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Reflections From Four Years Of Collegiate Swimming

By Alexis Matthiesen- Johnson

(Photo by Kate Walkup)

What’s the secret to performing at your best? Having fun.

In collegiate swimming, the season culminates at a big meet between all the teams in the

conference. Over the course of four years of this experience, I have seen many teammates

perform incredibly well and many teammates choke under the pressure. This is what we train

for all season long, so physically, everyone is prepared to do their best. So why do some people

perform worse than they have all season? It’s all in the mental game.

In my first season of collegiate swimming, I had a friend on the team who was also a freshman

and had come in with the expectation of being one of the best swimmers on our team and

scoring a lot of points at the meet. This pressure really got to her, and she swam poorly, posting

times that were worse than she had achieved prior to college. On the other hand, an older

swimmer on the team who had spent the entire semester abroad, training no more than three

times per week, swam lifetime best times in all of her races at the meet. What was the secret to

her success? She came in with no expectations or pressure, and just allowed herself to enjoy

the meet and have fun.

In my personal experience, the 500-yard freestyle is an event I’ve swam since I first started

competitive swimming. Since it’s been “my event” for so long, I always put pressure on myself

to improve and drop time, whether I realized I was doing it or not. At this past conference

championship, I found myself extremely nervous before my race. Knowing it could possibly be

the last 500 I ever raced, I really wanted to do well and was afraid I might not. Those thoughts

consumed all my attention, and I swam very poorly, adding time and just feeling bad overall in

the water. Fortunately for me, I swam just well enough to qualify for finals, and get another

shot at the race. This time, I knew I had to prepare better. I focused on the things I could

control, my warm-up for the race, and especially my attitude. I reminded myself why I loved

swimming and thought about how I wanted to remember the last 500 of my career. When I

dove into the water, I found myself significantly more relaxed, focused on my race, and most

importantly, having fun. When I touched the wall to finish the race, I realized that I ended up

dropping over 10 seconds from my prelims time earlier that day and achieving a lifetime best

time. I will always remember that race as one of my favorite moments in my swimming career.

These stories illustrate the importance of the mental game in sports performance, especially in

high-stakes competition. In my experience swimming at the collegiate level, I’ve noticed that

having fun and truly loving your sport is the key to performing at your best when it really


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