Emotional control is critical to performance for both coaches and swimmers. When the pressure is on in training and competition, our emotions tend to run high as well. In situations where the most is at stake, we are most prone to behaving in a way that works against our goals. This can take the form of speaking or acting in a way you’ll ultimately regret, or by withdrawing from a situation where decisive action is required.
Like just about anything else, maintaining control is a skill.
As coaches, we are models for the swimmers we coach. Swimmers follow what we do more so than what we say. If we expect swimmers to maintain emotional control in training and competition, we need to make sure we model that behavior at all times.
Beyond the standard our behavior creates over the long term, losing control can damage relationships and trust in the short term. At the same time, losing control is not synonymous with outbursts. When faced with stressful situations, some individuals withdraw. Following a series of poor swims, coaches can shut down at a time when swimmers need support more than ever. This can be just as problematic.
So, what can we do?
Know Your Triggers
As coaches, we all have situations that start to set us off. Whether it’s swimmers showing up late, swimmers not paying attention, or inattention to detail, be aware of the specific contexts where you struggle to maintain emotional control. With awareness comes the opportunity for change.
Know the Feeling
Once you have an awareness of potentially problematic situations, you can start to intervene to stop the process. The first step is to recognize when you are starting to lose control, and emotion is beginning to govern your behavior. Pay attention to what you feel emotionally and physically as your behavior begins to be driven by emotion instead of reason. Your face may flush, you may feel a surge of anger, you may feel hopelessness; it could be any number of sensations. What is important is to notice the pattern.
Have a Plan
Once you are aware of the situations that cause problems, and what those situations feel like physically, we need to have a plan to stop the process and get back under control. It could consist of several deep breaths, walking away from the situation for 60 seconds, or any other action that allows you to disengage, refocus, and decide how to manage the situation rationally.
The critical task is to interrupt the cycle of trigger and response. Once you do so, you can choose your behavior. When considering specific situations, what type of behavior is going to solve the problem? That’s the behavior that needs to be enacted once you get under control. Do what needs to be done to move forward.
Competitive swimming is a challenging environment. Training and competing is a physically, psychologically, and emotionally challenge experience. Swimmers are particularly prone to struggling with fear, frustration, and becoming overwhelmed with fatigue. These emotions can impair performance by distracting swimmers from the training or competition task at hand.
Due to the stress of competition, as well as the relatively limited opportunities to intervene, training is the optimal time to help swimmers learn to enhance emotional control. As importantly, this process needs to be driven by the swimmer. Instead of providing solutions, coaches can create awareness and identify problems for the swimmers to provide solutions to. It can be as simple as asking swimmers what they are feeling and what they should do about it. Then let them decide on a course of action, execute, and evaluate.
Recognize Swimmers Who Are Struggling
Coaches need to be attuned to swimmers whose emotions are impairing their ability to optimally execute their skills in practice. When we pay attention, we can recognize swimmers who are becoming frustrated, apathetic, or distracted. With time, coaches can learn to identify each swimmer’s mannerisms, behaviors, and words that imply a problem is present. Once we identify opportunities for intervention and improvement, we can then work to create change.
Help Swimmers Identify Challenging Situations
Once coaches have identified a loss of control, we can help swimmers become aware of the situation. Most swimmers will have a general sense of feeling off track, while simultaneously being unable to articulate the problem. Coaches can help legitimize the issue by making the situation concrete for the swimmer. What’s critical is that awareness is created in a supportive and non-judgmental manner, framed as an opportunity as opposed to a deficit.
As above with coaches, once awareness is created, intervention becomes possible.
Help Swimmers Recognize Impending Loss of Control
When swimmers are aware of problematic situations, coaches can then help swimmers recognize when they are beginning to struggle. This process is best facilitated by asking questions and allowing swimmers to reflect on what they feel and how they behave when they struggle. Importantly, swimmers need to reflect on whether these feelings and emotions are serving them positively. If not, a plan needs to be developed to help move toward facilitative behaviors.
Help Swimmers Create a Plan
Like with coaches, once swimmers are aware of potential problems and recognize when they begin to struggle, they can start to intervene to get back on track. As opposed to offering solutions, coaches can best help swimmers by asking great questions and promoting the problem-solving process.
‘How can you disengage and get back in control?’
What can you do right now to improve the situation?’
By encouraging swimmers to work to solve their own problems, they are much more likely to own them, engage with them, and execute them.
The same process can be applied for those individuals who struggle with maintaining emotional control during competition. Some swimmers may struggle with the anticipation of competition, while others may struggle with managing their reaction to the results of individual races and the effect on subsequent races. Once a recurring problem has been identified, coaches and swimmers can repeat the same process to create a plan for intervening in challenging situations.
Through awareness, recognition, and planning, coaches and swimmers can both improve their ability to stop a loss of emotional control and stay focused on what needs to be done in the moment. While there aren’t concrete solutions that work for all, awareness is key. By tuning in, we can start to intervene.
For coaches, emotional regulation can help to ensure that coaching behaviors are providing swimmers with the best environment opportunity to be successful. For swimmers, emotional control can allow them to focus on the task at hand and execute it to the best of their abilities, greatly increasing the likelihood of having a great practice or fast race.