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