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Overcoming swimming anxiety

Thanks to Dr Joann Lukins from Peak Performance Psychology for sharing this article.

I love my job. Every day I get to work with athletes, teams and professionals assisting them to fine tune their lives to ensure their best performance. We talk, develop strategies and skills, and then they get to go out and implement what we’ve put in place. Seeing people improve is a very satisfying part of my job. And then every now and then I am challenged to practice what I preach!

“It’s commonly described as the leg where the most ‘unnecessary’ energy is expended”

I swim. It’s my time out, my outlet; a happy place. For the past six years I’ve been swimming squad four to five times a week and competing in the occasional open water event. Then last year, on the eve of the Townsville Triathlon Festival, social media and local outlets were filled with news of a rogue crocodile hanging around The Strand, with several sightings within the first 50m of the swim course.

Sharks in the ocean are one thing, but — a crocodile — a completely different ball game. I was anxious. Well, more than anxious — I was scared, and seriously considering withdrawing from the race (and my team).


My discussions with triathletes often identify the swim as the least favoured leg. I have heard many say that the swim is where they feel least confident, most nervous, most anxious, or where they find it hardest to relax. It’s commonly described as the leg where the most ‘unnecessary’ energy is expended.

“If we sense our body tensing up, we can fill our heads with negative, unhelpful thinking”

Within sports psychology, our aim is to assist athletes to perform within the range of the ideal performing state: A space where physiological and psychological arousal is sufficiently elevated to enhance performance, but not raised so high as to cause the athlete to tighten up and have it negatively impact on their thinking, technique and performance.

The facts are straightforward — it’s not possible to be tense and relaxed at the same time.  Swim coaches will tell you that being relaxed in the water will allow you to maximise your stroke, control your breathing and enhance your performance. But how do you do that if you are feeling anxious, uncomfortable in the water or distracted by the experience?

There is a reciprocal relationship between our bodies and our thinking. If we sense our body tensing up, we can fill our heads with negative, unhelpful thinking. Similarly, if we pay attention to that self-talk, our bodies may not respond in the way that we wish. In either instance, our performance can be negatively compromised.

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How to get psyched to swim

There are a number of approaches that can assist your psychological preparation for the swim.

Set some goals

What would you like to achieve during the swim? Are you working to a time and can you use your Garmin to give you specific feedback? Having a plan in place gives you something to work towards, and keeps you focused on the task at hand. It’s not enough to have ‘getting through it’ as your goal. Perhaps there is an element of your technique you want to focus on — maybe it’s about keeping up with a bunch or catching up to a swimmer.

Practice mindfulness

Staying in the moment is correlated with enhancing performance. When you are present-focused you notice what’s happening in your body, feel yourself moving through your technique, regulate your breathing — all of which are linked to swimming faster. Allowing your thinking to leap too far forward — time travelling to the ride or run (or the post race celebrations!) — will result in a decline in speed.

“The way you think lies within your control. Regardless of your circumstances, you can choose to think in a way that is helpful and will enhance your performance”

Distract yourself — in a good way

Another technique that can get you through a tough swim is to distract yourself. An important point on this technique: Distraction does work — it diverts your thinking from the thing that bothers you – but it can slow your performance if you don’t distract yourself in the ideal way.  If you are going to use distraction, focus upon your technique and your race plan. Avoid thinking about something else in your life, writing a shopping list, and thinking about the upcoming ride/run your technique as these distractions can cause your speed to slow.

Expect the unexpected — and plan for it

Open water swimming can be full of surprises! Unexpected currents, weather conditions, debris in the water, getting run over by the pack, jellyfish — the list goes on. Prior to the race consider some of the possibilities that you may encounter and develop some helpful self-talk should it eventuate (for example, “If the current is strong I will think about my hand placement and pulling through the water”, “If it gets rough out there I’ll hold my line and remain strong”).

Think in helpful ways

The way you think lies within your control. Regardless of your circumstances, you can choose to think in a way that is helpful and will enhance your performance.

Choose this…  Over this …
I will swim well. I’m terrible at swimming.
It will be great to get this finished. I hate this.
Focus on the pull. When will this be over?
Increase the rate. I’m tired.
Keep going. I want to stop.
The jellyfish are my fans and are kissing me with encouragement! OMG, I’m getting stung by jellyfish!
Jo at the Whitehaven Beach Ocean Swim last year.

Jo at the Whitehaven Beach Ocean Swim last year.

Back to water’s edge and my decision about the tri swim. After talking to many race officials about the safety measures put in place, I made the decision to swim the race. I could have also decided not to — either decision was totally OK. Once I had made the decision to swim I needed to find a helpful way to think about the swim, plan my strategy and remind myself that I was doing this through choice and this is what I love to do!

Even if the swim isn’t your favourite leg of the tri, the reality is that the more you can embrace it as a leg you can enjoy rather than fight against it the better you will perform. Command excellence, back yourself, and smile because the swim is your gateway to the rest of your event.


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Find more helpful articles from Jo at Peak Performance Psychology.

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Jo Lukins

Jo Lukins

Dr Joann Lukins, PhD, is the director of Peak Performance Psychology; a psychological research and consultancy company based in sunny North Queensland. Her client base is drawn from sporting organisations, education, business and government sectors and she specialises in personal and performance enhancement. She has been a registered psychologist since 1991 and her work is founded on the philosophies of positive psychology. She is an Associate Professor (Adjunct) at James Cook University and the inaugural sport psychology consultant for the North Queensland Cowboys, a position held since 1996. In addition, Dr Lukins is the sport psychologist to the Townsville Fire, the Craig McDermott International Cricket Academy and sits on the board of the Northern Fury.

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