Overcoming Stress and Fear of Competition | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Overcoming Stress and Fear of Competition


About Me

Hi guys, welcome to our Q&A with Coach Rebecca. My name’s Rebecca Smith. I’m the founder of Complete Performance Coaching, which is a team of highly skilled sports psychology professionals. They were handpicked to give athletes the ultimate edge over the competition through our very specific system of building awareness, overcoming mental blocks, building confidence, and then finding flow. That ultimate state of performance excellence that’s almost automatic. When you start plugging into flow, you get more and more and more and more.

Every week I answer questions live, and the question today comes from a swim parent. It’s all about performance anxiety, so whether or not you’re a swimmer, you can definitely benefit from this if you ever have to perform and you get nervous. Whenever I get up to do a talk in front of a huge team or a big group of people I get nervous. That’s kind of part of the deal. I feel it in my throat, chest and stomach. Then this little voice in my head is like, “Don’t do it! Run away! You don’t want to do this.” Then the brain in my head goes, “It’s going to be fine. You’ve done this before.”

Regardless of your level of expertise in sport or in whatever you’re performance arena is, anxiety is normal. The people who do the best are people who know I’m going to get nervous and I’m going to nail it. Because, you know, I show up, I get nervous, and I nail it. The more that I do that, the more that I get to know this is just part of my own personal process. I’m going to read the question from this swim mom, and then I’ll give you my take.

Q: “My daughter is a highly competitive swimmer at 12, and state champion at 10. She slowly developed fear of competition and would freeze up during competition, and scared of the completion. As parents, we pressured her, not knowing what was happening, and now we are so deep in this and she’s so unhappy, but loves swimming. What do we do?”


I immediately thought of a client that I worked with a few years ago, who I’m going to call Michelle. She was a swimmer, same age, phenomenal swimmer, incredibly successful at a really young age, and then started having panic attacks. She started having panic attacks in practice. Then the big kicker that made them call me was that she had a panic attack in the pool during a race and had to stop halfway through the mile swim and get out and get checked by the medics. It was a very scary experience for everybody involved, of course, because when you’re dealing with water you want to be able to keep yourself afloat.


Analyze the Situation

They contacted me and we went to work. We went back and constructed, okay, when were you swimming well and when were you not swimming well? This is a lot of the way that I do pre-performance routines with people, and really, sports psychology work in general, is we go back and we look at the past performances and we find clues. It’s like we’re detectives and we work together to figure out okay, nothing’s random. Nothing is ever random in sports psychology.

I’m going to give you that little spoiler. People are like, “I don’t know. It just happens.” It doesn’t just happen. We can always figure out the precursors. We go into those past performances and go:

  • What did you do before this successful performance?
  • Is there anything you did different before this poor performance?
  • What did you do before that panic attack?
  • What were you focusing on?

Typically, somebody in this type of situation is focusing on the outcome.


Fearing the Outcome

Now, swimmers, you guys are more outcome focused than anybody I know, because your job is to get a time. It’s a totally objective time, so it’s like you either get the time or you don’t. A lot of swimmers look at that like you either fail or you succeed, and there is no gray area and that’s all there is to it. You swim, you get a time, you succeed or you fail, and that’s end of story.

A lot of the time these kids who are used to being really successful at a young age are used to just dropping time, dropping time, dropping time, getting faster, faster, faster, faster. Then all of a sudden the expectations have risen.

I asked her, this client that I worked with, where are the expectations from? Are they from you, are they from mom, are they from coach? They were definitely not from coach. Coach, of course, had to kind of soften. He had to soften a little bit, but it wasn’t this big like, “You have to get this cut.” It wasn’t coming from the coach. Mom was like, “I just want her to be okay. I don’t know.” But mom had been a competitive swimmer, so without realizing it she was kind of like coaching and comparing and giving her ideas. That was just stressing this poor girl out. But the main source of those high expectations was, of course, the swimmer herself.


Being the Source of Your Own Stress

Her best event, which was these long distance swims, that was where she was expected to really shine. That was where her anxiety went like crazy, because she was like, “If I don’t do my events,” quote-unquote, “my” events, “perfectly, then I’m messing up and I’m letting people down. I’m letting myself down.” But then she’d go and swim like a 200 IM, which was totally not her event, and she would have a great time and get a great time and be like, “Oh my gosh. Go figure.” Then she would dread her next great event.

Those expectations are something that really needs to be addressed, and I want you guys to get rid of the word should. If you think I should this or I should be seated here or I should get this cut, just get rid of that, okay? Says who? We’re going to find out whether you get it or not, but should has no room pretty much anywhere in sports.


Don’t Compare Yourself

A lot of the time it’s like you’re seeing the person who you’re racing against and if they’re seated here and you’re seated down below then they should beat you. Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen, because there’s so many things outside of your control in a racing environment that shoulds just should not apply. Get rid of them. Those expectations that you have need to be directed to things that you can control.

Okay, I always have my little swimmers write a list of things that they can control. Here’s a list of things you can’t control:

  • the clock
  • who you swim against
  • the temperature of the water (which actually affects your speed)
  • the speed of time

So many different things that lead up to a time that it means if you are focusing on that time you’re not setting yourself up for success, because that’s nothing you can handle.

What you can change is your technique and your focus, and those are the most important things.


Mindfulness Practice

When I work with kids, especially swimmers, on working toward flow and then overcoming anxiety, which really go hand in hand, one of the big things I do is mindfulness practice. I help them figure out how to focus in on one thing instead of thinking about one thing and then being bombarded by fear or anxiety or looking at the person next to you or wondering what your coach is going to think or am I going to get the time? Because if you’re anywhere but in the moment, you will not get your best time. I mean, maybe, but it’s not a strategy that you want to employ.

If you’re in the moment you are more likely to get into flow, which is when you are freed up to release all of that power that has been installed by your training and just let it fly. That’s when that happens, is only when you’re in the moment, okay? I help kids figure out what they need to be focusing on that they can control. Is it the way you’re pulling, is it your breathing pattern, is it your turn, is it your dive? I guarantee it is not the time.


Setting Goals

Okay, then we also worked on setting goals. For a different swimmer that I worked with, her dives were a weak point, so that was a simple fix. Every single week you’re going to do eight dives where you get out to this point in the pool, every single day. No matter what the workout is, you’re going to stay late and do it if you need to. She did, and she dropped time.

You figure out goals based on what you can fix, what you are in control of, and then guess what? Your times get faster. Forget about the times. Obviously it’s hard to say and do. Then think about what you need to improve, which you’ll only know if you’re in your body doing the race.

Okay, then we also learned anxiety reduction techniques, which I have. If you’re a member of the Perform Happy Community then you are well aware of a lot of these techniques. One of them, the flow training series. I have a whole series of exercises and trainings that actually predispose you toward the flow experience. The last one is a whole session on anxiety. If you are a member, that last session, I think it’s number 16, is all about performance anxiety. It teaches you exactly what to do physically to overcome those symptoms of anxiety.


Check Your Expectations

Drop them. Drop them, and then refocus. Regain control by focusing on what you can control, then communicate your needs. If you’re feeling like your parents are pushing you, let them know. Ask them, “What do you expect from me, mom?” Then mom’s like, “Ah, nothing. I don’t know.” It might help her to realize, are you pushing your kid too much?

Kids, it takes an act of bravery to actually say, “Mom, what do you expect from me?” But that’s a really important question, because then they say, “Oh, gosh, nothing. We love you no matter what.” Then you can go, “Okay, so the expectations are just from me. Can I get them to be realistic? Can I get them to be about things I can control?”


Take Time to Reflect

After every single race you want to ask yourself what went well, what didn’t go well, what did I learn? Also, reflecting on past performances is huge to figure out when did the nerves start, what brings them on? When I do this, it happens. When I do this, it doesn’t happen. You can start to figure out patterns, which will help lead you to a good strategy.


Overcoming Stress and Fear of CompetitionMental Training

This is a way to get you clicked in and ready for battle so that you can be super consistent no matter if it’s a tiny little hometown meet or if it’s Olympic trials or if it’s the Olympics. You will know exactly what you do to get yourself in the zone. Have a plan, have mental routines, get rid of negativity, let go of the thoughts that are messing you up. Have positive distractions when necessary if you’re an overthinker. I love to use the warm down pool. It’s another tool, in a certain way, so that you can really like leave it all in there. When you get out, it’s gone and you have a clean slate. Learning how to be present. Visualizing your success. There are so many different tools you can use.

If you are interested in working one-on-one with one of the Complete Performance coaches, visit this page and grab yourself a free session with any of us so you can kind of get an idea of what a performance coach can do for you. As a little freebie for being here with us today, I put together a report which is on the 14 different types of youth swimmers, young swimmers. What it does is it describes all the different kinds of swimmers and then it tells you, gives you a little cheat sheet for parents and for coaches on how to approach each individual.

Some kids need a kick in the butt, they need to get yelled at while some kids need a completely different approach. Then it also talks about which mental skills are the best for each type of kid. If you want that, you can download that for free here. Of course you can find me at rebecca@performhappy.com and send your questions my way, and I’ll see you again soon. Bye.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.