Swimming in Open Water can be a nerve-wracking experience for some swimmers. Even if you are a fantastic pool swimmer, the open water presents challenges that can be psychologically difficult to overcome unless you are prepared. Learn to think about open water sighting in a new way and you’ll find yourself more relaxed and confident in the water. This is the first of a multi-part article on open water sighting where I’ll cover the mental aspect of finding your way.

In contrast to walking upright, riding our bikes or running, the visual information you have while swimming is limited. We receive so much visual information on a moment to moment basis, our brain actually discards or ignores most of it. The eyes have specialized to filter out peripheral information to just colors and movement, while the actual “focus” of our vision involves just a small part of the retina. Contrast this to swimming where your head is down, eyes are in the wtaer, visibility is often limited to a few feet or a few inches, and you can understand why some people may panic or be fearful of open water.

Seeing where you are going while you swim is like driving a car at night. Imagine driving your car from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh during a snowstorm at night. It’s about a 5 hour, 300 mile drive. Even though it’s a couple of hundred miles from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, you can drive at night only being able to see few hundred feet ahead of you at a time. Driving in a snowstorm, visibility may only be 30 feet…yet you can still drive in a straight line from point a to point b with just small bits of visual information at atime. You don’t need to be able to see downtown PIttsburgh from the Philadelphia airport in order to make it there.

The act of gathering visual information about our destination while swimming is called “sighting”. Rather try to fight the water lifting your head up for several seconds at a time in order to get a clear and unobstructed view of your landmarks or buoys, accept that it’s OK to only see a little bit of information at a time. In a few more strokes you can take another peek and gather some additional information. You only need to see a little ways in front of you, or that you are mosty headed in the proper direction.

The actual sighting technique, which I’ll talk about in detail in the next article and an accompanying video, requires just a “peek” above the water. A small slice of visual information. in a brief moment, the light hits your retina and travels to your brain faster than you can process it. By the time you’ve thought about what you have seen, there is already new visual information streaming into your brain.

Try this exercise to help train your mind that you only need brief “slices” of vision in order to navigate. Face some direction that has discrete objects in front of you such as parked cars, people, planted flowers or even zoon animals. Close your eyes. Now as quickly as you can, open and close your eyes and keep them closed. What did you just see? Keeping your eyes closed, see if you can pick out the elements of the actual scene in front of you. how many cars were there? What colors were people wearing? Which directions were the animals facing? More than likely you wont be able to recall the entire scene. Repeat the quick glipmse, this time specifically trying to gather a missing piece for your minds eye…the color of the last car on the right for example. Or was that a mother with a stroller, or was she pushing a piece of luggage?

You can practice this exercise anywhere and everywhere. Do it until you are comfortable not having that continuous stream of visual information. Impress your self with how much information you can collect with just a small slice of information like a slide show.

With these two major psychological barriers to open water swimming under control, the actual sighting technique you’ll find to be a piece of cake. Can you think of any other mental tricks that would help other swimmers with their open water sighting? Please leave a comment below!