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Swimming Australia's move to give athletes an edge: mindfulness and yoga

“I remember sitting in the marshalling room in Rio and trying to be really present and focusing on the moment and what I have to execute in my race to swim well.”

At just 17, Tamsin Cook was the youngest member of the Australian swimming team and it was her first Olympics, a moment she had dreamed about since she was 10.

“I wasn’t too focused on the outcome because then you get really caught up in your expectations and the external pressures that are around you and the crowd,” says the year 12 student from Perth. “The results for me did show and I would put a lot of it down to being more prepared mentally and focused and what I had to do to perform well.”

Cook swam the final leg of the 4×200 metre freestyle relay to secure silver for Australia and had earlier swum her personal best in the final of the 400 metre freestyle.

Her composure was a stark contrast to the Olympic trials six months earlier, where the world junior champion says she “didn’t really know how to cope” with intense nerves and a sense of pressure.

“I had a really tough experience at the Olympic trials – I didn’t control my nerves very well at all and my  race wasn’t very well executed,” she says. 

Cook, who was first introduced to yoga in 2014 while in the junior Australian swimming squad now uses the physical practice and the mental adjunct of mindfulness to prepare for every race. She practised the techniques intensively in the lead-up to the Olympics and now does a “mini” yoga practice before every race and often again afterwards.

“Physically and mentally it gets me in the moment and lets my body know it’s about to get in the pool,” she says.

The physical side of yoga helps her with shoulder and core stability and general flexibility.

“As a swimmer, it’s about having the least amount of resistance possible and getting into really long, efficient positions in the water and I really felt like yoga helped me achieve that,” she explains. 

Mentally, it helps her to relax and focus. “If I’m getting too nervous, being mindful and being aware of the processes rather than the outcome, that’s how I use it to prepare for races and I think it enhances my performance.”

Mental resilience – the ability to stay focused and calm in the face of pressure, distraction and physical stress – is considered a key to an athlete’s performance. Research earlier this year found that incorporating mindfulness practice into an athlete’s training regime could help them achieve this and give an athlete an edge.

Now, Swimming Australia has moved to introduce mindfulness, meditation, yoga and personal development to  training. 

It has announced a partnership with lululemon who will provide yoga and mindfulness workshops and training sessions, along with some gear, to the Australian Dolphins swim team.

“Mindfulness is an integral part of the modern athletes’ skill set,” said Swimming Australia executive manager high performance, Wayne Lomas. “Here with the Dolphins we have a focus on encouraging our athlete to have a clear mind, feel calm, and have clarity in their training and competition environment.” 

Ben Jackson, the director of Brand and Community at lululemon Australia/New Zealand, says they have been tasked with helping the athletes build resilience in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“What we heard the coaches speak specifically about was that having resilience gives a mental strength which allows you to really focus on the task at hand and block out any distractions,” Jackson says, adding that they will hold the first camp in September to teach the athletes meditation and mindfulness techniques.

“You can be an elite runner and train your body but what we don’t often do is train ourselves mentally. From a mindset point of view, that can be a big unlock for people.”

Cook, knowing the difference the mind can make, thinks the partnership is “really cool”.

“I’ve learned over the last two years what a big part the mental side plays in your preparation and it’s just as important as the physical side – it can be the one thing that lets you down,” Cook says. “I think it’s really cool that they’re going to bring in a practice of mindfulness. Hopefully some of the young athletes might not have to go through that really tough experience where they don’t know how to handle their nerves… and are hopefully going to learn that if you practise your sport mindfully you can get better results out of it.” 

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