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Coaching Mental & Emotional Performance

Written By: Bob Kizer

Over the course of my career, I have seen athletes in every shape and form. There are been physical wonders, courageous warriors, mental masters and everything else. During that time, I have had athletes struggle with mental health and performance, from negative self-talk and lack of confidence to depression, self-harm and more. 20 years ago, out of a group of twenty swimmers I had one or two who struggled with serious issues, but today it seems I have only one or two who don’t.

Make no mistake, I am not a licensed therapist or counselor and quickly refer families to get professional help the moment I think a swimmer is suffering from a mental illness, but my job does require me to deal with the related mental and emotional performance skills athletes need to be successful. These include self-talk and confidence, coping skills for stress and anxiety, relaxation skills, effective goal setting and self-regulation skills surrounding emotions and performance.

For anyone who has coached young athletes for any period of time, this is not new or news. These issues have always been there and always needed attention. However, I think today’s young generations have stressors, pressure and self-image issues that are greater than previous generations and more and more they are not learning the necessary skills at home or anywhere else.

At our club this year, we have begun a team wide curriculum in mental and emotional performance starting with our youngest athletes. In appraising the issues, while we do not have 5–6-year-old swimmers suffering serious mental performance issues, it was our feeling that if we don’t start teaching the necessary performance skills at this young age, and continue throughout their career, we will soon just have more 11-14 year olds without the necessary skills and we will be starting over with another generation. We have contracted with experts in the field for training for our coaches and are working as a team to build the curriculum as we go.

Like flip turns, racing starts and any other skill we teach, these mental and emotional performance skills take practice and that means time. We dedicate practice time every week to these skills with all our groups. The first big question was where to begin? For us, that meant different things for different ages. With our 13 & Over groups, it meant starting with goal setting and self-evaluation. This evaluation focused on a mental skills checklist developed by our coaches in our season planning last summer. For our 12 & Under groups, we started with visualization and relaxation.

Our 10 & Under groups started with an exercise where they visualized making a cake, and when they were done they described their process and their final cake to their coach. This exercise was followed up with in water skill work preceded by visualization of the skill prior to swimming and execution. We had groups start with breathing exercises such as box breaths, or even just working on relaxed diaphragm breathing if we needed to start there. I will never forget the 10 & Under coach who told me about a day when their group was particularly rowdy and lacking the ability to pay attention. She used box breaths to calm the group and was told by her swimmers they felt better and we ready to get to work. Little did they know, they had already begun working with their breathing exercises.

As the Head Coach, I have spent time with all groups, talking about performance pressure, anxiety, worry and self-talk. Most kids on the team are now very comfortable telling me about the voice in their head and what it has been up to lately. It is normal for me to ask a swimmer if they are worried about disappointing their coach or mom and dad when they swim. It has become just as normal for them to answer without worry or hesitation.

A phrase that one of our experts used at the beginning of our staff training has stuck with me. We are creating an “environment of psychological safety” for all our athletes. As we continue to build the program this year, that thought is always at the forefront of my mind. Simple questions like, “Is it creating a safe space for an athlete who tells me they are scared to tell them there is nothing to be afraid of?” How many times in the past did I tell an athlete, “Don’t worry, you can do this”? Even though I knew at that moment they were worried. Basically, I was telling them they were wrong to worry, even though they felt no control over their ability to worry or not worry, and had no skills to lessen the impact of the worry and anxiety.

Through the course of the fall, we have worked on a number of skills with all our swimmers, but the one that has made the most impact is one I could have used much earlier in my life. The number one coping skill we are teaching for swimmers feeling anxious or worried about a race is ask for help. Now at meets I have swimmers coming to me saying, “I am starting to get really nervous and I can’t control it. What can I do?” This gives me a chance to let them know this is normal and okay. I get to suggest coping skills they can try like breathing and relaxation skills, ways to let go of the nervous thought and replace it with a more positive or focused thought, even if they have to do it dozens of times before their race, or get teammates to share similar experiences that help them cope in the moment.

Moving forward we will continue to build on the work we have done and start to get more into the area of self-regulation of emotions. The idea here is help our swimmers identify and label their emotions as they happen. If we can name them and understand them, we can start to understand which of our emotions are healthy and helpful, and which are negative and more self-destructive. We can learn which are core emotions expressing our feelings and which as masking emotions hiding what is really going on for one reason or another.

We are in the very early stages of building this program, but the short-term results have been outstanding. A few years ago, if you would have told me I would commit 10-15% of my practice time to work on anything other than physical skills to help make us faster, I would have said you were crazy. Today, I’d say I would be crazy not to take the time to work on these skills.

Bob joined SPA as Head Coach in 2016 after three years in the same position at COM Aquatics in Midland, TX. Prior to that, he spent 10 years at New Trier Swim Club in Illinois. Bob has been coaching since he was in college and has coached all levels from beginner to Olympian. His teams have won a number of State and Sectional Championships as well as an NCSA Junior National Championship in 2012. Bob was also a member of the 2012 USA Swimming Junior Pan-Pac coaching staff and a member of the National Select Camp staff in 2012.

As a swimmer, Bob was a Michigan State High School Champion and an All-America with Ann Arbor Pioneer HS. In college, he competed at NCAAs as a member of the Allegheny College Swim Team. Bob is married and has three grown children pursuing their own dreams across the country.

1 Comment

Adriana Contreras
Adriana Contreras
Dec 21, 2021

Bob this is awesome stuff! Thanks so much for sharing!!

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