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More than medals – hear from Swim England sports psychologist Alex Stoyel

With a summer of competitions on the horizon, many athletes will be thinking about what they want to achieve.

Swim England sports psychologist, Alex Stoyel, has provided some advice to help swimmers, divers, artistic swimmers and water polo players focus on more than medals.

When setting goals, it can be tempting to think purely about the results of your races, matches, dives or performances – and it can be especially tempting to focus on medals.

Setting goals is a hugely important psychological tool that can help with motivation and confidence, but it’s important to make sure that these goals aren’t just focused on results.

Of course, winning is exciting and fun – but it shouldn’t be the ‘be all and end all’ of your season.

In a recent BBC interview, Adam Peaty (who knows a thing or two about winning) spoke about how he had put too much emphasis on pursuing medals.

Peaty describes how unsatisfying chasing medals was – even when he was winning them – and describes a gold medal as the ‘coldest thing you’ll ever wear’.

You can’t control how your competitors perform

One reason why it is unhelpful to focus too much on results is that the outcome isn’t totally within your control, because there are other people also fighting for the same medals.

Of course, by training hard, you can give yourself a better chance of finishing on the podium but, at the end of the day, you can’t control how your competitors perform on the day.

Control is a hugely important concept in sport psychology because if you focus on things beyond your control, it takes time and energy – whether that is physical, intellectual or emotional – that we could be using for something more constructive.

Ultimately, putting your effort into things outside your control leaves us feeling tired, frustrated and unsatisfied, and that often leads to demotivation and burn-out.

Another reason that medals shouldn’t be the only goal, is that it is unrealistic to expect yourself to perform at your best every time.

Nobody is perfect and there will be times where you are disappointed. If you let yourself believe that you should win or set new personal bests every time, you are putting a huge amount of pressure on yourself and the disappointment you feel will be far more extreme.

Recognise all the impressive things you do

A very important reason to avoid focusing too much on medals is that it also overlooks all the amazing hard work you do when you are not competing!

All our aquatic disciplines are tough and training is often physically demanding, time-consuming and the season can be long.

Over the course of a season, the time you spend competing is only a tiny fraction of the amount of time you spend in the pool – so it’s important that you recognise all the impressive things you do beyond competitions.

Every time you choose to go training, you are demonstrating dedication, perseverance and discipline. Those are characteristics that are worth noticing and celebrating – and they aren’t determined by the outcome of races, matches, dives or performances – they are built during the hours of training.

In sport psychology, we talk about the idea of ‘mastery’ which is the sense of satisfaction that you feel as you improve at a skill.

Swimming, diving, water polo and artistic swimming are all technical sports, and honing your technique is a constant process.

Of course, sometimes we might get frustrated at the rate of improvement, but even when progress is slow we should be proud of ourselves for working hard to get better at something.

Enjoying that sense of mastery means that those hours of training are fulfilling and worthwhile, even if your competitions don’t quite go to plan.

In his interview, Peaty said that he was ‘constantly chasing reward’ and it seems like he made the mistake of believing that the only rewards worth having were medals and records.

It can be very tempting to fall into that trap, especially with big competitions coming up, but sport can be rewarding in so many other ways.

You just have to practice recognising those rewards and celebrating them.