Don Schollander was the king of the pool at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, winning four gold medals. In fact, he would go on to Mexico City and win another gold and silver for the US, two more golds if you count the ones he received as a swimmer in the preliminary heats of relay teams that finished first in the finals.
To win consistently is a challenge, and requires a distinct edge. According to Schollander, in his autobiography, Deep Water, the edge was psychological.
When you get the eight fastest swimmers in the country or in the world into a pool for a race, they are so nearly equal in ability that mere ability is no longer the deciding factor. A race is won on strategy and psychology and very often by psyching out a competitors long before the race and some distance away from the pool.
Schollander was the king of the pool because perhaps he was the king of what he called the “psych-out”, an attempt to make a tremendous show of confidence, and/or undermine the confidence of the competition.
Showing confidence: An example Schollander gave in his book was demonstrating a totally carefree attitude while others steeled themselves up for the battle.
Before the race I would be standing near the pool talking with someone, perhaps a reporter, and when my race was announced I would appear not to hear the call, and while the other swimmers were taking off their sweats, loosening up, I would just keep talking. The would announce the race again – or someone would yell over to me that my race was beginning – and finally when I knew that all my competitors had noticed that I wasn’t there, I’d turn around and say, “Oh, hey! I’m on!” and walk over to my block and get ready to race. My purpose was to create the impression that I thought I could win hands down.
Undermining Confidence: Here are the kind of things one might say to another swimmer to enhance any lingering or creeping doubts.
A psych-out of a single competitor can be worked for a period of several days before the race by discussing his real or imagined weaknesses. “I watched your work out today. Do you always start kicking like that before you hit the water? Doesn’t that slow you down?” And, the next day, “I’m really amazed at the way you begin to kick early like that. I’m really amazed.” On the starting blocks, you hope, he’ll be worried about kicking too soon, and if he is worried, he will have a bad start.
One of the more intimidating examples of Schollander in total psych-out mode was when he worked on 100-meter freestyle competitor, Alain Gottvalles of France, prior to the 100-meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Schollander wrote that Gottvalles irritated the Americans for his perceived arrogance towards them. So during the heats leading up to the 100-meter freestyle finals, Schollander saw Gottvalles sitting on the bench, looking as Schollander thought, “nervous about the race.” He wrote that Gottvalles was sitting on a bench. Schollander wrote that he started his psychological battle with glances. Then he started walking closer to him, to the point where he was standing right over Gottvalles, prompting the French swimmer to slide further down the bench. Then, Schollander got a bit edgy.
Finally he (Gottvalles) got up and headed for the locker room and went into the bathroom. And I followed him. He stepped up to a urinal and although there was another one free, I stood behind him and waited for him. When he finished he turned and almost ran out of that bathroom. I wouldn’t have horsed around like that in the finals but that night I thought it was sort of a cool thing to do. He had talked so much and he was so arrogant, and I wanted to see if it would work.
Did it work? Schollander won the 100-meter freestyle in an Olympic record time of 53.4 seconds, while Gottvalles finished fifth with a time of 54.2 seconds. After the Olympics, Schollander would enter Yale University, with the intent of majoring in psychology. You could say this high school student was ready for the master’s program.
Now you could put your own value judgments on that, but that’s the kind of thing that goes on all the time at the Olympics. In fact that’s a mild psych-out ploy, compared to some I’ve heard about. Psyching-out is part of the game. You’ve got to be able to take it, and you’ve got to be able to do it. training, conditioning, natural ability are not enough – with only those you won’t win. In Olympic competition a race is won in the mind.