I had the pleasure of working with an athlete that was not from my team recently who didn't quite understand this concept. This swimmer was very disappointed with their performance but could not answer a single question I asked about the performance. They could not tell me how many strokes, how many breaths, how many kicks off of any walls and had no idea of how many they were supposed to be doing in the race. Unfortunately, this was not a unique occasion, as I find many athletes unclear on race preparation.
Q. When does race preparation begin?
A. Usually the first day of practice. Preparation takes a very long time, it is not done 5min before your race; it is done daily by rehearsing your race plan. How many strokes are you supposed to take in your first 25, 2nd, etc. How many breaths are acceptable in 50FR and where do you take them. Do you practice doing the same amount of dolphin kicks off of walls in practice as you do in your race? Are they practiced at the same speed and intensity? Do you practice going the speed you want to be at regularly? Are you honest about the effort level it takes to go that speed? Do you wait for your coach to get on your case about not being at the right speed, or do you take accountability for it? All these things are important for preparation. As teenagers, it becomes much harder to swim fast and best times; it won't happen by wishing much anymore. Plan to be fast.
Q. Are you consistent?
A. Do you know enough about being fast to be able to be fast all the time? Can you be within 2-3% of your best times all the time, or are you fluctuating 5-10 seconds away from your best sometimes? Do you practice being fast enough?
Q. At a meet, are you preparing to race, or waiting for your turn to swim?
A. I am often surprised at meets how many athletes are playing video games, reading or just generally passing time. Many of those athletes go from 2 hours of reading a book and then go directly to the blocks to swim. Is that planning to swim fast? Don't get me wrong, everyone mentally prepares differently, but it seems to me that sitting for hours deactivates the body and can undo your warm-up. How many athletes have a pre-race activation routine? What are you thinking behind the blocks (what types of thoughts do you need to have in order to swim fast)? What are you doing (What do you need to do in order to swim fast)? How are you feeling (how do you need to feel in order to swim fast)? Are you paying attention to any of these factors? Do you know the answer to any of the questions above.
Imagine how ill-conceived it would be to enter a boxing ring, arrive for an exam, drive to a new location or to perform surgery without a plan. Racing is the swimmer's fight/test/drive/surgery; lets be honest. It's what all swimmers do on a regular basis. Fill your toolbox and use your tools... just don't try to use a new tool for the first time on the job.
I spoke to one of my athletes this past weekend at Swim International (in Brantford, ON) before a race and reminded him of his strength and how we had been training. "Not using [specific practiced skill] is like being a marksman fighting zombies with a gun... only you're choosing to swing it like a club rather than fire it. FIRE THE GUN! It's what you're best at!"
(Editors note: Please note that, in the example above, I wanted to get home in time to catch The Walking Dead).