Psychology of open water swimming - how to combat the nerves

Beat pre-swim jitters

When I initially decided to swim the English Channel I didn’t have any open water experience and I didn’t know what was needed to achieve it. It was a daunting task combatting the nerves and learning how to mentally cope swimming in open water with no walls, not being able to stand up, exposed to the elements of water temperature, wind and choppy seas. Each time I swam I became more confident, learning about the power of the mind and keeping calm. Here are my top tips for combatting the nerves when swimming in open water. 

Adam WalkerWritten by Adam Walker

Adam is a swim coach and motivational speaker who became the first British person to swim the hardest 7 ocean swims in the world. He teaches people swim stroke, psychology and all aspects in order to achieve their specific swimming goals.

1. Swimming with a group of people will divert your mind away from any negative concerns. When you see others enjoying the experience it is bound to rub off on you as well. Think how lucky you are to be out there with other like-minded individuals.

2. Visualise how you want the swim to go before entering the water, see yourself swimming powerfully with speed and efficiency. Do some nice steady breathing - in for 3 seconds out for 6 seconds.

3. Trust your ability; you have to believe in yourself even if others doubt or talk negatively to you about what you are doing, whether it’s a dip in a lake or a big challenge. I call these people emotional vampires and they are likely to try and suck the positivity out of you. My advice is to steer the conversation onto another subject or kill the conversation dead and walk away. Unfortunately, when people don’t understand what you are doing, or cannot do it themselves they can poison your mind with their own self-doubt. Remember it’s your belief that counts!

4. Don’t talk about failure. If anyone asks you how you feel about a swim dismiss any negatives and talk positive about the sport, the challenge or race you are about to take on. It is 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.

5. Surround yourself with only positive people and those who have a winning mentality. Their energy will keep you uplifted and you can also reciprocate this back to them.

6. Never say negative words such as ‘cold’ when referring to the water temperature. I will always use positive sentences like ‘it’s not as warm as we would like.’ Your body starts listening to your brain and you get what you focus on. For instance, I once repeated ‘hot, warm, hot’ for 6 hours thinking nothing else. If you have any fears out there, be proud of yourself that you are not succumbing to them and know you will get through whatever you’re faced with.

If you are thinking positive thoughts you can’t be thinking negative ones at the same time. If you find your mind is drifting onto negative thoughts, don’t allow the thoughts to evolve. I shout ‘STOP!’ in my mind and put my finger and thumb together (as a trigger), to flip the thought and image into a positive one.

7. Think about why you are doing the swim. It could be for charity or your own personal challenge. Just keep reminding yourself of those reasons and how much you want 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 CD’s which were full of positive energy.

8. Daydream about the feeling of the swim, how accomplished you will feel and how proud everyone will be of you. Focus on the end goal!!

9. Always have a next swim planned, then the first swim isn’t the only challenge and is part of a process. After the Gibraltar two-way swim I had five more swims to think about, so each individual one wasn’t the be all and end all as I had to progress to complete all 7 oceans swims.

10. Laugh lots and enjoy the experience! It will be tough at times but if it was easy everyone would be doing it. Understand, 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 different and unique. Remember this is your destiny and you are in full control of it!

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