NCAA Swimmer Develops Mental Skills That Carry Her Beyond Olympic Medal
Western Kentucky University graduate Claire Donahue set many records as a swimmer for her NCAA Division I school. Today she is a member of the USA Swimming team competing internationally, as well as an Olympic Gold Medalist. She credits some of that success to the mental skills training that carried her through the Olympic Trials to where she is today.
The Tennessee native had been swimming for 17 years and had never worked with a sport psychologist until she was looking for an extra advantage as she started to prepare for the 100-meter butterfly at the USA Olympic Swimming Trials in 2012. “Four years earlier, when I swam at the Olympic Trials, it was extremely nerve-wracking and it actually hindered my time and my place a little bit,” explained Donahue. “I’ve really been working on controlling my nerves and it was the suggestion of my coach that I start working with sport psychology consultant Betsy Shoenfelt, Ph.D., who is a professor of psychological sciences at Western Kentucky University,” said Donahue.
A Coach’s Perspective
“It was fun to watch Claire progress,” said WKU swim coach Bruce Marchionda. “She came in as a freshman and did not qualify for the national championships. Then her second year, she qualified for the national championships, but did not score. Her junior year she qualified for the championships and was fourth. Her senior year she qualified for the national championships – got second. Just making the finals at the Olympic Trials was a phenomenal accomplishment.”
“At this level when the difference in making the team is hundredths of a second, we were looking for anything that would give Claire an edge,” said Marchionda. “I think it was priceless for her to be able to work with Betsy Shoenfelt on being able to handle anything that might come along like a sub-par performance at a race, an audience of 13,000 people, the pressure of making the team and the journey to get there with all the hard work-outs. The different perspective and mental rehearsal for the race helped so much and by the time Claire got to the race she had already done it hundreds of times in her mind. It was great to have Betsy as part of our staff—she was excellent.”
Developing the Mental Edge
“I have worked with WKU athletes and coaches teaching mental toughness skills and team building for the past 30 years,” explained Shoenfelt, who is a Licensed Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, and CMPC. “My training is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with a Sport Psychology second emphasis and in both areas, I have a performance orientation rather than a clinical or counseling orientation.”
According to Donahue, she worked with Shoenfelt for a short period of time—about eight months. “I met with her every week and sometimes she would come and watch me swim. For the Olympics I still talked to her by phone and I had printed sheets with me to remind me of our work. Most of the mental skills will come natural now. She helped me focus on the 3 Ps – present, positive, performance – to keep a positive outlook and turn negatives into positives.”
“Swimmers can really benefit from mental training. There are some people who are great in practice but at a big meet they psych themselves out; or they are very negative at practice and that impacts the entire team,” Donahue added.
“I used the tools, didn’t get nervous and knew how to calm myself down. I realized compared to my friends at practice, I was the calmest.” She recognized her weak areas and addressed them using the tools practiced with Shoenfelt. “When I would warm up, I would think about how I don’t feel good and look at things that didn’t matter, like other athletes that were in better shape,” said Donahue. “But what I learned was to not focus on them because that stuff didn’t matter. I thought about what I could control and focused on myself. Sport psychology should be part of every college program—it should be considered the norm.”
A CLOSER LOOK AT HOW MENTAL SKILLS TRAINING HELPED DONAHUE
With the approval of Donahue and her coach, Shoenfelt shared some of her techniques—information that is typically confidential between an athlete and his or her sport psychology consultant.
“One of the important things for Claire was her ability to separate the context from her task. The context is all of the potentially distracting things in the environment. The task is to swim 100m – the same task she has performed successfully a thousand times,” explained Shoenfelt. “During the Olympic Trials she was able to focus really well in the preliminary round and swam a personal best of 57.83 seconds – the second-fastest time of all the women in the 100m fly trials. That carried through during her Olympic performance individually, on the Gold Medal relay team, and continues today as she competes internationally for USA Swimming.”
“Her practices leading up to the Trials were extremely demanding. So, our first focus working together was to help Claire remain motivated during these grueling practices.” Shoenfelt shared those important details:
- We set goals for the important components of her swim. The goals helped Claire focus her attention and provided feedback that enabled her to track her progress over time. Goals were set for things like stroke maintenance (maintaining proper form and technique even when she was very tired), underwaters (staying strong after the turn while underwater), and turns.
- She also set goals for percentage of positive self-talk and for visualization. Claire had used visualization previously; we worked together to help her learn positive self-talk. Claire kept a notebook with all of her goal charts. The progress she made was gradual, but by tracking each goal she could see the great progress she made over the months of practice.
- Keeping perspective – if working hard today made the difference in making or missing the Olympics could you find the energy to go hard all practice? Of course.
- I would look for quotes or other stories that might help motivate her. I would give these to her. One that Claire found helpful was from a Women’s Sport Foundation story on Title IX. It quoted a previous Olympic gold medal swimmer who talked about how she had to practice hard even when she did not want to with everything she had – she still had to go hard. It was only a minor part of the story, but Claire could see how this previous gold medal swimmer experienced the same exact thing she was dealing with.
- We also used some simple techniques for motivation. For example, when she had really tough combinations of sets for practice, we broke it down into smaller pieces. If she had to swim six 200’s, it can seem overwhelming, but if you ask yourself can you swim one 200 – the answer is sure, no problem. Another technique was, for example, if she had six sets, putting six pennies on the end of the pool and moving one each time she completed a set. Simple, but it showed progress and the feedback helped Claire stay motivated.
Additionally, Shoenfelt worked with Claire on the performance components of her swim:
- We discussed how repetitions of her swim components leads to automaticity (performance that is completed without attention, is more efficient, and faster than performance that we are consciously monitoring) and how this is especially important for performance in stressful conditions. You just do it. Claire focused on automating the components of her swim.
- We used “performance thoughts” for certain components of her swim to help her focus on key components. For example, for the turn she used the performance thought “see the wall, give your all, knees up” – this summarized what she needed to do at the turn. By repeating this as she trained, she helped to automate that component of her swim.
Mental Toughness Training
Finally, the focus on teaching mental toughness skills was another important component of the preparation:
- We spent a substantial amount of time with positive self-talk. Claire learned to recognize negative self-talk, to stop it, and to replace it with positive self-talk.
- Focus – during practice and especially during competition to focus on the 3 P’s – the Present (what is happening right now, not the past or the future), Positive (the desired performance, not all of the things that could go wrong), and Performance (focus on the process/performance not the outcome of the performance).
- Problem Solving Skills – Claire had a tendency to worry about “what if’s” She learned to look at the concern and determine if it was realistic. If it was a realistic concern, she used visualization to see herself dealing successfully with the situation. Then if it did occur, she already had practice with the situation and knew she could handle it successfully. If it was not a realistic concern, then she used positive self-talk to deal with it.