When people discuss the psychological aspects of approaching a competition they may mention visualization techniques, or they may talk about the attitude needed to be successful in a race. All this is fine, however I think that the big picture is quite more complex. Winning a race or reaching one’s own competition goal require not only careful consideration of any mental and physical aspects, but also a reflection about the overall meaning that the meet has for you. Everybody is psychologically different as much as our body is different: peoples may share many similarities, but you will never find an “another” yourself: “your mileage may vary” both mentally and physically. In my previous competitive swimmer life, as well as in these first races of my recent masters swimmer life, I arrived at the “take your marks” moment under a bunch of different mental, physical and motivational conditions. Depending on how these variables were mixed, the outcomes have been different. Let’s try to make a taxonomy of how the mental aspects intersected with the physical and the motivational one.
You are physically ready, you want to win at all cost, it’s an important race. Let’s say that you are in a really “over the top form”. Not that form that you reach twice a year, but just once in a life. You will realize after some years that on that day you literally where in the best shape of your life. Let’s also say that you are very hungry. I don’t mean that you practiced so much that you would eat alone a whole roasted cow along with two pots of smashed potatoes. I mean hungry for victory. You want to win. And you want it really, really badly. You think that nobody but you deserve to win (this is a quite personal perspective, but if you ever competed in swim races you know what I mean). In the two hours preceding the race you scare the shit out of people around you just with your eyes. Let’s also hypothesize you are competing in the most important race of the season (for my level, the nationals final). Now you have all the ingredients for the perfect storm. Your race is all heart and no reason. You have just one strategy: no strategies and balls out. Outcome: you do the race of your life. The race you will simply remember forever.
You are physically ready, you have no possibilities to win, it’s an important race. You won’t be in that “once in a life” shape, but let’s say your are in a condition that you can reach twice a year, if you do your homework right. This too it’s an important race, maybe (for my previous level, not for an Olympian one) an open national. But you know that even shaving off heaps of seconds from your PB, you would hardly come in more that the 7th~8th place. You give your best…but the point is you are not hungry. Outcome: you swim with the handbrake pulled up and you desire to forget the race.
You are not supposed to be physically ready, you have nothing to lose, it’s an important race. You are not supposed to be physically ready, your coach says you will be in top form within 5 weeks, but not now. You are about to participate in a relatively important race where you have nothing to lose and nothing to win, but it happens to be a race that you had been craved to participate in for years, and eventually you did it (for me, it was an open international meeting, a round of the FINA long course series). So even if you are just 75%~80% ready, even if you know that the position doesn’t count for you, you are super pumped up. You look at yourself and you feel big. So you swim big. Outcome: you don’t know how you did, your coach doesn’t know how you did, but you just did the second best race of your life.
You are not physically ready, you have nothing to lose, it’s not an important race. You are far from being in a good shape, but you don’t mind because you have nothing to lose and the race has little meaning, at least for you. You do it just out of curiosity, as a test. Your are relaxed, you try to do your best, but nevertheless it’s difficult to gave it all. Outcome: not that bad, you made it a day, but you don’t really know what your real potential is.
You are not physically ready, you want to win, it’s not an important race. It can happen that you decide to do another “test” race at a meeting which doesn’t carry all that meaning for you. You know you aren’t in a good shape yet, but you also know that you can nevertheless place well: you could go home with some metal in the pocket, maybe not the brightest one, but still metal. Your race tactic is “wait-and-see”: ready to bite, but just if needed. Outcome: not too bad, you had lots of fun, you enjoyed your nice swim. And at least you know there is still room for improvement.
You are not physically ready at all, you want to win, it’s not an important race but it has meaning for you. This is the scenario when you are in really poor conditions. And you know it, but you don’t mind because you want to win, or at least you want to give all: even if the meet hasn’t any big importance to anybody else, it carries a special meaning to you, and that matters. This is not a test, and you have your good personal reason to do well. So you give it all.You go balls out. Outcomes: even if you go balls out you are in still in a sub-par condition, so you hit the wall soon. It hurts, but you make it through the end grinding your teeth. At least you demonstrated to be around and alive.