A note from Badger Parent Advocate, Mike Conaton:

I’ve always been fascinated by the mental aspect of sports.  We’ve all heard the sayings that suggest the mental aspect is anywhere between 50-90% in any given sport.  At least at 90% there is the recognition that you need your arms and legs for something.  And I’ve never heard anything less than 50% for some reason suggesting that it takes at least equal part brain to think through any activity??…In any event, suffice to say the mental aspect is a meaningful contributing factor to an athlete’s performance.

First focusing on the subliminal – Many athletes can be caught up in the moment or a trend without actually being aware of it.  Take the magic four-minute mile in running.  Historically a seemingly impossible hurdle for the human body to break until the Brit, Roger Bannister did it on May 6, 1954.  The prior world record up to that point was held by Gunder Hägg from Sweden.   His record of 4:01.4 stood for a very long nine years, and wasn’t even that close to 4:00 in racing terms.  After Bannister ran his 3:59.4 world record, the 4:00 milestone was broken again just 46 days later!  John Landy of Australia crushed Bannister’s time in setting a new world record of 3:58.0.   The previously “untouchable” 4:00 mark would be broken again four times in the next 11 months!  The simple analysis: A barrier was broken and proven achievable.  Many attribute the subsequent performances to the overcoming of mental barriers that subliminally or otherwise got in the way of physical performance.  Once an athlete’s brain realizes it’s achievable, the body somehow seems to respond.  I’m sure there’s also the inherent competitive nature of the athlete at play, trying even harder to keep up with the lead dog.

Maybe this historical phenomenon and others like it can also start to explain how our kids seem to be able to swim faster and faster every year.  Physical maturity aside, once mental confidence is built, and an athlete can see it can be done, the body seemingly takes over and performs.  This also starts to support the other old saying – “success breeds success”.  Once the kids see their teammates perform, they seemingly feed off each other’s enthusiasm and ultimately performances.  It’s no accident, for example that there were so many inspired swims for Badgers of all ages at all the various championship meets this year.  This is why it’s also so beneficial to have a positive attitude at the pool….and at home.

Taken to another level, as the kids pour over meet results on Meet Mobile and Swimswam, the bar can’t help but be lifted by endless observations of kids getting it done, in real time, over and over.  I do believe this raised awareness of performance generally causes a rising tide…and faster swims over time with greater frequency.  Social media puts it in the kids’ face every day, whereas when we parents grew up, we would all generally see our peers once or twice a year at big meets.  Times improved for sure but more in a stair function over a longer period of time.  Just an unscientific observation for what it’s worth!

Actively managing and controlling the mental aspect of sports and swimming is another huge topic perhaps for later.  However I will leave with a great quote I heard recently while watching Yankee Legends (yes I was yearning for baseball on a snowy day).  The interview was with the accomplished pitcher Jim Abbott, a Sullivan Award winner, Olympic gold medalist and Yankee pitcher…despite being born with one hand.  Jim was asked to reflect on his thoughts after the eighth inning of his historic no-hitter with the Yankees in 1993 –

“There’s an outcome that you want so badly.  But you can’t look at the outcome.  There’s a process that’s gotten you to this point.  There’s a little bit of turning yourself over to that.  Trust it.  Let the process that got you there take over”.

Perhaps one way for the kids to think about their races and maybe even deal with their nerves.  I’m still trying to figure out a remedy for parents (besides not letting the kids know we’re nervous too)!


Michael Conaton, Badger Swim Club Inc. and Badger Swimming Inc. accept no liability for the content of this article, or for the consequences of any actions taken on the basis of the information provided.

Recommended Posts