Mindset is everything in training….and life.


Below is a blog written by M Squared coach, owner of SwimWod and World Masters Swimming Champion: Emma Gage.



I have been looking at writing a blog on Mindset for a while now, and only recently a member came and asked me for advice on how to stay tough mentally during a workout, and keeping pushing to get in “the cave”. Now, I’m not saying it’s good to ALWAYS go in the cave during training, as you may burn out. But it’s good to know you CAN take yourself there when you need to and when it matters.

I believe the 3 qualities to achieving “sporting success” (whatever that may mean to you whether that’s getting to the CrossFit games or doing a workout at level “A” in the gym) are 1) Training, 2) Nutrition and 3) Mental strength. Often people don’t realise just how much further they might be able to go by using their mind correctly during training, and they are not achieving their true potential even if they are training all the time and eating well.

As a coach, it is my job to motivate, encourage, guide and advise people, which is why I am writing this blog in the hope that you might read it, and take something from it which you can apply to help with something in your life. I have also been there as an athlete at major competitions and so I know how to perform under pressure and control my mind/thoughts. I am going to share some of my experiences and things I learned along the way that may help you in sport, in the gym, at work in high pressure situations or just in general every day life!

Training and Mindset

Mindset affects training a lot. Ever had one of those days at work where everything has gone wrong and then the last thing you want to do is go to the gym and train? Some days, if you’re absolutely exhausted then it’s perfectly ok to go home and go to bed. But often it’s those days that count in training. Not necessarily in a physical way, but in a mental way. If you can get through that training session feeling how you felt before, then you will be able to remind yourself of that when it comes to another difficult thing you have to endure. And often you will complete it and feel all those exercise induced endorphins helping to cheer you up so it’s a win win!

Personally I find it a lot easier to get through the pain cave if I have a goal. So I generally always have some sort of competition or aim that I’m working towards. If I’m finding a particular training session tough I just remind myself of that goal over and over in my head. I break things up into manageable chunks and count them off in my mind, for example distances, lengths or reps. I am also very competitive against myself and I am always trying to do better than I have done before. I will NEVER cheat reps (I just don’t understand this whatsoever!) and I won’t ever let myself quit or back off unless there is good reason such as injury or illness otherwise I feel like I am being mentally weak! Having said that – some days are definitely harder than others, and I call those days “human days” – because we are not robots! If I am having one of those days I just know that it is those days that count, where you push through the pain even though you really don’t want to! Just remember, when it hurts, it’s doing you some good! It’s making you a better version of the person you were before that session.

Competition Prep and Mindset

When training for a competition, or an event, you have to make sure you go into the competition knowing you have done everything possible to give you the best chance of achieving your goal. This was my approach when training for the World Masters Championships and the 2016 Olympic Trials. Despite the fact that it affected my social life somewhat I made sure that I never missed a training session no matter how tired I was, I always chose the right nutrition over temptations and treats, and I always made sure I gave 100% to everything in training no matter how I was feeling.

When my alarm would go off at 4am or even 6am on my “later start” days, I would make myself get up because if I didn’t, and then if when it came to competition day I underperformed, I would have that missed training session in the back of my mind and I would feel like I could have done more. So I did everything I could to eliminate any possibility of feeling like that. No matter what happened when it came to game day I would know I couldn’t have done anything more.

What I found helped me was to remind myself of my goals every day. I printed them off and stuck them on my mirror, so I saw them every morning. Visualisation is also important – I would imagine winning/qualifying for the Olympic team and this helped me to stay focused.

Every time I had to make a sacrifice, such as missing out on being Bridesmaid for one of my best friends in Mexico (sorry Danni!), or missing birthdays, sleep, chocolate and wine, etc I just reminded myself it was so that I had the best chance of achieving my goals and that was what got me through it.

There were obviously days and weeks where it would get tough and it was harder to stay on track, but having a great team around me of friends and family supporting me was a massive help and I’m not sure I would have done it without them.

Competing and Mindset

Often, people put all the effort into their training and are so physically prepared for competition, but when it comes to race day their mental attitude lets them down. They might talk themselves out of it, or question their ability, or get TOO nervous and waste energy. It’s all very well being good in training but can you cope when it comes to the main event? There are lots of ways to control your mind when it comes to this. Don’t get me wrong, everyone feels the pressure and everyone gets nervous, but it’s how you use this energy and turn it into something positive.

While I was in Russia at the World Championships I made sure I stayed determined and positive all the time and didn’t allow any negative thoughts enter my head, even when I ripped my racing suit!! On the 3rd and last day of racing I had 3 races in 1 day and I was very tired after the crazy emotion of the previous 2 days of racing. I had won 2 x Gold medals and broken 2 x world records and I can’t even describe how it made me feel! I honestly was NOT expecting to swim so well, I went through shock, happiness, excitement and I was completely overwhelmed by all the incredible support from back home and my friends by my side. So on that last day, I was obviously going to be feeling tired from the effects of racing and emotion, especially after struggling to get to sleep the night before! I’m a big believer in if you try to act and speak positively, good things will happen, “mind over matter”, etc, however I remember after 2 races were done I accidently said ONCE that I was feeling tired and thankfully my friends were there to remind me to change my view on that. I took the phrase back and told myself that I WASN’T tired and I was ready for my final race. It helped massively having supportive messages from my family and friends back home as well. I went on to win silver with a massive 3 second PB. Both myself and the girl who won broke the world record, but obviously she gets to keep it as she broke it more 😉 During the week I just had to make sure I stayed focussed, sticking to my nutrition plan with what food was available to me (Russian food is not great FYI!), trying to get as much sleep as possible and sticking to my pre race training plan. I also made sure I enjoyed every moment and that I was 100% ready for it.

I figured out while I was there that I also somehow had this “on/off” switch for my adrenaline. So I managed to be in complete control of my nerves/excitement before a race. When getting ready for a race you have to go into the call room about half an hour before racing. In here you register and then do some exercises “on land” to warm up. The atmosphere and tension in this room is unreal and it is hard to not let it affect you and your nerves. If you let it get to you too early then you’ll be knackered by the time it comes to your race. So I just put my headphones in, pre-race playlist on, and focussed on my warm up. I didn’t let myself look around at the others in there because this can make you wonder things like “they look fast” or “they might be better than me”. I just told myself over and over that nobody had done the kind of training I had with CrossFit combined with Swimming and that I was stronger, fitter, faster than everyone there and that I was ready. Even though I knew I wasn’t the fastest person entered into my events! I stayed calm and then about 5 mins before my race I let myself feel the adrenaline and my heart would be pumping and I would get ready to race. It worked! You have to make sure you are in control of your thoughts otherwise nerves can get the better of you.

Mindset through challenges

It’s all very good and well talking about having a good mindset when everything is going well, but what about when things don’t go to plan? I have overcome my fair share of adversity, a few months before I got back into swimming I was involved in a motorcycle accident and tore through muscle in my thigh which I had to rehab from and get back into training. People have asked me what my biggest challenge has been through sport… Possibly the obvious answer to this is when I tore my meniscus in my knee. They didn’t know what was wrong for a year so I trained and competed on it as much as I could (including Olympic Trials) on it before I eventually had an operation, leaving me out of full time training for 6 months. However, I think the biggest challenge I have overcome is actually training 10 x a week throughout a) having a full time job, b) getting made redundant, and then c) having 2 jobs and trying to run SwimWod! Most swimmers are young and are either full time sponsored athletes or if they are still at school (don’t get me wrong this is very tough too) they live at home with their parents. I was literally called the Granny by the other swimmers in my squad ha ha! I have been lucky to have such supportive employers in my jobs that were flexible with me and my training, as well as my amazingly understanding family and friends as well. However, it was an incredibly demanding time and I rarely had time to sit down for 5 mins with a cup of tea. I had to make sure I was strict with my routine, with meal prep, with my training and as much as possible with my sleep! An example of my daily routine would be getting up at 4am to coach swimming, then after 3 hours of coaching I would be getting into the pool for 2 hours of training myself. Quick breakfast then off to the gym for training. Following that I would be programming and getting admin done, then back to the pool for 5 hours of coaching, leaving me getting home at 9:30 and having a quick dinner then to bed. I am proud of myself for achieving the things I did despite all of this, and will always think to myself, imagine what I could have achieved if I were a full time sponsored athlete! I wouldn’t change any of it though! I guess the way I got through this was again just having that drive and determination to achieve my goals – how badly I wanted it, and reminding myself of my WHY – why I am doing all of this. This leads me nicely into the last part of this blog…

Mindset through missed goals

Sometimes you might do EVERYTHING you can to try and achieve your goal, and it still might not work out the way you had wanted. For example in sport, your training, nutrition and attitude may have been perfect, when it comes to game day you perform the best you ever have, and yet still it is not enough to get the gold, or qualify, or win the game. This is one of the hardest things in sport to comprehend and get your head round and is what makes sport SO tough. We always look at the big names in sport, the Usain Bolts, the Adam Peatys, etc. What we often don’t see is the people in 2nd place, or even worse – 4th. These athletes are in the top 5 fastest athletes in the world and yet, they don’t really get a look in. There may be milliseconds between them yet they just miss out on all the glory, even though the likelihood is they have put in the same training and work and years. It can be so hard – how do they deal with that?

For me, I went into Olympic Trials with the mindset that after having 10 years out of the sport, this in itself to qualify for the trials was a massive achievement, and whatever happens I should be proud of myself. While I was there I swam the fastest I ever have in my whole life and I made 2 finals. The top 2 people in each event are “considered” for the Olympic team, and in my first event I came 5th. The difference between me and 2nd place was 0.17 seconds. So bloody close!!! In my second event I qualified for the final in 5th Place. In this event the top 4 people are considered for the Olympic Relay team. Before the final I was psyching myself up telling myself this was MY time, and everything I had done had been for this moment. I went into the race feeling so pumped and so positive… I turned halfway in 1st place … and I finished 8th, in a slower time than in my heat! My body just couldn’t keep it up! I know I gave it my all, it just wasn’t meant to be.

When I got out of the race my coach was waiting for me with a big hug – I was a bit numb and he knew I would have been gutted. I didn’t really know what to think really – when I got in the pool for a recovery swim I was just like, I guess that’s that then! I didn’t cry, I just got on with what I was meant to do. All the hard work, effort, sacrifices I had made only to miss out on my dream again! My family were all waiting for me in the front and it was then I got a bit emotional, I also had messages from my friends at the wedding I was missing in mexico who had been amazing watching me online from around the pool!. I let myself have the night to feel sad but then the next day I had to pick myself up again as I had 1 more event (although I wasn’t in contention for this one). At the time I just had to remind myself that I had swam the fastest I have ever swam, and 2 years previously I wouldn’t have thought that possible. But I honestly didn’t expect it to hit me like it did. I DID pick myself up, and after a week off, I got myself back into training and I thought right – next year it’s worlds – lets go for it. But something just wasn’t quite there like it had been. To be honest – I don’t have any advice on how to deal with a situation like that. Just know that it will eventually go away, and you’ve just gotta keep moving through your training and eventually your mojo will come back. Mine did! What didn’t help was a couple of weeks later I also got made redundant from a job I absolutely loved. But in hindsight it was probably the best thing that could have happened for me and my career. The key is to stay positive – remind yourself of the things you achieved rather than dwelling on the things you didn’t. Yes it’s tough – but you’ve gotta accept it, move on, and find your next goal to aim for, and always know you gave it your everything and that’s all you can do!

Best Advice

Someone recently asked me what the best advice I ever received in sport and it was a tough one to answer! Obviously to always make sure you enjoy it. If you lose that enjoyment – what’s the point? This doesn’t mean you won’t have days that suck – training isn’t training if it doesn’t hurt! But if you find you’re having to force yourself to go to training then something is wrong.

But the main thing that I’ve found has helped me was when a friend showed me a video called “What is your Why” by Eric Thomas (check it out on YouTube). Basically, what is it that drives you to be the best you can be? This is a very personal thing and everyone’s why will likely be different. But figuring out MY why was a key part in my prep for the World Championships and helped me to focus my energy and determination on proving myself. My swimming career was cut short aged 16 despite being a close rival to Rebecca Adlington, due to injury and a number of issues I won’t go into. I had 10 years off where I got my degree, and started my career. However swimming came back into my life again unexpectedly, and this time I had a second chance and I wasn’t about to let that go. My “why” was pushing me and my “why” is what helped me to win 5 medals at the World Championships and break 2 world records. If you’d have told me 5 years ago that was going to happen I wouldn’t have believed it! Don’t ever believe it’s too late to follow your dreams! If you put your mind to it, everything is possible! 🙂