay with that. Accepting the outcome removes the fear from performance. It’s when you’re afraid that you try to control your movement and your effort, both of which usually lead to slower swimming. It’s when you realize you have nothing to lose that you’re free to perform to your potential.
Ironically, supreme confidence allows you to accept the outcome, because you believe it can happen. While confidence may lead you to want to control the outcome because you believe you can ‘make’ it happen, it takes even more confidence to trust that in your skills enough to let go of the outcome. How do you get better at this? Practice it in practice. More below.
Surrender control. An extension of accepting the outcome, you need to surrender control. This is another way of conceptualizing the previous two points. You can’t control your movements to ensure you get the performances you want, and there’s no way to control the outcome. The more you try to do either of these, the more likely it is that you’ll have an inadequate outcome. The solution is to let go of the attempt to control and just let it be.
There are situations where you can ‘control’ your performance and be successful. Generally speaking, these are situations where you are very confident in your ability to succeed, and you know you have the skills to do so. This can happen fairly regularly in training. Unfortunately, competing in high-level competition does not afford the same luxury as you’re less likely to have total confidence in your ability to performance.
Clear your mind. To perform optimally, your mind needs to be empty beyond the single focus point we discussed earlier. Thoughts about opponents, outcomes, and even other technical cues need to disappear. As our brains tend to be racing with conscious thoughts, and this gets worse in the lead up to important or stressful situations, we need a strategy to keep calm. Keeping a clear mind is a critical skill to allow you to surrender control.
Focusing on your breathing is a great way to clear your mind. Focusing on the rhythm of your breathing can prevent you from focusing on any one idea or thought. Beyond shifting your focus, you can literally envision yourself breathing out your need to control, or breathing out your anxieties. Doing so leading up to the event can be a great way to manage your arousal, and the final breaths can serve to clear your mind for the time to allow you to let it all happen. Just take a deep breath, let it out, let it go, and let it rip.
Trust. Underlying all of the strategies is a need to trust yourself and trust your capabilities. You need to trust yourself to only focus on the most important task. You need to trust yourself to let it happen. You need to trust to yourself to accept the outcome. You need to trust yourself to surrender control. You need to trust yourself to clear your mind. The more you trust yourself, the more you’ll be able to perform up to your potential. Remember this essential element as you implement all of the strategies described above.
Now it's time to PRACTICE. Stay tuned.