How Swimmers Can Get Better at Mastering Difficult Habits

How Swimmers Can Get Better at Mastering Difficult Habits

For swimmers struggling to master technique and performance in the water, the secret to unlocking faster swimming starts with mastering small habits.

For the enterprising swimmers with big goals, one of the toughest part of achieving high-grade excellence is managing ALL of the things they need to work on.

Asking our high-achievement swimmer how they are going to get faster, and it’s likely you will see a list like this:

  • Faster start.
  • Better technique.
  • Tighter turns.
  • Faster breakouts.
  • More swim workouts.
  • Longer swim workouts.
  • Eat better.
  • Drink more water.
  • Improve explosiveness.
  • Better mobility.
  • Increased shoulder strength.
  • Hydrate before and after practice.
  • Doing more and more core exercises.
  • Tougher mindset.
  • More race pace training.
  • Better feel for the water.
  • ……

The list piles up quickly, and before long, we are staring up at a ten-story to-do list.

Which, to be frank, isn’t always very motivating.

And can leave us feeling like we don’t have a place to start.

One of the sneaky things you can do to get back on track and master tougher habits in the water is mastering something small.

Here’s why.

Where to Start with Big Habits and Big Goals

Research into habit formation has found that when we improve one habit—something simple, doesn’t need to be earth-shattering in scope—our ability to self-regulate and master other habits improves.

In other words, by mastering a small habit, you build the strength and willpower to take on bigger, more challenging habits.

In my opinion, it’s even more powerful than this.

To demonstrate, let’s break down a simple example.

For our sample habit, let’s say that you are going to streamline as streamliney as possible off every turn at practice.

A simple, “easy” habit that anyone can start.

Two things are going to happen when you master this simple habit:

The Unplanned Improvement

You hop, skip and jump down to the pool, dive into the water, and for every wall and every push-off, streamline as tightly as possible.

As the practice progresses, and you are nailing those streamlines, you notice that something else is happening too…

Other parts of your swimming are being done more sharply, too.

The breakouts are a little more crisp. Turns are being done more aggressively. And the first few strokes out of the breakout are done with a little more pop than usual.

Where you started with just excellent streamlines, the excellence has begun to spread.

This is because excellence is contagious.

When you do one thing really, really well, it naturally bleeds into other parts of your swimming.

Habits don’t live in isolation of each other—do one thing really well, and this focus and standard ripples outwards like the waves from doing a cannonball into the water.

But wait, there’s more…

The Reserves of Self-Discipline Grow

One of the issues swimmers (and everyone else) have with habit formation is that they chase the big, impossible habits first.

Like going from swimming 3x a week to 9x a week overnight.

I get it. Been guilty of doing this on more than a few occasions. And that instinct never quite goes away. We want our excellence, and we want it right now!

But while there are a handful of people who can achieve Big Things this way, for the rest of us, the discipline to master a challenging habit requires some progression.

Small habits—streamlining like a champion, packing a protein shake and a banana for every post-snack swim, writing out your swim practices, showing up to practice ten minutes early to stretch—give you the armor and strength to chase bigger, more demanding habits.

Small habits, ultimately, reveal that you can trust yourself to do things consistently.

Building this trust is imperative for when it’s time to start chasing down those big, rocket-charged habits that will really take your swimming to the next level.

The Final Lap

The truth is that those small habits cost you next to nothing in terms of energy and focus.

(Which is maybe why many people discard them or don’t consider them to be performance-boosting enough…)

The improvement you will see in the short term (from unplanned improvement) and the improvement you will se the long term (steeling yourself for bigger habits) is a killer one-two punch for your swimming goals.

Today at practice, if you are feeling stuck, or don’t know where to start with improvement…

Start with a small habit that you can master.

More Stuff Like This

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.

The Power of Journaling for Swimmers. Want better workouts? A bullet-proof race plan? Less anxiety behind the blocks? Yup—the simple act of journaling can help. Big time. Here’s how.

Get Daily Tips on How to Swim Faster

Subscribe to the newsletter and get tips and advice on how to swim faster every weekday morning, straight to your inbox. 

Join 33,000+ swimmers, coaches, and swim parents learning what it takes to swim like a boss.

Unsubscribe anytime. Email will never be shared or sold.

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

Related Articles

Journaling Prompts for Swimmers
Mental Training

21 Journaling Prompts for Swimmers

Feeling stuck with your journaling? Here are some journaling prompts for swimmers to build self-awareness, confidence, and help swimmers maintain perspective over the course of the swim season.

Read More »
The Importance of Having a Powerful Why for Your Swimming
Mental Training

The Importance of Having a Powerful Why for Swimmers

Swimmers invest a lot of time in the water over the course of the season. The two-a-days, long swim meets, and the perpetual sogginess can be difficult to bear for even the most motivated of swimmers. In the moments when you are struggling with commitment or motivation, it’s a great

Read More »
The Big Mistake Swimmers Make with Motivation
Mental Training

The Big Mistake Swimmers Make with Motivation

Motivation or some variation of it is by far the most common query I get from readers of my weekly newsletter. “How do I get motivated to work hard?” “How do I get motivated to do the things necessary for my goals?” “Why is it so hard to get motivated

Read More »
Mental Training

The 3 Swimmers You Can Learn Most From

During my noon-hour swim today, my mind wandered back to my age group days. The swimmers I trained with. The swimmers I raced against. My heroes growing up. And the resulting big box of ribbons and medals collecting dust under my bed. Over the years, I realized, I’d learned a

Read More »