May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we wanted to share tools to help swimmers stay positive while they are out of the pool. On this episode of The #AskASwimPro Show, we talked with clinical psychologist Dr. Sean Sullivan about how athletes can incorporate mental training to improve their mindset and cope with quarantine and shelter in place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Sullivan graduated from Harvard University and completed postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco. He has written and taught extensively about how to strategically use cutting-edge psychology and brain science. During his career, he’s trained CEOs and business leaders, artists, actors and Olympic athletes. He has distilled his training process into the 30-Day Brain program, combining high-performance psychology lessons with step-by-step mind exercises for mastering your ideal personal, professional or athletic performance mindset. 30-Day Brain is free for up to 30 days.

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Understanding the Global Situation

Dr. Sullivan explained that the pandemic brings a range of uncertainty and suffering that people across the world are experiencing. You may not be directly affected by the virus — you do not have it or you don’t know someone who has it. 

Dr. Sullivan emphasized that the majority of people are struggling with varying degrees of uncertainty, whether that is economic or lifestyle uncertainty. Swimmers specifically want to maintain as much of their physical and mental fitness as possible during this time, and that can be challenging. 

The brain is designed to find solutions for uncertainty, Dr. Sullivan said. The history of our daily routine gives us confidence that there won’t be uncertainty in the future. When we lose the typical pillars or touch points in our daily routine, our anxiety levels increase because we are searching for structure and are not finding it. 

An Ideal Opportunity to Try Mental Training

Dr. Sullivan said that now is a great opportunity to dive into mental training. Many swimmers are used to having a structured schedule that may involve pool training and dryland training, and that schedule has been stripped away. This lack of structure provides the perfect blank slate.

Dr. Sullivan considers all of us to be “life athletes.” Each of us is working hard to master not only our sport, but our lives and mental states. Mental training is similar to swim training – we work hard to master our minds just like we work hard to master our stroke or a specific race. Mental training teaches you to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, fears, wishes and general mental state at any given moment in order to consciously shift your mindset for the better. For athletes of all levels, the right mindset plays a major role in performance. 

Related: Why Your Mental Game is so Important in Swimming

Step 1: Observe

The first step in mental training is to observe what is going on in your inner world. It can be tough to notice the small changes in how your brain operates when you live in a very structured manner, Dr. Sullivan says. 

Spend time noticing what patterns arise when stress occurs. Dr. Sullivan provided an example: You arrive at a swim meet and see a swimmer you have competed against before. What thoughts come to your mind? You might feel nervous and unprepared, or you can approach the situation with confidence in your training — both mental and physical.

Step 2: Make a Change

The next step is to take strategic steps to shift your mental activity so that it aligns with your intentions and produces better results. For swimmers, an intention could be to control how we’re feeling behind the blocks before a big race, which can help us perform better. 

Now that many of us don’t have much structure, we can spend time looking inward, setting intentions and moving toward them.

Related: How Yoga and Meditation can Improve Your Swimming Performance

Seeing Real Results

Dr. Sullivan has worked with numerous elite tennis players. One tool he has seen great success with is creating a short, 3-minute narrative for the athlete to read and eventually memorize that brings them into a peak performance state. One athlete recorded himself reading his narrative, and would listen to it between matches.

Dr. Sullivan has also worked with an Ironman athlete David Winton, who saw amazing results with regular mental training. David regularly imagined finishing a race and standing on the podium with 6 gold medals around his neck. He visualized that into existence. At his big race of the season, he won 6 gold medals — one of which he earned because his teammates voted him as the most supportive athlete during training. 

David went on to compete in a trial event for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. He finished first in his age group in just under 10 hours, qualifying for Kona. After the race, David told Dr. Sullivan that he was able to make a major, strategic mental shift during the last few hours of the run that helped him stay strong to the end. All his body wanted was to sit in the shade, but he was able to acknowledge those feelings and rewire his brain to keep pushing.

Related: How to Endure the Pandemic as a Swimmer

Starting Your Day with Awareness

If you want to try incorporating mental training into your life, Dr. Sullivan suggests noticing the thoughts that come to mind every morning after you wake up – just before you open your eyes. You’ll start to notice a pattern, and those thoughts may be negative right now. When you bring these thoughts to the forefront of your conscious mind, your brain will find a way to make changes and create a more positive environment. Practicing this awareness is a huge first step toward building a strong mind.

Mental training comes naturally to some people, while others have to work hard to master it. After a few weeks or a month, you’ll create a new habit. When you learn how to better manage your emotional life, you’ll see many other aspects of your life change for the better.

Related: How Journaling Helps Me Set “Swimtentions”

Set an Intention

Dr. Sullivan suggests setting an intention for how you want to come out of quarantine. Do you want to be better, or maintain where you’re at when it comes to fitness and mental health? Think of this time as a “reset.” It’s a forced opportunity for you to redefine how you want to live the rest of your life. Make the most of it!

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