Overcoming Fear In Open Water Swimming

Part 6 of 9 – Focus For the Mind

Your mind needs positive, productive, prioritized things to dwell on while you are swimming, especially under stress (voluntary stress of racing or in fearful situations).

Again, what you practice is what you will perfect. What you train your brain to do during practice time will be what it will most readily do during the OW experience. If ‘tune-out so I can endure this next tough set’ is how you train, then that is what you will be most likely to do when you face a stressful open-water situation. If you are deeply tuned into your body and the flow of water around you during every stroke of your practice, piloting with such focus during a big event will be second nature.

In Total Immersion Swimming we recommend that you train your brain to keep a simple, objective technical focus point on every single stroke. The two halves of the brain can be put to very productive use the whole time we swim, and occupied with positive things under stress.

For instance, one part of my brain is counting strokes (let’s say I do 100-stroke counts) while another part is focused on a ‘quiet entry’ of my recovering arm. On the next 100-stroke cycle I increase the tempo (using my Tempo Trainer) and I change focus to my ‘extension forward’. Or I might be counting strokes and start writing another blog essay (like this one- but that often interrupts my counting so those two activities must tap some of the same brain resources!) It works.

Courage is the skill of being able to focus the mind and the actions on the critical, productive, positive action in a moment of stress. When I have some anxiety triggered in OW it is but a temporary interruption for my already productively employed brain that is spending most of its conscious resources managing my stroke quality and strategy.

Courage Comes From Focus

Anxiety may be triggered and draw my attention, but then I realize I’ve lost count or focus on something more important and easily reach over and grab it again and get back to business. This is ‘courage’ in the most practical sense- I apply this focus continually in small details, (which enables me avoid injury and exhaustion), so I less frequently have to apply it in big things that crop up. I am continually reinforcing the habit so even when big things come up I am more at ease in dealing with them.

I define courage of this kind as simply the trained ability to draw the focus back to what is important in the moment and take positive action. If you only see OW on race day, you will be at a great disadvantage to finding mastery in OW. But it is a reality that many swimmers don’t have reasonable access to OW except when a special race event has made it possible. So do the best with what you’ve got.

However, if there are initial inconveniences (or just excuses) preventing you from getting into your favored body of water regularly, I urge you to find solutions and become as avid as you can. You’ll be on the road to being a master of that environment rather than just an occasional visitor.

Pool-training can help you with metabolic training, and muscular training, and with advanced understanding you can train for aspects of technique that will actually serve you in OW. Yet, only in OW can you really develop the full technique, the focus (the mental aspect), and the familiarity with the environment and of your Self that you will need to swim peacefully, even exuberantly in OW.

Here are the topics covered in this series:

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