Managing Open Water Swim Anxiety

Managing Open Water Swim Anxiety

Utilizing instructional and motivational self-talk, along with choosing a focal point, are key strategies for counterbalancing anxiety.

I almost had the very first panic attack ever in my life on July 8, 2012.

I was standing in three feet of shallow water in the Boulder Reservoir, a few minutes prior to the start of the Boulder Peak Triathlon. The water was surprisingly cold and overwhelmingly dark, and I was surrounded by tremendously fit athletes my age (all of whom I envisioned would soon be freestyling on top of my inexperienced and poorly-crafted swim stroke). 

I had never put on a wetsuit until five minutes prior, and I had never swam in an open body of water for sport. Further, I had never completed a triathlon before. In that moment, I believed I was out of my element and began questioning my ability to succeed in the swim. 

Long story short, I was terrified. 

I’d like to think I wasn’t alone in that momentary experience of dread. In fact, I know I’m not. Swim anxiety is a common experience for triathletes of all ability and experience levels, but shows up especially for those relatively new to the sport or new to swimming in open water.

Thankfully for me in that moment, I knew a few mental skills that I could utilize to work with the anxiety I was feeling. These skills helped me rebuild trust so I could effectively navigate the swim. What’s more, these skills are highly trainable for any athlete, regardless of ability level or length of time in competition. 

Taking Command of Your Internal Dialogue

The first of these skills was to take hold of my mind and direct my self-talk. I knew managing my thoughts was imperative to counterbalance the flood of adrenaline and cortisol I was feeling in my body. I knew that my self-talk could either heighten what was happening physiologically if I continued to spiral with anxiety-driven thoughts, or dampen the nervous system activity I was experiencing through taking command of my internal dialogue. 

When it comes to managing internal dialogue involved in our performance, there are two types of sport-psychology thinking patterns your athletes can employee: instructional self-talk and motivational self-talk. 

Instructional Self-Talk

Instructional self-talk is the manner in which we guide ourselves through the mechanics involved in a specific skill set. Essentially, instructional self-talk is directed at talking through the specifics of the movement involved in a particular sport. 

Swimming offers a perfect opportunity for instructional self-talk, and I immediately created a game plan for what I was going to instruct in my thoughts: reach, pull, breathe. Now, in truth there were a million possibilities of what I could have instructed or reminded myself regarding how to swim in the moment, but I didn’t want to overcomplicate things. 

Simple words or phrases that target the task at hand, and that genuinely resonated with my experience of movement, was what was called for (and typically work best when facing performance anxiety), and I chose to focus on the most basic components of swimming to keep my mind on task and remind myself what to do. 

Motivational Self-Talk

Motivational self-talk is like being your own internal coach and cheerleader at the same time. Motivational self-talk is about reconnecting to the belief that you can and will be successful, ultimately building self-efficacy (the extent to which we believe we can achieve specific tasks).

Even though I hadn’t practiced any open water swimming prior to Boulder Peak, I swam plenty of laps in the pool in preparation. It’s not as though I didn’t know how to swim at all, it’s just that the context of swimming differed so much from what I was used to that my belief system was being challenged (hence the sudden flood of anxiety). 

I had to direct my thoughts so that I could once again believe I was going to be successful. Once I reminded myself of my previous successes swimming laps in the pool throughout training, I realized I was adequately prepared and I then began to relax and noticed my bodily reactions started to calm down. 

I also chose a few short phrases that I would repeat in a mantra-like fashion through the duration of the swim that were positive, proactive, and directed at continued movement and momentum towards the finishing chute.

Choosing a Focal Point

With my mind in a better frame to focus on performing, I knew I needed to implement one last skill—choosing my focal point. One way to think about anxiety is that this experience is simply information offering a choice. You can choose to dive into anxiety and listen to the thoughts, doubts, uncertainty, and fear it conjures up. Doing so typically only increases anxiety, both in mind and body. 

The information anxiety provides is without question relevant—it serves a purpose. Anxiety kicks up the perception that something is being threatened, either physically or psychologically. How we handle this experience makes or breaks what happens next, and in the context of performing, it can fuel or derail outcomes. 

Teaching your athletes to choose a focal point is a mental skill that is quite helpful in many scenarios when training and racing. In the context of swimming, I knew I could choose the focal point of anxiety by fixating and focusing on it, or I could drive my focus externally to what I could see in my surroundings. I knew my vision would be partially compromised once in the water, but with the beauty of the Boulder mountains in view, I chose my focal point of breathing on my left side and visually spotting, albeit briefly, the peaks of the front range within view. 

Paired with instructional and motivational self-talk, this strategy worked well to quell my pre-race swim anxiety.

Wrapping it Up

Performance anxiety is common for athletes of all ability levels, no matter if they have spent time competing or not. Teaching your athletes to utilize instructional and motivational self-talk, along with choosing a focal point, are key strategies for counter-balancing anxiety (especially as it relates to swim anxiety for triathletes). 

But yet maybe the best advice of all—don’t wait for race day to attempt your first open water swim.

Justin Ross

Dr. Justin Ross is a clinical psychologist in Denver, CO specializing in sports performance psychology. He is a nine-time marathoner, four-time Boston Marathon qualifier, and two-time IRONMAN 70.3 finisher. In addition, he has written extensively about athlete goals and is attempting to break a three-hour marathon in Boston in 2019. Look for his course, High Performance Sports Psychology, on Insight Timer soon. In the meantime, follow him on Instagram (@drjustinross) and Twitter (@PsychDenver).