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Building 'Mental Toughness' Part II

Coaches love to talk about mental toughness, yet it’s not really clear what mental toughness even is. In part I, I sought to make the intangible tangible, defining mental toughness as the following-

The ability to do what needs to be done regardless of the circumstance.

With a definition focused on tangible actions that can be quantified and made objective, we can start to actually develop this ability. Typical strategies for developing mental toughness include no strategy at all, physically demanding training, or laying on the ground and trying to relax. These strategies are divorced from the actions that need to be performed, particularly in competition.

Swimmers will be judged by their actions in training and competition, whether they are able to execute the behaviors that are required to meet their goals. If they can’t do it, they’re not ‘tough’. It is about the ability to retain task-specific focus in any circumstance. As outlined in part I, training this ability starts with what needs to be done and then putting these skills under physical pressure.

If a swimmer can’t execute their skills in physically stressful state, they won’t be able to execute these skills in a state that is physically AND psychologically stressful. Strategies to accomplish this goal are described in part I.

It’s time to address the challenge of performing under psychological pressure.

Execute Skills Under Pressure

Once a swimmer can execute their skills, execute their skills at speed, and execute their skills under physiological stress, they need to be ready to execute when it matters most. That situation is going to be different for every individual. It could be a local, regional, national, or international meet. All that really matters is that there is pressure to perform, it’s an unfamiliar environment, and there are limited opportunities. Most swimmers only go to the Olympics once.

There are two components to improving the ability to perform under pressure. In the first case, swimmers need to learn how to manage whatever pressure does exist. They learn to do this through exposure to the situations they’ll face, and learning different strategies to enhance performance in these environments. This takes practice in contextually appropriate environments.

Beyond expanding the skillsets swimmers develop to perform under pressure, we can also affect the other side of the equation. We can work to reduce the amount of pressure that is unnecessarily created through the actions and thought processes of coaches and swimmers alike. Regardless of how it is approached, the Olympics will be a pressure-filled environment. It’s inevitable. However, how it’s discussed, the goals that are set, and the thought processes enacted can greatly inflate or minimize the pressure. The same applies for any competition that represents the highest level a swimmer has achieved.

Ideally, we’d be able to re-create the environment so we can practice it. The challenge is in creating an environment that each swimmer may only experience once. You can never re-create the Olympic environment. This challenge is magnified by the rarity in which swimmers find themselves in these situations. Some are fortunate enough to return to the same circumstance; most only get 1 shot. However, we can find ways to put swimmers under pressure with regularity and give them the tools to manage the pressure.

Regardless of the level of the swimmer, each has their own Olympics in which they will be under pressure. As coaches, we are tasked with preparing them to perform in that environment. An individual’s physical readiness is only relevant to the extent they can realize it.

There two types of strategies that coaches can employ. In the first case, they can work to behave in a manner that creates an optimal performance for swimmers to manage pressure. This helps to ensure that our behaviors are working in a way that supports the behaviors swimmers want to develop. In the second case, we can provide swimmers with specific tools to manage whatever pressure exists.

The Environment

How coaches behave is going to increase or decrease the pressure swimmers feel in highly competitive situations. It only makes sense to create an environment that is optimal for performance. Our behaviors as coaches are hugely important, and seemingly innocent or insignificant behaviors can have a major impact.

Make swimmers safe. Threatening environments increase pressure. As coaches, we can contribute to this threatening environment with an excessive focus on the result, as well as through our demeanor. Swimmers can tell when we’re really nervous, anxious, or high strung. They’re already feeling these same emotions, and our behaviors can potentially reinforce those emotions.

The more we can smile, be relaxed, and present create a safe and fun environment, the more we can ease the pressure swimmers may feel. A do or die approach is not going to be helpful. The less pressure we create with the weight of our expectations, the more swimmers will feel free to race without constraints.

Swimmers are keenly aware of how you react to failure. The more this reaction tends to be overtly negative, the more their safety is going to be threatened. Not only is our behavior in the moment important, it is our track record of behavior that creates an impact.

Make it not a big deal. I once read that the secret to negotiation is to care about the outcome, but not THAT much. The same applies to important events in the pool. The outcome has to be important to ensure great effort and focus. However, if the outcome is too important, it becomes paralyzing. For the vast majority of swimmers, the harder they try, the worse they perform.

As coaches, we can facilitate the appropriate mindset by how we set the stage for performances in practice and competition, as well as how we react to the outcomes. Generally speaking, swimmers are well aware of the importance of upcoming meets. The more we create the impression that the upcoming competition is really, really important, the more we are adding to the pressure swimmers are experiencing. It would make sense not to do this.

Beyond how we approach important competitions and performances, how coaches react to outcomes matters as well. If we are over the top with success and down in the dumps with failure, swimmers pick up on this and it unnecessarily affects the pressure they feel. We are adding performance expectations by portraying how performances affect US. No matter how they act, swimmers don’t want to disappoint their coaches. How much pressure is created is dictated by our reaction to performances.

Manage expectations. If the only successful outcome is winning, a lot of swimmers are going to be disappointed. Coaches walk a fine line between helping swimmers understand what is possible and creating unnecessary performance expectations. The more swimmers focus on and dream about what it will be like to achieve a certain goal, the more the pressure begins to mount. The danger with dreams is that they can get carried away really easily.

Expectations get become colossal, they become the focus, and they start to become real. These dreams become something that a swimmer begins to possess and see as something they’ve earned. Now swimmers have something to lose and now there is more pressure.

Take the US Olympic Trials. Historically, there are 1,000-2,000 participants. The vast majority have no chance at qualifying for the Olympics, yet they all get caught up in the Olympic hype. They don’t manage expectations, they focus on the dream instead of the process, and they swim slow.

Talking about a goal is important to set a course of action. Once that course of action is established, ACTION needs to be the focus as opposed to the goal. Set a goal. Then forget it and move on to the specific strategies that are required to achieve that goal. Dream about THOSE. Expectations will be managed and pressure will be reduced when all your focus is on what can be controlled.

Keep people happy. Every coach has heard the expression ‘happy swimmer, fast swimmer’ for a reason; it has merit. When swimmers are happy in their environment, happy with their relationships, happy with their training, and having fun in meets, they stand a much better chance of performing well. It eases the pressure. Coaches can facilitate this environment through the relationships they foster and the culture they develop. This is occurs every day, and it starts with the first day of practice. It’s not something that gets turned on in meets. Relationships matter, both between swimmers and swimmers and swimmers and coaches. They need to be worked on constantly. In most cases, it comes down to respect.

Putting It into Practice

Our behavior in practice and competition is going to significantly impact the psychological state of our swimmers. If we don’t behave appropriately, we’re making it that much harder for our swimmers. Assuming they’ve done all of the required work in training, it’s up to us to behave appropriately in meets to give them the best chance to show off the impact of all the great training they’ve done.

Having done our part, it’s important to provide swimmers with skills to manage their thoughts and emotions as well. We’ll explore some strategies in the part III.

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