Number 21

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


[Extracted and condensed from Rushall, B. S. (1995). Personal Best: A swimmer's handbook for racing excellence (Chapter 5). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.]

Pre-race strategies contain all the thoughts and actions that need to take place to prepare an athlete to start a race with the best form of race readiness. The main outcomes of these preparations are to:

The content of this discussion is limited to actions on the day of a race. It recognizes that some athletes start their preparations as much as two days before important contests. When that is the case, the suggestions here should be extended and repeated to consume the total time-period between the first instance of race-awareness and the race start.



Research has shown that how one feels when waking in the morning markedly affects that person's perceptions, mood, and attributes of that day's events. When waking on the morning of a race day, initial perceptions should be positive and enjoyable. If perceptions were negative the rest of the day's events would be biased towards a negative appraisal. That negative "attitude" would have detrimental effects on race preparations and subsequence performance.

Individuals can learn to wake positively after a night's sleep or long rest. The aim of a wake-up procedure is to establish a positive mood in the athlete so that ensuing events will be interpreted positively. Features of a positive wake-up procedure are:

Waking and deliberately developing a positive attitude can be learned. Normally, this is achieved in five to eight days. To develop this control, the following actions should be followed.

This simple procedure influences an athlete's attitudes for the day by producing a positive approach to daily events. Although it may seem trivial, no event is too small to be considered and/or used if it will assist in producing the best performance of which a swimmer is capable.


The major period of time between waking and racing should be devoted to following activities that avoid upsets. The most influential events are psychological in nature. Activities during this time should be planned and monitored. Some of the major events of this period are discussed below.

Two psychological problems often arise during this time.

Some or all of the above activities should be repeated until confidence is restored. It is helpful to include some of these actions in pre-race strategies to serve as "insurance" against a loss of confidence occurring.

The main challenge for pre-race preparation away from the competition site is biding one's time so that no detrimental events occur. Little can be done at this time to enhance performance, but much could happen to detract from performance. Events should be planned so that activities are purposeful.


Everything undertaken at the race site should be planned. This is where race performances can be affected dramatically by seemingly insignificant events. Initial activities after arrival at the race venue will "set-the-stage" for the activities that follow. Undertaking deliberate activities immediately upon arrival will set the pattern for the remainder of the pre-race strategy.


A major task for achieving control over race readiness is to produce a constant reference point for preparations to occur irrespective of the race site. One way of doing this is to perform enhancement imagery while moving around in the open-air as the first activity. This produces a focus of attention on the race in the environment in which it is to occur. The scope of imagery in this early stage of preparation should encompass the whole race. This contrasts with what will be imagined later because as the race approaches the scope of imagery should narrow to the early segments of the race.

Some individuals prefer to start the real preparation for a race by completing a relaxation session with mental imagery immediately before leaving for the competition site. Others prefer to engage in relaxation as the first activity when they arrive at the race venue. The purpose behind these activities is to develop a consistent starting point for the planned routines that lead to the start of a race. It is good practice to have a consistent comfortable activity as the first at the race site. From that consistent reference point, all planned activities should start on a predictable path.


Warm-up should be as close as possible to the race start. If it occurs well before a race, It is possible that benefits may dissipate before the event starts.

There are three major effects to be achieved through a warm-up. First, the core temperature of the body should rise to the point where the skin is moist because of a light sweat. Second, the neuromuscular patterns of the skill activities that will occur in the race should have been practiced through some race-intensity specific activity. This second feature means that the skill patterns exhibited in the warm-up should match those that are likely to occur in the race. Third, it is the first opportunity to focus on features of the physical and mental dimensions of the race.

When deciding on warm-up activities, the athlete must:

Once a warm-up is completed, the effects developed should not be allowed to wear-off. Layers of clothing to preserve the elevated body temperature should be worn and repeated precise-skill activity should occur in the period between the finish of the warm-up and the race start. There is no need to worry about expending energy that otherwise might be used in a race. During this time fluid levels should be maintained. Drinks should be permitted although some individuals should not take those with sugar in the last two hours before the start. Coaches and parents should offer no new information or instructions, should elicit responses from the athlete by questioning him/her about some part of the race strategy, and only focus on the early segments of the race.

During this period it is also advisable for athletes to start to isolate themselves from others (e.g., well wishers, competitors, media, advisers). That facilitates focusing on the upcoming race and reduces distractions.

Stretching is another valuable activity that can be useful in the last phase of race preparations but should not be overdone. Exercises should involve all joints to be used in the race. However, each exercise should have a purpose to achieve some feeling of warmth and/or looseness. Stretching exercises should be performed alone so that there is no reliance upon another being. At this late stage of preparation, unnecessary second-party dependencies (e.g., rubdowns, massages) should be avoided.

As the race approaches, the content of the pre-race strategy should be such that the athlete relies more and more on events and actions over which he/she has total control. By keeping active and warm and focusing on deliberate and practiced activities, a state can be developed that is incompatible with psychological problem states, such as anxiety, loss of confidence, and increased tension. The warm-up signals that the "race" has begun and that the final preparations for racing have started.


At some designated time prior to race start, an athlete should enter a phase of pre-race preparations that serve to heighten his/her responses and readiness to perform. This concerns a physical and mental build-up that is to peak and coincide with the race start. A variety of activities are possible in a race build-up routine.

The routine should start with the athlete isolating him/herself from all personal interactions, even with a coach. The role of a coach or adviser at this time is one of purely monitoring what the athlete is doing and being a resource if required. This isolation allows the athlete to concentrate on planned physical and mental activities.

Physical activities should increase in their intensity as the race approaches. Bursts of activity become faster but cover shorter distances. Stretching exercises become fewer but faster and more violent. The amount of physical activity also increases over time so that just before the race, the athlete is in constant motion. That motion will facilitate the control of physical arousal, which needs to be high if the athlete is to start well.

The athlete should engage in positive self-talk. If it is difficult to concentrate on covert self-talk, then the positive statements should be muttered aloud. Muttering requires more concentration than thinking and may have better potential for self-control effects.

Task concentration changes as the race approaches. The closer the start, the greater the concentration on the start and the early race segments. The last thoughts before the start should be of how to do the best start possible. Thus, as the race approaches, distant and final segments of a race strategy drop out of the athlete's sphere of concentration.

A procedure used by some of the greatest athletes in the world is called "emotional build-up." It consists of selecting some aggressive or assertive emotion (e.g., being furious or angry, hating some object, being wild or mad, wanting to attack the pool). This emotion is deliberately imagined. It usually occurs quite close to the race start, possibly in the last 5 to 10 minutes. As the race approaches, the intensity of the emotion is increased so that at the starting line, the athlete controls optimum emotional and physical arousal through concentration on perfection of the start. That state constitutes the development of a maximum race-readiness state.

Performance-enhancement imagery should be used frequently as a procedure for maintaining focus on the race. As the race approaches, segments rehearsed should increasingly be those of the early part of the race. Distant segments will lose their effect as the race start becomes imminent. The last imagery should be of the starting segment.

A pre-race strategy requires an athlete to achieve certain outcomes.

  1. Minimize the chances of distractions or problems occurring that might interfere with the production of a perfect race.
  2. Emotional control and intensity should peak in the seconds before the start.
  3. Never lose deliberate control over the emotional states that are created.
  4. Control thinking so that it is on the task of racing and proper preparations.
  5. Thought control should narrow to focus on the race as the race approaches.
  6. Time the highest physical arousal (developed through physical and emotional activities) with the narrowest focus of attention (the start) just as the race is to begin.

The above features require an athlete to perform a pre-race strategy that will produce the desired outcome of maximum race-readiness.


Pre-race strategies should be developed on strategy planning sheets. Each item should be justified on the basis of its producing a desirable outcome. Phases of the pre-race strategy should achieve pre-determined goals.

Pre-race strategies should be learned. Some training sessions should be devoted to the total practice of at least the race-site activities. The first pre-race strategy will serve as the basis for future strategies. It will be altered with each successive race as new elements are included and tried and others discarded. In time, precision and competence for developing the ideal race-readiness state will improve. Too much detail in a pre-race strategy is better than too little.

Written strategies should always be taken to races. Should there be difficulty in concentrating on what should be done or thought, then the strategies should be read. That will serve to focus the athlete's attention on the task at hand.

Much learning is involved in the development and deployment of strategies. Practice at training and experience in races will contribute to the development of their desirable effects. They need to be worked on with the same intensity and importance as is given to any activity surrounding racing.


  1. Rushall, B. S. (1995). Personal Best: A swimmer's handbook for racing excellence. Sports Science Associates, 4225 Orchard Drive, Spring Valley CA 91977.
  2. Rushall, B. S. (1995). Mental skills training for sports (2nd ed.). Sports Science Associates, 4225 Orchard Drive, Spring Valley CA 91977.

Return to Table of Contents for Swimming Science Bulletin.