5 Things You Can’t Control in the Pool (and What to Focus on Instead)

5 Things You Can’t Control in the Pool (and What to Focus on Instead)

Are you spending your energy and focus on the right things in the water? Give your performance in training and competition a boost by investing your effort in the right areas.

Swimming is not enjoyable for the perfectionist control freak among us. (No judgement here: I’ve gots me some of those perfectionist tendencies streaming through my veins.)

We end misdirecting a lot of energy and effort on things that are, well….straight-up wasteful. Instead of spending more of our time on the things that actually impact our performance, we worry about how others will swim. Or that we aren’t perfectly motivated to train hard today. Or we obsess endlessly over the result.

There is a long line of things that you can control: Your effort in practice. Your pre-race routine before you get up on the block. Doing your warm-up and warm-downs properly. Showing up to early morning workouts. And so on.

However, there are also a significant list of things you can’t control. Influence? Sure, in some cases. But not all. And not always as much as you’d like.

Here are some of the things that we don’t (and should forego wasting energy on trying to) control in the water:

1. The competition.

The biggie is how the swimmer in the next lane swims. How they prepare and decide to perform is ultimately up to them. Sure, you can do your best to intimidate them (whether through overt actions like chest slapping, spitting water into their lane and staring them down or by breaking their will during the race), but this isn’t something that should predict how you prepare and ultimately perform.

Yes, swimming is a competitive endeavor, and we therefore tend to measure ourselves up against the swimmer in the next lane, but this shouldn’t be the primary thing we are focusing on when at the pool.

2. Equipment.

From the moment our dreams become high-performance we start leering over at the magical power of expensive gear, enthralled with the idea of being able to pay for a shortcut to faster swimming without the requisite hard work.

As a result, I’ve seen more than my fair share of swimmer who obsesses over precisely what kind of racing suit to buy…but this same swimmer is the athlete who makes half the workouts, doesn’t push themselves during the main set, and their diet looks like a five-alarm dumpster fire.

To a point equipment can help you, but it’s not something you should be relying on to help you swim faster. Similarly, you can’t control what equipment other swimmers are using, so comparing your racing suit or goggles or their fancy parka to yours is wasted focus and energy.

3. Luck.

Yup. Luck. It’s one of the things that athletes, coaches and even I don’t really discuss because there’s not really much of a point—it’s not something you can influence, and yet, it is still something that is going to play a role in how you swim.

You streamline into someone coming off the wall who just jumped into the water during warm-up and dislocate two of your fingers? That’s (bad) luck. (This is also a true story—my pinky finger is still crooked to this day.) Or your main competitor gets DQ’d in the morning heats.

The infuriating part about luck is obvious: by nature it is serendipitous and therefore impossible to rely on. And so you shouldn’t.

4. The results.

Yes, I know, it sucks to hear this. You can’t completely control the final outcome. What you can do is put yourself in the best possible position to influence it to as high degree as you can.

As Cate Campbell, the world record holder in the 100m freestyle and widely considered a shoe-in for gold in Rio, saw firsthand, there are no guarantees in swimming.

Perhaps the most agonizing part of the sport is when you do everything right, check all the boxes, focus on your own deal, and the race just isn’t there for you when you need it most. (I feel like we’ve all been that swimmer at least once.)

5. How others view us.

Hey, ya know what? People are going to talk. They are gonna gossip. They are gonna say dumb stuff.

People will have something to say when you have big goals, and they’ll have something to say when you don’t have big goals. Work hard at practice and somebody will say something (“Man, you are making the rest of us look bad”), and when you have a bad day at practice and somebody else will have something to contribute (“Buddy, keep it up—making us look gooood”).

The reality is this: we worry about how others perceive us. It’s natural. Getting up (in a bathing suit, no less) in front of hundreds or thousands of strangers and trying to bang out the swim of your life is terrifying. I get it.

But the more you worry about what others think, the less you will believe in yourself (science). The fear of negative evaluation and its effects are real (but at the end of the day, people don’t really care, even if they pretend like they do), so limit them by not getting consumed in what others might or might not think about you.

When you start trying to control what other people think you will find yourself infinitely frustrated and stressed.

Okay. Well. That was a fun list. Sorta-not really.

With all these things that can go wrong, what are we left to do but endlessly stress about them? Sounds about right. Which is odd, given that we know we can’t control them, and yet we worry and tense ourselves up anyway.

This is why you should set goals for yourself that are as controllable as possible. They shouldn’t be contingent on how other people perform: saying that you want to win gold at the Olympics is a fun goal, but it’s faint and imprecise. Better to outline a specific time (that you predict will win gold) and build a process and the performance necessary to achieve that standard.

The Process Can Be Fickly and Uncontrollable at Times Too

I’ve harped on the importance of the process repeatedly on this site (here’s one long, but enjoyable harping on the importance and the benefits of being process-driven), and it’s also something that features heavily in the book Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

While specific and process-oriented goals are still better than relying wholly on outcome goals, they are still subject to the whims of unpredictability.

Here’s an example.

Let’s say you follow my garbled and chlorinated wisdom and craft yourself some high-grade process goals:

(1) I am going to show up to practice 6 days a week;

(2) I am going to do 300m of race pace work each session;

(3) I am going to do 387 assorted ab reps after every practice.

These goals are out of sight: they are specific, measurable, and you can completely* control them.

*Except for when you can’t.

You get sick one week with a rugged bout of the flu and miss four days of training. Some kid jumps on your hand in the warm-up pool and sprains your fingers. You tweak your shoulder while bending over to pick something up. Your coach picks up and decides to go traveling for a year, shuttering the program. And so on.

So even process-oriented goals can run the risk of being rail-roaded by a sudden and unprovoked burst of life randomness. Woohoo!

Should we just give up on goals? If things are so left to chance, is there any sense in planning at all?

Of course not.

Instead, redirect your energy and focus and pile-drive them on the things you can control.

Such as:

How you react to adversity.

What you do when under duress says a lot about what kind of athlete you are.

Do you react poorly when things aren’t going your way in practice? Do you give up when a teammate passes you? Get frustrated with coach when the workout is harder than you expected or wanted?

Fun fact: those little blow-ups serve as a delightfully accurate predictor of how you are going to react when things really go south on you in competition.

Use the little moments of rage to mold yourself into a mentally tougher swimmer: view each of the little setbacks and piss-offs you experience today as practice.

What you do to be ready.

Thinking about your practice later today, are you going to show up on time, do the mobility/activation warm-up as laid out by your coach, and do so without having to be asked? On time? With a water bottle and post-workout snack ready to go?

You can’t control what the workout is going to look like, but you have full control over how mentally and physically prepared you are to train like a beast.

How honest you are with your effort.

One of the perks of swimming with a big group of teammates is the social aspect of training with a group of like-minded athletes. Larger groups means you may find yourself getting lost in the shuffle from time to time in practice, and maybe not getting the attention or focus that you are used to from coach.

For some swimmers, this is a ripe opportunity to ease up on their effort and focus. Are you going to do the workout as outlined even when coach isn’t watching? Are you going to still give a max effort even though Little Johnny three lanes over is taking all of the coaching staff’s attention?

Your level of compete in practice.

There’s a belief that some swimmers are destined to always be racers, while the rest are relegated to being simply great practice swimmers. I don’t agree with this.

Racing and competing at a high level is a skill, and not just one you should be working on when you are standing up on the block. This attitude should prevail through training as well.

One of my favorite coaching philosophies is that of Pete Carroll, head coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, outlined in his leadership book Win Forever: Live, Work and Play Like a Champion (Amazon).

The foundation of his program is built on the idea that his athletes should compete every day, all day. Every drill. Every wind sprint. Every film session. Practice, in Carroll’s eyes, is everything. And not just competing with the person across the ball—but themselves.

Swimmers can bring this attitude too: chase your practice PB’s, work your tail off and make your teammates earn it as well.

What kind of teammate you want to be.

For a lot of swimmers, there isn’t a clear connection between being an awesome teammate and excelling individually. But they feed each other, probably a lot more than you realize.

When you encourage your teammates and contribute to a culture that promotes excellence you aren’t just making the swimmers around you better, you are rising the tide for everyone, including you.

More Stuff Like This:

Trust the Process. If it’s success you want in the pool, stop worrying about it and start focusing on this instead.

This Mental Training Workbook Will Help You Swim Like a Rock Star This Season. Confused about mental training? Want to unleash pro mode on your swimming this year? Learn how this mental training workbook will change your mindset and help you pummel your PB’s this season.

Why Change is So Hard in the Pool (and How to Make It Easier). We all want change in some measure—so why is it so dang difficult to make happen? Here’s the reality behind making change that actually sticks in the pool.

17 Things That Mental Training Will Do for Your Swimming. Not entirely sure what mental training can do for you? Here’s just a sampling of the superpowers it gives you in the water.


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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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