Case Study A Swimmer

Swimmer with his Finger Cut-off (Excerpt from The Athlete within You)

swimmer who used mental training

I include this story because it was sort of unique. I’ve a great deal of experience working in swimming and diving. A few include psychological rehabilitation from injury, but this a little different. Part of the difference was the immediacy. While I get called for emergency work (perceived or otherwise) frequently, I am trying to teach people that mental training is an on going process, just like any other training. Emergencies do arise and there are modalities that are effective in the short term. This was one such case.

One of the odder consultations I’ve had over the years was with a young high school swimmer. He was a champion level competitor in one of the tougher conferences in Southern California conferences. He was a senior and he was preparing for the CIF Championships.

The week of the championships, he had an accident with a slicing machine where he worked and cut off the tip of the middle finger of his right hand. The doctor had sewn it back on and told him he would be fine. He could even compete if he taped a bandage with plastic around it. The finger caused him little pain while swimming, however the very thought of touching the wall with his finger was enough to send a chill down his spine.

We went over the medical evidence and to some extent even tested his pain threshold with small touches. The problem surfaced only when he anticipated the touch and mostly when he imagined his breast stroke touch on the turn.

I took him through a procedure using imagery rehearsal, similar to one that I had been taught by Marv Clein. Marv had always called it the Systematic Desensitization Process. He had not correctly defined the process, but the intent was there. So using a truer form of coping behavior, we went through an imagery rehearsal procedure to not eliminate the pain, but to desensitize him to the fear of the touch.

I suppose a hypnotic suggestion would have worked as well, but for athletes having complete control of their bodies is very important. I didn’t want him to lose touch, just lose the fear of the touch and the anxiety that went along with it.

I would love to say that it was a miracle cure and that he took the CIF championship, but that would be untrue. I’ve had great success helping athletes reach their goals and relatively few failures. This was a success in that he swam a great race, had no problem with the touch (yes, it still hurt), but he came in second, not first. He went on to swim in college and get a degree in biology. I heard years later he was a physician.

Sometimes we can overcome our fears and still get out-performed in competition, but then that is what competition is all about. There are always better athletes. My young swimmer friend, was I’m told disappointed that he failed to win the championship. Sometimes we all have to step back and look at what success really is in sports and life.