Understanding Anxiety in Swimming
College swimmers are faced with a crazy amount of anxiety throughout their four years in school. Most of this anxiety is coming from the pressure of their training in the pool to their academic work or school and maintaining a certain level of sanity in their life. This amount of stress can lead any person into a state where their anxiety is heightened in some way. Having this anxiety heighten can affect how a swimmer moves forward through their swim training or if they feel burnt out. Through recent studies there have been parts where anxiety shows that swimmers have been affected gravely by anxiety. When it comes to mental illness in athletes they are usually overlooked by their coaches or athletic trainers are not thinking twice about it. When in reality almost everyone on the team is dealing with some level of anxiety. Anxiety has been overlooked in athletes for years, looking into the research that has been done through the years has shown how it is still time to stop ignoring the signs that swimmers are having. There needs to be action taken in helping swimmers asking for help with their anxiety, instead of them trying to deal with it by themself.
Anxiety is something that has been involved in any point of someone ‘s life without them even knowing. There are different levels of anxiety that athletes are faced with from practice anxiety to competition anxiety that can affect how that athlete may perform. When an athlete is faced with this anxiety that can either use it as a type of motivation in their swimming or use it as a way to destroy their confidence. Depending on the swimmer they can either turn their anxiety into a way of fueling them or the anxiety can destroy their self-confidence. The role that anxiety and self-confidence play a huge impact on a swimmer’s life. There is a balance that needs to be formed within an individual. If there is more anxiety than self-confidence then that person is going to be living in fear of succeeding. But if there’s more self-confidence than anxiety, that person is going to be over confident and when they fail it is going to hit them hard. According to a study done by Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, they looked at the relationship between self-confidence and anxiety in swimming. Throughout the study there was a correlation between self-confidence and anxiety, the study states, “Swimmers achieved this by blocking out the negative thoughts and images and replacing them with positive ones, a process perceived to enhance self-confidence and performance.” With blocking out the negative thoughts that are driven by anxiety, swimmers are able to perform to the best of their ability. But this looks a lot easier said than done. To block out these thoughts, the person has to stay away from the triggers that have been formed to keep the negative thoughts out. With blocking the triggers that will lead to negative thought or anxiety, a swimmer may be able to perform at the best of their ability.
The pressure that swimmers face is hard to recreate in any other sports because of the individual aspect of the sport but also the team aspect. Swimmers are trying to swim their individual event, while also winning points for the team. This kind of stress of competing for a team, is the root of where the pressure comes from. A swimmer does not want to let themselves down by losing, but more importantly they don’t want to disappoint their team. Taking this amount of stress and adding on the pressure of performing well in school. This is where athletes will start to form anxiety. They are being stretched out thin by their sport and by academics. Keeping everything in order is hard when an athlete has 6:00 am practice class at 9:30 am, then another practice from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and finally another class from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm. This kind of schedule is the breeding ground for swimmers to be overwhelmed by that amount of workload. In a study done in the Journal of Issues of Intercollegiate Athletics, they focus on the pressure that swimmers face throughout the season. The study states, “heavy workload and pressure to perform increase their stress levels to the point of making it a risk factor for their wellbeing.” As a student-athlete there is already a pressure of being exposed to symptoms of anxiety or depression earlier than other students. Adding on the factor of training, class, and homework, there is little time for swimmers or any college athlete to hit the reset button to just have a little breathing room. Without creating a time management schedule there will be major negative effects on a swimmer that will cause major anxiety. Creating a schedule will help lower an athletes schedule, but keeping to this schedule can be quick and hard.
Anxiety is such a complicated mental illness because it can be overlooked so easily, by just being stressed you just take a deep breath and move forward. Swimmers can be scared to step forward that they may have anxiety due to the fear of being looked down on. That their anxiety will be looked at as a weakness in them. The narrative that anxiety has gotten over the years is not one that should be looked at as a good one. With many student-athletes not just swimmers have been scared to ask for help from their coach. Openly talking to a coach about suffering from anxiety, the coach is going to want to help you in the best way they possibly can, but sometimes coaches can come off the wrong way and do more harm than good. Some coaches can brush off your feelings and tell you to just push through, wherein reality it is a lot harder to push through. Other times coaches are trying to put the best team together for a meet, and they may not want to put an athlete that is going through a hard time. This is where the relationship of a coach and athlete become important. Because if there is no trust between them, a swimmer is going to have a hard time dealing with anxiety.
In a research paper by Sarah Jean Hatteberg, she focuses on the importance that social support is important that an athlete finds, but also looking at the complicated part of social support. Having a negative relationship with a coach is one of the stresses that can lead to anxiety in swimming. Hatteberg writes, “athletes’ perceived argument with coaches, unfair treatment by coaches, and coaches’ disappointment are sources of stress emanating from the player-coach relationship.” When a coach is unable to be there for an athlete it can be very damaging to their anxiety. The athletes will start to feel their self worth going down the drain. When a swimmer does not have a supportive coach it makes it very hard to get the motivation to come to practice. This ties into a swimmer’s anxiety because how a coach is someone that a swimmer needs to provide a sense of comfort from them. A coach that is not being helpful with a swimmer that is experiencing a type of anxiety, this can turn swimming into a negative place to go. When a coach starts to chat like this, it starts to turn swimming and the coach into the rut for their anxiety. Instead of helping them the coach has made their anxiety worse.
Looking at how the coaching environment and time management, when these things do not line up, can be a very negative place for a swimmer to go. When swimmers get to college they start to feel a sense of benign burnt out. With having swim for almost the utmost of their career, nothing will prepare a swimmer for the amount of stress they will face in college. According to the Journal of Issues of Intercollegiate Athletics, about only 7% of all men and women high school swimmers went on to compete in the NCAA.” Depending on the level of division an athlete picks, there is always going to be an amount of anxiety that comes with it. Division one swimmers are faced with the most amount of stress because they are being paid to swim for the school. Where division 3 swimmers have some breathing room, but they still are being pushed to perform academically. There is still an amount of stress that is shared amongst each division of swimming, every swimmer has an understanding of what kind of stress they are unders. Swimmers want to be able to prove that the coach made the right decision on having them come to their school.
Decision to swim in college brings on a whole different kind of anxiety for swimmers, because you picked to content swimming and any mistake that you make can have negative effects. In the high of the season, there is a lot of change in mood states during this time. Swimmers rethink why they chose to keep swimming, why they are putting themself through this. Anxiety starts to set in and this will slowly start to affect how that swimmer is going to approach their swimming now. A swimmers anxiety will mostly pop out right before a competition, this type of anxiety is called competition anxiety. According to Graham Jones and Sheldon Ashton in the “Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology”, consider competition anxiety over the years has been viewed as negative, but in recent years it research has shown that anxiety can have a positive effect on swimmers. Depending on if a swimmer is going to be affected by their anxiety, determined by how they approach their goals. If they come into their goal with a negative mindset they are going to be negatively affected negatively. If they come in with a positive mind set, there is a higher chance that they are going to be affected positively. In the study that was conducted it showed how swimmers were affected differently, it was found that “positive goal attainment expectancy group interpreted their cognitive anxiety symptoms as being facilitative, whereas the negative/uncertain group interpreted them as being debilitative ” according to Graham Jones and Sheldon Ashton. Building strong goals is helpful in keeping a swimmer’s anxiety from being so negative. Creating goals is a way of keeping their mind busy from thinking about competing.
How anxiety affects a person is up to the person themself. They have to decide if they want it to help them compete better or stop them from competing to the best of their ability. This is a lot easier said than done, when it comes to swimming it’s easier to get into a negative headspace. Having one bad race can lead them into a down spiral of their anxiety turning from positive to negative.There are different mental strategies that a swimmer can practice to help them get their anxiety under control. Some of these strategies are helpful for some swimmers, but they are not effective for everyone. Imagery, breathing techniques, and tia chin, are some of the best techniques that a swimmer can do to help them lower their anxiety before a race.
In a study by Sean Cia, look at different methods to help lower anxiety and depression in student-athletes. Throughout the course of the study the most effective method was tai chin. According to Sean Cia, tia chin is “a kind of relaxation exercise”, with relaxing an athletes mind can help them to let go of some of the stress that they care about through the courses of the season. However, at the end of the study students say they know short-term effects on their anxiety and depression. This may be because they were unfamiliar with tai chi and where to use it. This is important to take into consideration, because an athlete may not have a proper understanding of what the task was and they were being asked. For a person that has been doing this sport for several years, it may be hard for them to add new techniques to help them with their mental health. Without having help from incorporating tia chin their schedule to making time for it they are mostly likely to forget about practicing tai chin. Which was noticeable in the study done by Sean Cia, that with the two groups there was no significant difference in the results. Looking at the whole of the study, there are good points that are benign made, but if the swimmers do not keep up with the practices. There is no true way of seeing if these techniques are truly useful in helping swimmers.
Emotions of swimmers are constantly changing though the season, where towards the end swimmers anxiety is acting up the most. The pressure of performing at a championship, is something that can have a very negative effect on a swimmer. With the fear of not performing could cause the team from not winning the overall championship. Or the meet is the last chance for a swimmer to get a cut for NCAA championship ro olympic trials. The build up to these meets, push swimmers to power through their anxiety and see if all their hard work will pay off. In a study done by Phillip Vacnher called “Changes of swimmers’ emotional States during the preparation of the National Championship.” Vacnhers writes, “emotional states were characterized by distinct trajectories during the training period preceding a major competition.” With different trajectories were the representation of different swimmers leading up to the competition. Some swimmers that were able to have reduced training leading into the meet were able to compete better than swimmers that did not have reduced training into the meet. When a swimmer had a bad race before the championship meet, they were more likely to head in the meet with a higher anxiety than other swimmers.
Reduced training is a conversation that a coach and swimmer need to have together, if they do not have this conversation there could be confusion on what the swimmer focuses on. Causing them to have been reducing their training for the wrong meet, which would cause a sense of panic and overwhelming amount of anxiety. Vanchers claim “swimmers felt more unpleasant emotions, fewer pleasant ones and lower positive expectations of their ability to cope and reach goals,” the emotion that swimmers are being mostly faced during these experiences is anxiety. The amount of anxiety that swimmers are feeling when their training is reduced at the wrong time is destroying their motivation. Which leads into making their new training goals hard because they were not prepared for their goals to end at that race. Where in reality they are just so overwhelmed by the amount of anxiety that is being placed on them, they lose all motivation to compete.
Anxiety affects such a large amount of swimmers that it is not common that a swimmer has to deal with some type of anxiety that another swimmer might have been going through. There is still a small amount that has not been feeling that high of anxiety as other swimmers, this swimmer is just experiencing a different level of confidence than other swimmers will experience throughout their career. This type of swimmers is a different kind, where they thrive in stressful situations and that is where they perform the best because their confidence is over ruling their anxiety. This swimmer goes through a little bit of anxiety but instead of it affecting them in a negative way, they thrive on it. Anxiety has created this idea that it will always affect a swimmer in a negative way. But when these types of athletes fail for the first time, they are hit with all the emotion that other swimmers feel after every meet. Failure, disappointment, angery, and anxiety. These swimmers may be able to overcome this failure, but there will always be a little bit of anxiety they feel each time they race. Instead of using the anxiety as a way to fuel them, but keeping them afraid of feeling anxiety again.
College swimming is such an interesting sport to understand, because looking at the outside it seems like such a simple sport. Just get in a pool and swim the fastest to get to the wall first. In reality, it is so much more than just getting a hand on the wall. Swimmers are racing the clock, trying to improve their time, well also scoring points for their team. Swimming is as much an individual sport as it is a team sport. Imagine having the pressure of being in a team sport, well also computing individually for yourself. This is where anxiety is formed throughout the sport. There is so much pressure put on swimmers to put up best times at each meet that it takes a mental toll on them. Add being a full time college student on top of the pressure from swimming. Anxiety needs to stop being seen as an excuress from swimmers. There are very few people that can keep their grades up well and also perform in a sport every weekend. Colleges and coaches need to start to understand that this type of anxiety is the reason why there are so many swimmers that feel overtrained and burnt out. Colleges need to stop seeing student-athletes as a way to make money, but as college students that are being asked to bend over backwards to be amazing students and athletes. Anxiety needs to be viewed as not just a mental illness but as an injury in a way. If You don’t fix an injury it will just keep getting worse, until it becomes unable to swim. That Is what anxiety represents, being an invisible injury. Without getting help for anxiety, there would be a point where that swimmer can no longer push through it.
Jones, G., & Hanton, S. (2019). Interpretation of Competitive anxiety symptoms and goal attainment Expectancies. Retrieved 2021, from https://web-a-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.rowan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=1c0a1e13-571f-4448-9a7e-5f9bf237936a%40sdc-v-sessmgr01
Vacher, P., Nicolas, M., Martinent, G., & Mourot, L. (2017, June 07). Changes of swimmers’ emotional States during the preparation of National Championship: DO recovery-stress States MATTER? Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01043/full
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Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2020). Perceived control of anxiety and its relationship to self-confidence and performance. Retrieved 2021, from https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.rowan.edu/docview/218503534/fulltext/29A7E8B928F04248PQ/1?accountid=13605