Being able to control your focus means you are going to swim with better technique, get more enjoyment from the process, and ultimately, swim faster. Here’s the swimmer’s guide to being a focus machine at the pool.
The challenges presented to the enterprising swimmer with golden goals on their mind are very real.
The hurdles come in hot and chlorinated:
- The daily sharpening of the technical elements of your swimming.
- Battling the self-doubt and uncertainty when pushing yourself.
- Keeping your self-talk from going full-blown Negative Nelly when a practice is struggley.
The process of sculpting a champion performance can feel never-ending.
Just a long, bottomless to do list.
Improve my dolphin kick. Eat better. Drink more water. Improve shoulder stability. Show up to more practices. Do more core work. Wash my towels. Give up less often on the main set. Do more threshold sets. Pull on the lane rope less.
Which brings me to the point:
How focused are you in practice?
Do you walk out on the pool deck laser-focused on what it is you need to do, how you are going to do it, and how badly you are going to crush it?
Or, if you are like the rest of us mortals, is it a bit of a struggle to stay focused?
Does your mind wander away from the helpful thoughts you want to be thinking, instead preferring to dwell on how other swimmers are performing, daydreaming, or engaging in unhelpful self-talk?
Being a more focused swimmer won’t automagically make you an Olympian overnight, but it will help you with an equipment bin full of things:
- You will be more present and engaged when swimming (which is far more rewarding and enjoyable)…
- You will be able to guide your attention and concentration back to the things that matter to your swimming…
- And you will be more likely to do that “swim faster” thing we all know and love.
How to Throw Down at Practice with More Focus
Here are some of my favorite thingeroos to do to help swimmers sharpen their focus and concentration at the pool:
You don’t lose focus. It just wanders.
Our focus can feel like a hyperactive 3-year old who has discovered Red Bull at times. No matter how much we try to settle our focus, it wants to explore, think about other stuff, and generally not hang out with us and our goals.
This is normal, so don’t karate kick yourself mentally when your focus wavers or bolts from the room. Take note that it happened without too much judgement and nudge your focus back to the present.
How you focus varies by situation.
You have different types of focusing that are best used in specific situations. In practice, we tend to focus on technique. We are looking to become a more efficient swimmer by over-learning our technique over the course of tons of reps. An analytical kind of concentration is useful here.
But when it comes to competition, you want to shift from a skill-based focus to a performance-based focus that is more about clearing your mind. (More on this in an upcoming blog post.)
The kind of focus you use changes according to the situation.
If you are thinking past or present, your focus has bounced.
Swimmers frequently confuse being focused and over-thinking. Obsessing over how the competition did last month, your focus on what you need to do today is diminished. If you are telling yourself that you aren’t going to swim well next week because of a bad practice today, your focus on being a better swimmer today is diminished.
If you are time traveling with your focus, it means you aren’t giving the present the full attention and concentration it deserves.
Visualize the way you want to perform in practice.
Swimmers put a lot of yards and meters into the water at practice. Thousands and thousands of them. Just so that they can go to a swim meet and do a fraction of those meters at an increased speed.
Why wait until your meet to get the feeling of swimming a PB-devastating time?
Natalie Coughlin, 12-time Olympic medalist, cranked up her focus skills her freshman year at Cal, launching her into a wildly successful international career. Her secret? Visualizing the way she wanted to swim on race day when she went to the pool for practice.
Stress makes it harder to focus.
We only have so much focus to go around at any given time. Stress, whether physical or mental, takes up a lot of the CPU power of our brain, reducing our ability to focus.
It’s one of the reasons we are more prone to “screw it, I’m giving up” moments when stressed out. Just another reason to be proactive about managing the daily stresses in life and in the pool.
When you start worrying about how other swimmers are performing, what you are parents might think, or the doubt and uncertainty pulsing under that suffocating tech suit, it’s focus that is being stolen from the things that actually help your performance.
This sounds simple when viewed from the safe, dry confines of the couch, but keeping our focus on a leash and pointed at the things we want gets harder when we are under the stress of a hard set or under the bright lights of competition.
Focus, for how powerful it can be, is a limited resource.
Journal your moments of epic focus.
There are more reasons to journal your swimming than there are blades on a lane rope (I know, I know—some of you will try to convince me that it’s called a lane line).
The self-awareness that comes with writing out a few sentences about what you were focused on during moments of most excellent swimming at practice will give you a library of focus points you can use to improve your focusing skills.
What do you when unhelpful thoughts are infecting your focus, and by extension, your swimming? You slap it in the face with a kick-board, that’s what. Swim practices give us a mountain of opportunities to unfairly worry, stress, and assess what we are doing.
- On the way to practice you are feeling sore and tired: “I am not going to be able to have a good practice tonight because of how not awesome I am feeling.”
- As the practice goes up on the board, you sink mentally: “How am I supposed to hit my race pace targets on that interval?”
- Between reps during the main set it feels like the full weight of still has to be completed stands squarely on your shoulders: “Oof! We still have how many more reps to go?”
In these moments when you struggle to stay positive and focused, one thing you can do to pump the brake is to use thought stopping. There’s no hidden meaning of what this little tactic is—it’s literally stopping that unhelpful thought with the help of a physical cue.
Something as simple as clenching and unclenching your fingers. Wiping the inside of your favorite pair of swim goggles. Using a pre-determined mantra (“You got this”).
The physical cue kick-starts a mental refresh designed to throw a crossing guard with a massive stop sign in front of those unhelpful thoughts. Pick something easy and simple to use when you find your focus turning negative.
Get focused and ride the escalator up to the next level in your swimming
The upsides of being a more focused swimmer at practice are legit.
Because you are more engaged in what you are doing, you are going to enjoy that practice 34% more. (Perhaps even 40%, but let’s not get carried away.)
Using your powers of concentration with your technique more consistently will help you become a more efficient swimmer.
The confidence that comes from these two things will sprout into faster swimming.
Sounds pretty okay to me.
More Stuff Like This:
How Swimmers Can Learn to Be More Present in the Pool. Being present in the water helps you swim faster and more efficiently. Here’s how to do it.
Why You Should Be Grading Your Effort After Practice. One of my favorite ways to stay consistent and accountable in practice is this simple technique. Takes about three seconds, and will keep you honest about the effort in the water.