6 Ways to Calm your Open Water Swim Angst

Swimmers walking into the water
January 8, 2017

Mike Ricci


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In the May 2015 edition of The Extra Mile, Coach James published an article called Tame Your Open Water Swim Fear. Coach James relates stories about athletes feeling panicky in open water and offers solid advice to prepare yourself as an open water swimmer: swim in open water frequently, start outside the main pack of swimmers, check your equipment and other tips.James attributes much of the discomfort of open water to unhelpful self-talk, that inner voice that creates a bad emotional state. He states, everyone, and I mean everyone, battles with mindset negativity at some point. In addition to his tips in the article to help make you a better swimmer, you might be interested in some fast, easy techniques to address directly the self-talk that promotes mindset negativity. Here are six techniques that you can do in less than 10 seconds to address unhelpful self-talk, leading to a calmer, smoother open water swim.

To prepare for these six techniques, first recall an unhelpful inner voice, and hear exactly what is says. Some athletes hear a voice that says, "You suck" or "You don't belong here or "Let's just quit" or other charming sayings. What is the most vexing phrase that comes into your mind's ear, when you are open water swimming or at any time? Get the exact wording now and estimate on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (HIGH!) how intense is the feeling you feel when you hear that inner voice.

And now try this:

1. Slow it down. Say the exact phrase, but with a five-second pause between each word and a 10-second pause before the last word. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

2. Change the location of the voice. Have the voice say the same phrase, but from 40 yards behind you. What happened? What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

3. Change the pitch of the voice. Imagine a big balloon filled with helium. Have the voice inhale deeply from the helium balloon, then have it say its phrase. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

4. Drop out the letters. In your mind's eye in front of you, see the words in the phrase as though they were written in the air before you. Now let all the vowels in all the words fall to the ground, followed by the rest of the letters. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

5. Turn the words to sand. In your mind's eye in front of you, see the words in the phrase as though they were written in the air before you. Now turn all the words to sand, and let the sand fall to the ground. What is the intensity of the feeling now (1-10 scale)?

One January day I was swimming alone in San Francisco Bay. The water was rough with a short, sharp chop and cold, about 49 degrees, and I was swimming pretty far from shore. A voice came into my head, saying, "You can't swim." I found this curious, as I was actually in the very act of swimming when it said that, so this sentence was obviously untrue. Having nothing else to do as I was swimming along, I decided to find out more. I asked this voice, "Since I'm obviously swimming I must be able to swim, and I think you get that, so tell me, what is it that you want?" This question presupposes that this voice has a positive intention underpinning its communication to me.

I received an instant reply, in a rushed tempo: "It's cold and rough and there's nobody else out here. For God's sake, go swim closer to shore in case something happens. I took that as quite useful advice. I could just as easily swim laps along the shoreline as trudge along a half mile from the beach. So I said to the voice, Hey good idea. Thanks. The voice replied, "No problem." And from then on, the voice was no problem. It had registered its positive intention, which happened to be an excellent piece of advice and completely pointed at my best interest so I followed that advice.

Here's how you can do the same technique. Get another unhelpful voice that you sometimes hear when you are confronted with a tough open water swim or other situation. On the 1-10 scale, how intense is the feeling you get when you hear this voice?

6. Ask the voice, as though it can answer, "What is your positive intention for telling me this?" If you get a response (remember, all you are doing is listening for the response; you don't actually have to do any thinking) and the response makes sense, say thank you and do what you need to do. If the response doesn't make sense, ask again, "What is your positive intention for that? Often, the answer to this second question will make sense to you, and you can thank the voice and do what you need to do. If you don't get a response, tell the voice thanks anyway and that you really do want to listen to what it has to say. The voice will often cease or may later give you its intention. Now check your 1-10 scale.

There is a funny story about the psychiatrist who asked the patient, "Do you hear voices in your head?" The patient replied, "Why yes I do." And the psychiatrist thought, ‚Aha, patient hears voices in his head.

We all do, throughout our day. Sometimes those inner voices are helpful, and sometimes they sound anything but helpful. In an open water swim situation, with poor water clarity, cold temperatures, marine life and swimmers surrounding you, your inner voice may say things that promote a panicky feeling. But it doesn't have to be this way. Before you dive in or once into your swim, you can try one or more of the six techniques to calm the inner voice and thereby calm yourself for a smooth, confident swim.

There are dozens more techniques for working directly with your inner voice. I recommend most enthusiastically Steve Andreas's book, Transforming Negative Self-Talk which takes you through these techniques and more to ensure that negative self-talk transforms into useful advice.

Will Murray often hears triathletes saying that the sport is at least 50% mental and 50% physical, but has come to notice that they spend very little (if any) time doing mental training. Fortunately, it's easy and fast to train-up your mind to help you achieve your triathlon goals. Learn how here.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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