4 ways to beat the pre-race nerves


You know the feeling of going up a rollercoaster?

That “click… click… click” of the climb.

Your heart starts to pound, you get butterflies, a lump in your throat, you tense up, start to sweat, your chest tightens… the anticipation builds…

And then, weeeeeee! Down you go.

Some people LOVE this feeling.  Some of you are traumatized just from reading this far. Either way, the physical sensations are the same.

Your brain is wired to keep you safe from threats. When the brain senses a threat, the body kicks into high gear. This experience is often called “pre-race nerves” or “jitters.”

Great athletes identify this sensation as adrenaline, or “go” power. The athletes that get derailed by nerves see it in a different way.


Here are 4 things you can do to shift from terrified to excited. When you get a handle on this part of swimming, your performance will only get better.




Quick… take a moment and think of the top 3 things that make you nervous before a meet.

Here are some common things I hear when I work with swimmers:

  • Getting a best time
  • Letting people down
  • What other people will think of me
  • If I win
  • When I swim
  • Who I swim against
  • The weather
  • Other swimmers
  • Parents
  • Teammates
  • Coaches
  • A past performance
  • A future performance

Ok, now ask yourself:

Are the things that stress me out things I have control over or not?

Here’s a hint… everything I listed above is out of your control. If any of these are making you overly nervous before a meet, let it go.

Let your competition worry about you, not you about them.

Make a decision to focus ONLY on what you CAN control:

  • Effort
  • Attitude
  • Attendance
  • Communication
  • Strategy
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Mindset




If you don’t tell your mind what to do, then it’s a lot more likely to work against you under pressure.

Have you ever spent the morning of a meet thinking about

  • How you messed up last time?
  • How your practice on Friday was horrible?
  • How you might have eaten too much or too little?

You name it, your mind is good at picturing all of the things that will mess you up.

Instead of letting your mind default to thinking about how you false-started last time, or when you messed up your turn, think about what you want to do this time.

Take the time to relax and visualize the outcome you want.

From the beginning of the warm-up, to the warm-down pool, see exactly what you want to do. Feel it in your bones, experience every sense, in real time, as if it’s actually happening.

Here’s a word of warning: Visualization isn’t just something you throw in your pre-race routine one day. Just like a physical technique, this is something you need to practice. A few minutes a day goes a long way toward re-programming your brain.

The more successes your brain experiences, the more confidence you will have when you step into the blocks.

If you’ve already seen yourself getting the cut a hundred times, performing the perfect race strategy, the worry will melt away.

(If you’re looking for a good way to practice visualization, download my free peak performance visualization below)




Carrying doubt with you into the pool will only sabotage your efforts.

Do you ever find yourself thinking these types of things at a meet?

  • Was my taper too long/too short?
  • Did I eat the right thing?
  • Did I train hard enough?
  • Did I do the right things to prepare my mental state?
  • Did my coach give us hard enough sets?

When you walk onto the pool deck on meet day, you’ve done all you can do.

You can’t change the amount of training you’ve gotten, the amount of practices you’ve made it to, or what you had for dinner yesterday. It’s time to trust that you’ve done everything you did, and no matter what, that’s enough.

Approach each race as an experiment. Be curious. How will this go? Instead of, “this is going to be terrible!” Have an open mind and accept that you’ve done the best you can.  That way you can relax and just swim.

Take a breath. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel the earth supporting you. Talk to others that will help reassure you, and let go of whatever doubts you might have. There’s no place for them here.

If your performance at a meet doesn’t match your potential, then (after the meet is over) you can look back and decide what needs to change.

Do you need to adjust your taper? Talk to a nutritionist? Make it to more practices?   Work on your mindset? Talk to your coach?

Look at every performance as an opportunity to get feedback that will help you become a better swimmer.

There’s no need to fear failure. Failure is what makes elite swimmers great. Fail, learn, improve, repeat. Trust the process.




Sometimes the best way to get out of your own way is to use positive distractions.

Like I said before, if you don’t give your mind a job, it will come up with one, and it might not be a helpful one.

If you know that you get really nervous 45 minutes before your race, but you don’t need to start warming up until 30 minutes before, come up with a plan for how you will spend those 15 minutes of idle time.

Here are some ideas of things that have worked for my clients:

  • Listen to music
  • Laugh with friends
  • Take a walk
  • Play a game on your phone
  • Read a book
  • Meditate
  • Talk with parents
  • Completely avoid parents
  • Talk with coaches
  • Completely avoid coaches
  • Have a healthy snack
  • Sing a song in your head
  • Think about your favorite food
  • Remember a story from a book
  • Think about all of the ingredients that go into making cupcakes (no joke, this really works for someone I know!)

Whatever works! If you’re someone who overthinks things, choose something silly to take your mind off racing and see what happens.

To recap, some of the best things you can do when you feel the nerves coming on are: focus on what you CAN control, visualize success, trust your training, and enjoy the ride!

Those are just a few ideas to help get you calmed down before you race. Here’s the bottom line: nerves are a natural part of competition. They are nothing to be afraid of. That extra boost of adrenaline is actually what helps you focus and go full out when it counts.

What works for you?  Share in the comments below. Who do you know that gets nervous before a race?  Feel free to like and share!

Happy swimming!