5 Tough Lessons Swimmers Can Learn from Failing

5 Tough Lessons Swimmers Can Learn from Failing

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

It’s something that is painfully familiar to all swimmers…

The end of the season has come, and it’s your final race of the championship meet. Your best event. You dive in, swim your heart out, only to touch the wall to see that you performed well below expectations.

Shockingly well below expectations.

With tears welling in your eyes, you approach Coach, who quietly gives you your splits. She’s smart enough to know that you need to decompress, so you walk off to the warm-down pool, shoulders rolled forward, and slump into the water.

What happened?

You trained hard, showed up to workouts, and ate and slept well in the weeks leading up to the competition.

And instead of punching your best time in the face, you added a heap of time.

You’d failed.

At moments like this a few feelings begin to bubble up to the surface:

Doubt. The creeping sense that we are running out of time, that there aren’t enough remaining hours in the pool to help us push towards the goals we want to achieve. That perhaps our shade of greatness wasn’t meant for us.

Frustration. The anger and discouragement that comes with not being able to do what you hoped to do is common in our sport. We set goals that are unrealistic, and then get upset with ourselves for coming up short. We hope for full time results with part time effort, and get disheartened when things don’t pan out. When we put in effort and don’t see the expected results it makes us feel as though we are swimming in quicksand.

Insecurity. We wonder if it is us, that there is something lacking in us that would otherwise allow us to achieve greatness. We fret over whether we possess the latent talent, the physical prowess, and the technical skill to achieve the big things we hope to accomplish in the water.


There always comes points in our swimming where we hit walls of frustration or outright failure. We aren’t seeing progress as fast as we would like. The things we want to accomplish seem to be outside of our reach.

In times like this where you come up short, or are struggling through trying periods of training, where you feel like you are stuck alone in a whirlwind of insecurity and doubt.

These emotions, while tough, are normal, and not only that, are part of the process.

Every swimmer that has graced the top of the Olympic podium has experienced flashes of these feelings at some point during their ascent to elite-status, so don’t feel as though you are the first swimmer to feel this way.

But once these feelings begin to pass a little bit, you will find that there are some surprisingly powerful benefits to coming up short:

5 Tough Lessons Swimmers Can Learn from Failure

1. It’s a course corrector.

Moments of failure shine a light on our preparation and training. How many workouts did you actually show up for? Can you honestly say that you were working as hard as should have been to expect the results you had hoped for?

Results, whether good or bad, lays bare our training history for what it is, not what we’d like it to be.

In these moments you have a couple options: You can keep doing the same thing and continue expecting the same results. Or you can make the adjustments necessary that will help you succeed in the long run.

The value of competition goes far beyond just winning medals and placing in finals. It is an assessment of our training and preparation. Use these moments to make the changes and corrections necessary in order to propel you to level you want to be at.

If that means making more practices, so be it. If that means tracking and ranking your workouts by effort in order to insure consistency in your training, than so be it.

2. Coping with it will come in handy later.

The top swimmers in our sport didn’t get there by winning all of the time.

They got there by overcoming more frustration, doubt and failure than the rest of us.

A funny thing happens when you learn to value failure as a tool, and not as a crushing chapter of your swimming.

You begin to fear it less. The emotional baggage it carries is lighter. And you even begin to seek it out so that you know where you can improve.

Because they don’t fear it as much, and because they trust the process to work in the long term, they are able to see past the short term struggle and frustration and are able to power well past the point at which most swimmers would either back off or quit entirely.

3. Setbacks develop emotional smarts.

It’s odd to think of it this way, but when we come up short we actually experience some positive stuff.

Failure, in its particular way, makes us more emotionally intelligent.

After all…

We learn and appreciate the struggle. As a result we are more patient and sympathetic to the grind that our teammates and fellow swimmers are going through to achieve their own goals.

We experience humility. While it can be a prickly feeling at first, we learn that we might not be as self-aware as we initially thought ourselves to be. And this is a good thing—self-awareness is a very under-valued trait in today’s day and age where we are told that we can be absolutely anything we want to be.

4. It’s a motivational tool (if you want it to be).

It’s odd to think that failing on occasion will get you to your goal faster, but it’s entirely possible. If you stumble repeatedly over the course of the season, and unleash the frustration and anger on your training in a productive manner it is entirely likely that your setbacks can be credited for speeding things up.

Michael Phelps is a classic example. Anytime he had an “off” meet or suffered an unexpected defeat the reaction wasn’t quiet introspection; it was full fledged rage at making sure it never happened again, leading him to double down on his training moving forward.

You can wield your setbacks as a force for positive change, or you can use it to define you.

Wield Your Setbacks for Positive Change

5. You weren’t ready yet.

Yes, this one stings a little bit, and I can say that I was guilty of this on many on occasion over the course of my swimming career.

We like to think we are ready for that big piece of success, that we have done everything necessary to achieve the loftiest of our dreams…

Only to come up short. Big-time short.

Progress can be painfully slow at times, too slow for our ambitious tastes.

But progress is progress, and everyone moves at their own pace.

Learning what your pace is, and being ready is something that is unique to you.

In Closing

Does this mean you should launch yourself into the new swimming season determined to fail?

Of course not—go into it believing that you will be successful!

You shouldn’t be under the impression that you are destined to bomb from the get-go, but you should certainly be willing to view your swimming as a work-in-progress, something that is continually being tweaked and improved.

The point of this post isn’t to promote failure, but rather, to get you to a point where failing sets you up to achieving the things you do want to accomplish.

Keep in mind that while coping with failure is very important, in and of itself as a tool failure has its limitations. While setbacks can highlight the things that don’t work, it’s the moments that you succeed where you truly learn what works.

Yes, accomplishing anything worthwhile in the pool is tough. And there is certainly the chance you may come up short. But that doesn’t mean failing needs to be the default setting to your swimming.

Be confidant in your abilities, your vision, and move forward for success in the pool.

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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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