Number 20

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University


[Extracted from Rushall, B. S. (1995). Personal Best: A swimmer's handbook for racing excellence (Chapter 4). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.]

Pre-race and race strategies require certain features to be adhered to when they are formulated and used. This section highlights five such factors.


Negative orientations are detrimental to competitive performances. Examples of negative orientations are worry, wishing one did not have to race, racing not to let others down, and trying to avoid a bad performance. Negative approaches produce a different physiological reaction to that which occurs under a positive attitude. Athletes function less efficiently, fatigue more easily, and use different physiological ingredients in their exercise response than when they are positive. Less work is performed under a negative "mind-set" than under a positive set.

Swimmers need to interpret every racing situation so that the purpose of competing is to achieve positive outcomes. After a race, an athlete should focus on and emphasize what was done well. If losing is likely, then winning should not be a goal. Other performance goals should be established, for example, improving technique, better pacing, and consistent lap times. A positive approach to racing produces a swimmer striving to do things well in every race. Performance expectations that have a high degree of negative potential should be ignored or eliminated. The goal-package must be positive so that an athlete races to achieve things or improve in performance factors. A swimmer should look forward to testing him/herself to gain something from a race. Those gains should be trained for, achievable, and/or indicate improvement. A positive approach to racing will result in an athlete exploiting the best physiology that training has lead him/her to achieve. The amount of negative thought content prior to and during a race determines a major portion of performance deterioration. If one thinks badly, one will perform badly.

A positive approach to race preparation and performance will allow a swimmer to function physiologically in the most efficient manner. The fruits of training are more likely to be achieved through a positive attitude.


Performance outcomes are more likely to be achieved when what is to be done prior to and during a race has been planned, practiced, and shown to be successful. New approaches, techniques, or strategies should never be used in races without them first being tested, refined, and trained. A swimmer should prepare for and race with what is known and has been practiced.

If thinking while performing is practiced, athletes can learn to think clearly in a race. Combining thought practice with physical training allows the skill of thought control to develop and to be used in a race. Mental functioning needs to be trained in physically stressful conditions. At all times at practice and in races, an athlete should maintain mental control. Much effort is needed in the initial stages of developing this capacity.

If an athlete has the major portion of the decision-making when structuring strategy content, an enhanced approach to racing will result. Strategies must be specific in content and extreme in detail. The affects on performance of this athlete-centered approach to racing are:

When swimmers are given the major responsibility for planning and deciding on what is to be included in strategies, performances are enhanced. Coaches and parents will have to resist telling swimmers what they want them to do in races and let those decisions be made by the athletes.


Athletes who believe they have little chance of achieving goals or being successful are likely to perform at low levels. When an individual predicts a negative outcome it very likely will result. The reverse does not occur for positive predictions, that is, if an individual predicts success, success does not necessarily ensue.

Negative approaches to racing can be discerned by listening to what an athlete says. Positive statements such as: "I am able to perform my best", "I will set the race tempo", and "I am going to pace the whole race evenly", indicate assertiveness and confidence, features of a positive approach to racing. On the other hand, statements such as: "I hope I can do well", "I think I can put on a good show", and "I pray I will not let anyone down", indicate uncertainty about, or reliance on an external entity for, performance. To avoid negative self-fulfilling prophecies, athletes have to develop positive predictions, justifications, and expectations prior to races. They should know what they want to do, how they will do it, and then go ahead and do it.

One would not think of trying to avoid falling behind in a race. That is an avoidance orientation that will promote reduced physiological and skill efficiency. Rather, a swimmer should think of the technique items that will produce the best sustainable steady-state swimming, actions that will result in a competent response to the task. This latter description is a positive approach to the same problem. Its effect will not depreciate a performance and, most likely, will enhance it.

Thinking of errors, possible weaknesses or failures, or potential problems, before or during a race, will increase the likelihood of them occurring.


The inclusion of coping skills in pre-race and race planning is essential. Their practice and emphasis should consume about 20 percent of training time.

Coping behaviors should not be confused with negative thinking. Predicting and preparing for problems, that is, knowing what to do if something goes wrong, will produce better tolerance and coping responses prior to and in a race. In most cases, problems are handled and the swimmer "gets-back-on-track" with performing the planned strategy and achieving goals. Successful coping in problem circumstances produces a positive orientation. Normally, problems lead to negative orientations if a coping response is not attempted. Athletes should practice and learn to cope with problems through worst-case simulations.

For every preferred action to be performed and thought of prior to or during a race there should be an alternative fallback action that is another way of achieving the same intended outcome. Coping positively maintains performance capacity. A failure to cope reduces performance capacity.


When a race is broken down into meaningful sections of skills, terrain, and thought control, it is called "segmenting" a race. Each segment should have its own set of goals. A preparation or performance becomes the task of serially achieving the goals of each segment. Focusing on the intermediate goals of segments influences performance maximally. For example, what one wants to achieve as the final outcome of a 1500m, will have very little to do with the efficiency of the first two minutes of swimming in that race. On the other hand, if a strategy has been developed that requires certain things to be done to achieve a very good start, and that is what is focused on in the first two minutes of the race, that short-term concentration will affect performance.

Pre-race strategies should be structured in sequential segments. The successful completion of each activity will signal "good" preparations and will develop a positive mind-set.

Segmented races require thinking of the race stage of the moment. The attainment of final goals is dependent upon correctly doing all the segments that lead to the finish. Thinking of the final goal other than in the final segment, is a disruptive pursuit that will cause performance to be reduced.

Concentrating on achieving segment goals, in the order in which they are planned, produces sustained performances. A swimmer should only think of what is needed to achieve the segment goals at each stage of a race. The aim of racing under this format is to achieve successive goals according to the planned strategy and race stage. If segment goals are not achieved, coping procedures are required at the start of the next segment to help the racer recover positive and planned control.

The transition stage from one segment to the next is a unique feature of pre-race and race strategies. At the end of a segment the following sequence of events should occur:

  1. Evaluate very quickly if the goals of the segment have been achieved.
  2. Proceed with the execution of the next segment if the goals were achieved.
  3. Enact a recovery routine that will correct the reasons for the previous segment goal-failure.
  4. Enter the next segment strategy at the appropriate stage as soon as recovery procedures are completed.

Segmenting a performance means that a swimmer will know what is to be done in order to achieve final preparation and competition goals. The frequent attainment of segment goals maintains a positive approach to performance and thus, enhances a swimmer's momentum to perform. The segmentation of strategies produces many desirable effects that will enhance achievements and consistency.


Maintenance of a positive mind-set during a race directly enhances the type and efficiency of physiological reactions to a performance. Not racing with a positive orientation disposes performing at an inferior level. Preparing all or the major portion of strategies produces heightened performances. The prediction of problems reduces performance because of the self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon. However, the development of coping skills for potential problems will reduce the effect of preparatory and in-race problems should they occur. One fifth of training time should be devoted to practicing coping responses. A segmented preparation and race will produce better performances than when all activities are oriented toward some set of final goals. Segmenting a strategy makes it more controllable and increases performance application and consistency. These factors need to be considered when pre-race and race strategies are developed.


  1. Rushall, B. S. (1995). Personal Best: A swimmer's handbook for racing excellence. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.
  2. Rushall, B. S. (1995). Mental skills training for sports (2nd ed.). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.

Return to Table of Contents for Swimming Science Bulletin.