So much of our success and failure in endurance sports comes down to where you focus your mind. Of course you have to train and be physically fit, however I now understand you can get so much more out of yourself by focusing on powerful positive images and on what you want to achieve, rather than worrying about what you don’t want to happen.
In 2013 when I swam the 25km Tsugaru Channel in northern Japan, I had to swim faster than I have ever done to beat the currents on and off for 11 hours, having been sick for the first four hours. I had no right to find the energy I did, I only had nine weeks of training after a third operation on my shoulder, and I arrived only the day before from a 12-hour flight and 5-hour car ride.
I managed to swim the fastest 15 and a half hours in big swells I had ever done, finding more energy and drive than I thought I would have been capable of. Why? I kept believing I could do it, convincing myself the tide would change and I would get a rest, keeping the high tempo. The more I went on, the more I convinced myself that it was possible and I didn’t want to waste my effort.
I have learnt so much from my experience of swimming the ‘Oceans Seven’ about mental preparation and setting myself up for success, which can also be used for triathlons and Ironman events. The mind can be your strongest asset or your biggest weakness – so which one would you rather it be?
Ten top tips to help you focus
In training, think about why you are doing this. It could be charity or simply to challenge yourself. Keep reminding yourself of those reasons and how much you want to achieve it. I used to leave notes for myself by my bed, like “I am going to swim the channel!” I would also listen to motivational CDs to ensure I kept my drive and goal clear in my mind.
Make training interesting. Change the sessions and mixing it up in order to keep challenging yourself. I recommend training with a partner, ideally someone who is faster who will push and get the best out of you.
Visualise a successful race before you enter the water. See yourself swimming, biking and running well. I would imagine I was swimming downhill with a jet propelled engine attached to me with an unlimited amount of fuel.
Imagine how great it will feel when you have completed the race. How good it will be to achieve your goal, and how proud your friends and family will be of you.
Trust your ability and fitness. You have to believe in yourself even if others doubt you. It’s your belief that counts.
Don’t talk about failure or negative words. If anyone asks you how you feel about the event, dismiss any negatives and say “I am looking forward to the challenge and will enjoy it.” It’s human nature to protect ourselves from disappointment. I found that being positive, even when at times in reality I wasn’t quite as confident as I made out, I could almost trick my brain to shut out any demons.
Surround yourself with only positive people. A good friend of mine is a hypnotherapist and always reminds me that negative people can be like emotional vampires and make you doubt yourself if they can’t do something themselves.
If negative thoughts do creep in, be aware of them. Don’t allow it to escalate in your mind. I shout ‘STOP’ and turn my mind back to positive thinking about the end goal. Embrace your effort.
Always have a next swim planned. That way, the up-and-coming event isn’t the only challenge and doesn’t become a big deal in your mind. After the Gibraltar two-way, I had five more swims to think about, so each swim was part of a process in order to achieve my ultimate goal. Establish what your ultimate goal is.
Laugh a lot and enjoy the experience. It will be tough at times but if it was easy then everyone would be doing it. No you are not alone, others are feeling just the way you do. I always try and joke through any nerves and enjoy the moment. Be proud that you are challenging yourself and remember you are in full control of the outcome!
For more information about swim coaching and psychology, visit oceanwalkeruk.com.