The Psychology of Swimming

The psychology of the triathlon swim – how many of you just held your breath for a moment, feeling the anxiety that comes as you stand on the edge of a lake, the ocean or a river just before the gun goes off in your race? I have been there, I understand. The good news is, you don’t have to feel that kind of anxiety anymore. You just need to understand that we can all manage our thoughts on the start line, to help us execute the swim to the best of our abilities, and enjoy it at the same time.

Everyone gets nervous and feels afraid, but this feeling of anxiousness is just excitement. You are about to take on this incredible challenge. You are strong, brave and you are prepared. How exciting to take on this great adventure. Instead of defining the swim as “the scariest part” or “my weakness” or as something you just need “to get through so you can do what you love”, let’s define it in another way!

How about we look at the swim as another opportunity to stretch – to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and to experience all the excitement, joy and growth that comes with doing that. The swim is an exciting opportunity to explore our limits, to dance with our fear and to grow and progress into the athlete and person we dream of becoming. Dance with your fear!

Fear motivates and challenges us. When we don’t let it get in our way; when we rise above it by taking it by the hand and dancing with it, there is no more empowering feeling.

I remember my first open water swim race in one of my first triathlons. I stood on the start line, stiff as a board not breathing or moving – I was just paralysed in my fear. We have all been there, I imagine, at some point – stepping into the unknown. Not only diving into water so deep we can’t touch the ground, but thrown into that same water with 100s of other people, fighting for space to swim to the best of their abilities. Elbows fly, kicking feet can often strike someone else’s body rather than just the water. We are challenged to find the straightest line to the buoys; to swim the required distance, no more, no less.

Our heads under the water, we all “fight” to breathe. In trying too hard to do something that we can do naturally without even thinking, we feel a sense of panic and that leads to us not feeling in control of our thoughts, much less our bodies.

We are told to follow the bubbles ahead of us. But in doing so, what if that person has no idea how to sight? What if we suddenly find ourselves completely off course? Who can you trust? Whose bubbles are okay to follow?

What do you do if you get hit? What do you do if you go off course? What do you do if you swallow water? What do you do if you can’t breathe? How do we learn how to relax on the start line?

The first answer to these questions is – breathe. Stay calm. Think about what you are saying to yourself in this moment.

Are you saying, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I can’t breathe, I am going to drown.” If you are, stop that nonsense. What you tell yourself – you will feel. Your thoughts create your emotions, which, then determines your experience.

So, instead, say, “Wow, I am working hard, therefore, I am breathing hard. This means I am doing exactly what I need to be doing right now!” And if you get out of breath, just roll to your side, or your back, catch your breath and then carry on.

“I am fine. I am strong. I can do this!” Have this conversation with yourself, and you will create that experience. What you focus on determines your reality. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t. Focus on what you want to feel, not on what you don’t.

Breathe! Most importantly, just breathe. On the start line, the biggest mistake I see most people make is not breathing, or just taking shallow quick breaths with tight shoulders, and standing completely still. Stiff as a board, not talking or moving, just worrying. Loosen up. Crack a joke to the person next to you. Think of something funny, a memory that literally makes you laugh out loud. Remember that moment, see and hear that person, feel what it felt like in that funny moment.
Breathe, laugh, loosen up, and think about how excited you are to be on the start line of this great challenge.

Be proud of all the work it took to get to the start line. Be proud of your strength, your commitment and your courage. Be ready to just get into a rhythm and go, and embrace every aspect of this great adventure.

Swing your arms around. Move. Breathe.

Big deep breaths through your nose, into your lungs, feel your belly expand and then exhale through your mouth. Think of keywords you will focus on while swimming – words like strong, confident, fluid and free. Look on the horizon for something you can sight off to get the straightest line to the buoy. Hopefully, during your warm-up, you had an opportunity to sight something bigger than the buoy, in the distance, that will help you find your way to the buoy effectively.

When the gun goes off, because you have been moving around on the start line, you are ready to go! Get out fast, so you can get clear of any slower swimmers around you. No matter how slow you think you are, there is always someone either slower, or not as effective in sighting. So, get out fast so you can find your space to swim. Sight every three to five strokes to ensure that you are staying on course. Focus on your stroke – powerful catch, deep pull, a powerful finish, a strong kick and fast stroke rate (in my opinion a real plus for open water swimming).

Focus on what you need to do to execute to the best of your ability. Stay in the moment. Focus on the process, not the outcome. No judgement! Make a mistake? Move on! Ask yourself: “What can I do now to make this the best moment possible?”

Focusing on technique, or rhythm is a very proactive focus to have. Have positive or at least proactive conversations with yourself. How do you want to feel? Strong, fluid, confident, fast. What do you want to do? Take the fastest line to the buoy. Stay calm, cool and collected. Swim. Flow. Embrace the adventure! Replace any negative thoughts, with a positive or at least proactive one, and you will be on your way to having the best swim you are capable of.

Triathlon is an incredible adventure. The swim for many is the greatest challenge of a triathlon. How rad are you that you have the courage to take on such an incredible feat? Embrace your ‘amazingness’, and feel grateful for the strength that is you, the courage that is you. Feel grateful for the passion you feel for this sport and the inspiration you bring to others.


Siri Lindley

A world champion athlete herself and now one of the most revered triathlon coaches in the world, Siri enables athletes to become the champions and the people they were born to be. With an ability to see things in people they cannot see in themselves, Siri is driven by a unrivalled passion for triathlon and the people within.
Follow Siri at
Twitter: @SELTS
Instagram: @sirilindley

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