Happy Place

I have been trying to educate myself recently about sports psychology, and the mental side of our sport. As part of that, I have spoken to some friends about their experience. With their permission, I am going to share a bit of their knowledge in blog form.

This one is about chasing out negative thoughts when they intrude, and how to get back into the rhythm of your racing or training by consciously focusing on positive thoughts.


I talked about this with Jude Beckett. Jude runs JB Sports Massage Therapy, and has completed several marathon swim events, including the Amphibian 10K, and the Coniston End-to-End. We discussed how it’s really difficult to stay focused during several hours of swimming. (You could say that about any endurance event, but I think swimming perhaps creates more challenges due to the lack of stimulus. You are in a long term state of partial sensory deprivation.)

Sometimes, negative thoughts can creep in, be they about your swimming itself, or indeed about something else going on in your life. It’s important to be prepared with techniques that will help you chase out those negative thoughts with something more constructive.

Despite her experience, Jude suffers occasionally from panic attacks in the early stages of swims, sometimes finding it almost impossible to breathe in the first hundred metres. In the past, this has really disturbed her racing, and can sow distracting seeds of doubt for the rest of the event.

Later in a race, Jude told me, she can start to get fixated on any little pain or muscle tiredness. “If somethings hurting, even slightly,” she told me, “I will start obsessing about it and that’s really not helpful.”

Personally, I can find myself thinking unhelpful thoughts about other situations in my life. Work problems, disagreements, difficult conversations I may have to have. If I let them, these negative thoughts will replay themselves over and over in my head, distracting me from what I am supposed to be doing, and potentially spoiling what is supposed to be fun!

Jude has a really specific solution to these problems. She pictures a safe place and a happy time. For her, this is a memory of a lakeside campsite with her sister and their children. “I can hear the birdsong, the crackling of the campfire and the sound of the water,” she said. The specifics are important. If you want a happy place to push out the panic or the negative thoughts, it has to have that sensory force of reality.

This is worth trying, and you don’t have to wait till next time you are in a lake. You can do it now, sitting at your desk or on your couch. Close your eyes and try to select a happy place and time. The detail is crucial though – it has to be more than, “Oh yeah, I really liked it at my birthday party last week.” Conjur up the sights, sounds and smells in your mind. The more detail, the more effective this will be at transporting you from your current situation into that happy place.

“I can see the sparks crackling off the fire, and smell the smoke.” This is a visceral memory for Jude, evoking all the senses.

Give it a try, and let me know what you come up with. Remember – be specific with the sights, the sounds and the smells!