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Winners and Losers

This article about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is extracted from the Peak Performance newsletter. It’s an important read because science shows that you can put in far superior performances with just a little mental adjustment. It applies to all our swimmers regardless of what level they compete on.

A few years ago in a road race, two runners (let’s call them Martin and John) came up against each other. John, the older runner, had always beaten Martin in his early years. During a really hard race Martin broke his own course record. But the older man, John, beat him by half a minute because he believed that he was better than the younger runner on that day.

However, when a national event came up some time later, Martin won and the older runner, John, was nowhere. Why? Because John did not believe that he could perform well at that level. John obviously had the physical ability but lacked the right mental approach. Here are six questions a top coach asks to decide if an athlete is a ‘winner’ or a ‘loser’:

  1. Do you produce great training performances but not live up to them in races?
  2. Is your performance under pressure greater than you would expect from your training?
  3. Do you develop injuries and minor illnesses just before big events?
  4. Do you cope with minor setbacks and still perform to your best when it matters?
  5. Do you look impressive when against familiar, weaker opposition but cannot cope with the challenge of competing against those who are apparently better than you?
  6. Do you respect better opposition, but rise to the challenge?

Think about your answers for a moment, then read on to learn if you have what it takes to win. It’s an important read because science shows that you can put in far superior performances with just a little mental adjustment.  In many cases the only thing holding you back is that lack of winning belief!

How we can learn from ‘winners’ and ‘losers’

The patterns described in the six questions above can be seen in most sports and events, whether it’s running, swimming, sprinting, cycling or high-jumping. In sports, the emphasis is on winning. But while everyone is focusing on who the winner is, many of us lose sight of a far more meaningful objective. Let me explain what I mean:

The greater the prize in sport the more emphasis there is on winning. The greater the emphasis on winning, the tougher and more upsetting it is to be a ‘loser’.

However, although there is only one winner in most events, does this mean that all the others are losers? Without question, this is not the case.

What it means to win

To understand what a winner is, we must analyse what it means to win. We need to define the terms and the reasons for success and failure. Be prepared for some surprises.

The relevant question is not ‘Did you win?’ but ‘Did you come up to your expectations?’ That’s why, following an event, the questions we ask each other are usually along the lines of:

“How did you get on? Were you pleased?”

If the answer to this question is ‘no’, the coach looks for both physical and mental explanations. Very often the single poor performance is due to an infection, over-tiredness or something like eating at the wrong time. However, if there is consistently a gap between training and racing performances, there may well be something wrong with the mental attitude.

Achieving your personal best

First of all, everyone has a physical limit. All the self-belief in the world won’t enable you to, say, run five miles in 20 minutes. What we need to do is to keep on improving for as long as possible, gradually pushing back our physical limits. In that time, we try to compete at our own level, attempting to get as much success as our talents will allow us. That’s what winning really is.

When the older athlete in our example loses, he thinks ‘I’m a loser’. When the younger man fails, he thinks ‘I shall have to work harder’. As they come up to a big competition, the younger man is thinking ‘This is a great opportunity for me’ and the older man is thinking ‘What if I fail again?’ Early experiences cannot be eradicated, but the mind can be ‘reprogrammed’ so as to change the mental attitude towards altering self-perceptions. This is the vital key to self-improvement and no amount of hard training will achieve the same result.

Reprogramming to win

The way a runner approaches a race depends on how he sees himself. If he feels that he lacks finishing speed, he worries if there is anyone near him as the race approaches the finish. If he feels that he lacks endurance, a fast early pace will worry him. He may in fact be perfectly capable of dealing with the situation, but self-doubt is usually fatal. A good coach knows that what’s needed is training and racing program to deal with that weakness.

Five critical tasks every athlete must accomplish

To reach your peak level of performance and be a winner you must accomplish five critical tasks:

  1. Maximise your aerobic capacity (V02max) so that more power is available to sustain your exercise
  2. Raise your lactate threshold as high as possible, so that intense efforts can be maintained with a minimum of fatigue.
  3. Become more efficient at carrying out the exact activities required in your particular sport, so that less energy is wasted during competition and hard exertions feel less stressful
  4. Fortify yourself psychologically, so that the vicissitudes of training and competing can be handled more easily
  5. Learn how to rest, so that your hard training is perfectly balanced with adequate amounts of recovery

Here’s more information on the above techniques:

Maximising your aerobic capacity and raising your lactate threshold

These are achieved by the coach setting appropriate training schedule AND an athlete actually attending the appropriate number of sessions, and doing the planned sets at the appropriate intensity.

Increasing efficiency

The key to improving your efficiency of movement is to recognise that if you make a particular muscle stronger, then fewer of the individual cells within that muscle will be required to sustain a certain level of effort. This means your overall energy demand will be lower – you’ll be more efficient. You’ll be able to step up to higher than expected intensities of exercise, or else conserve large quantities of precious muscle fuel if you prefer to remain at your traditional work rate.

The bottom line is that competition is not just a muscular event; an athlete’s nervous system must learn to CONTROL muscular activity at the precise exertion level required for the race. Specific training allows the nervous and muscular systems to come together in a coordinated way.

Handling training and competing the easy way

The psychological requirements of a winning performance are often misunderstood. It is true that superior performers are able to concentrate almost totally on their bodies during workouts and competitions, blocking out extraneous thoughts and negative information which might impede their performances. The best athletes also tend to be somewhat self-critical, but not overly so, and they often engage in ‘positive self-talk’, giving themselves encouragement both during exercise and throughout the course of an average day.

What is not appreciated is that supreme competitors also have the ability to let bad performances roll off their backs; in fact, they tend to regard poor outings as opportunities to learn more about themselves and to make necessary changes in both their physical and mental preparations for competitions.

Finally, almost all great athletes have the apparently paradoxical ability to both relax and remain somewhat tense. Their muscles are untaut and ready for maximally powerful efforts during competition, yet within their minds keen fires burn which are ready to ignite almost superhuman physical exertion.

The forgotten art of restoration and recovery

Although severe workouts are necessary to get to the top, rest is equally important but is all too often missing from a potentially great athlete’s schedule. Attuned to the idea that high-level workouts produce winning performances, the majority of athletes go overboard, pushing themselves to the brink of fatigue. The best athletes have learned that it’s not possible to reach supreme performance levels unless fierce exertions are balanced with restoration and recovery.

Competition phase of our swimming year is nearly upon us hence a few suggestions how to get the best results in the pool. Hopefully swimmers will attend training sessions and give 100% effort and attention to all the details that we the coaches give on how to improve technique, race pace strategies, starts, turns, and finishes. All this is very important but not enough.

Meet Preparation

  • Ensure your carbohydrates levels are high.
  • Try not to eat food rich in spices, such as garlic, chilli, paprika, etc at least two days before competing.
  • Take extra fluids during the day before the meet
  • The night before the competition pack your own bag knowing you have everything you need.
  • It is good practice to have two costumes and two pairs of goggles.
  • Please take club hat and t-bag, extra towel.
  • Please ensure that you have a track-suit and pool-shoes tol keep you warm. Please DO WEAR IT at the pool when you are not racing.
  • Get enough sleep the night before.
  • Take your own food with you, and do not forget about the extra bottle of water.
  • Avoid false energy , ‘Go slow’ foods – crisps, confectionary such as chocolate bars, sweets, biscuits ,plain salted peanuts, all fried food, take away fast food, chips.

Swimmers should be aware that eating sweets and chocolate before training and racing should be avoided. . These may make you feel energetic for a while before feeling very drowsy after the sugar rush. They also have de-hydrating effect to that will impair performance.

When you’re not racing please pay attention to how other competitors behave and race – you may learn something of the benefit. Instead of playing with your electronic games, please have a chat and a laugh with your friends. Observe with them other competitors and discuss what you see. And please do cheer your friends and colleagues from the club when they race. When you are on the starting block you are on your own- the race is yours and for the taking and winning!

But you are also part of Verulam team and your team, and all Verulam parents watching, are right behind you cheering you on to do your best!.