We invest a lot into our performance in the water.
The relentless focus honing our technique. The hours spent working on our conditioning. The attention to recovery.
There is one glaring opportunity for massive improvement that most swimmers completely let pass them by.
It’s something you have flirted with from time to time, but never really mastered.
Recent research has shown that mental skills training is still a vastly under-utilized tool with athletes. Even though they know it can help many coaches, swimmers and administrators are reluctant to employ mental training into their programs.
(Another study found that only 3% of athletes were given the basic mental skills and coping strategies to help them get through injury. Yikes.)
Which I suppose is understandable…
After all, there is often a lack of understanding of how it affects performance, as unlike the “hard sciences” of physiology and physical training where a swimmer can see how they have gotten stronger and faster, the benefits of mental training are harder to track.
This aversion to mental training is great news for you as an aspiring elite swimmer.
It’s something you can employ to not only separate yourself from the competition, but also employ in the rest of your life.
Being able to set deadly goals, master your self-talk, and strategically use visualization have all been proven over and over to positively impact performance.
And yet, there are still reasons floating out there for not doing mental training.
Here are some of the greatest hits of reasons for why swimmers don’t work on their mental skills:
1. It’s for other, “broken” swimmers.
Denial is an unbelievably powerful thing. It’s what insures that we keep making the same mistakes over and over again (because it can’t be our fault, right?). The idea of wanting to better ourselves mentally can come across as weakness when in fact, it’s the very opposite.
Having the humility to understand that there are things you can do better actually comes from a position of strength.
Look: we can all be better equipped to handle setbacks, be able to set goals that are highly relevant, and cope better in times of high stress.
2. It’s something you have or don’t.
As a sport we talk a lot about how talented or built for swimming some athletes are.
Particularly during the Olympics, we hear to the point of exhaustion how swimmers like Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin or Florent Manaudou are genetic freaks built in a laboratory somewhere specifically for this sport.
As a result, we begin to think that what it takes to be successful is completely innate and out of our control.
You can have all the talent in the world, the best technique, but if you don’t have the resiliency, the mental toughness, and the ability to focus when it matters most all those “made-for-swimming” traits go out of the window.
And yes, the experiences of some swimmers in their life and environment may make them seem naturally adept to certain aspects of the mental game, but like a muscle it is something that can be improved.
3. Tried it once, it didn’t work.
Mental training as a concept is a broad area. It includes things like mental toughness and focus, but also goal setting, habit-formation, and more.
And anybody who has ever struggled with goals can tell you the frustration that arises when you set a goal and fall short. It makes you doubt the process altogether.
But goal setting, and mental toughness, is something developed over time, not simply to be turned on or off.
It’s a skill you develop, and like with any skill, whether it is technique, conditioning, or in our case, mastering the mental side of things, there are bumps and bruises and a learning curve.
4. Simply don’t care enough.
This one at least I can understand.
And it’s usually pretty transparent from which athletes this point tends to come from—it’s almost always the swimmer who talks a huge game, but then misses half the practices, or gives up during main sets (and doesn’t care), or refuses to every really completely invest themselves in training.
The idea of being an elite swimmer is much more appealing than the work involved to make it happen.
And I can understand that. There are lots of things I thought looked appealing over the course of growing up (law school, for instance) but turned out to be not worth it or what I was passionate about.
That being said, the lessons you pick up while understanding yourself a little bit better has far reaching implications outside of the pool.
Ultimately, getting your mind right is about more than just swimming fast. The fact that you can apply this stuff to other sports, personal relationships, work, school, and on and on, is what makes it so powerful and relevant.
5. Lacks support from coaches and parents.
Motivating young swimmers is a balancing act. On one hand you want them to be successful, and know how much value there is in them learning how to become proficient at the sport (particularly as it related to outside-the-pool stuff), but you also want the impetus and drive to come from them.
As a coach and a swim parent you should at the very least provide an environment where the young swimmer is open to challenging themselves in getting better in tightening up their mental game.
There are fewer more discouraging things to hear from a young swimmer than, “Well yeah, I know I can learn to focus more but my dad tells me to just suck it up” or “My coach doesn’t believe in mental training.”
As a second consideration, coaches should provide organization and scheduling opportunities for mental training, and not leave it completely to the athlete to fend for themselves.
Swimmers should be able to leave the pool deck and leave the sport behind. Coaches provide the schedule and framework for training, and this goes beyond just the work that is done in the pool and in the gym.
Swimmers, like most athletes, like to obsess over ways to get faster. I mean, heck, we shave our bodies and and train for thousands of over simply so that we can drop a sliver of a second.
Mental training is just about the easiest way to get that advantage we all want in the water.
Better goals? Mentally tougher? And the ability to stay focused and calm in high-pressure situations?
Sounds good to me.
The Next Step
Every copy of YourSwimBook now comes with a copy of the “Dominate the Pool” eBook, a 76-page mental training skills guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers.
It’s free with every order of YourSwimBook.