Number 22

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 6). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.]

Race strategies contain all the behaviors and thoughts to be performed in a race. The preparation of a race strategy should develop sufficient information and mental activities to totally consume the duration of the race. Pre-planning competitive performances in this way reduces stress in the racer.


Segmenting a race is the best way to approach a complicated and extended event such as the majority of endurance races. A race should be divided into discrete units, each with its own challenges and content, goals, and evaluation criteria. The actual dissection of a race is a particularly individual process. The purpose of segmenting is to make the concept of a race be one of sequentially concentrating on and achieving short-term goals that are intermediate to achieving final race goals.

Segments constitute the basic units for mental rehearsal of endurance races. In a pre-race strategy, any mental rehearsal should attempt to focus on an entire segment rather than isolated features taken out of context.

Whether segment goals were or were not achieved should be evaluated at the end of each segment. If they were not, then a goal-recovery routine should be immediately implemented to recapture the features that should have been achieved. This means two things could happen at the transition stage from one segment to the next. First, if segment goals were achieved an athlete would proceed with the entire next segment. Second, if segment goals were not achieved a goal-recovery routine would be implemented. After a recovery routine, the athlete would enter the scheduled segment at the most appropriate place for the position on the racecourse.

Segmenting a performance produces sustained elevated performances. An athlete should not think of the next segment until the current one is completed. Strategies should be developed around a segmented race plan.


At least two-thirds of the thought content of a race strategy should involve task-relevant thinking. Task-relevant thinking is essential for maintaining form in a race. The technical aspects of running, for example, pacing, intensity, breathing control, arm-action, posture and body positions, adapting to changing conditions, etc., contribute to the major improvements in performance that result from using strategies. Task-relevant thinking is stressed when increased speed is required. An improvement in action speed should be attained through a technique change, not increased effort.

What types of task-relevant thoughts are used depends upon the stage of the race. When an athlete is not fatigued, such as in the first segment, specific technique should not be considered. Form that has been developed by training and is unhindered by fatigue will naturally emerge. If technique items were thought of early in a race, the phenomenon of "cognitive interference" would occur. Thinking about doing automatic neuromuscular patterns while not fatigued actually reduces efficiency of function. It is only when fatigue is first recognized that thoughts should turn to specific technique features. Thus, in early stages of a race, task-relevant thinking should be general focusing on pacing, positioning, the clarity of thinking of the strategy, etc.

If an athlete "runs-out" of things to think of, or suddenly goes "blank" while using a race strategy, that is called the "dead-spot" phenomenon. It indicates lost control of focus. It is a serious problem. This problem usually arises when too little strategy content is planned. Dead-spots degrade performances. To avoid prolonged detrimental effects from this phenomenon, a runner should plan a dead-spot recovery routine. A popular approach is to prepare some task-relevant action with which the athlete feels very safe and competent, and use that as the thought focus-point to recover and return back to the strategy. That re-entry point will prompt concentration once again on task-relevant actions and thoughts.

To avoid dead-spots or distractions, the manner in which task-relevant thoughts are used is important. The information that is planned should be cycled through a number of times. Constantly changing content keeps the information that is being considered fresh and vibrant. Developing different ways of thinking about each technical aspect is beneficial as it avoids monotony. This variety assists in keeping thoughts vital. Through variety and a constant change in control emphasis, the probability of "dead-spots" occurring is reduced.

The actual task-relevant content considered in a race strategy depends upon the individual athlete. It should focus on producing the most efficient form of energy application and economical form of skill. Because of the complexity of running races one should never have difficulty in developing sufficient task-relevant content for a race-strategy. Task-relevant thoughts sustain form and retard loss of efficiency. It also blocks the recognition of fatigue for extended periods of time.


Generally, two-thirds of a race strategy is consumed by thinking of task-relevant features. The other third is partly consumed by thinking of "mood" words. Mood words set the mood of a performance. Language has certain "basic" or primitive words which, when said or thought, have some movement or emotional component. They cause a physical reaction in the body. The word "crunch" conveys the feeling of strength more than does a sterile statement such as "create force". Research has shown that when one thinks of words that produce a physical and/ or emotional component, performance is increased.

It is an advantage to think mood words that fit the mood of a performance. When an athlete wants to be strong, he/she should think mood words that generate strength, when he/she wants to be quick, he/she should think speed words. How one thinks determines how one acts therefore words that have an appropriate and direct action meaning should be used in strategies.

Mood words are differentiated from other words because of the physical/emotional reaction component. If a word or phrase does not produce that component, then it is not a "mood" word. Table 1 lists some synonyms for various endurance-race capacities. From this list individuals may select words that "work for them" or add words from their own experience. The words should be interspersed throughout the strategy to match the variations in performance capacity demands. An uphill section of a race should include some power words ("pump", "thump", "rip", "blast", etc.) that are spread throughout that segment. In a downhill segment, stability might be enhanced by concentrating on balance words such as "solid", "smooth," etc. Mood words are used to embellish task-relevant thoughts. They are used to control actions and the mood (capacity) of a race.


The mood word content that is used will comprise a "sport language" as opposed to being a technical language. Thinking of pure technical statements, such as "extend the leg" or "elevate the hand", may interfere with performance. The processing of the sterile language components can be distracting which causes performance to suffer. On the other hand, if the technical statement is translated into mood and primitive words that require no translation and are understood easily, performance will be enhanced. The expression of a strategy must consider the language used. The language should be that of the runner and phrased in simple terms that do not require translation.

Mood words should also be spread through a segment and said purely by themselves. The utterance of "blast, blast, blast" can produce an increase in performance quality if power is required. A similar phenomenon occurs with other mood components depending upon the capacity required at any particular stage of a race. Mood word utterances need to be added to a strategy. They can be used to break-up sections of task-relevant thinking and will consume some of the remaining one-third of the race thought-content that is not used by task-relevant thoughts.

The role of mood words is twofold. First, they are used to enhance performance capacities used in a race if they are uttered in concert with the appropriate capacity. Secondly, they make the language of a strategy more meaningful. They are more expressive and effective than most of the bland technical statements used by coaches. Mood words enhance performance. They are an important feature of the content and expression of race strategies.


A critical feature of good race preparation and performance is positive thinking. The remaining race-strategy content after task-relevant thinking and mood words have been developed comprises positive self-statements. These three emphases of thought content constitute the total strategy. The statement of meaningful positive phrases helps maintain race effort. Athletes should be encouraged to talk positively to themselves mentally or aloud, as if they were coaching themselves in the race.

Positive self-statements should not be meaningless, cheerleader-type expressions, for example, "go, go, go", and "let's do it now". Rather, they should be meaningful phrases. Table 2 lists some examples of positive statements for four different situations in races, i) encouraging oneself, ii) handling effort, iii) evaluating segment goals, and iv) general positive self-talk. Positive self-talk should be spread completely throughout the strategy. Its inclusion should prevent any tendency to develop negative appraisals of performance. As with task-relevant content and mood words, positive self-talk in endurance activities has been shown to enhance performance.

The expression of positive self-statements and mood words is best if second person phrasing is used. If that does not work, then first person expressions might be tried. The use of second person appears to produce a perception of control over oneself. This is a consistent feature of the strategies that are formed by champions in many sports.



Coping behaviors are important for race strategies because they govern the level of disruption when problems occur. For every preferred action an alternative action for achieving the same outcome should be planned. This allows the racer to cope with any problems that arise in a race.

A number of general problems can occur in races. These general problems are different to when a deliberate planned activity does not work. Strategies should be developed for handling these general difficulties although they do not appear in the body of a race strategy. Rather, they are included as a general problem-solving capacity that should be developed, learned, and taken to every race.

  1. A feeling of loss of control. If a racer develops a general appraisal or feeling of losing self-control with regard to executing the race strategy, a number of coping behaviors that might assist in regaining self-control are possible. For example:

  2. Dead-spots. The reactions to a loss of control also are appropriate for this problem. A re-entry point to the strategy should be at a very well-learned and comfortable phase of the segment being executed.

  3. Distractions. Dead-spot recovery routines are useful for regaining a focus of attention on the planned strategy. Another alternative is to analyze the situation and determine exactly where the strategy should be re-entered and execute from there.

  4. Errors. Execute planned coping behaviors.

The major feature of coping behaviors and general coping strategies is that an athlete should never become rattled. The capacity to develop problem-solving behaviors for any race difficulty should be an aim of training and strategy development. With that capability, a runner should be able to race with confidence and certainty. The race experience will be appraised as being a potentially positive happening.


One of the principal aims of using strategies is to maintain control throughout a race. As an athlete grows more tired during an event, fatigue symptoms emerge as very strong distractions. There are methods to mask the detrimental effects of exercise fatigue. The process of psychological intensification during a race is one method for coping with this problem.

A major pain theory suggests that while an individual keeps his/her mind very busy and totally focused on some activity, the brain will not recognize a fatigue-state. This means that if an athlete can keep his/her attention totally involved with mental activity (strategy content), then he/she will be able to control him/herself in fatigued states. The implication of this principle is that a runner should keep his/her mind totally occupied with thought content during a race. As the intensity of fatigue pain increases, thought intensity also has to increase in order to maintain control.

Psychological intensification is used to guard against the detrimental effects of fatigue. It stops complacency, loss of control, and "dead-spots". The procedure requires the volume of thought content and the intensity of thinking to gradually increase as fatigue develops.

In the early stages of a race when there is no fatigue or the level of effort is in a "steady-state", an athlete does not have to think too intently. His/her main aim is to control the performance and execute strategy content. With most athletes, there is a stage in a race where it is realized that increased effort is needed to continue. Europeans commonly call that stage the "stopping-wish" point. That is the stage where thought control needs to be intensified otherwise performance will deteriorate. Intensification occurs by changing the nature of the thought content, and thinking "harder" and "faster."

There are some noteworthy features about the relationship of fatigue and thoughts in an endurance race.

  1. During the initial part of the race and steady-state phase, the thought content is two-thirds task-relevant tactics and pacing rather than specific technique, and one-third mood words and positive thinking. The emphasis is on control and executing the planned strategy.
  2. Just prior to the recognition of increasing fatigue, thought processes need to be altered. At that stage the athlete introduces specific and detailed technique items that aim to keep the skill level as efficient as possible. The athlete makes a deliberate attempt to think "harder" by attempting to focus more intently on the changed task-relevant strategy content. The rate of thinking should increase and continue to increase for the remainder of the race in concert with increase in fatigue.
  3. Towards the end of the race, subjective symptoms of fatigue become more intense. Before that stage thought content should be increased even further through an even more deliberate focus on thinking and a major emphasis on controlling the technical efficiency of movements. The ratio of mood words and positive thinking to task-relevant content remains the same. It is the volume and intensity of thinking that increases. That increase has to be sufficient to block the recognition of pain. If an athlete were to relax the intensification process during this latter phase, pain sensations would be recognized and performance would deteriorate markedly. There is no chance of recovering the level of performance once that occurs.

Intensification relies heavily on the athlete developing variety and different methods of thinking. If a racer were to concentrate too long on one item it is possible that a rhythmical and monotonous form of thinking would develop. That monotony is similar to the chanting of mantras and reduces sensitivity and even produces hypnotic states. A lack of continual thought vitality is counter-productive to good racing. This feature of race strategy development and its use in the intensification process cannot be over-emphasized.

Another feature of intensification, is the relationship of changes in intensity to changes in fatigue. Thought intensity should increase before fatigue. This prevents fatigue interrupting the conduct of the strategy. If an athlete was to wait until fatigue sensations increased, then he/she would be coping with fatigue rather than masking it at critical stages in a race. By preceding fatigue sensation changes, the athlete maintains a preferred-action orientation that is most desirable for producing maximum performances.

Psychological intensification maintains concentration control. That control will facilitate maximum levels of racing performance.


The race start warrants particular attention because it initiates strategy execution. It is important that races commence in the best possible manner because the first impression of the race will influence ensuing appraisals during the performance.

The start segment is the final focus of the pre-race strategy in the race build-up routine. At the starting line, the only goals considered should be those of the start segment. At that stage, to all intents and purposes, the racer should perceive the race as being a challenge to do a start as planned. Once the start is initiated, the athlete focuses only on strategy content. If it has been learned well, it will unfold in sequence much the same way as does a script in a play.

The execution of the start segment should not require any settling-in phase. All actions need to be self-controlled and aimed at producing the best start possible. The principal reason behind a start strategy is to introduce strategy concentration and performance levels with the utmost precision and effect.


One of the most significant features for learning to occur is the provision of immediate feedback. After a race, this rarely is considered. It is advocated that de-briefing should become a part of race conduct. Before an athlete dresses or celebrates, he/she should de-brief the racing performance and race preparations. Some considerations that should be entertained are:

De-briefing is a necessary feature of strategy development and learning. The effects of racing will be more influential on subsequent performances. The institution of this process will alter the nature of racing. It will focus the evaluation of racing on strategy execution. This in turn will likely produce a perception that THE GOAL OF RACING IS TO EXECUTE A RACE-STRATEGY.


Learning race-strategies is very similar to learning pre-race strategies. Some features that should be followed in the learning process are listed below.

  1. Practice race strategies and segments in a variety of physical settings and weather conditions.
  2. Race-strategy segments should be the content of mental rehearsals for preparations.
  3. One fifth of strategy learning and rehearsals should be devoted to coping alternatives as well as recovery routines.
  4. The first attempt at strategies will likely be very detailed and lengthy. With time, practice, and the requirement to only refine previous strategies, development will become less time-consuming. After considerable practice, strategies will become a series of key words that trigger chains of thoughts. For very experienced athletes, it may not be necessary to write strategies for every race. However, it always remains necessary to prepare a strategy for serious races. They should be recorded, even if they are of the form of a race course diagram indicating segments and salient physical features, and a series of words that initiate the proper thought focus for each segment.
  5. The detail, sequencing, and alternatives of the race-strategy must be learned.
  6. No two races will have the same strategy. Adjustments to every course, previous learning experiences, and racing conditions, produce a continual refinement in strategy development and execution competence. This should result in continual racing improvements.

Further Reading

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.