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How to prepare mentally for your first open water swim

How to prepare mentally for your first open water swim

By Evie Serventi

February 11, 2019

Your toes freeze as you dip them into the water’s edge. Nervous chatter from fellow swimmers surrounds you as you gaze out over the lake, trying to block out the doubts and swallow the tension rising through your body. Sound familiar? Many swimmers who approach open water for the first time (or first swim of the season) will feel some anticipation as they zip up their wetsuit. This ‘pressure’ is natural in sport; it’s normal. We’ve all had butterflies, knots in our stomach, sweaty palms – these physical symptoms are a normal response to pressure – what separates those who feel ready to swim (excited anticipation) and those who feel crippled with nerves (anxious anticipation) comes down to your psychological response to pressure. In the world of sport psychology we call this response to pressure being in a challenge (excited) state or threat (anxious) state.

Pay attention

Self awareness is the first step towards preparing yourself mentally for your first open water swim. Get to know how you respond to pressure situations by going through a physical and mental checklist (see box out 1) keeping track of your thoughts and feelings. This will help you become more familiar with your response patterns – this leads to greater self-awareness and ability to cope with the demands of a situation. These factors are also important prerequisites for developing a challenge state when approaching your next pressure situation.

Challenge and threat

The ‘state’ you are in can have a huge impact on your sporting performance. Research across a variety of sports and athletic abilities reveals that those who experience a challenge state when approaching a pressure situation can actually perform better than they normally would, while those who experience a threat state in the same situation can actually perform worse than they would normally (see box out 2). A challenge state is developed by focusing on your resources (I call this your mental toolkit) which considers everything you have at your disposal to help you to perform at your best: the sense of accomplishment with the training goals you’ve achieved; the improvements you’ve made; the self confidence you’ve developed; and crucially, focusing on what’s within your control.

Develop your own challenge strategy

These three crucial resources will help you develop a robust challenge strategy:

  1. Focus on what can achieved rather than what can be lost:

This means thinking about wanting to do your best (achieving/succeeding) rather than thinking about avoiding ‘messing up’ (failure). Think about it: when approaching your first open water swim, what thoughts are going through your head? Do you have your ‘wanting to succeed’ or ‘not wanting to fail’ hat on?

  1. Nurture self confidence:

A vital psychological factor when it comes to your sporting performance. Again, think about how you talk to yourself – what’s your inner voice saying? Where do your sources of confidence come from? Your coach, yourself, others? When you find yourself having ‘unhelpful thoughts’ try changing them. Example: “I’ll never be a top swimmer, I started so late in life” can be flipped into something more helpful: “It’s never too late to start and while I’m not the fastest swimmer, I’ve come so far and will do my best”.

  1. What’s within your control?

The more uncertainty we feel, the more pressure we feel. When approaching open water for the first time, focus on certainties (controllables) rather than what you have no control over. Controllables include the training you’ve accomplished, how you enter the water/position at the start of a race, your breathing, your technique, your pace, wearing the right kit/fuelling appropriately. Uncontrollables include the weather, water temperature, number of swimmers around you.

Physical and Mental Checklist

  • What’s your pre-performance routine before a training swim or race?
  • Is the kit you’re wearing comfortable/adequate?
  • Are the thoughts running through your head motivating or hindering?
  • Are you thinking about ‘not having a bad session, messing up’ or are you focusing on doing your best?
  • Do you think about the training you’ve done to date, or the training you should have done/need to do?
  • How is your body feeling physically? If tense, do some dynamic stretches/exercises; take some deep breaths, close your eyes and think about how you’ve progressed so far.


Challenge and threat states: Impact on performance

When in a challenge stateImpact on performanceWhen in a threat stateImpact on performance
Your (perception of your) resources meet the demands of the situationYou feel you can cope with the situation you are about to faceYour (perception of your) demands of the situation outweigh your resourcesYou don’t feel you can cope with the demands of the situation
Increased heart rate, decrease in constriction of blood vesselsOxygen flows efficiently through your body and to the brain: great for focusing, increased control over decision makingDecreased heart rate, increase in constriction of blood vesselsOxygen does not flow efficiently through your body and crucially, to your brain: resulting in poor concentration, less control over decision making, foggy head
Positive emotionsYou feel excited, motivated and ready to swimNegative emotionsYou feel anxious, physically tense/uneasy, not motivated to swim
Good self awarenessaccurate perception of task ahead. Confidence in having the resources to meet demands of the taskPoor self awarenessLess accurate perception of task ahead, less confidence. Sense of not having resources to cope with demands of task
Evie is a sport and performance psychologist based in the South East. As a World Championship Age Group triathlete she understands the importance of balancing sport/life, and pressure/performing… and when she’s not helping athletes get to grips with the mental side of training, you’ll find her in the river swimming, trail running or cycling! Contact Evie directly through her website or 
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