Mental toughness is a set of skills and learned attitudes that help swimmers view competitive and challenging situations in productive ways.
The mentally tough swimmer:
- Doesn’t get flustered with setbacks, because they know setbacks are temporary.
- Uses mistakes and failures as springboards for improvement.
- Properly frames adversity in real-time, allowing them to make the most of difficult situations.
The combo of these things should be fairly clear…
You get a swimmer that is engaged, present, and more likely to make the most of their talent and time in the water.
Mental toughness, confidence, better concentration—these are skills that can be developed with the right coaching.
Here are some of my favorite ways that swim coaches can help their swimmers sharpen their mental toughness skills.
Ask your swimmers to grade their effort.
This is one of those ideas that seems almost too simple. Like, because it’s not super complicated and fancy, there is something wrong with it.
But as a coach you know that simple is almost always best.
Grading effort in the water helps to give perspective and accountability to the way a swimmer performs. There will be days where an athlete guts out a main set but the times aren’t there. This doesn’t mean it was a “bad” practice.
Challenge your swimmers to account for their effort. Fast or slow, if the effort was there, they can feel confident and good about themselves, and experience less of that confidence-crushing yo-yo that comes with focusing exclusively on the clock.
Swimmers, when they get out of the water at the end of a grueling swim workout, should hold their mindset accountable, and an extremely quick and simple way to do this is by grading their effort.
Out of ten. With smiley/grumpy faces. Whatever.
Doesn’t need to be a four-page report card, just a quick evaluation based solely on their ability to persevere and push in the face of the demands of the practice.
Have them write out three affirmations and read them daily.
A more focused, mentally tougher, and confident athlete doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how powerful and proven this stuff is, you need to work it everyday like a muscle.
A better mental approach to the sport is not an overnight fix, and it’s not a wand you can wave with a few minutes of study and concentration. Thought patterns take time to adjust.
And self-affirmations are a way to put in the reps in a proactive way about developing a killer mindset.
They sound simple enough: Write out a few beliefs that you want to strengthen and read them to yourself until they evict the negative counter-opinions from your brain and swimming.
To make the most of this strategy, ask your swimmers what three things they struggle with the most in the water, and have them write out countering affirmations.
Here are some examples.
- “I get super stressed at swim meets and end up swimming slower than I should.” –> “Pre-race nerves are a normal part of the racing process. I enjoy competing and racing and seeing what I am capable of.”
- “I get frustrated when my teammates swim faster than me during the main set and give up.” –> “How fast I swim is always and will always be up to me.”
Journal out a couple epic races for a high-performance blueprint.
When it comes to getting a swimmer to understand what it takes for them to be mentally and emotionally ready to race their best, there is no need to reinvent the paddle or create a process from scratch.
The blueprint is already there. It just needs to be clearly described, journaled out, so that similar conditions can be emulated in the future.
Often, swimmers will sink into rituals (wearing the same suit, listening to the same playlist, eating the same meal, etc), instead of working towards the same mental and emotional state that made them successful in the past.
These kinds of rituals can be a little bit helpful, but overall, you can’t outsmart poor preparation and an ineffective mental and emotional outlook with a playlist, a favorite pair of goggles, or a cheeseburger.
Have your swimmers write out a series of bullet-points or fully journal out one or two of their best races, focusing on:
- What was their mindset on the day of competition?
- What did they do to get themselves in the zone before racing?
- How did they do to physically get themselves “up” on race day?
- What emotions were they feeling?
- What they were focused on?
- What strategies did they use to increase/decrease excitement/nerves?
And so on. The more details they are able to write out, the clearer and more actionable their high-performance blueprint will be.
They don’t need to discover how to be mentally tough necessarily; they simply need to replicate the mental and emotional conditions that led them to being mentally tough in the past.
You know bad self-talk without having to hear the words: When a swimmer’s effort sags suddenly when another swimmer passes them, or when they cross their arms and grumble when a big set is being explained.
Words aren’t necessary—you can see it in their facial expressions and effort.
Improving a swimmer’s self-talk is pound-for-pound one of the fastest and proven ways to throw jet fuel on a swimmer’s abilities and talent. It’s incredible to see the difference in attitude and performance when a swimmer takes control of the language they use in their head and in the water.
One study, which took a group of competitive swimmers and gave them a 10-week self-talk intervention, found that they improved 1.5% more than their teammates, who served as the control group.
Ask your swimmers to think back to a challenging moment in competition or practice where they gave up on themselves. What was that limiting self-talk? What did they tell themselves?
A lot of swimmers will resist this exercise. It tests their ego. It reveals a moment of weakness. But it’s well worth teasing it out.
And when they do, guide them through constructing productive and believable self-talk.
- “I’m going to lose, so what’s the point of trying?” –> “I might not win, but I wonder how fast I can go?”
- “This set is way too hard.” –> “This set looks tough, I wonder how long I can stick with it for?”
- “I don’t like doing breaststroke sets, so I am not going to work hard.” –> “It’s not my best stroke, but I can still improve my other strokes by doing great turns and streamlines.”
As you can see from the above examples, the better self-talk isn’t overly cheery or super positive. But it is a whole ton more productive than the negative self-talk that precedes it.
Unleash the power of performance cues.
I absolutely love performance cues and can attest to their effectiveness. Most especially, I appreciate their beautiful simplicity.
To this day, as a solo swimmer, whenever I am doing effort 50s at the pool, I see a consistent and considerable difference in effort and time when I use performance cues compared to when I let my mindset react to the moment.
Performance cues keep swimmers focused on the right thing at the right moment. Not the swimmer next to them, not the pain they are feeling in their legs, not the pressure and expectations of the moment.
(In other words, supreme mental confidence.)
The key with performance cues, as with everything else in this little mental toughness list, is keeping it simple. Overthinking is not helpful in moments when peak performance is required. If you want to go fast, provide some simple directions and get out of your body’s way.
The challenge: Ask your swimmers to take their best event and build a series of performance cues for their race. Have them create cues according to their race strategy.
For example, here are some performance cues for a 100 freestyle.
- Off the start = “Explode!”
- First 50m = “Easy speed!” or “Relaxed sprint!”
- Third 25m = “Accelerate!” or “Make your move!”
- Final 25m = “Dominate!” or “Hulk smash”
- The finish = “Swim through the wall!”
Your Next Step:
As a coach, you know how frustrating it can be to watch a swimmer’s preparation and hard work go down the drain because they can’t put it all together on race day.
If you found this article helpful, and you’d like more proven mental performance strategies, crafted just for swimmers and backed by science, I’ve put together a comprehensive high-performance mindset workbook specifically for competitive swimmers.
In Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High-Performance Mindset, your swimmers will learn:
- How to better suffer the discomfort and pain with a series of proven pain-coping strategies.
- Visualization exercises and tips that help swimmers prepare for the stress and uncertainty of competition.
- What kind of mindset they need on race day (that is nothing like the one they use in practice).
And a whole bunch more.
The book, written with the feedback and input of 200+ head coaches, Olympians, NCAA champions, and former world record holders, will help your swimmers finally unlock the performance they want on race day.
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