I read an article last week about mental conditioning and competitive athletes. The inspiration in this piece was a 2008 Olympic swimmer who missed the wall on her turn during a medal race. This cost her important time, but she recovered and made the podium. The author described how she was not just physically, but mentally prepared for this moment. She had missed the wall in trainings before, had practice working through the experience, and had trained herself mentally to overcome the negative thoughts that typically come with such a mistake.
About 200 yards into my warm up, this morning, my left shoulder came out of its proper track and I was in pain. I tried another couple of strokes to see if it was just a random tweak, but it wasn’t. The shoulder wouldn’t stay in track and the pain was enough that I knew working through it wasn’t the best choice for my long term goal.
My immediate response was implosion. I was mad and could only see all the time I had invested as a waste. With this stupid shoulder, I’d probably never be able to swim fast enough to be competitive at the level I was trying for. I felt cursed and like there was no longer any point. I was going home.
Falling apart in the deep end was a good thing; I needed to swim back to the other end, anyway. I went slow, slow, slow. And in the quiet, defeated 25 yards, it occurred to me that I may not be the fastest, but I still could swim. And even if I needed to stay at my previous speed, with my crappy old stroke, it wasn’t the end of the world or my goal. There are lots of people (Kayla Wheeler came to mind) who swim competitively with fewer limbs than I’m lucky to have.
I fretted in the shallow end for a while. Mid-fret, I started to massage the muscles in my back, down my arm, and around my shoulder. Everything was tight and the pain was sort of radiating. I stretched and massaged my left side for 5 minutes or so. Optimistically, I decided to try again and just see what happened. It pulled out of the track with sharp pain right away. So, I flipped on to my back and fretted some more.
The article about the mental recovery of the Olympic swimmer came to mind. My situation was probably more mental than physical – even though I could identify my shoulder and the pain as the problem. This is my shoulder. It just has structural issues that aren’t going to be fixed without surgery and it’s not really bad enough to warrant surgery. It’s gotten stronger with 6 months of physical therapy, but it’s not cured. It’s possible, actually likely that this will happen again and during a race. It is the only left shoulder that I have to work with, so what did I want to get out of this training-this practice? I need to stop fretting about what I can’t do. I need to figure out what I can do. What can I do, when this happens, to finish as strongly as I can. I need to figure out my strategy and practice it. During a race, I won’t have the shallow end for a 5 minute fret and massage. How do I want to respond when / if this happens mid-race? And then I’m going to start practicing my answer, so I can be able to respond more competitively in the future.
My new intents for this training became: 1. to figure out what I can do when this happens, 2. to start talking myself through the strategy, and 3. to practice the combination of the adapted swim and a new mental message. Each stroke was very deliberate as I paid close attention to my shoulder and to trying to understand what the limits were today.
I realized that my torso rotation had a significant relationship to the pain in the shoulder when the left arm was out of the water. I also realized that I experienced no pain or dislocation when rotated fully and took a breath on the left side. I could reduce the pain with more rotation when my right arm was out of the water, but not when I took a breath on my right side. I experimented and tried as many things as I know to try (which isn’t that much), but today breathing on my right side wasn’t going to work. So I swam breathing every four breaths on the left and every two when I got winded. After a short period of time, I felt able to maintain this rhythm without straining my brain too hard.
For the last set, I decided I wanted to glimpse what I could accomplish with the back-up strategy.
8 x 50 @ 1:05 (descend 1-4 and 5-8)
1 -4: :50, :49, :47, :45
5-8: :45, :44, :42, :40
Trepidation is the best word I can come up with to describe what I felt in the first few 50s. Once I hit :45, I knew I had a little more, without risk of additional injury or pain. I was right.
Does this session mean I won’t shut down and throw my pool toys if this happens again? Doubtful. I’m just hoping the practice of the stroke and the new mental strategy gets me back in the game sooner. And un/fortunately I’m sure there will be other opportunities to practice this.
There was one other thought that probably helped me get back in the game and deal with this. I thought, if I can’t be a strong swimmer, then the bike is going to be even more critical to my time. Oh, crap, I’ve got to figure this out. (I still hate the bike.)
One thought on “plan B: mental conditioning”
Well done working on figuring out what you can do instead of (completely) freaking out about the injury. And now that you’ve done that, you won’t need to freak out if it happens in a race, since you know how to cope with it. (Here’s hoping it doesn’t happen, though.) Building this kind of mental toughness is just as important for having a great race as the rest of the physical training your doing.