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Mental Tips for Sprinters

posted Mar 1, 2013, 7:06 AM by Pat Windschitl   [ updated Mar 1, 2013, 9:20 AM ]


 The demands of sprinters are much different than those of distance swimmers, both physically as well as mentally. 

Being fast while being relaxed, and swimming strong while not trying too hard are often challenges sprinters face. This article will focus on the mental demands of sprinters and offer some quick tips to be mentally tough. 

Controlling Your Arousal
Most sprinters need some physiological arousal to perform at their peak. The difficulty arises when they are unable to control this arousal and their anxiety/excitement gets the best of them. If they expend too much energy before the race, they may wear out their “adrenaline reserves” before they take their mark. However, if they are too calm, they might not have the “umph” needed to race strong for a short distance. You need to be optimally primed and have the right balance of energy flowing through your body. 
Quick Tips: 

  • Increase awareness of your ideal energy state and recreate this before each event.
  • Have a routine before you compete.
  • Learn deep breathing techniques.
  • Use imagery to picture your race.
  • List any worries before your race, ideally the night before, and create a plan for attacking any legit worries and throw out any worries you don’t control.

Try Easier
While you may feel the need for speed, the harder you try the worse your stroke becomes. If you feel you HAVE to go fast, the pressure to excel can tighten your muscles, which decreases flexibility and messes up your stroke. 
Quick Tips:

  • Trust your training and your technique
  • Go 99 percent instead of 110 percent. You’ll have better results.
  • Swim smarter, not harder.
  • It’s not about perfection. It’s about swimming well.

Being Confident
Confidence definitely affects a sprinter’s performance. Low confidence increases anxiety and creates a negative focus. With confidence, you dive in, swim, and everything seems simple. Basically, sprinters have to be able to look down the line, eye everyone up, accept who is in the race, and then return their focus to knowing they can swim their best. Remember, confidence isn’t about being THE best, it’s about being YOUR best. 
Quick Tips: 

  • Focus on what you control: your own race.
  • Know what you need to do swim well.
  • Listen to music that makes you feel confident.

Some swimmers tend to give up if someone who shouldn’t pass them does. Conceding a race while it’s happening is definitely not a trait of a mentally tough swimmer. Before you start, it’s important to be determined to a) finish in the best time you can and b) out-compete your heat. Find your “competitive fire” to do everything you can to win. Sometimes you’ll lose, but at the end of the race it’s better to say you lost because someone was better, not because they out-swam you. 


Quick Tips:

  • Set race goals and share them. Hold yourself accountable.
  • Want to win (more than you hate to lose).
  • Be competitive in practice.

Sprinters need to think as little as possible. You can have 1-2 swim thoughts, anything more probably means you’re analyzing way too much. If you’re an “overthinker,” finding your mental shutoff valve can be tricky, so practice your race thoughts and get the excess worry out before the race.
Quick Tips:

  • Keep it simple: kick, pull, turn.
  • Have a keyword, one simple word or phrase that can be repeated with each stroke. Have your coach yell this word out constantly while you practice and compete.
  • Practice swimming by feel rather than mechanics.

About Aimee C. Kimball, PhD:
Dr. Kimball is the Director of Mental Training for the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. She is an Association of Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant, and is a member of the American Psychological Association, the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Registry, the USA Swimming Sports Medicine Network, and the NCAA Speakers Bureau. She works with athletes, coaches, and parents to help them achieve success in sport and life.