This is the final installment on a series of four articles about mental training. It addresses the last 2 phases of the mental program for individual preparation that includes relaxation and visualization. Relaxed muscles perform better, have more endurance, more elasticity and more quickness than do tense muscles. Learning how to relax may come naturally to some, but primarily it is a learned response that requires patience and practice.
Phase 2. This phase of mental training coincides with the dual meet portion of the season. We do bi-weekly sessions, lasting between ½ hr. to one hour, which involve education about the mental training process. We continue to progress in the team book as well as handle the disappointments and frustrations that invariably come with doing hard training. At this point the main emphasis is on learning the relaxation response, but we do some generic visualization. Cooper comments, “You can’t make what’s possible happen until you imagine it.” One exercise I got from ex-Cal mental coach Karl Mohr involves having your athletes visualize points in their past both having to do with swimming and having nothing to do with swimming that were either complete failures/negatives or complete successes/positives. The exercise is useful in exorcizing old demons as well as reaffirming their best attributes. Cooper affirms that “our brains are hardwired to protect old habits. . . . We polish our existing habits instead of creating breakthroughs.” From this point on, each session closes with affirmations about behaviors that we want to encourage. It is repeated so often, it becomes almost like a church chant, connecting each athlete to his own source of power. Again the key is to connect emotions to the desired outcome. Cooper refers to research where “Brain scans show that simply imagining a complex and compelling goal will actually fire the same neurons that will be required to actually achieve that goal.”1
The Brain. It is well known that the brain is an electrochemical organ. Electrical activity emanating from the brain is displayed in the form of brainwaves. There are four categories of these brainwaves, ranging from the most activity to the least activity. When the brain is aroused and actively engaged in mental activities, it generates beta waves. The frequency of beta waves ranges from 15 to 40 (Hz) cycles a second. Beta waves are characteristics of a strongly engaged mind. A person in active conversation would be in beta. A debater would be in high beta. The next brainwave category in order of frequency is alpha. Where beta represented arousal, alpha represents non-arousal. Alpha brainwaves are slower, and higher in amplitude. Their frequency ranges from 9 to 14 cycles per second. It is the alpha state that is most useful in accelerated learning and visualization because the left hemisphere is quiet and allows the right hemisphere to take equal partnership in the brain’s activity. Since imagery is fundamentally a right brain function, alpha state is ideal because there is still enough consciousness to direct activity. In the next state, theta brainwaves are typically of even greater amplitude and slower frequency. This frequency range is normally between 5 and 8 cycles a second. This would be considered light sleep or semi-consciousness, but it can still receive subliminal messages. The final brainwave state is delta. Here the brainwaves are of the greatest amplitude and slowest frequency. They typically range from 1.5 to 4 cycles per second and are present during deep sleep.
Programming the Brain. Before visualization can be truly effective, athletes need to practice achieving the relaxation response. This is not an easy task. It takes Hindu priests years of practice to achieve the deepest states of meditation, but studies show that just 6 to 8 weeks of practice changes the neurochemical makeup of the brain. There are several methods that can be used to bring about the alpha state. One way involves playing soothing music. The one I have used most often, Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, is ideal if it is played as a Largo of 60 beats per minute. The key is to occupy the left hemisphere with mathematically precise symmetry so that it will be lulled into an alpha state. Playing any Baroque largo will do the trick (Bach’s The Goldberg Variations was composed to relax its auditor into sleep); composers like Beethoven, Chopin, and Stravinsky won’t work—their music is designed to stimulate. On the other hand, Mozart and other late 17th and early 18th century composers are much more conducive if you look for adagios and slower passages.
Deep Breathing. Coupling music with other activities is even more effective. Most athletes instinctively do deep breathing on the verge of event performance. It oxygenates the blood and adds to your feeling of energy. (Before a race you shouldn’t do more than 3 or 4 or you may become light headed.) Deep breathing exercises systematize this instinctive response. Breath control has been used by yoga gurus for thousands of years. There are several different types of yoga breathing practices. The one I use involves softening the muscles of your face, even the spaces under your cheeks bones. You breathe naturally through your nose relaxing your lips and tongue employing a four-part breath. Allow your inhale, the pause between your inhale and exhale, your exhale, and the pause between your exhale and your inhale, to all equal the same smooth count. We begin with inhaling four counts, holding your breath in for four counts, exhaling four counts and holding your breath out for four counts. We do this procedure four times through, then move to 6 counts and sometimes even to 8 counts. On each inhalation, fill the belly up with your breath. Expand the belly with air like a balloon. Then on each exhalation, expel all the air out from the belly through your nose. On the exhale, let the breath go first from the upper chest, letting the heart center sink back down, then from the rib cage, letting the ribs slide closer together, and finally from the belly, drawing the navel back towards the spine. The breathing meshes perfectly with Pachelbel’s music. New Trier’s mental coach, Larry Stoegbauer suggests you can place one hand on the abdomen to feel it rising and falling. He employs a three-phase breath in a 1/4/2 ratio.
Other Relaxation Methods. In addition there are several other methods involving the use of guided imagery to elicit the relaxation response. Dan Ronan, in his The Swimmers’ Memorandum on Mental Training (1977), imagines a beach scene to calm the brain, although any peaceful scene (beach/ woods/ floating in the sky) will do. Our athletes’ favorite relaxation exercise is found on a CD called The Ultimate Brain: Disc 4 Ultimate Performance created by Tom Kenyon and Paul Overman (1997). Track 3: “Arc of Numbers” already employs music and focuses the brain on transferring numbers from one hand to the other. Another exercise using imagery is the escalator method that descends into levels of color from red to ultraviolet. A more physical method is to use tension/relaxation with specific focus on separate muscle groups similar to Lamaze techniques used in birthing classes. We use a variety of these methods to keep from getting stale. And while they prefer some exercises to others, the fact remains that they all help the athletes arrive Coupling music with other activities is even more effective. Most athletes instinctively do deep breathing on the verge of event performance. at the alpha state which is the essential point of departure for effective visualization.
More Questionnaires. A few weeks into the dual meet portion of the season, I want them to review and evaluate their performances in meets up to that point. They are still consciously learning new skills and new strategies and that requires conscious assessment. More importantly I ask them to assess the last few weeks of training including: Self-direction, Mental preparation, Flexibility, Stroke mechanics, Starts and turns, Aerobic condition, Anaerobic condition, Strength, and Speed (power). We need to know what to focus on with each individual by turning weaknesses into strengths. This questionnaire also begins preliminary taper questions, so that the athletes know what they need to be thinking about.
At the end of Phase 2, just before the taper season begins, we give out another questionnaire that asks for specific taper information to help in the design of their individualized program. These questions involve specific sets, how much rest they need, etc. No one has the identical needs of someone else, so all of the tapers are individualized although each athlete may be doing most of the same sets as others on any given day. We have been setting up this acceptance of uniqueness throughout the season, so there is no resentment when some are still doing 8,000 yards a day 3 weeks out, while others are down to 1,500.
Phase 3. With about 3 weeks to go, we have cut back on dryland activities, which gives us more time to focus on refining the mental aspects of our program. This means mental training at least 3 times a week up to 1 ½ hours with the main emphasis on race specific visualization. We use thought pictures and relaxation techniques more often in practice. You need to reinforce concepts you have been using. A lactate set is a perfect time to work on breathing exercises and/ or relaxing under stressful conditions.
At this point in the season, it is essential that you tailor your sets for success. When my athletes fail at practice, I’ve failed as a coach. Unless you’ve designed the set to bring them to failure (eg. survival 50’s or a superset), assess the damage and try to resurrect some positive before they leave. Usually, failure comes from one of three things: 1) improper set design (especially in warmup with an inadequate preset), 2) unrealistic expectations, or 3) the athlete is still fatigued from a previous workout. Whatever the issue, psychological damage at this point could be devastating. Tell them your perception of the problem and let them off the hook. As in the classroom, if the lesson plan isn’t working, stop and move to something else. Part of the art of coaching is knowing how to restore shattered confidence.
As already mentioned in part 3, there are optimal levels of arousal for each athlete, but they differ depending on both the individual and on the activity to be performed. They need to know their optimum level (IPS) for the event they are swimming. Generally, swimming involves “feel” of the water. High levels of anxiety (fear) produce automatic responses from the adrenal glands that result in blood flowing away from the skin to more “core” areas. Pumpit-up music can literally damage performance. On the other hand, low levels of anxiety do not solicit the increased strength/energy that swimming one’s best requires. In such circumstances pump-it-up music can be beneficial. Generally in big meets, however, being pumped up enough is not a problem; being too anxious is. Therefore, learning how to relax under pressure is an indispensable skill. Many use headphones to shut out distractions, and the playing of familiar music prior to the race just serves to put them back in their comfort zones. Since emotions run the show, if athletes get trapped into feelings of hopelessness and despair, no mater how prepared they are physically, they are in serious trouble. This can usually be corrected by mental rehearsals completed sometime before they actually swim—in other words, visualizations.
Visualization. To get the maximum out of visualization, you must begin with relaxation. As explained earlier, dropping down into “alpha” state allows the two hemispheres of the neocortex that are normally at odds with each other to synchronize their efforts rather than be at cross purposes. Again different swimmers respond to different stimuli, so, with some, their visualization may be more effective using sound or tactile sensations rather than merely visual cues. Your athletes may want to visualize from a third person (camera) point of view rather than a first person point of view—whatever works. Tell them that they also want their mental rehearsals to be flawless. If they make a mistake, they need to replay the desired skill or portion of the race until they get it right—a case of “perfect practice makes perfect.” They want to
1) see (the pool, balcony, water, lanes, swimmers, etc)
2) hear (your coaches, teammates, spectators, splashings, etc.)
3) feel (temperature, water on various strategic parts of your body,
4) smell (chemicals, rubdown lotions, etc.)
5) taste (chemicals, what you had for lunch when you burp)
My script uses loaded words that drip from the senses. Space does not permit me to reprint it here. However, if you are interested you can email me and I will send you a copy. I take them from a point about 20 minutes out from their race right through the start. From there they are on their own until I tell them to wind up the race about 2 minutes later. The race itself should take about the same amount of time as the real race will. If it is a 50, have them replay their favorite moments. The 500 on the other hand will have to miss a few laps during the team practice. Once your athletes get good at this exercise, they should be doing this at home anyway, either with a copy of the tape you use or with their own music and narration, and they can adjust the time accordingly. Whether at practice or at home, the race should be practiced almost every day. On the day of the race, it’s a “done deal”; all they have to do is relax, let go, and let the good times roll.
Our visualizations get so specific by race day, that they know what lane they are in and who is next to them on each side. The more accurate the vision, the more “real” the memory. The brain cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. The more they have already performed what they project, the less anxiety when it comes time to actually perform. The brain just figures it’s another day at the office. Moreover, if, as suggested, the emotions run the show, they don’t want to let their limbic system be the enemy. They need to commit themselves to outflow and positive self-talk. Introspection often leads to poor performance because they just “think too much.” Depression, confusion, and angst are generally not good motivators. Neither is anger, for that matter, although some do channel this emotion into positive flow. At the highest levels, confidence is the name of the game, and that can come with visualization. They need to see themselves smiling and full of energy. Fatigue comes when emotions are sunk with stress. Exhilaration comes when emotions are buoyed with hope. We remind them over and over, “Enjoy what you do by preparing your mind to receive it because you are worthy to achieve it. You are the x factor in this game.” I got this line a few years ago, and I love the concept:
“The athlete swims the first 75—the person swims the last 25.” -Wayne Goldsmtih, Australian National Coach
Because swimming is just an excuse for the game, I conclude with this thought. “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me, If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing. If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing, If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
1“Song of Myself” Walt Whitman 1Cooper, Robert K, Get Out of Your Own Way, (2006) 35.