In preparation for the recent Ironman UK event, I worked with a couple of my athletes to manage their pre-race nerves and in particular, the anxiety that they frequently experience before or during the swim.
Our session took place on the day before the race, after racking, so there were few other preparations remaining – just final hydration, fuel and wetsuit, cap and goggles to remember.
Finding a relatively quiet part of our race HQ weekend rental, I invited both of the athletes to lie down and quieten their minds. With so much anticipation, this is easier said than done. In reality, it gave all three of us the opportunity to prepare for the abstract concept of visualization. If you were reading from a sports psychology book, it might feel perfectly normal and valid subject but commencing a game of “let’s pretend” for grown-ups, after months of hard physical preparation felt difficult to do right away.
After a couple of minutes and some very high-level note taking, I began to walk them through a scene – beginning in the transition area, an image they could easily recollect from just a few hours before.
In our minds, we walked through transition and up to the swim start area and used that time to reflect on all the training they had completed – the strength and conditioning sessions, the hill sprints, the long endurance rides, the tempo runs, the brick sessions and of course, the technique sessions, endurance pool sessions and open water swims, including the previous day’s practice swim. I confirmed for them, that they had done the work and that they could be confident that they were ready for the race ahead.
Both athletes had completed Ironman events before. I asked them to recollect the crowd, the cheers of the finish chute and the words of support from thousands of spectators out on the course. The spectators were there for them, to see them swim, cycle and run their way through a personal celebration of their hard work, dedication, sacrifice and determination to finish in order to accomplish something that many could only dream about.
We drew in the big picture of Ironman preparation, to focus just on the swim. We looked at the faces of the other athletes around us and how they looked back, with pained expressions of apprehension, wondering how we could be so calm, so confident ahead of the trial to come.
Down the ramp, goggles on and in turn, into the water we went.
Rather than asking them to visualize their ‘safe place’ away from the turmoil of the Ironman swim, I chose to use what we already knew about the swim itself – those things that could actually be seen through swimming goggles, as the swim progressed. We would rely on creating a sense of familiarity and a feeling that all-is-well, rather than escapism from our surroundings.
I asked them to focus on seeing the water shooting backward under them, over their sleek, slippery wetsuits, as they made good progress through the water. I encouraged them to see the long white stream of bubbles from their steady exhalation and to feel the rhythm of their swim stroke as they swam confidently forward in the mass of swimmers they were among. From time to time, I’d prompt them to sight on the big, yellow buoys that market out the swim course.
Combining a lightly tapped-out stroke rhythm, I spoke, in a gentle and relaxed tone using meter to prompt their visualization. Tap, tap, “long white bubbles” tap, tap “big, yellow buoy” tap, tap, “water passing under you” tap, tap, “making good progress” tap, tap “long white bubbles” tap, tap, “big yellow buoy” tap, tap “long stream of white bubbles”, tap, tap “as you gently exhale” tap, tap, “water moving under you”, tap, tap, “big yellow buoy”.
And so, it went on, for several minutes, becoming the verbal representation of the athletes’ visualization – a mantra that could be used in practice. I felt sure that both athletes were seeing themselves moving confidently through the water, tapping out a consistent stroke rate, exhaling smoothly, rather than holding their breath and from time to time, sighting forward to see the big yellow buoys that marked out the course.
I left the room as quietly as possible, allowing the athletes to return slowly from their relaxed state and the images that we had been using for some time.
Initial feedback from the athletes included comments across the range of “powerful”, “emotional”, “calming”, “reassuring” and “helpful”.
Watching both athletes during the event, I can say they looked calm, executed well, were smiling their way through the Australian exit and held good technique through to the end of their swims. Objectively, they both set big personal bests and feel happy about how it went.
It’s very difficult to say the extent to which the visualization contributed to those PBs, as there are so many variables.
What I can say, is that for those that are prepared to try it, I’ll be repeating the exercise with more athletes, with a variety of performance challenges and will continue to monitor its effectiveness in race preparations.