“90% of the game is half mental” - Yogi Berra, famous Yankees catcher and manager

At the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, 15 world records were broken. At the 2007 NCAA Championships, there were 4 swimmers who swam 42+ in the 100 Freestyle that did not make finals. I suspect records will continue to fall and the field will keep getting faster. Is this because the gene pool is superior to what it was 30 years ago? I would have serious doubts about that. In 1977 Joe Bottom was the first man under 20 in the 50 yd. Freestyle, but his time thirty years later would have missed scoring in the top 16. Much of this improvement at the bottom end comes as a result of a significant improvement in the level of coaching. Because “the world is flat,” as Thomas Friedman states in his book of the same name, more and better information is getting into the hands of more and more people both in this country and around the globe. A better understanding of technique combined with a much more sophisticated concept of physiology has produced much faster swimmers even in non-traditional swimming areas such as Greece or Tunisia. But that is only a portion of the total picture. World records keep progressing because expectations keep progressing. Everyone knows the Roger Bannister story. As the frontiers of physiological limits are reached, it is the mind that continues to push the body into uncharted waters.

I’m sure that many believe that mental training is some sort of hocus pocus or voodoo that has little place in the scientific principles employed in swimming. “Just give us a couple of quick visualization sessions and everything will be great.” “That stuff doesn’t work for me.” I’ve heard it all. But the data is overwhelming, mental training has a significant effect on producing superior efforts in athletics.

We have a pretty good idea about aerobic capacity and how to train it. But if what Yogi Berra said above is true, how can we devote 100% of our time to physical preparation, especially if we consider that “emotions run the show” as both James Loehr (The New Toughness Training for Sports) and Daniel Goleman (in his 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence) suggest. In the early 1980’s Swimming World had an excellent regular column by Don Swartz devoted to this aspect of our sport. But that was a long time ago. Recent research confirms that neurons in the cognitive areas of the brain connect directly with neurons that stem from the emotional centers of the Limbic system. While advancements in the study of neuroplasticity are opening new worlds of understanding, it is ironic that the role of mental training in enhancing athletic performance has been neglected of late. This series of articles intends to reestablish some of the basic principles of mental training. In his famous book The Nuts and Bolts of Psychology for Swimmers (1980) Dr. Keith Bell calls this the “magic pill within.” He qualifies this phrase however by saying:

Too many swimmers and coaches are turning toward psychology . . . in search of a magic pill that will somehow, mysteriously, effortlessly and immediately charm their efforts into winning performances. The magic is there. But it does not come mysteriously, effortlessly or immediately.

Mental training requires time, focus, and discipline just as much as physical training both at the team level and at the individual level. This is the first in a series of articles that will address both the team and individual components of mental training.

TEAM DYNAMICS - One Theme, One Team.

Clearly swimming is an individual sport: except in relays, you cannot rely on your teammates to back up a poor performance and save your bacon. Just as clearly, however, is the amazing role team synergy can play in performance. We have all witnessed our athletes swim incredible races in relays when they know that the team needs them to “step up.” I have seen teams with poor training habits and poor conditioning still taper unbelievably well because their coach was a master of team synergy. Creating the team provides the base for mental training. As many psychological programs (such as AA) will attest, without outside support and an external structure, internal change is much more difficult. 

A common theme for the year can play a major role in team bonding. In the documentary movie The Heart of the Game head basketball coach Bill Resler recognizes this fact and sells his team on being a pack of wolves. He continually reminds them before and during the state championship game to demonstrate wolf behavior by urging them to “devour” their opponents and to “look in their eyes.” Consequently, when he inserts freshmen who have had limited playing time during the year into the lineup late in an extremely close game, they play with confidence and come through with several clutch baskets. He uses a different theme each year including “a pride of lions,” “magical journey,” and the upcoming “school of piranhas.” Team building is one aspect of mental training. Establishing a team identity is fundamental if you hope to create the synergy that will create superior team performances.

Several years ago (I won’t embarrass anyone by saying how many) then-Mercersburg’s coach John Trembley centered his ritual on the painting Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. He talked with the team about the symbolism of helping out a teammate and then used rituals to reinforce the concept. You can use your imagination as long as the rituals are not considered hazing. But the importance of ritual cannot be overstated. Something as simple as tapping the school logo on the way out of a locker room is one way to connect the mind to larger sources of power and give hope and courage where there is otherwise a feeling of overwhelming despair. Jeff Anderson in Mesa, Arizona employs a team chant that reminds everyone on his team that no one is in the arena by himself. Most team cheers have that precise function: to connect diverse individuals with a common goal. Not only do they connect current individuals within a team, they can connect to past teams and especially to past team performances. We have certain cheers that are unique to us at the conference meet. No other team has them, and it helps our swimmers feel they are invincible. The human psyche is a history of employing the collective chant to overcome fear. Traditional cheers should be taught to the neophytes early in the season. You can get out of workout five minutes later for the first week and have your leaders teach the cheers. Have some sort of contest or “get-out of practice” cheer. Use your imagination to make team cheers fun, and part of your team chemistry. At my school, on the day before league meet, the team members of the opposite sex (we don’t have concurrent seasons) decorate the pool. The team is locked into the locker room and cannot come into practice until the decorating team deems they have cheered with sufficient enthusiasm to merit entrance. At the meet, the relays cannot progress to the starting blocks until they have been surrounded by the power of a team cheer. In addition, part of the fun of any sport is making up new cheers— using group creativity. Whatever you do, the ultimate goal is the submergence of the weaker World records keep progressing because expectations keep progressing. self into the waters of a collective strength. One drop has little energy, but several drops in a collective effort can produce a Tsunami.

The Ritual Force.

Putting on ritual masks and/or performing invocational dances have been used for centuries in societies around the globe to steel those about to go into battle or go on the hunt. In hunter societies the child is literally ripped from his mother and given a dangerous quest/task to perform before he can become an adult. In his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell talks about how the hero must leave the protection of society before he can return and impart new knowledge to the tribe. All religions recognize that a descent into darkness is necessary before one can climb the mountaintop (eg. Moses, Jesus, Mohamed, and Buddha). The symbolic death of the old self is necessary for the birth of new skills and understanding. However, the rituals must reinforce the theme. And, preferably, they should be generated by the team in order to have meaning for that team. Whatever rituals you choose, they need to focus on a level of understanding that cannot be otherwise attained. For example: The team shaving party prior to your championships separates them from the school community, but places confidence in the hands of each other. Certain workouts or sets move them beyond ordinary and let them know they are special. Both shaving and facing a certain workout become rites of passage that let the swimmers know they are at a new level. Former NISCA president Mike Zinn used an exercise called the “Spirit Stick” based on the demonstrable fact that a person hitting the ground (or table) with a stick could improve his number of taps in the same amount of time by over 50% simply by hearing a chorus of encouragement from his teammates. A captain, carrying this stick at the front of the team into a meet, visibly (and ritualistically) demonstrates the importance of team support in improving levels of performance.

The use of ritual music (eg. hymns during the Crusades, the highland pipes of Scotland) has propelled many a warrior into harm’s way. The “drums of war” did more than provide a cadence count. A team song can easily be used to reinforce the current year’s theme, again using something that connects to your team. One year, we marched in to Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” another it was “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” or the school fight song. Besides using rituals at meets, you can devise rituals at other less stressful venues. At a team party you might have all freshmen perform some sort of skit pertaining to some aspect of the team or divide your team into smaller task-oriented groups that must solve a puzzle or perform a collective skill. Do not be afraid to make them uncomfortable—the point of ritual actually should center on having them overcome some kind of fear. Isn’t that the origin of the concept behind the TV series “Fear Factor”? A common experience where the “tribe” collectively faces its fears breeds uncommon valor when the individual must face Goliath on his own. Think about Herb Brooks’ blue line drill in the movie Miracle. When it came crunch time against the Russians in the 3rd period, they had the collective consciousness of superior toughness. The ritual must be connected to meaning (Brooks’ message that they were part of Team USA). What Coach A does will not necessarily work for Coach B, nor will what worked for your team last year necessarily work for your team this year. To merely repeat something is not a ritual; it must be connected to the psychic core of your athletes. If you look at all the rituals embedded into the Star Wars series, it is obvious they appeal to the emotional essence of their audience, and hence relate to millions around the globe.

If you wish to transform a team, the desire must be inculcated into their collective psyche or no change will take place. Bill Boomer talks about building strokes from the inside out, Whatever rituals you choose, they need to focus on a level of understanding that cannot be otherwise attained. beginning with core concepts such as balance and developing new thought pictures. However, if butterfly already has a certain set of prescribed thought pictures ingrained into the mind, you can do all of the new drills you can imagine, but when it comes time to swim “butterfly,” you will do the same things you have always done, and you will continue to swim outside/in. The same concept applies to teams. You must give them tasks that take them out of their comfort zones, and move them from where they are (inside) to where they are not (outside). When this is done in a spirit of love and enthusiasm (not of sadism or from fear of ridicule or disgrace), the team will see with new eyes, and the results will shine.

Weekly Newsletter.

The main thing with a theme is to constantly reinforce its concepts, not to just pay lip service two or three times a year. One way to do this is through a weekly newsletter. While the newsletter functions as a source of information, its primary goal should be motivational not informational. The following is an excerpt from a randomly picked newsletter (in this case week #4 of 2002). The first section refers to our team book for that year The Legend of Bagger Vance. If you know the book, each hole on the golf course is given a name (Valor, vigor, stamina, etc.). Each week we would talk about the concept of that hole’s word (note: Since there are 18 holes we had to sometimes put in more than one hole in a week)


Using a weekly newsletter cements the theme into the consciousness as well as augment the individual mental program that will be discussed later. It empowers the team to move toward a common goal but places the power of ownership within the reach of each member. The next part of this article will focus on more specific team activities that can produce effective motivation.


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