“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” – Buddha
You don’t have to be Buddhist for this quote to ring true, especially if you’re a freediver.
If you’ve ever participated in any competitive sport, be it track, basketball or boxing, you know that when the countdown hits zero, it’s on. You’re excited, anxious and maybe even nervous. Your heart rate elevates, more adrenaline seeps into your blood stream, and your body speeds up to get ready to maximize your performance. I remember my days as a competitive rower and in the few seconds before the start of a race I would get so jacked up and excited that my whole body would be shaking in anticipation.
But unfortunately for freedivers, our sport works completely differently. My ideal physiological state when freediving is the opposite of my natural competitive state. Before my dive I can’t let myself get nervous. I can’t let my heart rate elevate. I can’t let my body’s natural responses go into action. In fact, I have to do everything I can to slow my body down. The best state for a freediver before a dive is actually very similar to the state you’re in right before you fall asleep.
So when I’m floating in the water, hundreds of feet above my target depth, listening to someone count down the last few seconds before I have to be on my way to depth, how the heck am I supposed to relax?
It’s taken me a long time to answer that question and it’s an issue I continually deal with every day of competition. Before a day of deep diving I even wake up anxious. My stomach turns and if I let my nerves get the best of me it would be overwhelming. I’ve had to find techniques that train my mind the way that things like gym and pool workouts train my body.
First, every morning I wake up in Grand Cayman, I start the daily routine that has proven to work well for me in the past. I stretch, brush my teeth, eat the same breakfast every morning, because I know it provides adequate fuel for my dive and sits well in my stomach. I get my gear bag ready, assure myself that I haven’t forgotten anything, then load up in the van to head to the boat. I put on my iPod and listen to the same music I always do (Jack Johnson…it’s AMAZING before a dive). By recreating the same routine that’s led to other successful dives in the past, I’m giving my body cues as to what to expect by putting myself in a familiar mental state.
I also do visualizations of my dive before hitting the water. From the time I wake up to the time I get in the water to warm-up I probably do 30 or more full visualizations of the dive I’m going to do. Not only does this help me develop a pattern of tasks I’ll be performing during my dive, but it also makes the dive mentally familiar, as though I’ve already done it before.
Then, when I actually hit the water, I remind myself to trust in the training I’ve done and to trust in the warm-up dives I’m about to do to kick in my diving reflexes. Warm-up dives work, whether or not they’re the best ones you’ve ever done. The intention of a warm-up is to prep your body for the dive you’re about to do, so even if the warm-ups you’ve done for a given day are 30 seconds shorter than normal, or if you had contractions earlier, they’re still doing their job. That means if you can relax into your target dive, you’ll have the reflex you need to reach your depth. Knowing that has allowed me to reach record-setting depths after some of the worst feeling warm-ups imaginable.
I also remind myself to trust in my safeties. As long as there’s a proper safety set-up, there’s no reason to stress about a dive. I know that when I’m on my way to the surface and I see someone like Garo, one of our top, most experienced safeties, meeting me at depth, I feel much more relaxed than I did before I reached that depth. The safeties allow me to focus on my performance, knowing that they’re there if I should make a mistake.
Finally, it’s important to learn to love the countdown timing. During a competition there’s someone who’s sole job for the day is to scream the countdown time to the competing freedivers, safeties and judges. So when I’m in my last couple of minutes, breathing and relaxing, feeling myself float in the water, trying to reach something that resembles delta brain waves and I hear, “TWO MINUTES!!” screamed in my ear, how am I supposed to stay calm? I used to get really nervous during the countdown, feeling reminiscent of my days as rower. But after hating on the countdown timer for my first competition I realized that the countdown could actually be my ally. I tried to look at it in a positive light. When I know that I have two minutes left I know that my body is at its peak state for obtaining my goal, so when I hear that announcement, I can relax into it, confident in my ability. When I get to the final 10 second count, where I could get really nervous, I remind myself that in 10 seconds I’ll be on my way to hitting depths that I came all the way here to hit. I tell myself that my nervousness doesn’t help, so I just let it go. Now when I hear a countdown my heart rate naturally drops.
That all being said, I still wake up nervous every morning before a deep dive day. I just try to leave it all at the surface because it’s always easier to kick down to depth without all that drag.